Technology

Remix of Out of Control

The other day I got a note from a Danish guy who is a fan of my book OUT OF CONTROL. He found my ideas great but my presentation "frustrating." But unlike my other "frustrated" readers, Andreas Lloyd decided to do something about it: he remixed my book!

I think the result is quite amazing. Remixing is perhaps too strong a word because he mostly simply dropped entire chapters, with a little re-arranging here and there. It is a very sharp but intelligent edit. But the effect is striking. Instead of a rambling book about one dozen things, Lloyd's remix of my book focuses it on the cybernetic and feedback aspects of the systems I was reporting on in the early 1990s. I suggested this focus needed a better title than OUT OF CONTROL, which I never was happy with anyhow, so Lloyd came up with a new one for this version of the book. He calls it BOOTSTRAPPING COMPLEXITY.

Oocremix

So if you never read OUT OF CONTROL because you were put off my its length, here is a user-generated remix that shortens and focuses the book. You can read it on Lloyd's website or even download the PDF. (I will post the PDF here on kk.org as well.)

Lloyd's notes read thus:

Kevin Kelly's book "Out of Control" is a fascinating book full of fascinating ideas reaching across the board from artificial intelligence, evolution, biology, ecology, robotics and more to explore complexity, cybernetics and self-organising systems in an accessible and engaging way.

But in reading Out of Control, I found it suffering from a number of frustrating flaws: Not only is it way too long-winded, it is also almost completely void of meta-text to help the reader understand what Kelly is trying to do with his book (having read the book, I'm still wondering).

Indeed, reading the book I got the feeling that Kelly was trying to combine several different books into one: There is a fascinating study of self-sustaining systems. But there is also a sort of business-book take on network economy. And an extended meditation on evolution and postdarwinism.

I'm sure that to Kelly, all of these things are tightly interconnected. But he doesn't explain these interrelations very well to the reader. His central argument is that as technology becomes ever more complex, it becomes more akin to biological systems (eco-systems, vivisystems, interdependent and co-evolving organisms). But because the individual chapters are set up as essays on their own, there is often little to tie these wildly different ideas together.

I would have preferred a much shorter book, more narrowly focused on the idea of self-organising systems. The whole text of the original book is easily available online at Kelly's own website, so I thought: Why not remix the online text to make such a book?

So I did.

However, if you liked BOOTSTRAPPING COMPLEXITY, you may also want to try my "long-winded" original version with lots more stuff. It is available as web text and a free PDF as well.

I think Lloyd is a fantastic editor, and his fan-based work is exactly the kind of liquidity of text that I believe will propel books in the next century. His remix is the kind of literary fluidity I was talking about in my Scan This Book article for the New York Times.


 

Map Label on Package

I thought this was pretty clever. I just received a package from FedEx. On its label was printed a map to my house. So instead of installing a GPS in every truck, FedEx prints out a map label. If the driver can't find the delivery place, they just look on the package itself. Brilliant!

Fedex-Label-Map-Sm-1


 

Never underestimate the web

The entire trajectory of technology (and its culture) from about 1970 to the end of the century could be summed up by the phrase "Never underestimate the power of chips." All you needed to profit hugely in those 3 decades was to very firmly believe that computers would double in power and shrink in half in size and price every year -- year after year for at least the next 40 years.

The first 40 or so years of this new century will be marked by a similar axiom:

"Never underestimate the web,"

Tim O'Reilly, reporting from the Google I/O conference, provides a neat anecdote illustrating this principle.

"Never underestimate the web," says Google VP of Engineering Vic Gundotra in his keynote at Google I/O this morning. He goes on to tell the story of a meeting he remembers when he was VP of Platform Evangelism at Microsoft five years ago. "We believed that web apps would never rival desktop apps. There was this small company called Keyhole, which made this most fantastic geo-visualization software for Windows. This was the kind of software we always used to prove to ourselves that there were things that could never be done on the web." A few months later, Google acquired Keyhole, and shortly thereafter released Google Maps with satellite view. "We knew then that the web had won," he said. "What was once thought impossible is now commonplace."

Browser Innovation


 

Digital Socialism

I have a piece in the new issue of Wired that began last January as a post to the Technium, but kept getting longer. As it grew to 7,000 words, it seemed a good fit for Wired,so I never posted it. The essay, called the New Socialism, describes an emerging embrace of socialism-lite or digital socialism in the online realm. It was edited in half to run in Wired this month. An excerpt:

Newsocialism

How close to a noncapitalistic, open source, peer-production society can this movement take us? Every time that question has been asked, the answer has been: closer than we thought. Consider craigslist. Just classified ads, right? But the site amplified the handy community swap board to reach a regional audience, enhanced it with pictures and real-time updates, and suddenly became a national treasure. Operating without state funding or control, connecting citizens directly to citizens, this mostly free marketplace achieves social good at an efficiency that would stagger any government or traditional corporation. Sure, it undermines the business model of newspapers, but at the same time it makes an indisputable case that the sharing model is a viable alternative to both profit-seeking corporations and tax-supported civic institutions.

Who would have believed that poor farmers could secure $100 loans from perfect strangers on the other side of the planet—and pay them back? That is what Kiva does with peer-to-peer lending. Every public health care expert declared confidently that sharing was fine for photos, but no one would share their medical records. But PatientsLikeMe, where patients pool results of treatments to better their own care, prove that collective action can trump both doctors and privacy scares. The increasingly common habit of sharing what you're thinking (Twitter), what you're reading (StumbleUpon), your finances (Wesabe), your everything (the Web) is becoming a foundation of our culture. Doing it while collaboratively building encyclopedias, news agencies, video archives, and software in groups that span continents, with people you don't know and whose class is irrelevant—that makes political socialism seem like the logical next step.

A similar thing happened with free markets over the past century. Every day, someone asked: What can't markets do? We took a long list of problems that seemed to require rational planning or paternal government and instead applied marketplace logic. In most cases, the market solution worked significantly better. Much of the prosperity in recent decades was gained by unleashing market forces on social problems.

Now we're trying the same trick with collaborative social technology, applying digital socialism to a growing list of wishes—and occasionally to problems that the free market couldn't solve—to see if it works. So far, the results have been startling. At nearly every turn, the power of sharing, cooperation, collaboration, openness, free pricing, and transparency has proven to be more practical than we capitalists thought possible. Each time we try it, we find that the power of the new socialism is bigger than we imagined.

We underestimate the power of our tools to reshape our minds. Did we really believe we could collaboratively build and inhabit virtual worlds all day, every day, and not have it affect our perspective? The force of online socialism is growing. Its dynamic is spreading beyond electrons—perhaps into elections.


 

Galactic Center Rising

A shift in time can shift our perspective, which is why time lapse photography can be so powerful. Here is a simple time lapse of the night sky, using a wide-angle lens. You get a Big Here/Long Now experience.

But the Canon 5D used to capture this was modified by replacing the standard infrared filter normally ship inside the camera (which also block out the deep reds) with a special filter to permit near infrared photography. Thus the reds you see here that most cameras won't capture.  You can buy fully modified Canon 5D cameras, ready for astrophotography, from here.

Here are the technical specifics by William Castleman:

The time-lapse sequence was taken with the simplest equipment that I brought to the star party. I put the Canon EOS-5D (AA screen modified to record hydrogen alpha at 656 nm) with an EF 15mm f/2.8 lens on a weighted tripod. Exposures were 20 seconds at f/2.8 ISO 1600 followed by 40 second interval. Exposures were controlled by an interval timer shutter release (Canon TC80N3). Power was provided by a Hutech EOS203 12v power adapter run off a 12v deep cycle battery. Large jpg files shot in custom white balance were batch processed in Photoshop (levels, curves, contrast, Noise Ninja noise reduction, resize) and assembled in Quicktime Pro. Editing/assembly was with Sony Vegas Movie Studio 9.


