The Technium

Why I Don't Worry About a Super AI

[I originally wrote this in response to Jaron Lanier's worry post on Edge.]

The end result of the quantified self movement mobile phones give up on us

Why I don’t fear super intelligence.

It is wise to think through the implications of new technology. I understand the good intentions of Jaron Lanier and others who have raised an alarm about AI. But I think their method of considering the challenges of AI relies too much on fear, and is not based on the evidence we have so far. I propose a counterview with four parts:

1. AI is not improving exponentially.

2. We’ll reprogram the AIs if we are not satisfied with their performance.

3. Reprogramming themselves, on their own, is the least likely of many scenarios.

4. Rather than hype fear, this is a great opportunity.

I expand each point below.

1. AI is not improving exponentially.

In researching my recent article on the benefits of commercial AI, I was surprised to find out AI was not following Moores Law. I specifically asked AI researchers if the performance of AI was improving exponentially. They could point to an exponential growth in the inputs to AI. The number of processors, cycles, data learning sets, etc. were in many cases increasing exponentially. But there was no exponential increase in the output intelligence because in part, there is no metric for intelligence. We have benchmarks for particular kinds of learning and smartness, such as speech recognition, and those are converging on an asymptote of 0 error. But we have no ruler to measure the continuum of intelligence. We don't even have an operational definition of intelligence. There is simply no evidence showing a metric of intelligence that is doubling every X.

The fact that AI is improving steadily, but not exponentially is important because it gives us time (decades) for the following.

2. We’ll reprogram the AIs if we are not satisfied with their performance.

While it is not following Moore’s Law, AI is becoming more useful faster. So the utility of AI may be increasing exponentially, if we could measure that. But in the past century the utility of electricity exploded as more use trigger yet more devices to use, yet the quality of electricity didn’t grow exponentially. As the usefulness of AI increases very fast, it brings fear of disruption. Recently, that fear is being fanned by people familiar with the technology. The main thing they seem to be afraid of is that AI is taking over decisions once made by humans. Diagnosing x-rays, driving cars, aiming bomb missiles. These can be life and death decisions. As far as I can tell from the little documented by those afraid, their grand fear – the threat of extinction – is that AI will take over more and more decisions and then decide they don’t want humans, or in some way the AIs will derail civilization.

This is an engineering problem. So far as I can tell, AIs have not yet made a decision that its human creators have regretted. If they do (or when they do), then we change their algorithms. If AIs are making decisions that our society, our laws, our moral consensus, or the consumer market, does not approve of, we then should, and will, modify the principles that govern the AI, or create better ones that do make decisions we approve. Of course machines will make “mistakes,” even big mistakes – but so do humans. We keep correcting them. There will be tons of scrutiny on the actions of AI, so the world is watching. However, we don’t have universal consensus on what we find appropriate, so that is where most of the friction about them will come from. As we decide, our AI will decide.

3. Reprogramming themselves, on their own, is the least likely of many scenarios.

The great fear pumped up by some, though, is that as AI gain our confidence in making decisions, they will somehow prevent us from altering their decisions. The fear is they lock us out. They go rogue. It is very difficult to imagine how this happens. It seems highly improbable that human engineers would program an AI so that it could not be altered in any way. That is possible, but so impractical. That hobble does not even serve a bad actor. The usual scary scenario is that an AI will reprogram itself on its own to be unalterable by outsiders. This is conjectured to be a selfish move on the AI’s part, but it is unclear how an unalterable program is an advantage to an AI. It would also be an incredible achievement for a gang of human engineers to create a system that could not be hacked. Still it may be possible at some distant time, but it is only one of many possibilities. An AI could just as likely decide on its own to let anyone change it, in open source mode. Or it could decide that it wanted to merge with human will power. Why not? In the only example we have of an introspective self-aware intelligence (hominids), we have found that evolution seems to have designed our minds to not be easily self-reprogrammable. Except for a few yogis, you can’t go in and change your core mental code easily. There seems to be an evolutionary disadvantage to being able to easily muck with your basic operating system, and it is possible that AIs may need the same self-protection. We don’t know. But the possibility they, on their own, decide to lock out their partners (and doctors) is just one of many possibilities, and not necessarily the most probable one.

4 Rather than hype fear, this is a great opportunity.

Since AIs (embodied at times in robots) are assuming many of the tasks that humans do, we have much to teach them. For without this teaching and guidance, they would be scary, even with minimal levels of smartness. But motivation based on fear is unproductive. When people act out of fear, they do stupid things. A much better way to cast the need for teaching AIs ethics, morality, equity, common sense, judgment and wisdom is to see this as an opportunity.

AI gives us the opportunity to elevate and sharpen our own ethics and morality and ambition. We smugly believe humans – all humans – have superior behavior to machines, but human ethics are sloppy, slippery, inconsistent, and often suspect. When we drive down the road, we don’t have any better solution to the dilemma of who to hit (child or group of adults) than a robo car does – even though we think we do. If we aim to shoot someone in war, our criteria are inconsistent and vague. The clear ethical programing AIs need to follow will force us to bear down and be much clearer about why we believe what we think we believe. Under what conditions do we want to be relativistic? What specific contexts do we want the law to be contextual? Human morality is a mess of conundrums that could benefit from scrutiny, less superstition, and more evidence-based thinking. We’ll quickly find that trying to train AIs to be more humanistic will challenge us to be more humanistic. In the way that children can better their parents, the challenge of rearing AIs is an opportunity – not a horror. We should welcome it. I wish those with a loud following would also welcome it.

The myth of AI?

Finally, I am not worried about Jaron’s main peeve about the semantic warp caused by AI because culturally (rather than technically) we have defined “real” AI as that intelligence which we can not produce today with machines, so anything we produce with machines today cannot be AI, and therefore AI in its most narrow sense will always be coming tomorrow. Since tomorrow is always about to arrive, no matter what the machines do today, we won’t bestow the blessing of calling it AI. Society calls any smartness by machines machine learning, or machine intelligence, or some other name. In this cultural sense, even when everyone is using it all day every day, AI will remain a myth.

 
The Technium

Sourced Quotes, 21

Some people call VR “the last medium” because any subsequent medium can be invented inside of VR, using software alone. Looking back, the movie and TV screens we use today will be seen as an intermediate step between the invention of electricity and the invention of VR. Kids will think it’s funny that their ancestors used to stare at glowing rectangles hoping to suspend disbelief. -- Chris Dixon, Virtual Reality, cdixon Blog, January 24, 2015

I've developed over time a simple rule. I will only hire someone to work directly for me if I would work for that person. And it's a pretty good test. -- Mark Zuckerberg, Mobile World Congress Q&A, Barcelona, March 4, 2015

[T]o never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation. If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to know where you are. -- Nick Carr, The Glass Cage; Maps, mind and memory, January 27, 2015.

