The Technium

Soured 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

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: Italian, Japanese]

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.

[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.

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!


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.)

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.

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:
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.


Screen Publishing

Lean Self-Publishing Platform

This startup from Vancouver offers an interesting front to back publishing platform. Named Leanpub, it has something to offer writers, publishers, self-publishers and readers. I don't know much about it, but we may have to try it. It seems especially useful for bloggers turning their posts in to books and for technical writers on fast-changing subjects. Let me know if you have tried it.
The Technium

Personal Shadow Outsourcing

For years I've heard apocryphal stories of knowledge workers in Silicon Valley who outsourced their job themselves. They had permission to work at home, but in fact outsourced their work to cheap Chinese or Indian labor. The Valley worker would work only a few hours per day overseeing his help, and goof off the rest. The Asian workers under him were delighted with a real job that paid well for them -- but only a fraction of what the CA guy got. And the CA guy's boss was delighted with the great work he was getting. It was an ingenious racket! Win, win, win for 3 sides; everybody happy. But all this shadow outsourcing was only rumors as far as I could tell.

Now comes some hard evidence from a Verizon security team that at least one person was really pulling off this sweet scam. From this article from Verizon:

"As it turns out, Bob had simply outsourced his own job to a Chinese consulting firm. Bob spent less that one fifth of his six-figure salary for a Chinese firm to do his job for him. Authentication was no problem, he physically FedExed his RSA token to China so that the third-party contractor could log-in under his credentials during the workday. It would appear that he was working an average 9 to 5 work day. Investigators checked his web browsing history, and that told the whole story.

A typical ‘work day’ for Bob looked like this:

9:00 a.m. – Arrive and surf Reddit for a couple of hours. Watch cat videos

11:30 a.m. – Take lunch

1:00 p.m. – Ebay time.

2:00 – ish p.m Facebook updates – LinkedIn

4:30 p.m. – End of day update e-mail to management.

5:00 p.m. – Go home

Evidence even suggested he had the same scam going across multiple companies in the area. All told, it looked like he earned several hundred thousand dollars a year, and only had to pay the Chinese consulting firm about fifty grand annually. The best part? Investigators had the opportunity to read through his performance reviews while working alongside HR. For the last several years in a row he received excellent remarks. His code was clean, well written, and submitted in a timely fashion. Quarter after quarter, his performance review noted him as the best developer in the building."

215 strip sunday
Scott Adams was head by a whole decade. From Dilbert, August 3, 2003

The Technium

I'll Pay You to Read My Book

Nobody reads big factual books anymore. Who has time? With a lot of effort you can get folks to buy big factual books, but they don't usually read them. They sit on the "to read" shelf once they get home. Or pile up in the inbox on an ebook reader. I know. As an author I know how many of my purchased books are unread. But while it is nice that people buy books, I feel a failure as an author if the bought (or borrowed) books are not read.

A couple of years ago I had an idea for increasing readership of books. I'll pay you to read my book! I had a clever way to use ebook readers to accomplish this. I mentioned the system to many book lovers and authors, and one of them whom made his living patenting ideas suggest my idea was patentable.

I took some initial steps in that direction, but realized very quickly that getting a patent is just like getting a child - you now have to tend it, protect it, feed it, and develop it. It did not solve anything; it only created new things to solve. I have too many other things to do than babysit or try to peddle a patent, so I am publishing the idea here. It may be that this idea is not patentable at all, or even already patented (I never got that far to look), or maybe it is a lousy idea that can't be implemented. In any case, here it is.

I think it's a great idea. I'd like to have this option as a reader, as well as an author and publisher. I hope someone does this.

Pay To Read

By Kevin Kelly
June 1, 2012

Proposal for a patent: The idea is to pay people to read a book.

Readers would purchase an e-book for a fixed amount, say $5. They would use an e-book reader to read the digital book. The e-book reader would contain software that would track their reading usage – how long it took on average to turn a page; how often they highlighted a passage; how many pages activated at one sitting, etc. Amazon Kindles today already track bookmark usage patterns which they relay back to Amazon on via its wireless Whispernet. Using a database of known reading patterns from verified readers the software would compare a purchaser’s reading behavior to these known reading patterns and establish whether or not a purchaser is really reading the book. If the behavior patterns exceeded the threshold level – say 95% of pages turned at the right speed -- then the e-book device would initiate a predetermined payment to the purchaser.