 

Computational DNA

The computational aspects of DNA become more evident each day. Recently a series of experiments have suggested that classic Mendelian genetics is not the whole story. Specifically, contrary to classic Mendel, a certain research plant can revert back to its original grandparents after breeding. It would be like you recovering genes of your grandparents that your parents did not have. The question is, if this is true, where do the old genes come from? Because the research was done on plants, some skeptical of the findings thought it came from cross-pollination even though the plants self-pollinate. New research in isolated chambers dismisses that conjecture. But the original researcher has an idea, as recounted in a The Scientist article:

According to this theory, somewhere in the plant cells exists an RNA copy of ancestral DNA.

In other words, cells carry their own internal backups. For some reason, something can trigger the "restore" button and the chromosome is restored with an archival version of the gene.

That's one of several theories but all of them assume that the genetic information process in a cell is like a computer with dozens of weird sum-checking, error-correcting, self-governing circuits -- and all the recursive weirdness they entail.

Pcgrow-Growing

(Thanks Zander)


 

Worldbuilding 2

Who knew? City building videos are a sub-genre.

Besides the two worldbuilding videos posted earlier, reader Branislav Ulicny sent along another cool example. This one is from a Swiss company that makes software to automatically populate cities with certain styles of buildings based on parameters chosen by the designers. As Ulicny says: "The difference compared to Sketchup-like interface of Worldbuilder is that their system "knows" what type of a building (or city) is needed, so that the interface can be even easier - you don't have to build everything from geometric primitives, you can just modify the parameters." In other words you set the design "grammar" of the buildings and it generates variations of those types of buildings, a variation you can simply "dial" to alter. The result is a hugely diverse yet harmonious city, constructed very quickly. It's sort of like a very smart SimCity.

Ba734D6D9B-1

Because the software works via procedures the company is called Procedural. Their software, CityEngine Software, is expensive pro tools meant for urban planners; runs on Windows, Mac and Linux. Free one month trial.

In the video below, Rome is re-constructed quickly via a "grammar" that makes Rome-ish buildings. The CityEngine software can also mapped out their placement generatively as well. The artificial city "grows" organically.  This is how I would make a city if I had to.


 

The Worldbuilder Interface

This lovely short film presents an original scenario for a future interface to virtual world making. Like the famous Apple Navigator film from decades ago, or ATT's You Will series of ads, or the Minority Report's scene of transparent gesture interface, this fictional depiction is convincing and inspiring. I want one now. 



There are elements of the Google Sketchup interface taken to an extreme. I think it works. 

Also, the film has a lovely narrative arc, which aids in the fantasy. The film was made by Bruce Branit.

UPDATE: Stewart Brand brought to my attention a real-world case of world-building. Here is a back-story video showing off the making of a 1,200 building city (7 million polygons in MODO) for a Toyota/Lexus commercial created by the design firm Hook.

Bh


 

The One Universal GoogleBook

This week I received two "author" notices from the Google Book Settlement office. One in the mailbox and one by email. The alerts were sent to book authors as a result of a dispute between Google and the Author Guild (I am not a member) over whether Google had the right to scan out of print books and post snippets of them online. The tussle was settled out of court, and the agreement is very complex. As far as I can tell Google caved in to unfair reductions to fair use (bad for the commons), but they gained some good things for Google -- and the public readers. In short it was compromise. Should the settlement be approved, it will mean that the vast library of out of print books that Google has been busy digitizing all along will finally reach the web. Hooray!

Authorregistry

While I was registering my own authored books per the notices in the mail, I noticed that this agreement acknowledges the coming One Universal Book -- the "book" that consists of all book texts, hyperlinked to each other. The clerks call it the "Research Corpus." This would be the aggregate copy of all book texts, which Google wants to use for "research" purposes. Note that they are not offering this mega-copy to everyone, just to "qualified users." The existence and use of this aggregate copy of all books was the basis of the suite in the first place (the Authors Guild objected to Google having a copy of books without their permission), so Google won a little in now being able to use it for research. In the goodness of time, the universal book should be open to all.

For now, according to the FAQ for the Google Book Settlement:

The Research Corpus will be made available to "Qualified Users" solely for engaging in specific types of research, including:

* Computational analysis of the digitized images to either improve the image or extracting textual or structural information from the image;

* Extracting information to understand or develop relationships among or within Books;

* Linguistic analysis, to better understand language, linguistic use, semantics and syntax as they evolve over time and across genres of Books;

* Automated translation (without actually producing translations of Books for display purposes); and

*Developing new indexing and search techniques.

The research corpus, or the GoogleBook, will edge us toward the universal library. I sketched out one vision of that library in Scan This Book:

"When books are digitized, reading becomes a community activity. Bookmarks can be shared with fellow readers. Marginalia can be broadcast. Bibliographies swapped. You might get an alert that your friend Carl has annotated a favorite book of yours. A moment later, his links are yours. In a curious way, the universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world's only book.

Once a book has been integrated into the new expanded library by means of this linking, its text will no longer be separate from the text in other books. For instance, today a serious nonfiction book will usually have a bibliography and some kind of footnotes. When books are deeply linked, you'll be able to click on the title in any bibliography or any footnote and find the actual book referred to in the footnote. The books referenced in that book's bibliography will themselves be available, and so you can hop through the library in the same way we hop through Web links, traveling from footnote to footnote to footnote until you reach the bottom of things.

So what happens when all the books in the world become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas? Four things: First, works on the margins of popularity will find a small audience larger than the near-zero audience they usually have now. Far out in the "long tail" of the distribution curve — that extended place of low-to-no sales where most of the books in the world live — digital interlinking will lift the readership of almost any title, no matter how esoteric. Second, the universal library will deepen our grasp of history, as every original document in the course of civilization is scanned and cross-linked. Third, the universal library of all books will cultivate a new sense of authority. If you can truly incorporate all texts — past and present, multilingual — on a particular subject, then you can have a clearer sense of what we as a civilization, a species, do know and don't know. The white spaces of our collective ignorance are highlighted, while the golden peaks of our knowledge are drawn with completeness. This degree of authority is only rarely achieved in scholarship today, but it will become routine.

Finally, the full, complete universal library of all works becomes more than just a better Ask Jeeves. Search on the Web becomes a new infrastructure for entirely new functions and services. Right now, if you mash up Google Maps and Monster.com, you get maps of where jobs are located by salary. In the same way, it is easy to see that in the great library, everything that has ever been written about, for example, Trafalgar Square in London could be present on that spot via a screen. In the same way, every object, event or location on earth would "know" everything that has ever been written about it in any book, in any language, at any time. From this deep structuring of knowledge comes a new culture of interaction and participation."


 

Free Genetic Testing

Picture 27

The cheapest commercial genome testing right now is from 23andMe for $400. Prices in this area will continue to drop, while the number of genes sequenced rise. However nothing beats free. You can now get your genome sequenced (partially) for free by participating in a large-scale research program to try to correlate genes with disease. The Coriell Personalized Medicine Collaborative (CPMC) is being funded by charitable foundations, and they have money at present to sequence 10,000 volunteers. To get your genes sequenced for free there are several caveats.

1) You need to be over 18
2) You need to attend an educational session. At the moment these are only offered in Camden, New Jersey (near Philadelphia). They claim to be working on a mail-in version later.
3) You won't get your gene code back. Instead you will only receive data that is "medically actionable." In other words you will only get reports about genes that their board of doctors feel you can do something about.

The key phrase here is "board of doctors." Unlike commercial services which return your full test results and let you do what you want with this data, this survey is run by doctors who feel ethically obligated to offer responsible medical counsel, and so they will not tell you about genes that have no medical value, or about which the science is not certain in their opinion.