Saying that you’re aiming for x% of a $ybn industry is unambitious -- great companies change the y, not the x. -- Benedict Evans, "Ways to think about market size," February 28, 2015

Premium branded phones are the culmination of decades of research in wireless technology, computing, materials, and design. Shitphones are the culmination of decades of research in wireless technology, computing, materials, and design — minus a year or two. -- John Herrman, Shitphone: A Love Story, Medium, March 9, 2015.

While individuals get our empathy and sympathy, institutions seldom do. The "we're in this together" spirit of [science fiction] films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s later gave way to a reflex shared by left and right, that villainy is associated with organization. Even when they aren't portrayed as evil, bureaucrats are stupid and public officials short-sighted. Only the clever bravado of a solitary hero (or at most a small team) will make a difference in resolving the grand crisis at hand. - David Brin "Our Favorite Cliche: A world filled with idiots." 2013.

You cannot get people this smart to work this hard just for money. -- Bono, The Shape of Things to Come, New Yorker, February 23, 2015

Meta-design is much more difficult than design; it’s easier to draw something than to explain how to draw it. — Donald Knuth, The Metafont Book, 1986.

When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket. --- Nikola Tesla, When Woman is Boss, Colliers, January 30, 1926

Is this the future of the user interface?

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The Technium

AI, or Alien Intelligence

This year, 2014, John Brockman's annual question was "What Do You Think About Machines That Think?". My answer is that I think we could call them artificial aliens. I'm reposting my full response here:

The most important thing about making machines that can think is that they will think different.

Because of a quirk in our evolutionary history, we are cruising as the only sentient species on our planet, leaving us with the incorrect idea that human intelligence is singular. It is not. Our intelligence is a society of intelligences, and this suite occupies only a small corner of the many types of intelligences and consciousnesses that are possible in the universe. We like to call our human intelligence "general purpose" because compared to other kinds of minds we have met it can solve more kinds of problems, but as we build more and more synthetic minds we'll come to realize that human thinking is not general at all. It is only one species of thinking.

The kind of thinking done by the emerging AIs in 2014 is not like human thinking. While they can accomplish tasks—such as playing chess, driving a car, describing the contents of a photograph—that we once believed only humans can do, they don't do it in a human-like fashion. Facebook has the ability to ramp up an AI that can start with a photo of any person on earth and correctly identifying them out of some 3 billion people online. Human brains cannot scale to this degree, which makes this ability very un-human. We are notoriously bad at statistical thinking, so we are making intelligences with very good statistical skills, in order that they don't think like us. One of the advantages of having AIs drive our cars is that they won't drive like humans, with our easily distracted minds.

In a pervasively connected world, thinking different is the source of innovation and wealth. Just being smart is not enough. Commercial incentives will make industrial strength AI ubiquitous, embedding cheap smartness into all that we make. But a bigger payoff will come when we start inventing new kinds of intelligences, and entirely new ways of thinking. We don't know what the full taxonomy of intelligence is right now.

Some traits of human thinking will be common (as common as bilateral symmetry, segmentation, and tubular guts are in biology), but the possibility space of viable minds will likely contain traits far outside what we have evolved. It is not necessary that this type of thinking be faster than humans, greater, or deeper. In some cases it will be simpler. Our most important machines are not machines that do what humans do better, but machines that can do things we can't do at all. Our most important thinking machines will not be machines that can think what we think faster, better, but those that think what we can't think.

To really solve the current grand mysteries of quantum gravity, dark energy, and dark matter we'll probably need other intelligences beside humans. And the extremely complex questions that will come after them may require even more distant and complex intelligences. Indeed, we may need to invent intermediate intelligences that can help us design yet more rarified intelligences that we could not design alone.

Today, many scientific discoveries require hundred of human minds to solve, but in the near future there may be classes of problems so deep that they require hundreds of different species of minds to solve. This will take us to a cultural edge because it won't be easy to accept the answers from an alien intelligence. We already see that in our unease in approving mathematical proofs done by computer; dealing with alien intelligences will require a new skill, and yet another broadening our ourselves.

AI could just as well stand for Alien Intelligence. We have no certainty we'll contact extra-terrestrial beings from one of the billion earth-like planets in the sky in the next 200 years, but we have almost 100% certainty that we'll manufacture an alien intelligence by then. When we face these synthetic aliens, we'll encounter the same benefits and challenges that we expect from contact with ET. They will force us to re-evaluate our roles, our beliefs, our goals, our identity. What are humans for? I believe our first answer will be: humans are for inventing new kinds of intelligences that biology could not evolve. Our job is to make machines that think different—to create alien intelligences. Call them artificial aliens.

Screen Shot 2014 07 14 at 10 05 17 PM

 
The Technium

Sourced Quotes, 20

ImageScreen Shot 2015 01 21 at 11 09 59 AM

Change has never happened this fast before, and it will never be this slow again. Graeme Wood
Social Principal #9, Geek Media, Sept 29, 2009

Even the primeval Stone Age islanders of the Sentinelese, who still persist in 2015 and shoot everybody who tries to talk to them with cane bows, are under satellite surveillance. The Indian Navy rigorously protects them from any knowledge of the
Indian Navy.-- Bruce Sterling, State of the World 2015, January 5, 2015

Never assume that something you find utterly creepy today will not be the norm tomorrow. -- Jan Chipchase, Four Deep Trends, Fast Company, November 14, 2011

Singularity University is a kind of seminary in Silicon Valley where the metaphysical conviction that machines are, or soon will be, essentially superior to human beings is nourished among those involved in profiting from that eventuality.-- Nathan Schneider, Something for Everyone, Verge, January 6, 2015

“Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it,” McLuhan explained during an uncharacteristically candid interview in 1966. “The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certain to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button.” -- Quoted by Nick Carr, Rough Type, October 18, 2014

In virtual reality, nausea is the body’s dysphoric response to the uncanny, presence is the euphoric one. -- Virginia Heffernan, Virtual Reality Fails Its Way to Success, New York Times Magazine, November 14, 2014

The narrative has changed. It has switched from, ‘Isn’t it terrible that artificial intelligence is a failure?’ to ‘Isn’t it terrible that A.I. is a success?’ -- Peter Norvig, New York Times, Innovators of Intelligence Look to Past, December 15, 2014.

Though the nature of future discoveries is hard to predict, I've found I can predict quite well what sort of people will make them. Good new ideas come from earnest, energetic, independent-minded people....Surround yourself with the sort of people new ideas come from. If you want to notice quickly when your beliefs become obsolete, you can't do better than to be friends with the people whose discoveries will make them so. -- Paul Graham, How to Be an Expert in a Changing World, December, 2014

If the PC epoch was about being omnipotent – computers can do everything, better! – and the Internet epoch about being omniscient – with Google, you can know everything – mobile is about being omnipresent. -- Ben Thompson, Stratechery, The state of consumer technology, December 16, 2014.

[A]dding up corpses and comparing the tallies across different times and places can seem callous, as if it minimized the tragedy of the victims in less violent decades and regions. But a quantitative mindset is in fact the morally enlightened one. It treats every human life as having equal value, rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic. -- Steven Pinker, Why the world is not falling apart, in Slate, December 22, 2014.