If a reader is given credit for reading the book, then he/she would earn more than they paid for the book. For example, if they paid $5 for the ebook, they would get back $6, thus earning $1 for reading the book. Not only did the book not cost them anything, but they made money reading the book. If they read it.

The Publisher would pay the difference from the potentially greater sales revenue this arrangement would induce. Greater numbers of readers would purchase the book initially in the hope and expectation that they would finish the book and be reimbursed greater than the amount they paid. In their mind, entering into a purchase is an “easy buy” because they calculate “it will cost them nothing.” Or maybe even make them money.

However the likelier outcome is that while many more customers buy the book, fewer actually read it completely. This follows the known pattern that most bought books are not read. So the actual payout for success will likely be less than the actual gain in sales, resulting in a net gain to the Publisher for this deal. So if, for example, the Publisher sold 10 books that were unread for every 1 book that was read, the revenue would be $50-$6 = $44. If this offer increased ordinary sales by for example 40%, there would be a net increase in revenue from $35 to $44 or $9, or 25% additional profit for this model.

There is satisfaction for both parties in either outcome. If the purchaser buys the book, but does not read it in full, he/she paid the acceptable price, and still owns the book. The Publisher keeps the full amount. If the purchaser finishes reading the book, they still have the book, but also earned money doing so. The publisher loses only a small amount on the sale, which can be offset from greater sales to others.

The payout ratio can be adjusted depending on the price of the ebook, or the category of content. This mechanism requires no new hardware than what exists today, and better hardware in the future – such as eye tracking technology -- will only make it more practical to evaluate whether someone has read a book. This can be accomplished primarily in software. Of course, it should be an opt in choice, and engaged with a purchaser’s permission only.

The Technium

The Improbable is the New Normal

Cops, emergency room doctors, and insurance actuarists all know it. They realize how many crazy impossible things happen all the time. A burglar gets stuck in a chimney, a truck driver in a head on collision is thrown out the front window and lands on his feet, walks away; a wild antelope knocks a man off his bike; a candle at a wedding sets the bride's hair on fire; someone fishing off a backyard dock catches a huge man-size shark. In former times these unlikely events would be private, known only as rumors, stories a friend of a friend told, easily doubted and not really believed.

But today they are on YouTube, and they fill our vision. You can see them yourself. Each of these weird freakish events just mentioned can be found on YouTube, seen by millions.

The improbable consists of more than just accidents. The internets are also brimming with improbable feats of performance -- someone who can run up a side of a building, or slide down suburban roof tops, or stack up cups faster than you can blink. Not just humans, but pets open doors, ride scooters, and paint pictures. The improbable also includes extraordinary levels of super human achievements: people doing astonishing memory tasks, or imitating all the accents of the world. In these extreme feats we see the super in humans.

Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we'll see or hear about today. The internet is like a lens which focuses the extraordinary into a beam, and that beam has become our illumination. It compresses the unlikely into a small viewable band of everyday-ness. As long as we are online - which is almost all day many days -- we are illuminated by this compressed extraordinariness. It is the new normal.

That light of super-ness changes us. We no longer want mere presentations, we want the best, greatest, the most extraordinary presenters alive, as in TED. We don't want to watch people playing games, we want to watch the highlights of the highlights, the most amazing moves, catches, runs, shots, and kicks, each one more remarkable and improbable than the other.

We are also exposed to the greatest range of human experience, the heaviest person, shortest midgets, longest mustache -- the entire universe of superlatives! Superlatives were once rare -- by definition -- but now we see multiple videos of superlatives all day long, and they seem normal. Humans have always treasured drawings and photos of the weird extremes of humanity (early National Geographics), but there is an intimacy about watching these extremities on video on our phones while we wait at the dentist. They are now much realer, and they fill our heads.

I see no end to this dynamic. Cameras are becoming ubiquitous, so as our collective recorded life expands, we'll accumulate thousands of videos showing people being struck by lightening. When we all wear tiny cameras all the time, then the most improbable accident, the most superlative achievement, the most extreme actions of anyone alive will be recorded and shared around the world in real time. Soon only the most extraordinary moments of our 6 billion citizens will fill our streams. So henceforth rather than be surrounded by ordinariness we'll float in extraordinariness.