Personalmedicine 01

For some people this is the doctor priesthood exerting their control over your health options (they would like companies like 23andMe shut down unless they let doctors take control). For others, this is a good deal. Free testing, plus free doctor advice about what is worth paying attention to and what is just fluff.

My long-term prediction has been that pharmaceutical companies will eventually pay for your genome sequencing in full since they can target drugs to specific genetic cohorts and avoid those patients with genes that may produce negative side effects. But again you may not get your full sequence back. But as in the rest of life, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

To clarify what kind of results you get back, here are some excerpts from the CPMC FAQ:

This study will only report back to participants those genetic variants that are potentially “medically actionable.” Potentially medically actionable genetic variants are those for which 1) there is a scientifically valid association between the variant and a specific health condition, 2) there are actions or interventions that can be taken to reduce the risk of the health condition, and 3) the risk of adverse events from these possible interventions is likely small in relation to the risk associated with the genetic variant if no medical action is taken.

You WILL NOT receive results for all genetic variants. Genetic variants associated with medical conditions for which there is no treatment or intervention to reduce the risk of disease WILL NOT be reported back to participants. For example, variants elevating risk for incurable diseases such as Alzheimer's disease will not be reported. If a new therapy or lifestyle intervention is reported, the ICOB may update a condition to be "potentially medically actionable."

The technology employed by the CPMC™ is not designed to detect single-gene mutations that cause rare Mendelian disorders such as sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs; therefore, these are very unlikely to be detected and reported to you.

 

Whole Earth Video

When it finally occurred to NASA (with persistent nudging by Stewart Brand) to turn their satellite cameras back on Earth, from whence they came, our planet took its first self portrait. That picture of the whole Earth became a catalyst for human environmental consciousness. It is now the emblem of our home.

Although there have been a few crude animations of a video version of this self-portrait since then, the following Whole Earth Video -- with Moon transit -- is quite handsome.

 

The still-unlaunched L1 point satellite DSCOVR would display a continuous year-round real-time image of the earth in full sunlight. It would be a mirror in space. Watching in multi-spectrums, this full-time eye would make video of earth a never ending webstream. Bush-politics have shelved plans to launch the $100 million completed bird now sitting in a warehouse. Maybe Obama can get it up where it belongs. Or at least release the FOIA-denied documents on why it was killed.


 

Long Clock, Big Gear

Remember that awesome 10,000-year clock the crazies at Long Now Foundation were constructing? The one that will be erected *inside* a mountain in Nevada? Powered by the changes in daily temperature a the top of the mountain (situated among the oldest living things on earth, Bristlecone pines), the Clock will serve to remind humanity of the long-term.

Well, here is the first completed part for the full-size clock. It's an 8-foot Geneva gear, with custom roller bearings later to be replaced by ones made of ceramic. (Because the wheels of the clock move so slowly metal-to- metal contact will corrode over the hundreds of years the wheel will take to move.)

Largegeneva-Chris-Greg-1

More, including videos of the mechanism in motion, coming soon on the Long Now blog.


 

Hi-Tech Ocean Row Boats

I didn't know anything about fancy trans-ocean row boats. Apparently a lot of people row across oceans. There is even an Association of Ocean Rowers. The typical ocean row boat has two humps, with sealable hatches, so the whole thing is a floating bubble. They are crammed with navigational gear, as well as the usual marine necessities: cooking, sleeping, working tools. They also are loaded with batteries, solar panels, wind generators, and so on. Used ones go for about $50,000.

Roz Boat

Roz Savage (pictured above) rowed one of these hi-tech row boats across the Atlantic and is now rowing across the Pacific -- San Francisco to Australia -- solo.  Her floating shack is stuffed with expensive gear.

"I will be taking about $80,000 of electronic equipment with me on the Brocade, so that I can send back video blogs, podcasts, data, photos and text blogs to my website."  The complete list of her electronic gear is here.

With all this sea-hardened equipment she is blogging and podcasting from a row boat in the middle of the Pacific, which is pretty cool.


 

New Geometric Keyboard

Rather than confine itself to one long string of keys, this novel keyboard interface uses hexagonal keys in a honeycomb pattern to arrange notes ordered according to a harmonic table. Called the Axis, this innovative MIDI controller is in commercial production.

This is not a alternative tuning system, but an alternative keyboard. All twelve notes of the traditional Western scale fit into onto a 2-dimensional surface with a visible logical pattern.

Octave Map01

Their web site says:

Triadnotes

Starting from any note, the next note up-to-the-left is a minor third above the starting note. The next note directly above is a fifth above the starting note, and the next note up-to-the-right is a major third above the starting note.

Semitones are in horizontal lines, like the semitone between Minor and Major 3rd.

In this arrangement, a minor triad (three note chord) has the shape of a left-facing triangle, and a major triad has the shape of a right-facing triangle.

The Harmonic Table pattern can be extended in all directions, and all intervals, chords and scales have the same shape in any key. See some chord shapes.

The best explanation is simply to see it at work. Here is rock musician Jordan Rudess playing it after a few months practice:

Will anyone use it? If you play more than one instrument you already use more than one fingering system.  Some folks will think of this as a new instrument. New instruments have a tough uphill challenge in becoming accepted, but often win a small following of dedicated fans. The long-tail of instruments. For some types of music, this keyboard may be perfect. (Thanks John La Grou)


 

Me-to-We Opening Ceremonies

Since we are a TV-less household, I may be the last person on earth to see the Opening Ceremonies of the Chinese 2008 Olympics. I just watched them on the Internet Tubes. They struck me, as many others have noted, as remarkable. But I also believe there are seminal. Something not only memorable, but significant.

Oly1-1

* The 2008  Opening Ceremonies were a spectacle. Spectacles are becoming more important in our culture. As mediated experiences overtake most of our waking hours, the power of a huge mass experience in real life rises in meaning. The grand scale of the Opening experience was a large part of its appeal. Where we would have ordinarily been content with 12 tai-chi experts, we got instead 2008 of them. Or a sphere big enough to have its own gravity so that scores of dancers could orbit it upside down. It was very  important -- even to those of use watching it on TV or the internet -- that this performance was live. With people who could trip or make mistakes. That is why the minor breaches of this assumption -- the lip syncing girl and digitally painted footprints -- were decried. They diminished this remarkable feat of physical achievement.

* This was a new media.  It had very strong cinematic and filmic elements -- the movie projections on the rim, but also the narrative thread throughout. The spectacle was co-designed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou. He's a world-class artist who directed many Chinese films, notably Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Both of these films are epic, visually extravagant feats of spectacle themselves, so it is no surprise to see similar elements in this new kind of film: the opening. The other element was the choreography by the People's Army officer in charge of  communist parades and grand musical showcases for moral uplift. There was also the key digital effects like he LED scroll and blinking drums. There was a lot of broadway and a lot of rock concert. Put all these together and it feels like an entirely new thing.  Part rock, part opera, part film, part parade, part circus, part video game. A new medium. Apparently the Bird's Nest stadium was designed specifically to showcase this spectacle, as no other venue could have possibly staged it. I wonder if it might stage another spectacle like it?

* It was both deeply alien and comforting at the same time. Both old and new. The message was successful -- of presenting China's pride of its history and its rising modern power.  Not only will this be a landmark in contemporary China's cultural psyche, but I think it will also resonate in the memory of the rest of the world. Something happened that night.