My hunch is that The Blockchain will be to banking, law and accountancy as The Internet was to media, commerce and advertising. It will lower costs, disintermediate many layers of business and reduce friction. As we know, one person’s friction is another person’s revenue.-- Joi Ito, "Why Bitcoin is and isn't like the internet." Jan 18, 2015

 
Kevin Kelly

Sourced Quotes, 20

Change has never happened this fast before, and it will never be this slow again. Graeme Wood
Social Principal #9, Geek Media, Sept 29, 2009

Even the primeval Stone Age islanders of the Sentinelese, who still persist in 2015 and shoot everybody who tries to talk to them with cane bows, are under satellite surveillance. The Indian Navy rigorously protects them from any knowledge of the
Indian Navy.-- Bruce Sterling, State of the World 2015, January 5, 2015

Never assume that something you find utterly creepy today will not be the norm tomorrow. -- Jan Chipchase, Four Deep Trends, Fast Company, November 14, 2011

Singularity University is a kind of seminary in Silicon Valley where the metaphysical conviction that machines are, or soon will be, essentially superior to human beings is nourished among those involved in profiting from that eventuality.-- Nathan Schneider, Something for Everyone, Verge, January 6, 2015

“Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it,” McLuhan explained during an uncharacteristically candid interview in 1966. “The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certain to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button.” -- Quoted by Nick Carr, Rough Type, October 18, 2014

In virtual reality, nausea is the body’s dysphoric response to the uncanny, presence is the euphoric one. -- Virginia Heffernan, Virtual Reality Fails Its Way to Success, New York Times Magazine, November 14, 2014

The narrative has changed. It has switched from, ‘Isn’t it terrible that artificial intelligence is a failure?’ to ‘Isn’t it terrible that A.I. is a success?’ -- Peter Norvig, New York Times, Innovators of Intelligence Look to Past, December 15, 2014.

Though the nature of future discoveries is hard to predict, I've found I can predict quite well what sort of people will make them. Good new ideas come from earnest, energetic, independent-minded people....Surround yourself with the sort of people new ideas come from. If you want to notice quickly when your beliefs become obsolete, you can't do better than to be friends with the people whose discoveries will make them so. -- Paul Graham, How to Be an Expert in a Changing World, December, 2014

If the PC epoch was about being omnipotent – computers can do everything, better! – and the Internet epoch about being omniscient – with Google, you can know everything – mobile is about being omnipresent. -- Ben Thompson, Stratechery, The state of consumer technology, December 16, 2014.

[A]dding up corpses and comparing the tallies across different times and places can seem callous, as if it minimized the tragedy of the victims in less violent decades and regions. But a quantitative mindset is in fact the morally enlightened one. It treats every human life as having equal value, rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic. -- Steven Pinker, Why the world is not falling apart, in Slate, December 22, 2014.

My hunch is that The Blockchain will be to banking, law and accountancy as The Internet was to media, commerce and advertising. It will lower costs, disintermediate many layers of business and reduce friction. As we know, one person’s friction is another person’s revenue.-- Joi Ito, "Why Bitcoin is and isn't like the internet." Jan 18, 2015

 
The Technium

How to Use Artificial Intelligence

About a year ago I started writing a piece on AI for Wired. I turned it in last spring, and they just published it this month. They also cut it in half. Still, the piece retains my essential points about AI:

1) We should really call it Artificial Smartness, because we don't want it conscious.

2) It will be a cloud service; you'll buy as much IQ as you need on demand.

3) There will only be 2-3 major AI providers since AI will follow network effects.

I also talk about the 3 breakthroughs that make AI finally happen now.

You can read more at Wired.

The decorative images Wired used to heavily illustrate the article are meaningless -- I'm guessing they are supposed to be Brain Power as in Flower Power, but I don't really know.

Ff ai f

 
The Technium

What Bits Want

[Translations: German]

Digital bits have lives. They work for us, but we totally ignore them. What do bits really want? Here are the life stories of four different bits.

(A)
The first bit—let’s call it Bit A — was born on the sensor of a Cannon 5D Mark II camera. A ray of light glancing off a black plastic handle of baby stroller in New York City enters the glass lens of the camera and is focused onto a small sheet the size of a large postage stamp. This dull rainbow-colored surface is divided up into 21 million rectangular dimples. The light photons from the white highlight of stroller handle pass through a mosaic of red, green and blue filters in the camera, and collect in the micro-well of red pixel #6,724,573. Outside, when the photographer trips the shutter button, red pixel #6,724,573 counts the number of photons it has collected, compares it to its green and blue neighbors, and calculates the color it has captured. Pixel #6,724,573 generates 15 new bits, including our Bit A, which helps indicate the pixel is pure white. Immediately Bit A is sent along a wire to the camera’s chip where it is processed along with 300 million sibling bits, all born at the same moment. Bit A is copied several times as the camera swaps the siblings around from one part of its circuit to another in order to rearrange the bits into what we call a picture, which the camera displays on a screen. In another few milliseconds a copy of Bit A is duplicated on a memory card. Now there are two Bit As, but within a moment the original is erased as another image is captured on the sensor. An hour later, Bit A is duplicated from the memory card into the CPU of the photographer’s laptop. A half second later, half of the sibling bits are simply erased as the computer compresses the image into a jpeg file. Luckily Bit A, of pure white, remains in the set. Another copy of it is made on the laptop’s hard disk and another copy is made as the software Photoshop is opened. When the photographer retouches a speck in the image, millions of pixel bits are constantly being reshuffled, copied, erased, and effectively moved as Photoshop creates new bits and erases existing ones. Through all this shuffling the tiny white glare on the stroller handle remains untouched and Bit A persists. The photographer is a veteran and Bit A is copied again by another CPU, and backed up on another hard disk. Bit A now has many identical cousins. The photographer uploads Bit A together with its million sibling bits to the internet. Bit A is copied, deleted, and recopied by 9 intermediate servers along the way to a website. There Bit A is copied onto more local hard disks, one of which serves the bit to anyone clicking on a web thumbnail image. When people do click, Bit A is copied to their computer’s CPU, displayed on their screen as a speck of white. When humans see the full image, millions of them copy it to disks, and sent yet more copies to their friends. Within days, Bit A has been copied several hundred million times. There are now half a billion copies of Bit A contained as a tiny detail of the first paparazzi photo of Kim Kardashian taking her newborn baby girl out on a stroll. Bit A will likely remain in circulation for many decades, being copied forward onto new media as old medium die, active on at least one CPU in the world, ready to be linked. It will live for centuries. For a bit, this is success.