Oly7

*The most alien, shocking and awesome portion of the Opening were the mass routines. Part of this is cultural. The Koreans are good at these mass effects, and the Japanese too. It's somewhat an East Asian thing. Historically these mass dances are designed to resemble machines. The wave rippler in the Opening Ceremonies appeared to be a cool mechanical effect until the  disguised boys inside them were revealed. The mass fou drummers beat so rapidly and in synchrony that when their lights started blinking it seemed as if we were watching a computer chip, or the innards of a drum machine. See the pic above. We are a machine! Machine are us! That is our first reaction but I think it goes further than that. The 2008 fou drummers represent the We -- the power of the collective. The West and particularly Americans have traditionally emphasized the Me -- the individual.  China is  a culture more comfortable with the We than the Me, and here they were showing both the power of the We and its modern face -- blinking LED drums. We once thought computers were about individuation, but these days we see they are about socialization as well. More importantly, the social aspects of web 2.0 have shifted the center of gravity from Me to We. Witness books like Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody. Here come 2008 Chinese drummers.  The great uncertainty in the coming years is how far China will shift to the Me and how far the west will shift to the We.  What the Opening Ceremonies opened up was the arrival of the We.  What I heard in the pounding pulse of the drummers was not "Here come the Chinese," but "Here comes everybody."

Long after the winners of the gold metals are forgotten, these Olympic Opening Ceremonies will be bookmarked as the Opening Ceremonies for China itself.

(I watched the longer version of the Opening Ceremonies on the NBC Olympic site. It sucks. You need to download the current version a non-standard Flash wannabe called Silverlight. That version only works on new Intel chipped versions of Macs, leaving our Mac G5 useless. Hello?)


 

Where Quotes Come From

The collective memory we call the wikipedia never ceases to amaze me.

Picture 74

I just noticed that Stewart Brand's famous quote that "information wants to be free" has its own wikipedia page.  It earns a page in part because the quote is only half of what he said, as the wikipedia properly explains. The tribute is a nice trophy.

Strangely, Wikiquote, a site collecting quotes which is published by Wikimedia Foundation, does not serve up very deep background on its quotes. As an example it has a rather enimic page for the same Brand quote  It does however point to an even better page with a more thorough history of "information wants to be free."

I now realize that every adage should have an encyclopedia page explaining its actual genesis, history of antecedents, counter claims and context.  Like any portriat, the story behind the quote is usually more interesting than the quote.

Here's a few random adages that have a wikipedia page:

Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

“Ninety percent of everything is crap”

“[Something] too cheap to meter”

"Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow"

Currently wiithout a page (just attribution);

The future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed.

 

How to Make New Things

Paul Graham, an engineer who can write and think clearly, derived a reliable way to make new things: work on overlooked problems. I found the following bit of advice to not only be true, but profound.

Graham describes his strategy precisely: "Find (a) simple solutions (b) to overlooked problems (c) that actually need to be solved, and (d) deliver them as informally as possible, (e) starting with a very crude version 1, then (f) iterating rapidly."  That seems simple, but it is not. He elaborates: 

When I first laid out these principles explicitly, I noticed something striking: this is practically a recipe for generating a contemptuous initial reaction. Though simple solutions are better, they don't seem as impressive as complex ones.

Overlooked problems are by definition problems that most people think don't matter.

Delivering solutions in an informal way means that instead of judging something by the way it's presented, people have to actually understand it, which is more work. And starting with a crude version 1 means your initial effort is always small and incomplete. 

I'd noticed, of course, that people never seemed to grasp new ideas at first. I thought it was just because most people were stupid. Now I see there's more to it than that. Like a contrarian investment fund, someone following this strategy will almost always be doing things that seem wrong to the average person.  As with contrarian investment strategies, that's exactly the point. This technique is successful (in the long term) because it gives you all the advantages other people forgo by trying to seem legit. If you work on overlooked problems, you're more likely to discover new things, because you have less competition. If you deliver solutions informally, you (a) save all the effort you would have had to expend to make them look impressive, and (b) avoid the danger of fooling yourself as well as your audience. And if you release a crude version 1 then iterate, your solution can benefit from the imagination of nature, which, as Feynman pointed out, is more powerful than your own.

Redneckmansion

To sum up: Simple, iterative solutions to overlooked problems that someone cares about. There are other ways to make new things. But in my experience, Grahams approach is the most reliable and rarely fails.


 

The Unclear Origins of Oil

Crude oil is almost $140 per barrel.

By now you'd think we would know where it comes from.

No one really knows. The conventional wisdom is that oil descends from algae from eons ago. Lots and lots of algae. Unimaginable mounds of dead algae in quantities no longer found on this planet, pressed, and cooked into hydrocarbon liquids. Thus: fossil fuel. Others, notably the Russians, have an alternative theory that oil comes from non-biological carbon compounds deep in this planet, like the methane oceans we find on other planets. In this scenario oil is a planetary phenomenon. Indeed this abiogenic oil could still be forming in the earth. Thousands of Russian papers supporting this view have still not been translated.  The American astrophysicist Thomas Gold also advocated a similar idea (which may or may not have been influenced by the Russians) in his book "The Deep Hot Biosphere : The Myth of Fossil Fuels".

The best overview for this alternative genesis is this recent scientific paper by G.P. Glasby reviewing the Russian/Gold view in light of research as of 2005. It assumes too much knowledge, and is not the ideal introduction, but it does capture the evidence to date. Ultimately the paper is not sympathetic to the theory. It is available as a PDF here. Excerpt:

The success of the abiogenic theory can be seen by the fact that more than 80 oil and gas fields in the Caspian district have been explored and developed in crystalline basement rock on the basis of this theory.

An emerging third theory is that bacteria living within rocks produce oil. In this theory there is a biological component (the bacteria) which constitute the oil-generating process, but the originating material in not degraded organic material, but rather geological carbon gases. The path is carbon gas --> bug --> oil. Craig Venter and others are exploring the idea of engineering bacteria to make oil from other carbon gases, like CO2. Different bacteria could also be involved in reforming organic material into oil; there may be a multitude of ways oil forms.

Bio1

In any case I am betting on bacteria as the creators of oil simply because I've learned to never bet against bacteria.


 

Follow the Moon

There's three divergent scenarios of how the peak wave of computation will flow around the globe once there is only One Machine, or what is usually called ubiquitous cloud computing.  In other words, in a seamless computing environment where data and digital services can flow to the optimal machines anywhere on the planet, what kind of route will they take?

For sure, the nodes of heavy-duty computation will settle where energy is cheapest nearest to the greatest population of users. This will shift over time as users boom in new regions, and power plants are relocated or built. But since humans are predominately diurnal and electrical signals are not, there is a potential for a large global daily pattern to emerge.

Planetarywave

The three scenarios:

Follow the Sun:  As one time zone wakes up for another day of commerce and entertainment, the peak activities will migrate around the planet in a wave that follows the sun. While California crunches, India sleeps. And vice versa. Here the maximum computation and energy needs will be found nearest to the time zone in the sun.

Follow the Moon:  If the costs and latencies of communication are smaller than computation, then the many huge data centers can be placed where energy costs are least. And no matter where they are, their loads will ordinarily be less at night. So India crunches to keep California awake. And vice versa. Therefore the least expensive computation will be a wave flowing around the globe at night, or following the moon.

Follow the Law:  Perhaps neither energy nor communication costs will be the gating factor in the One Machine; rather it may be law. Differences in privacy laws, censorship, and national security fears may restrict places where data can flow freely. In that case computation will have to hopscotch around the world following the law.

Most likely different industries adopt a different scenario. Maybe financial follows the moon, while commerce follows the sun, and entertainment follows the law.  A single computing environment (One Machine) should not suggest homogeneity. A meadow is not homogeneous, but its does act as a coherent ecological system.

Another way to dissect the daily rhythm of the One Machine is to trace the three distinct waves of energy, data, and computation as they flow through the planetary "cloud."  Each probably has its own pathways.