(B)
Bit B has a different story. Bit B is born inside the EDR (event data recorder) chip mounted beneath the dashboard of the photographer’s Toyota Camry. Every automobile manufactured since 2012 contains a EDR which serves as the car’s blackbox, recording 15 different metrics such as the car’s speed, steering, braking, seat belt use and engine performance. Originally designed to be plugged into a service mechanic’s on-board diagnostic computer to determine whether the airbags were working, the data it generates while the car is running can also be summoned by insurance companies and lawyers as evidence in an accident. In this case Bit B makes up part of the digit “7” in a time stamp that says that on Tuesday July 8, 2014, our Camry was going 57 miles per hour. The EDR holds the last 5 seconds of information. After that time it overwrites the existing bits with new information. The Camry was accident-free and didn’t need maintenance, so Bit B was copied once and stored. Increasingly, it is cheaper to store data than to figure out whether it should be erased, so almost no data is erased deliberately. But many bits disappear when their medium rots or is tossed into the garbage. Most bits die of inactivity. Bit B will spend decades untouched, unlit, before it is lost forever.

(C)
The third bit is of a different type. Bit C was not generated in the environment. It was not born in a camera, or on the keyboard, or swipe of a phone, or in a wearable sensor, or by a thermometer, traffic pad, or any other kind of input device. Bit C was born from other bits. Bit C is the type of bit created by a software program in response to Bit A or Bit B. Think of the internal bookkeeping your computer does as it keeps track of everything a program does. The photographer using Photoshop can “undo” a change to color (or you can undo a deletion to your Word document) because the computer keeps a log, and that log is new bits about the bits. Our Bit C is generated by the telephone company’s servers as it uploads the photographer’s image files. It is the third digit in the log of the memory allotment for that upload. Bit C is copied to a telecom hard disk, and this meta-data (data about data, or bits about bits) will be retained by the telecom long after the actual content vanished. Beyond meta-data there is meta-meta-data; information about meta-data. The meta chain can cascade up infinitely, and the amount of meta-data in the world is increasing at a faster rate than the primary data. For a bit to be born meta is a huge thing, because meta-data is more likely to be exercised, duplicated, shared and linked. Bit C will be copied and recopied, so that eventually hundreds of copies of Bit C live on.

(D)
However, nothing is as exciting for a bit as to become part of a software program. In code, a bit graduates from being a static number to being an active agent. When you are a bit that is part of a program, you act upon other bits. If you are really lucky you might be part of a code that is so essential that it is maintained as a core function and preserved in the digital universe over many generations. Most sophisticated programs are dead and gone in 5 years, but some primeval code, say like the code that governs internet protocols, or runs the basic sorting algorithms for the files on your PC OS. The story of Bit D, our fourth bit, revolves around the small string of code that produces ASCII — the letters and numbers we see on a screen. This has not changed for many decades. Bit D lives as the part of the code that generates the English letter “e”. It is invoked nearly every hour by me, and billions of times per second around the world. It might be among the most commonly reproduced bits in the digital universe. There are probably zillions of Bit Ds in the digital universe today. And in 100 years from now, there is likely to still be ASCII and the letter e, and a bazillion more Bit Ds. For a bit, it is immortal.

The best destiny for a bit is to be deeply related to other bits, to be copied and shared. The worst life for a bit is to remain naked and alone. A bit uncopied, unshared, unlinked with other bits will be a short-lived bit. If an unshared bit lives long, its future will be parked in a dark eternal vault. What bits really want is to be clothed with other related bits, replicated widely, and maybe elevated to become a meta-bit, or an action bit in a piece of durable code.

Spiral

Bits want to move.

Bits want to be linked to other bits. They need other bits.

Bits want real time.

Bits want to be duplicated, replicated, copied.

Bits want to be meta.

Of course this is pure anthropomorphization. Bits don’t have wills. But they do have tendencies. Bits that are related to other bits will tend to be copied more often. Just as selfish genes tend to replicate, bits do too. And just as genes “want” to code for bodies that help them replicate, selfish bits also want systems that help them replicate and spread. All things being equal, bits want to reproduce, move and be shared. If you rely on bits for anything, this is good to know.

 
The Technium

You Are Not Late

[Translations: Italian, Japanese, Chinese]

Internet

Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an entrepreneur in 1985 when almost any dot com name you wanted was available? All words; short ones, cool ones. All you had to do was ask for the one you wanted. It didn’t even cost anything to claim. This grand opportunity was true for years. In 1994 a Wired writer noticed that mcdonalds.com was still unclaimed, so with our encouragement he registered it, and then tried to give it to McDonalds, but their cluelessness about the internet was so hilarious it became a Wired story. Shortly before that I noticed that abc.com was not claimed so when I gave a consulting presentation to the top-floor ABC executives about the future of digital I told them that they should get their smartest geek down in the basement to register their own domain name. They didn’t.

The internet was a wide open frontier then. It was easy to be the first in category X. Consumers had few expectations, and the barriers were extremely low. Start a search engine! An online store! Serve up amateur videos! Of course, that was then. Looking back now it seems as if waves of settlers have since bulldozed and developed every possible venue, leaving only the most difficult and gnarly specks for today’s newcomers. Thirty years later the internet feels saturated, bloated, overstuffed with apps, platforms, devices, and more than enough content to demand our attention for the next million years. Even if you could manage to squeeze in another tiny innovation, who would notice it?

Yet if we consider what we have gained online in the last 30 years, this abundance smells almost miraculous. We got: Instant connection with our friends and family anywhere, a customizable stream of news whenever we want it, zoomable 3D maps of most cities of the world, an encyclopedia we can query with spoken words, movies we can watch on a flat slab in our pocket, a virtual everything store that will deliver next day — to name only six out of thousands that could be mentioned.

But, but…here is the thing. In terms of the internet, nothing has happened yet. The internet is still at the beginning of its beginning. If we could climb into a time machine and journey 30 years into the future, and from that vantage look back to today, we’d realize that most of the greatest products running the lives of citizens in 2044 were not invented until after 2014. People in the future will look at their holodecks, and wearable virtual reality contact lenses, and downloadable avatars, and AI interfaces, and say, oh, you didn’t really have the internet (or whatever they’ll call it) back then.

And they’d be right. Because from our perspective now, the greatest online things of the first half of this century are all before us. All these miraculous inventions are waiting for that crazy, no-one-told-me-it-was-impossible visionary to start grabbing the low-hanging fruit — the equivalent of the dot com names of 1984.

Because here is the other thing the greybeards in 2044 will tell you: Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an entrepreneur in 2014? It was a wide-open frontier! You could pick almost any category X and add some AI to it, put it on the cloud. Few devices had more than one or two sensors in them, unlike the hundreds now. Expectations and barriers were low. It was easy to be the first. And then they would sigh, “Oh, if only we realized how possible everything was back then!”

So, the truth: Right now, today, in 2014 is the best time to start something on the internet. There has never been a better time in the whole history of the world to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside, than now. Right now, this minute. This is the time that folks in the future will look back at and say, “Oh to have been alive and well back then!”

The last 30 years has created a marvelous starting point, a solid platform to build truly great things. However the coolest stuff has not been invented yet — although this new greatness will not be more of the same-same that exists today. It will not be merely “better,” it will different, beyond, and other. But you knew that.

What you may not have realized is that today truly is a wide open frontier. It is the best time EVER in human history to begin.

You are not late.

 
The Technium

Platforms Trump Products

[Translations: Japanese]

The general trend in the technium is a long-term migration away from selling products to selling services. Jeff Bezos has long said the Kindle is not a product, but a service selling access to reading material. That distinction will be made even more visible very shortly when Amazon introduces an "all you can read" subscription to their library of ebooks. Readers will no longer have to purchase individual books, but will have the option to subscribe to all books (600,000 to begin with), like you do to movies on Netflix. As a paying subscriber you get access to any book in print (eventually). Amazon books is a service not product. Verb not noun.

Screen shot 2014 07 16 at 10 14 46 am1 e1405522383435
Test page for Amazon's Kindle Unlimited book subscription service

In this migration the ultimate vehicle for selling a service is not a store (which is for selling products) but a platform. A platform allows you to sell services which you did not create, just as a store allows you to sell products you did not create. If you are trying to sell services and you don't have a platform, then you have to make them all yourself, and it won't scale.

Jeff Bezos has turned Amazon into a platform that sells services that others provide. Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook all also see themselves as platforms. All these giants employ third party vendors to make use of their platform. All employ APIs extensively. Sometimes platforms are called ecosystems, because in true ecological fashion, supporting vendors who cooperate in one dimension may also compete in others. For instance, Amazon sells both brand new books from publishers, and it sells -- via its ecosystem built of used books stores -- cheaper used versions. Used book vendors compete with each other and with the publishers. The platform's job is to make sure they make money (add value) whether the parts cooperate or compete. Which Amazon does well.

In the network economy platforms trump products. For the consumers, this translates into: access trumps ownership. Products induce ownership. But "owning" a service doesn't quite make sense conceptually, or practically. So if companies aren't really selling products and are instead selling services, then what customers need is access. And increasingly they prefer access over ownership. (See my Better Than Owning)

People have traditionally subscribed to services that entailed a never-ending stream of updates, improvements, versions, that forced a deep interaction and constant relationship from the producer to the consumer. To ease that relationship, a customer committed to a product (phone carrier, cable provider) and was promised uninterrupted quality. The first standalone product to be "servicized" was software. This mode is called SAS, software as service. As an example of SAS, Adobe no longer sells it's software as discrete products with dated versions. Instead you subscribe to Photoshop, InDesign, Premier, etc, or the entire suite of services. You sign up and your computer will operate the latest best versions as long as you pay the monthly subscription. This new model entails are re-orientation by the customer who may be used to thinking of software as a product her or she owns.

TV, phones and software were just the beginning. The major move in the upcoming decades will be XAS -- X as service, where X is anything, and maybe everything. You don't buy specific products; instead you get access to whatever benefits you need or want. Take TAS, Transportation as Service. You would not own a car. To get from point A to Point B, you would use a robot car to pick you up at your home, take you to the high speed rail station, which takes you to your general destination area, let's you out at the subway, which you take to meet another robot car to take you the final few miles. You pay some monthly fee for this access to the transportation platform run by a private/public consortium. Other possible XAS:

Food as Service

Health as Service

Clothes as Service

Shelter as Service

Entertainment as Service

Vacation as Service

School as Service

Hotel as Service (AirBnB)

Tools as Service (Techshop)

Fitness as Service

Toys as Service

And so on. Yes, even physical things can be delivered as if they were digital.

 
The Technium

The Least Resistance to New Ideas

California Clipper 500

Many years ago the San Francisco Chronicle published a short column in which the writer mentioned that he had been traveling in India, and when he told the clerk at his hotel in New Delhi that he was from the San Francisco Bay Area the clerk responded, "Oh that is the center of the universe" Um, mumbled the traveller, and why do you say that? "Because the center of the universe is wherever there is the least resistance to new ideas."

I have not been able to come up with a better description of San Francisco's special relation to futurism. In my experience this is true: more new ideas per person bubble up in the Bay Area than anywhere else on Earth -- at this moment.

But why? The best explanation I've heard is from the best historian of California, J. S. Holliday, who argues that it began in the gold rush days, when hundreds of thousands of young men came stampeding into the Bay Area to start their fortunes. It was the gold.com era. There was no adult supervision. No one to tell you No. You just headed into the hills with your wits and either came back rich or poor. And if you came back poor, you sold shovel and jeans to the next wave of dreamers, and got rich in a new novel way. The Bay Area collected these young free spirits and retained them. As Holliday points out, no where else in the world was gold territory left to individuals and not the state. In part this was a matter of the great distance from Washington, which made control impossible.

Others argue the same distance from Washington and the establishment of the East Coast is what caused Stanford professors to turn to entreprenurial investments instead of grant money and corporate buyouts to go into business. That spirit of self-funding would avalanche into the start-up culture that now infuses the place. Mistakes are not only tolerated, unlike in Old Places, but even these days, mistakes are embraced as the best teacher. Bay Area VCs are more likely to give you money if you've already made a few disasters yourself.

John Markoff, the venerable New York Times tech reporter who also grew up in Silicon Valley, wrote an under-appreciated book called What the Doormouse Said, tracing the hippy origins of the current digital industry. Not just Steve Jobs, but many of the earliest personal computer pioneers were acid-dropping dreamers who were trying to augment human potential rather than create a new industry. They were the most recent incarnation of free thinkers that began with the 49ers, then the beatniks, and later the hippies, and now the hipsters. It is not hard to see the connection between free love and communes with open-source software and wikipedia. That's why I agree with the urban sociologist's Richard Florida's notion that bohemians = innovation = wealth, and that any city or region that wants to encourage innovative wealth creation has to encourage bohemians. That's what San Francisco has inadvertently done by the acre.

All this looseness leads to the "least resistance to new ideas" and the role of being the pivot of the world. I know this directly. Wired magazine could not have started anywhere else except in the Bay Area. When Conde Nast bought Wired they were wise enough to let it stay in SF, the only magazine they own not operated in NYC.

While the Bay Area is currently the center of the future, I sometimes have the feeling the center will slowly drift to Shanghai and other parts of China. In many ways the future is no longer so fashionable in the US. It is harder and harder to imagine a future -- either via Hollywood, or business scenarios -- that anyone wants to live in. All the futures are broken. Even the most techy and utopian futures are suspect and not believed. We've been burned too many times and know that all those inventions will bite us back. China does not have that problem and the acceleration of their desires into the future is palpable.

Of course China is still learning how to embrace its inner bohemian, and so I suspect the Bay Area will remain the center of the universe for at least a few more decades. It is one of those auto-catalytic things that feeds off itself. The more success it gains, the more newcomers with talent and ambition it attracts. In this way, success exhibits network effects, which makes it difficult to reproduce a "silicon valley" elsewhere. There will probably be only one "center of the universe" per universe at a time. (But there will be more universes!)

But this auto-catalyzing process needs to be managed. Success kills it. This is the curse of bohemian way: how do you maintain the loose reins, the cheap rents, the no-rules opportunities, when you are also creating one thousand under-30 millionaires every year? The one sure thing limiting the success of the least resistant place in the world is its success. Eventually no one can afford to make mistakes anymore, and then the center moves. You get to remain in the future by keeping loose, letting the young drive, staying hungry and foolish, ignoring success, embracing new mistakes, and having the least resistance to new ideas.