 

The Million Dollar Long Bet

Warren Buffett recently bet an ambitious hedge fund operator $1 million that they won't beat the returns of S&P 500 after their extremely hefty fees are accounted for. Buffett claims investors will do as well with a no-load index fund over the ten years of the bet. He has long been critical of the performance claims of hedge funds, and his bet is intended to put his money where his mouth is. 

Buffett's million dollar bet was made on Long Bets, the accountability mechanism founded in 2002 by Stewart Brand and myself, and operated by Long Now Foundation.  The intention of Long Bets is to encourage responsibility in prediction-making (by keeping a public roster of predictions), to encourage long-term thinking (by offering an opportunity to shape a long-term bet), and to sharpen the logic of forecasting (by recording the logic of predictions and bets.)

In order to make a Long Bet, bettors need to lay out their reasoning. It's worth reading the two sides' very short arguments about investing because the two extremes of investment advice are contrasted in them. Buffett, as usual, is stunningly clear in his argument, which ends:

A number of smart people are involved in running hedge funds. But to a great extent their efforts are self-neutralizing, and their IQ will not overcome the costs they impose on investors. Investors, on average and over time, will do better with a low-cost index fund than with a group of funds of funds.

Buffett's Big Bet is by far the largest bet on Long Bets. The previous largest Long Bet was one for $20,000 between Mitch Kapor and Ray Kurzweil. The two prominent thinkers were betting whether an AI would pass the Turing Test by 2029. Ray was certain an AI would pass muster by then and Kapor was sure it would not get close. (Incidentally, Kapor told me recently he's willing to double, triple, or quadruple the bet with Ray, or anyone else betting on an AI by 2029.) 

The way Long Bets work is complicated. To avoid laws against wagering, the money goes to charities and not to the bettors. Long Bets takes a portion of the growth in assets being held as its own overhead to adjudicate bets in the future. (I am involved with Long Bets but receive no payment from it.)

In the case of the Buffett Big Bet, the arrangement was an immediate contribution to Long Now from both sides of the bet. The details of what is being wagered and how the results are being decided is complex. They are described in great clarity by Carol Loomis a friend of Buffett and senior editor at Fortune. She debuts the Buffett Long Bet in the June 23, 2008 issue of Fortune. (Even though the bet was made on Long Bets in January 2008, we have not posted it publicly until today, as per the wishes of the bettors, who needed to coordinate the announcement and press attention.)

You don't need a million dollars to make a Long Bet. The minimum wager is $200, and is open to anyone. No money changes hands until someone takes up your challenge. You can also simply make a public prediction, which does not require anyone to bet against you. Any prediction can become a bet later.

The hope of Long Bets is that these public wagers will prompt people to consider the implications of current developments in the near-distant future -- and then to keep their attention on what happens.

Buffett's bet is an ideal Long Bet. It makes a huge difference to anyone who invests in stocks (as do a large percentage of the US, either directly or indirectly) whether a boring index fund yields as much as fancy private hedge funds. The answer either way would be a huge influential signal. When economist Julian Simon won the famous bet against biologist Paul Ehrlich (Simon betting that the long-term prices of commodity minerals would decrease over ten years; Ehrlich betting they would increase), his win essentially eradicated the argument of resource scarcity from the environmental debate. Environmentalists then shifted their concern to the many other issues needed to foster a healthy environment.

This bet has a similar potential. But as in all great bets, its outcome is uncertain. As Loomis writes:

Buffett himself assesses his chances of winning at only 60%, which he grants is less of an edge than he usually likes to have. Protege figures its own probabilities of winning at a heady 85%. Some people will say, of course, that just by making this bet, Protege has acquired some priceless publicity. But then, Protege clearly wants to win, and it’s up against a man who hasn’t made a lot of losing bets in his life. Seides himself sees one strong ray of light: "Fortunately for us, we’re betting against the S&P’s performance, not Buffett’s."

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The other side of Buffett's bet is being taken by these guys at Protege.


 

Airblades

Img What Is Airblade

The Dyson Airblade exhales an extremely forceful curtain of cool air to wipe the moisture off your wet hands. Unlike the usual hot air dryers, it doesn't use heat, and it dries hands twice as fast. Currently an expensive (don't ask) heavy duty model can be found only in a few select public restrooms. I expect the concept (probably in knockoff versions) will quickly migrate to residential homes. (via Kottke)


 

The Giant Pool of Money, Explained

By far the best explanation I've heard of the Housing Mortage/Credit Crisis is -- improbably -- a podcast from the motherlode of story-telling on NPR, This American Life. This podcast is a bit different from their usual slice-o-life stories in that they try to explain something extremely complex and abstract -- but in personal stories. The episode is called The Giant Pool of Money and it's worth at least an hour of your time on your next commute. Hearing the agents all along the "chain" of events describe what they thinking in their own words is about 100 times better than reading about it.


Ira-Glass-On-Showtimes-This-American-Life


 

Painted Films

Just saw the newly released Speed Racer film. It's a wonderful example of a painted film.

A painted film is "drawn" with photographs. It is painted, layer by layer, frame by frame not by hand -- as a Pixar annimated film would be -- but with manipulated photographic images. It is painted by cameras. These movies are the cinematic equivalent of photoshopped films. They are 100% special effects; virtual no frames are left untouched. However the "special effect" in most cases is to create something ordinary, or "realistic."

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In this cool clip from Evil Eye Pictures, one of the artisan digital effects companies which produced Speed Racer, you can see how layers of images are painted up to form the final movie.

It is probably not a coincidence that most of the painted films to date are cinematic graphic novels. I don't mean films about or based on graphic novels, I mean films that are the visual equivalent of graphic novels.

Bullettime

The Matrix trilogy was among the first to exploit this style of cinematic photo-painting. The famous "bullet time" view was a trick appropriated from Japanese anime by special effects wizard John Gaeta. It contained aspects of both the free-wheeling imagination of drawn images and the found detail of photography.

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Sin City, a graphic novel film based on a graphic novel was another example. At initial glance it appeared to be a one-to-one translation from comic book page to photographic film, but the methods and techniques the creators used to make this comic-book film went beyond comics. They were painting with cameras. 

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Then there was 300, a film so painterly, it signaled the arrival of something new. I think of 300 as comic-book kabuki. It was so stylized that it had the air of ritual in it. At the same time, it was obviously not photographed. But not drawn either. Yet it was constrained to the flatness of paper or canvas. Rather than try to mimic the realism of real life, it was imitating the realism of a comic book.

Now we have the newest and perhaps best illustration of this emerging genre in Speed Racer. Speed Racer has a weak story and cartoon characters (one tipoff is the pet chimp). TIME called it "aggressively childish" as a compliment. I think of it as "aggressively childlike." The medium is the message here. Besides its over-the-top poptimistic style, and its new method of making movies, it is pioneering the hybrid vigor of this new genre of painting moving images.


 

Junkyard Sports

My favorite fun guy, Bernie DeKoven, runs a site championing new sports using no-cost or low-cost equipment. 

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Office Olympics, Urban Golf, Mondo Croquet, Shoe Tossing -- how could these not be fun?! 

Visit his Junkyard Sport Hall of Fame for some ideas. He also has a book ( "Junkyard Sports" ) on the subject.


 

Astounding Animated Wall Mural

Eat your heart out, Pixar!

Watch this amazing animation created by an artist photographing a very long series of his murals.  The artist's name is Blu. He is an Italian graffiti artist, though it appears this series was painted in Brazil.

It's a big deal to paint a mural. There's a lot of paint to spread around. It's a superhuman feat to paint thousands of them needed for this not-insignificant animation. Even more remarkable is the wonderful whimsy and creativity displayed by the final work.