 
The Technium

The Technium Test

[Translations: Japanese]

Beyond our tiny blue planet, the universe is filled with 100 billion galaxies, each containing 100 billion suns, and each of those stars some vast but unknown billion of inhabitable planets. Let’s say we had some means to inspect at least one other planet in the universe that sprouted sentient creatures who also developed their own advance technology. If we could see a complicated artifact on that planet do we have any test to determine whether that thing was alive or created? Could we tell whether a particular example was an organism born, or a supremely advanced machine made by ones who were born? What framework would we use to discriminate between a product of “natural” evolution and one of technological evolution? If we knew nothing of the origins or even nature of this planet’s original lifeforms, is there some special thermodynamic or informational giveaway of how its technology would be different from its life? I don't think there is such a test.

Biogenesis 448 2

Now, let’s switch the lens and let that intergallatic investigator look at things here on Earth. If they were ignorant of what system our planet used for natural life, would they be able to identify what things were biological and which were technological? Is there an all-purpose distinction in thermodynamics, or complexity, or information flow that says “this evolved without minds” or “this was invented by a mind”? Could it make the further distinction between something that was self-evolved vs evolved from a system created by a mind, by a sort of artificial evolution? Say we set up a system that would self-evolve new organisms based on an alternative DNA-like molecule. If the investigator looked at Earth today the difference in complexity between self-evolved and mind-designed among small things might be a telltale clue, but what would it make of our largest creations, like the internet? How about in 100 years? I suspect there is no fundamental physical difference between “natural” and “artificial” organisms, and that the only way to distinguish the two will be to investigate their history.

There is no physically detectable vital spirit in living things that can not be found in manufactured things of a certain type. This continuity between the born and the made is not obvious nor very important right now, but it will become more important, valuable and troublesome in the future.

[Image of mechanical life generated by William Latham ]

 
The Technium

Sourced Quotes 18

In terms of GDP, user-generated content involves unmeasured labor creating an unmeasured asset that is consumed in unmeasured ways to create unmeasured consumer surplus. -- Erik and Andrew, The Second Machine Age, 2014, p. 114.

I am not trying to bring down the NSA, I am working to improve the NSA. I am still working for the NSA right now. They are the only ones who don’t realize it. -- Edward Snowden, Edward Snowden Says His Mission's Accomplished, Washington Post, December 24, 2013

Netflix has created a database of American cinematic predilections. The data can't tell them how to make a TV show, but it can tell them what they should be making. When they create a show like House of Cards, they aren't guessing at what people want. -- Alexis Madrigal, How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood, Atlantic, Jan2. 2014

You can always make more ideas, but you can’t make more time. If you decide to work on an idea, make sure you’re serious about it. Sleep on it, think about it, share it with other people. If you’re still crazy passionate about it, then do it. -- Nick Pettit, Treehouse, February 24, 2014.

In 2013 you do not get brownie points for using servers. You only get brownie points for serving users. –- Jeff Lawson, DevBeat 2013.

The only thing stronger than your imagination is your imagination connected to the billions of other imaginations all over the world, connected to smart machines that continue to get smarter, faster.-- Rita King, January 8, 2014, LinkedIn

Once, when Bahat reported on LinkedIn that he was leaving a job by changing his status to “Doing Nothing,” his New York friends fretted, and promised to let him know if they heard of any openings. His Bay Area friends, meanwhile, congratulated him on his exit. -- Nathan Heller, Bay Watched, New Yorker, October 14 2013

Ssbkyh captcha tweet 01 Image from CAPTCHA TWEET , a service that shifts your tweet into a captcha.

 
The Technium

Rules for Cyberwar

Having rules for harming and killing people and destroying things seems weird, but not as weird as not having them. We do have some rules about harming and killing in the physical world, but we don't have any for the intangible digital world. We need rules for cyberwar badly.

These will require some uncomfortable acknowledgements, some unlikely agreement across cultures, and probably some disaster to happen first.

Like all things digital, it's a knotty, complex, tricky problem. Boundaries in cyberspace are inherently blurred to non-existence. Motives matter more and are harder to screen apriori. The list of difficulties goes on and on.

But I am sure of two things: having rules of cyberwar will make ordinary life online more secure, and it will also increase peace in the physical world.

The best first start I've seen in creating rules for cyberwar are outlined in this IEEE article: "It's time for Rules of Cyberwar"

 
The Technium

Bypassing Sold Out

My Cool Tools book has been a big hit. It’s been a personal delight to find so many fans enjoying it. However, I underestimated how many would sell on Amazon, and so now it is sold out for Christmas. While there is another boatload that will unload copies in the first week of January, that will be too late for Christmas gifts. This snafu has really bummed me out since I worked so hard to get the books on Amazon in time for the holidays. So I offer a plan B.

BooksingarageI have a personal stash in my garage of books I’ve been sending to friends. If you are a fan of Cool Tools and really want one by Christmas, I may be able to mail you one. Here is the deal.

Fill out this Google form by Wednesday, December 18, and we will email a request for payment via PayPal. Once payment is received, we will begin mailing out books on Wednesday afternoon via Media Mail, which is the only affordable way. In our experience they will reach the west coast in a few days, and the east coast in a week. We CANNOT guarantee they will get to you before Christmas. For the book and shipping we charge $35 by PayPal, which is still $5 less than the list and bookstore price. (I have no idea how Amazon sells shipped books as cheap as they do. I suspect they don’t make any profit selling books.) This is for US addresses only.

If that is too uncertain for you, some bookstores have it in stock, but I’d call before you went, since relatively few copies of Cool Tools made it to bookstores; most went to Amazon.

I really do think that this Cool Tools book is an ideal gift, particularly for the young at heart, and it upsets me that we sold out at the peak of the gift season. There will be lots of copies available in the new year, but I will do my best to get one out to fans right now if at all possible.

To do that: Fill out this Google form and we will email a request for payment via PayPal for $35 per book. If you have any questions, email cl@kk.org.

Or wait for the next round on Amazon in early January.

 
The Technium

Sourced Quotes, 17

Don't worry about people stealing an idea. If it's original, you will have to ram it down their throats. -- Howard Aiken, as quoted in Portraits in Silicon by Robert Slater, 1987, p. 88.

Machines will do what we ask them to do and not what what we ought to ask them to do. -- Norbert Wiener, 1949, published in John Markoff, NYTimes May 21, 2013

The shortcut that's sure to work, every time: Take the long way. Do the hard work, consistently and with generosity and transparency. And then you won't waste time doing it over. -- Seth Godin, Seth's Blog, May 13, 2013.

Most people doubt online meetings can work but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don't work either. - Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants, p. 42, September 2013.

It's total chaos. But out of that chaos will come some really amazing things. And right now there are amazing opportunities for young people coming into the industry to say, ‘Hey, I think I'm going to do this and there's nobody to stop me.' It's because all the gatekeepers have been killed! -- George Lucas, The Verge, June 13, 2013.