My life is enriched and my spirits lifted when someone spends such a huge amount of time to complete such a non-comerical work -- just for the pure beauty of it. 

Thank you, Blu.


MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo

To give you some sense of what is involved in painting murals -- just one!-- at this scale, here is Blu at work.

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A gallery of his static murals can be found here:

Blu Street Paintings 05

(Thanks Michael)


 

VR Bubbles

A new way to shoot a film:

Use digital still cameras to take a full 360 degree panorama of a location, then stitch them together to form a VR "Bubble" which is used as a set for the action. Film action in green screen mode (not unusual by now). The movement of the camera filming the actors in the green space is coordinated with movement of the virtual camera within the bubble, so any action looks convincing. The technical term for bubbles is "spherically constructed location photography."

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Since the bubbles are created beforehand, the director (but not actors) can see the action taking place in the virtual location on the green space monitor as the action is being filmed. This creates a more realistic shooting atmosphere. Spherical lighting domes confer exact lighting for the green space for any location/lighting situation.

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Bubbles can be grafted and glued together to form extended locations.

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There are several advantages of this way, one of them is that one can film in places where a movie crew would not be allowed to film, or manage to film. The movie Speed Race used 10,000 bubbles shot around the world -- covering far more locations than a movie crew could have afforded to go.

There's a pretty technical interview in VRMag with Dennis Martin who created the virtual locations for Speed Racer, and one with John Gaeta, special effects supervisor. He says:

We realized that we would need to create a department that had never existed inside a standard film production before, and we called this department "the world unit": its job was to basically capture thousands of these bubbles around the world. So...we set this up.

Eventually I can see a market for location bubbles developing. You want the inside of the Sistine Chapel ready to shooting? How about a location at sunset atop Machu Picchu. Either one is yours for $1,000, or $100 even - cheaper than any visit could be. Someday there'll be an istockbubbles.com.


 

Evolution of Proteins Animated

I've previously mentioned William Latham's mutator work. Bruce Sterling alerted me to a recent short animation by Latham that will scour your eyeballs. 

 

The film shows the evolution of a protein structure mapped into the FormGrow space traversing 20 nodes in an extrapolated phylogenetic tree covering about 50 million years (back and forth in time). The film shows a highly original representation of DNA on its journey from the human liver to the eye lens, initially backtracking towards their common ancestor and then moving forward to today’s time. The animated form interpolates between each node on the tree. DNA is used both to generate the forms and produce the soundtrack. The work is an extension of Latham and Todd’s ideas of the late 1980’s to the early 1990’s, where, this time, FormGrow is connected to modern genomics and proteomics. The film represents an attempt to cross the divide between scientific visualisation of DNA and aesthetically pleasing art.

 

Governing Sovereign Wealth Flows

You'll be hearing more about sovereign wealth funds and flows in the future.

A sovereign wealth fund is a huge heap of money that is controlled by a nation -- say Singapore or Saudi Arabia -- rather than by a private transnational company. The latter is called private equity funds and their investments have been prime movers in global finance for decades. Some of the largest banks and finance companies that are in the current news cycle, like Bear Stearns, or UBS, are good examples of private money. They buy and sell business across national borders.

But as large as these financial behemoths are they are small compared to the largest sovereign funds. The total amount of private funds sloshing around the world is in the hundreds of billions, whereas sovereign funds -- the money controlled by nations looking for investments -- is $2.5 trillion. Sovereign funds are common in countries where the division between state and capitalism is thin and blurred. According to the New York Times in their article The Leveraged Planet, the amount of sovereign controlled wealth is expected to rise to $12 trillion by 2015.  These funds also buy and sell businesses across borders but since their owners are other nations, or nation-state organizations, the implications of their scale and intent are proving enormous.

Globalflows
A wonderful New York Times graphic showing the global flows of sovereign wealth.

Sovereign wealth is not new. It is simply more visible now, and because of $100/barrel oil, the  funds flowing into nationalized funds are in the trillion dollar range.

There is a second reason why sovereign wealth is getting a lot of attention. For many years these funds have been the ones buying US debt. As Americans consume, foreign countries lend us the money. But now for a number of reasons, they are no longer so keen on the US. Protectionist elements in the US object to sovereign funds owning key US companies, and the dizzy devaluation of the dollar has driven many sovereign investors to the Euro. Some chiefs of these private equity funds in the Mid-East can buy US assets but have trouble getting a visa to visit the States. So why bother with the US?

At the same time the flows of these funds, pumped up by petro-dollars and export purchases, are getting huger, weirder, and more uncertain. Most importantly, they are basically unregulated.

There are calls for some kind of minimal rules for this global marketplace. George Soros, a big player in the private equity arm of this game, says, "The financial system needs a global sherif."

In the past, calls for global sherifs have not amounted to anything. Americans, like other nationals, have a keen aversion to anyone telling them what to do as a nation.  National rights, like national security, is considered sacred. There's been a long history which claims that nothing should trump sovereignty.  In the near future that may be regarded as a quaint sentiment.

Markets need a minimum set of enforceable rules. The amazing robust market of strangers that we call Ebay works with very few rules because in the last resort those few rules are upheld by the national sherif -- the US sovereign state.

There is one planetary-scale marketplace, hinted at by Thomas Friedman's "The World Is Flat" which contains the flow of goods and jobs around the world. Work migrates to where it can find the best financing; workers migrate to where they can find the best jobs; consumers migrate to where they get the best deals.

Behind this is another planetary-scale marketplace which moves the investment funds made by high-priced energy, or successful cheap labor. Here flows the 2.5 trillion dollars. The scale of these money flows overwhelm any other global finance dynamic. One might predict that in the near future these quasi-national flows will dictate your economic environment more than your local, regional, or even national policies will.

This unregulated marketplace is scary, even for the players. Since minimally regulated markets make everyone more money by reducing some of the risk, there is a HUGE incentive among the players to install some basic minimal rules. Rules that can be enforced. By someone with clout.

The key question now before these moneyed players (mostly the nation states themselves) is whether these minimal rules can be cobbled together in a decentralized pan-national way, with a few super-nations playing cop (sort of like it has been, only now with China in the lead). Or will the new global game require an actual supra-national power, some kind of global financial sherif?

The political US is balking at either scenario -- China leading, or a super transnational entity -- and it doesn't like the idea of unregulated large ownership investments by other "foreign" nations either, so the rise of sovereign wealth flows is causing alarm. On the other hand, money, the real money is seeking opportunities in the new order.

Nothing about the current arrangement is stable. The mortgage crisis is merely a symptom of a much large disruption: the emergence of a global flow of money in need of some global level  regulation. The greedy bankers themselves want it. They need some minimal global enforceable rules.

Something is happening here, but we don't know what it is, do we Mr. Jones?


 

The Future Doesn't Matter

The future is less fashionable than it was only 10 years ago. It is no where as romantic as it was in the final decades of the last century. You could make an argument that the popularity of the future peaked in the 1950s, and has been on a steady decline since then. My feeling is that since the dot.com bust of 2001, the future is far less cool.  It doesn't seem to matter as much.

Serious interest in the future is historically very recent. It did not begin until significant change occurred within a lifetime. Before then the world you were born into was the same one you grew old in. There was no need to contemplate the "future." It was just more of the same.

But once the pace of change became visible to an individual, interest and concern about what was next became almost a survival need. Science fiction began as a literary genre at the same time that serious change outpaced one's life. During the industrial and digital revolutions, you needed to discern the future because that was were you were going to spend the rest of your life.

But then something weird happened in the first few years of this decade. The pace of change became so fast that it outpaced contemplation. The future became harder to predict, and exhausting to keep track of. With a long, colorful history of failed predictions, it occurred to almost everyone at once that very little of what we imagined our own futures to be would really happen. So why bother?

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A few science fiction authors seemed to given up on the future. Neal Stephenson now writes historical fiction, and William Gibson set his latest book (Spook Country) in the present. He says the current times are much weirder than he could ever make up. The late Philip K. Dick, legendary outsider science fiction author, is currently Hollywood's fountainhead, inspiring one feature film after another (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Scanner Darkly). Dick has a post-future view that is explored in a recent, fantastic profile in the New Yorker.  Here's the pertinent bit:

Although "Blade Runner," with its rainy, ruined Los Angeles, got Dick's antic tone wrong, making it too noirish and romantic, it got the central idea right: the future will be like the past, in the sense that, no matter how amazing or technologically advanced a society becomes, the basic human rhythm of petty malevolence, sordid moneygrubbing, and official violence, illuminated by occasional bursts of loyalty or desire or tenderness, will go on. Dick's future worlds are rarely evil and oppressive, exactly; they are banal and a little sordid, run by a demoralized élite at the expense of a deluded population. No matter how mad life gets, it will first of all be life.

And this:

In "Ubik" (1969), in turn, the first premise is that the ancient human dream of communication with the dead has been achieved at last-but, when you go to speak with them, there is static and missed connections and interference, and then you argue over your bill. ....

The typical Dick novel is at once fantastically original in its ideas and dutifully realistic in charting their consequences. No matter what things may come, they will be exploited, merchandised, and routinized by the force of human weakness. And the interesting corollary: it won't matter; the world of speaking ghosts will work about as well as this one. A society of paranoids can work as well as Nixon's America did and, perhaps, in similar ways.

As Yogi Berra should have said, It's possible that in the future, no one will go there anymore.

 

How Not to Do a Time Capsule

A buried time capsule is a popular way to mark an anniversary for a school or community. Hundreds of thousands of capsules have been buried in the last 50 years. Every now and then one is remembered and resurrected. In 1957 the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma entombed a brand new 1957 Plymouth Belvedere, stuffed with momentos, as a time capsule to celebrate the state's centennial.

A few days before the time capsule was opened, Robert Lauer, a local reporter set the scene:

The Plymouth was sprayed with cosmoline, wrapped in plastic, and buried in a concrete tomb, placed on a steel plate so the wheels were off the ground. Stuffed in the trunk were five gallons of gasoline in glass jugs, oil, a case of beer, and other artifacts. Placed inside the glove compartment at the last minute were the contents of a woman’s purse containing fourteen bobby pins, a ladies compact, plastic rain cap, combs, a tube of lipstick, pack of gum, facial tissues, $2.73 in money, and a pack of cigarettes. Also placed in were unpaid parking tickets and a bottle of tranquilizers which the winner of the car may need. During the party in 1957, residents were asked to guess the population of Tulsa in 2007; the guesses were sealed in a steel container and placed in the car. The winner or their heir will receive the Plymouth and a $100 trust fund which was accruing interest since 1957, (reportedly now containing $400). The car was buried in downtown Tulsa with traffic cruising nearby; some were concerned that vibrations may have cracked the concrete tomb allowing moisture to enter. Will the 1957 Plymouth be in mint condition or will it require itself to come back to life like its sister car Christine? I will be there for the unveiling on 15 June 2007 for either a pristine 1957 Plymouth with 7 miles on her or a pile of rust with four dried out rubber tires!

It will be the event of a lifetime!

When the capsule was opened, the prize was not what everyone wanted.

Swimming

Engine

2007-1

I kind of like the gunk covering the car. It's unique and transforms it into an art piece. One could see it in an museum gallery. As this page make clear, the same car was better preserved outside the capsule by ordinary buffs.

One conclusion from this mishap is that time capsules should attempt to preserve not popular items, but things that have no fans, no enthusiasts, no one to care for them. You should stuff them with artifacts that people currently find dumb, stupid, worthless, and insignificant. That's the stuff that won't be saved, and will therefore be of prime interest in 100 years.

If you are making a time capsule today don't put in an iPod, a copy of Lost, a Prada bag, or a Nike sneaker. And for goodness sake, waterproof it.


 

Addiction Vaccines

Newsweek call them Anti-Drug Drugs: "A new generation of vaccines may enable doctors to inoculate people against addictive substances like cocaine and nicotine. A vaccine that would teach the immune system to attack and destroy cocaine before the drug reached the brain is poised to enter its first large-scale clinical trial in humans."

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In brief here is how the vaccines work, according to Newsweek.

Because the addictive drug molecules are small enough to evade the body's immune system, they can slip undetected from the respiratory and circulatory tracts that absorb them and make their way into the central nervous system, where they work their dark magic. But when attached to a larger molecule—like an inactivated protein from a cholera-causing bacterium—the addictive substances can't hide. The immune system develops antibodies that can latch on to the drugs when they are next ingested by themselves. Once attached to an antibody, a given drug cannot access its targets in the brain and is instead broken down by certain enzymes.

So although ingested, the addictive drugs won't work. Thomas Kosten, at Baylor College of Medicine is working on a vaccine for cocaine. According to Baylor College, he says

"Blood vessels are distributed all over the brain, but the cocaine does not get into the brain because when it is bound to the antibodies, which are fairly large proteins, it cannot get through the blood-brain barrier (a natural formation that prevents foreign substances from going into the brain)," said Thomas Kosten. "It's just like a big sponge for cocaine in the bloodstream."

The idea is to "soak up" enough cocaine that addicts cannot get their "high." If this goes on long enough, the researchers hope the addicts will quit the drug. A common tenet in psychology is if there is no reward, the behavior will ultimately stop.

Obviously the effectivity of the vaccine will vary by person, by drug, and perhaps by usage over time. Baylor College says:

During early studies in humans, researchers vaccinated subjects repeatedly over a period of three months. During this time, the subjects made large amounts of cocaine-specific antibodies. While the antibody levels drop within a year, they remain significantly high during the first few months. In that early period, if a vaccinated subject used cocaine, the antibodies prevented it from entering the brain and giving the person the cocaine "rush" that is attractive to addicts.

The abstract of Kosten's 2005 paper (and full text if you want to pay) can be found here: "Vaccine pharmacotherapy for the treatment of cocaine dependence"

According to the Wall Street Journal there are two companies closest to releasing commercial products.

The two companies furthest along in the research are Nabi Biopharmaceuticals in Boca Raton, Fla., and Xenova Group PLC of Slough, England. Xenova Group is working on a cocaine vaccine and reports that the vaccine has reduced relapse in a small group of cocaine users.

Nabi Biopharmaceuticals is working on a nicotine vaccine. The company has completed a trial involving 68 smokers to test safety and measure the levels of antibodies produced by the vaccine. The vaccine has also resulted in smoking cessation among a group of participants.
The nicotine vaccine works like this, according to the American Psychiatric Foundation.
NicVAX is proposed as a therapy that could enhance current treatments for nicotine addiction by helping smokers who are trying to kick the habit resist the urge to light up. The hypothesis, said Leshner, is that the vaccine may inhibit nicotine’s "priming effect"—the phenomenon in which a formerly addicted individual experiences an increased desire to use a drug after a single exposure, which contributes significantly to relapse. A treatment program involving NicVAX might also include elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication, such as bupropion, to help reduce withdrawal symptoms.

 

The Future is Not Vending Machines

For at least 30 years the Japanese have sold almost everything you can imagine in vending machines. I seen batteries, books, and beer for sale in street-side vending machines. I always thought it would be a phenom that would spread to the rest of the world, but it never has. There's still a weird and wild selection of vending machine themes in Japan (see Quirky Japan for some examples), but sadly this future has never taken hold elsewhere (that I am aware of). The moral of this story is that while the future is unevenly distributed, so are deadends.