If the NSA released their heaps of prying spycode as open-source code, Silicon Valley would be all over that, instantly. They’d put a kid-friendly graphic front-end on it. They’d port it right into the cloud. -- Bruce Sterling, The Ecuadorian Library, August 3, 2013.

I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love. -- Laurie Anderson, Farewell to Lou Reed, Rolling Stone, November 21, 2013

The question [in Hollywood] used to be: How do we top ourselves? The new one seems to be: How do we stop ourselves? -- Damon Lindelof, The New Rules of Blockbuster Screenwriting, Vulture, August 14, 2013

If you take someone to lunch you just get each other's stories, but if you set up folding chairs together, you find out what people are really like. -- Anne Herbert, The Whole Earth Jamboree Wasn't Worth It Once, CoEvolution Quarterly, Winter 1978.

People are bad at looking at seeds and guessing what size tree will grow out of them. The way you'll get big ideas in, say, health care is by starting out with small ideas. If you try to do some big thing, you don't just need it to be big; you need it to be good. And it's really hard to do big and good simultaneously. So, what that means is you can either do something small and good and then gradually make it bigger, or do something big and bad and gradually make it better. And you know what? Empirically, starting big just does not work. That's the way the government does things. They do something really big that's really bad, and they think, Well, we'll make it better, and then it never gets better. -- Paul Graham, Building Fast Companies for Growth, Inc. September 2013

Simple answers
Simple answers from xkcd

 
The Technium

The Self-Publishing Route

[Translations: ItalianJapanese]

Like the Whole Earth Catalogs of yore, my new Cool Tools book is self-published. I'll tell you how the economics of my book work and the 3 reasons why I went the route of avoiding a mainline publisher.

First benefit was speed. I finished writing and assembling the book in September and in October I had the book listed on Pre-Order status on Amazon. It will be available to customers (in bookstores, too!) the first week of December. If this book was being published by a New York publisher I'd still be in negotiations to maybe have it available next summer.

Second, control. The book is unorthodox. It doesn't fit the mold for a serious book. It is kinda of a catalog. Even the size was off-putting for pros. A big floppy book doesn't travel well, doesn't fit well into bookstore shelves. The publishers want to know can I perhaps change that? Then there's the commercial aspect. The book is a shopping guide that tells you where to buy things. It points readers to Amazon a lot. Publishers and bookstores hate that. They perceive Amazon as the enemy and one chain even refused to carry it because of this. My solution was to bypass them.

Thirdly, in my recent experience with established publishers I wound up doing most of the work myself anyway. For my last book with Viking/Penguin, I hired the editor to edit my book; I hired the illustrator to make the illustrations; I turned in cover design concepts, some of which they used; I did the most effective marketing and publicity (via social media). The only things I did not do -- which were significant! -- was the financing and distribution. On this book, I decided to tackle these as well, since I would still be doing all the rest.

KKonCTbook
[Me working on the Cool Tools book at my stand/sit station; outside the chicken coop.]

Self-publishing means I have full control, but also full responsibility. Since I was paying for the paper and ink myself, I didn't waste any pages. There are no blank pages or white spaces in this book. Even the inside covers are printed --with the table of contents! Every inch is doing some work. The book is incredibly dense.

Self publishing an ebook is one thing. Self publishing a gigantic book that weighs 4.5 pounds is another. I knew I was in trouble when the overseas printer called to ask me if I had a loading dock at my warehouse. Warehouse? I hardly have a garage. "Ummm, how much room do I need?" I asked. She said, "Well, you should expect a shipping container and a half." That's a big pile. So I signed up with a book distributor, Publishers Group West, that caters to small publishers and most of the books will be shipped to their warehouse in Tennessee.

The books were printed in Hong Kong. I tried to get bids in the US, but because of the oversize of the book, no US printer would even bid on it. One large printer recommended by the distributor told me, "I hate to say this but you need to go to China to get this printed." So I did. They did a fantastic job, quickly and at a good price. The Hong Kong printing plant is high automation. Think robots not coolie labor. The books are now on a container ship going across the Panama Canal and up the Mississippi River to Tennessee. I am awaiting three pallets of books that were diverted to the West Coast, and that will arrive at my home. I am praying they will fit into my garage.

Economics of self-publishing will decide this book's fate. There will be about a total of 8,500 copies for sale on Amazon and in bookstores. The unit cost to print the book is $6. Shipping is about $1 per book. The cover price is $39.99. Amazon immediately discounts it to $25 (I set the book price anticipating Amazon's discount) and Amazon take something like 40%. The book distributor takes their cut. I'll take about $10 per book, and then of course, I have to deduct the cost I incurred in creating the book -- the editors, designers and proofers I hired to create those 472 pages. (I am not counting the years I've put into it). Plus I am mailing a lot of copies out to reviewers and contributors. I was stunned to learn that the absolute cheapest way to ship this book to England or Canada (no matter how slow) was $60 and $38 respectively! No other choice!

I have much more respect for commercial publishers in making this precarious publishing machine work. It is not easy to make money publishing paper books. It is very much like making art. In fact I think of this large beautiful book as an art work. Cool Tools really is remarkable art.

If you want your own piece of art, pre order here.

 
The Technium

The Pleasures of a Paper Book

My blog is now a book!

I took the best of my Cool Tools blog and printed it as a huge oversized book.

OPenbook3
Yes, I know. Paper is old. You can’t search it, you can’t easily share favorites, you can’t instantly click to get items, you can’t haul it in your virtual library device. The web and Kindle are so much better that way.

But I remember the power that the old Whole Earth Catalogs had on me as I came of age. The paper books were magical. There is something very powerful at work on large pages of a book. Your brain begins to make naturally associations between tools in a way that it doesn’t on small screens. The juxtapositions of diverse items on the page prods the reader to weave relationships between them, connecting ideas that once seemed far apart. The large real estate of the page opens up the mind, making you more receptive to patterns found in related tools. There’s room to see the depth of a book in a glance. You can scan a whole field of one type of tool faster than you can on the web. In that respect, a large paper book rewards both fast browsing and deep study better than the web or a small tablet. Long live paper!

Cover250x323

So that’s what I did. I printed Cool Tools as a paper book. I sifted through the thousands of tools reviewed in the past 10 years, and with the help of other Cool Tool teammates, selected more than 1,000 evergreen tools that have stood the test of time. I modeled the design and style on the old Whole Earth Catalogs; the book is printed on identical oversized paper pages, bound into the same thickness of almost 500 pages. The result is a hefty book that will seem to some people of a certain age to be a modern incarnation of the old Catalogs. (To new readers of a younger age, it will look like no other book they have seen.)

Openbok2
This Cool Tools book is the ultimate guide to do-it-yourself. The book covers how to self-publish a book, rent a bulldozer, print 3D objects, run for local office and win, design a logo, grow edible mushrooms, read all the classics, get an online degree, cut your cable TV, build a log cabin, and so much more! Really, I tried to cover all the ground this blog covers.