Lobster
Live lobsters! You have to catch one with the crane. 

Eggvendingmachine

Fresh eggs.


 

Historicity

James Gleick has a swell piece in the New York Times Magazine on the intangible quality of "historicity" that makes certain artifacts extremely valuable even when their nearly indistinguishable copies are free. 

All these artifacts share the quality that Philip K. Dick, in his 1962 novel "The Man in the High Castle," calls historicity, which is "when a thing has history in it." In the book, a dealer in antiquities holds up two identical Zippo lighters, one of which supposedly belonged to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and says: "One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object has ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it? ... You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it."  Back in the real world, in 1996, Sotheby’s sold a humidor that had belonged to John F. Kennedy for $574,500. It had historicity.

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The Bridge Between Atoms and Bits: 2D Code

If you live in Japan or Korea, this kind of symbol will be familar.

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It's so ubiquitous in Asia you can find it on McDonald's packaging. The patch is a 2d barcode, or QR code, that can be read by a cell phone camera. You point your phone towards the symbol which could be on a billboard, or a building, or hamburger packaging, and your phone will then provide a decipherment of the data. The following McDonalds commercial in Japanese show how to use the codes.

As mobile phone life takes root in the US, we'll see more of these, particularly for location-based services. It is a cheap way to signal some simple information to the mobile web.  Indeed, a good way to think of QR and 2D codes is a bridge between atoms and bits, between the real world and the digital world.  You want something physical to meet something virtual? Print up a simple sticker.

The problem so far is that there are more then 40 competing designs for 2d coding. Most are variations on black and white patterns, but a few even use color. QR is one popular codex in Japan, but there are others, like Shotcode.

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My guess is that the huge pool of contenders for this standard means that there is little consensus on what kind of information we expect to convey with the phone codes. Will it be very simple latitude/longitude information? Or mostly product SKUs and website URLs? Or more complex data?

To keep up on this volitle frontier, there's the blog 2d code, which avidly follows all manner of 2d and QR code.


 

What Laptops Should Be

If I were designing computer interfaces, I'd be paying attention to visual anthropology coming from the kids such as these mockups from a series created by the Laptop Club. Kids in a Montessori school, ages 7 to 9, who did not have computers in their classroom started to make their own "laptops" out of construction paper. Many of the kids were girls (all the samples shown in the link are by girls.) 

Blogger Amy Tiemann, who knew the kids from an after-school program discovered the Club and collected the constructions. She also interviewed the creators, and reported the results on CNET.

A group of kids from one of our local elementary schools has formed a "mini-laptop club." They don't use electronic machines. Instead, these first-, second- and third-graders draw their own laptops on construction paper and pretend to e-mail each other. They dedicate a surprising amount of time to this activity. I once had a chance to examine one of their "keyboards." I was fascinated to learn which Internet functions had sunk into the minds of these kids, who are just getting their first exposure to computers from watching their parents work, and from using kid-friendly sites.

Laptopdraw

She reports some of the keyboard buttons on the "laptops" are

...assigned to “Barbie.com,” “best friends” next to “friends,” “HP [Harry Potter] trivia,” and “werd games” as well as “rily werd games.”   

The kids have seen and used computer keyboards. Their designs are partly their own memory of what computer keys they've seen, party keys they would like to see, and partly keys they feel ought to be.  It is this aspirational aspect of design that I think is most telling. Why shouldn't our keyboard have a button that evokes "best friend"?  Tiemann writes:

Knowing who your friends are, and either committing to a best friend or figuring out how to remain friends with everyone, are very important. That’s what fascinated me about their laptops. It was a way to demonstrate their knowledge of pop culture and social networks. Having your name on your friend’s keyboard is a little like being in someone’s “Top 8 friends” on MySpace. And yet these kids most likely don’t even know about MySpace yet.

They reveal an easy confusion between what buttons on a screen and buttons on a keyboard do. But when you think about it, it's sort of an illogical difference. Tiemann offered another important observation:

The inevitability of it all drew me to the paper laptops. Parents may want to delay their children’s computer use, but here they are drawing their own designs. It reminded me of taking away toy guns and seeing the kids make guns out of sticks instead.Kids are intensely social creatures and you can really see what is important to them by looking at their designs. I love all the keys dedicated to pets. Where my friends and I used to have imaginary horses, now these girls have imaginary pets with an online identity.

 

Extreme Pumpkin Carving Art

It's not a vegetable, it's an art media. Some great candidates and my favorites this year: 

Deathstar3

Death Star from Noel's Pumpkin Carving Archive

Braine.Aaak  Closeup.Jpg

"Brain E. Aaak" from Masterpiece Pumpkins

Pumpkin

Chomper from Ze Frank show


 

Retail Dynamic Contextual Pricing in The New Economy

Jan Chipchase, Nokia's peripatetic investigator of cultural technology, spotted this electronic price tag in a Tokyo shop. He notes it is a "Small sign. Big implications." 

Pricetage 

Long expected, dynamic contextual retail pricing is now apparently in prototype. An LED mini-tag displaying the price of an item offers many benefits -- to sellers primarily. The price of a can of soup can change depending on the weather, the price of the competition down the street, the amount of stock in the back room, the price of corn futures, or even the pattern of traffic in the store. Quants will have a field day coming up with gonzo algorithms maximizing all these variables. "Get the perfect pickle code!" says the spam to grocery store owners. The optimization inherent in this price display would optimize retail profits first, but eventually, like all the other "zero friction" transactions in the network economy, this dynamic pricing (think eBay) benefits the consumer. 

However to repeat an earlier prediction of mine: some consumers will head to stores that boast "NO DYNAMIC PRICING!" just as many eBay buyers (I am often one of them) choose to pay the immediate "Buy it Now" fixed price rather than haggle over a fluctuating auction price. Uncertainty has its costs.


 

Not Happy With Crappy

Wonderful article by James Fallow on Chinese factories. It runs long, but it stays juicy the whole time, because he's giving you the details you want to hear. Anyone who has been to China is awed by the scale of production. How do they do it?    And more importantly what will they do next?

Shenz01 

Best insights in the piece: 

The Chinese factories can respond more quickly, and not simply because of 12-hour workdays. “Anyplace else, you’d have to import different raw materials and components,” Casey told me. “Here, you’ve got nine different suppliers within a mile, and they can bring a sample over that afternoon. People think China is cheap, but really, it’s fast.” Moreover, the Chinese factories use more human labor, and fewer expensive robots or assembly machines, than their counterparts in rich countries. “People are the most adaptable machines,” an American industrial designer who works in China told me. “Machines need to be reprogrammed. You can have people doing something entirely different next week.” 

At the moment, most jobs I’ve seen the young women in the factories perform have not been “taken” from America, because in America these assembly-type tasks would be done by machines.

But the Chinese goal is, of course, to build toward something more lucrative.  Many people I have spoken with say that the climb will be slow for Chinese industries, because they have so far to go in bringing their design, management, and branding efforts up to world standards. “Think about it—global companies are full of CEOs and executives from India, but very few Chinese,” Dominic Barton, the chairman of Mc­Kinsey’s Asia Pacific practice, told me. The main reason, he said, is China’s limited pool of executives with adequate foreign-language skills and experience working abroad. Andy Switky, the managing director–Asia Pacific for the famed California design firm IDEO, described a frequent Chinese outlook toward quality control as “happy with crappy.” This makes it hard for them to move beyond the local, low-value market. “Even now in China, most people don’t have an iPod or a notebook computer,” the manager of a Taiwanese-owned audio-device factory told me. “So it’s harder for them to think up improvements, or even tell a good one from a bad one.” These and other factors may slow China’s progress. But that’s a feeble basis for American hopes.

 
 

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