The result is a one-volume alternative education in making things happen. I assembled this collection so that my three children would see a thousand other possibilities in life that are opened when you pick up a tool. It works the same with adults who've seen it. I really think you'll be amazed by it.

Despite the date currently listed on Amazon, the book will be available during the first week of December. You can pre-order it now.

 
Cool Tools

Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities

I’ve long wanted to do a collection of the best tools featured on this blog. After 10 years of daily reviews there’s a bunch of great tools that have endured the test of time — as well as a lot that should be forgotten. A best-of-the-best book would be a real service. To make it, I’d sort through the vast Cool Tools archive and assemble the greatest hits and ignore the rest. It would yield strong whiskey — distilled and concentrated and capable of giving someone a pleasant jolt. The collection would be worth packaging up nicely.

I could do this on the web, but when I thought of the best way to highlight the ultimate tool collection, I immediately thought of a paper book. Paper is old. You can’t search it, you can’t easily share favorites, you can’t instantly click to get items, you can’t haul it in your virtual library device. The web and Kindle are so much better that way.

But I remember the power that the old Whole Earth Catalogs had on me as I came of age. These oversized Catalogs were curated collections of the best tools presented on double-wide spreads of cheap paper, in great big fat books. As on this blog, the brief, rave reviews were recommended by readers and familiar editors. The range of reviews were refreshingly wide and dense, crammed 5 or 6 per page. The paper books were magical. There is something very powerful at work on large pages of a book. Your brain begins to make naturally associations between tools in a way that it doesn’t on small screens. The juxtapositions of diverse items on the page prods the reader to weave relationships between them, connecting ideas that once seemed far apart. The large real estate of the page opens up the mind, making you more receptive to patterns found in related tools. There’s room to see the depth of a book in a glance. You can scan a whole field of one type of tool faster than you can on the web. In that respect, a large paper book rewards both fast browsing and deep study better than the web or a small tablet.

So that’s what I did. I printed Cool Tools as a paper book. I sifted through the thousands of tools reviewed in the past 10 years, and with the help of other Cool Tool teammates, selected more than 1,000 evergreen tools that have stood the test of time. I modeled the design and style on the old Whole Earth Catalogs; the book is printed on identical oversized paper pages, bound into the same thickness of almost 500 pages. The result is a hefty book that will seem to some people of a certain age to be a modern incarnation of the old Catalogs. (To new readers of a younger age, it will look like no other book they have seen.)

Cool Tools is the ultimate guide to do-it-yourself. The book covers how to self-publish a book, rent a bulldozer, print 3D objects, run for local office and win, design a logo, grow edible mushrooms, read all the classics, get an online degree, cut your cable TV, build a log cabin, and so much more! Really, I tried to cover all the ground this blog covers.

The result is a one-volume alternative education in making things happen. I assembled this collection so that my three children would see a thousand other possibilities in life that are opened when you pick up a tool.

And I made it for all you Cool Tool readers looking for a more distilled version of this blog. I know I was getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff here. I offer you my solution: a 472-page curated collection of the Best of Cool Tools, printed in full color, which can be read for years without the platform disappearing. Despite the date currently listed on Amazon, the book will be available during the first week of December. You can pre-order it now.

I honestly think this is one of the coolest cool tools, ever.

 
The Technium

Sourced Quotes, 16

Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down. -- Adam Savage, Mythbusters [episode unknown].

Along comes Bitcoin, a currency in which every transaction is stored by the entire network and every coin has its own story. There’s nothing to trust but math. Suddenly an idea that sounded terrible -– a totally decentralized currency without a central authority, where semi-anonymous parties exchange meaningless tokens –- becomes almost comforting, a source of power and authority. -- Paul Ford, Bloomberg Businessweek, March 28, 2013

The Google policy on a lot of things is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it. -- Eric Schmidt, Hillicon Valley, The Hill, October 1, 2010.

The federal government, as seen through the budget, is a massive insurance conglomerate with a large standing army. -- Ezra Klein, Wonkblog, Washington Post, April 15, 2013. (An earlier use of this phrase is from Peter Fisher, undersecretary of the Treasury, in 2002, but I don't have a citation.)

By far the best way to prevent a tug-of-war is to not pick up your end
of the rope. -- Don Lancaster, Incredible Secret Money Making Machine, p. 5

Remember that people who get paid to catch the bad guys get paid whether they catch them or not. But the cheats don't get paid unless they figure it out. So they're [more] motivated. -- Ted Whiting in "Not in my house," by Jesse Hicks, Verge, January 14, 2013

The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us. -- Ted Sarandos, Subscribers Help to Propel Netflix Gain, New York Times, April 23, 2013.

Under capitalism, wealth is less a stock of goods than a flow of ideas, the defining characteristic of which is surprise….Entrepreneurship is the launching of surprises. -- George Gilder, Unleash the Mind, National Review, August 13, 2012

The web offers an opportunity to fall into the open arms of fans, in ways that weren’t available before. Here’s the catch: The web also makes it near-impossible to fall into the arms of just one’s fans. Each time you dive into the crowd, some portion of the audience before you consists of observers with no interest in catching you. -- Nitshu Abebe, The Amanda Palmer Problem, Vulture, April 27, 2013

If there’s a word that means the opposite of perfectionist, I’m that. -- Matt Harding, Pogue's Post, New York Times, July 12, 2012.

We realise that something which makes sense in a local frame may make less sense in a broader frame: dumping your waste in the river is fine as long as you don’t think too much about the people downriver. When you do, you might decide to stop dumping. Government ought to be the process by which such overlapping ‘bigger picture’ considerations are negotiated: good government should make empathy practical. -- Brian Eno, Longplayer, April 30, 2013

Eventually we'll lose the pixel, as it fades beyond our bulky vision. And that will be a tremendous shame. -- Cennydd Bowles, Twitter, February 1, 2012.

In the beginning was the word:
WORD
WORE
GORE
GONE
GENE
and by mutations came the gene. -- Michael A. Arbib, in Towards a Theoretical Biology (1969), Vol 2, p. 323.

The question is not Will you succeed? but rather, Will you matter? - Seth Godin, Creative Mornings, May 10, 2013.

Sign

 
Cool Tools

Cool Tools Wanted

I'm looking to fill some holes in our coverage. Here are a few questions I hope readers can answer. Comments will be turned off on this entry. Please answer in the Ask Cool Tools link. Comments there with sufficient helpfulness will count as possible reviews for the weekly contest of Best Review.

-- KK

Does anyone use Sirius XM radio? If so, for what? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

What is the best music scoring software? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

Looking for a great laptop MIDI keyboard. What's a great buy? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

Need a guide to math software. (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

What is the best digital motion sensing camera for wildlife? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

Are there any productivity apps that you've used for more than a year? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

Best aids for learning acting? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

Anyone have experience with crowdsourced design services? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

Super pogo sticks? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

Help me sort out the streaming music services. What's what? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

 
 

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