It's one thing to hear a story about someone getting struck by lightening, but it feels different seeing a video of it. I have a hunch that seeing "facts" on video makes them seem realer to us than either reading, hearing, or seeing stills about them. And then there are always more than one. That's the thing, you can start with the most unlikely event or achievement, and then watch a series of this unlikeliness for hours. Over time this extremism accumulates. When the improbable dominates the archive to the point that it seems as if the library contains ONLY the impossible, then these improbabilities don't feel as improbable.

I think there is already evidence that this ocean of extraordinariness is inspiring, galvanizing, prompting, daring ordinary folks to try something extraordinary. At the same time, superlative epic failures are foremost as well. We are confronted by the stupidest people in the world as well, doing the dumbest things imaginable. So we see the extremes. In some respects this is making us a world of Ripley-Believe-it-or-Not-ers, or it may place us in a universe of nothing more than tiny, petty, obscure Guinness World Record holders. Everyone is a world record something for 15 minutes. In every life there is probably at least one moment that is freakish.

To the uninformed, the increased prevalence of improbable events will make it easier to believe in impossible things. A steady diet of coincidences makes it easy to believe they are more than just coincidences, right? But to the informed, a slew of improbably events make it clear that the unlikely sequence, the outlier, the black swan event, must be part of the story. After all, in 100 flips of the penny you are just as likely to get 100 heads in a row as any other sequence. But in both cases, when improbable events dominate our view -- when we see an internet river streaming nothing but 100 heads in a row -- it makes the improbable more intimate, nearer.

I am unsure of what this intimacy with the improbable does to us. What happens if we spend all day exposed to the extremes of life, to a steady stream of the most improbable events, and try to run ordinary lives in a background hum of superlatives? What happens when the extraordinary becomes ordinary?

The good news may be that it cultivates in us an expanded sense of what is possible for humans, and for human life, and so expand us. The bad news may be that this insatiable appetite for supe-superlatives leads to dissatisfaction with anything ordinary.

I don't know, but if anyone is aware of research on this effect, I'd like to know about it.

Clay Shirky argues that the least creative act is making a LOL-cat, but that even making a LOL-cat is better than making nothing, and so the internet of LOL_cats is a net good compared to say a world of make-nothing consumption. One could make a similar argument that the least distinctive human achievement is a bad accident captured on YouTube, but that moment of uniqueness is better than no uniqueness at all, and so a world of YouTube extremities, improbabilities and superlatives is a net good.

The Technium

Pain of the New

New media technologies often cause an allergic reaction when they first appear. We may find them painful before we find them indispensable.

I watched the movie The Hobbit. Twice. First I saw it in its "standard" mode. A day later I returned to see The Hobbit in 3D at a high frame rate of 48 frames per second, called HFR. HFR is a cinematic hi-tech that promises greater realism. It was amazingly real. And disturbing at first.

Because 48 frames per second is just above the threshold that a human eye/brain can detect changes, the projected picture seems startling whole and "smooth," as if it were uninterrupted reality.

A 610x408

I was surprised though that the movie in 48HFR looked so different. (The 3D did not have an effect.) Even though both formats were shot with the same cameras and lighting, they appeared to be lighted and shot on different sets. The HFR lighting in the HFR movies seemed harsh, brighter, and more noticeable. The emotional effect of HFR was disturbing for the first 10 minutes. And perplexing -- because the only thing different in the two movies was that one was displayed in the 48 frames it was shot at, and the other was computationally reduced down to the normal 24 frames per second. Why would the frame rate distort the lighting and the emotion?

I was not the only one who noticed. The HFR version of the Hobbit -- the first commercial movie to be released in this new format -- stirred up howls from the critics. Very few filmish people liked what they saw. For most it was painful. The reviewers struggle to express what HFR looked like and why:

"Audiences looking for a rich, textured, cinematic experience will be put off and disconcerted by an image that looks more like an advanced version of high definition television than a traditional movie." - Kenneth Turan, L.A. Times

"One thing The Hobbit is not is a celebration of the beauty of film. A celebration of video-game realms, perhaps." - Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer

All kinds of ailments were ascribed to it, including hard of hearing:

"I can honestly say I had a harder time hearing some of the dialogue in the 3D HFR version than in the 2D... It was like watching really, really, really atrociously bad state run TV show......High frame rates belong on bad TV shows and perhaps sports." -- Vincent Laforet, Gizmodo

My first impression, too, was that HFR reminded me of my first look at video. That theme was repeated by many. But what is it about video that we didn't like at first?

"Those high frame rates are great for reality television, and we accept them because we know these things are real. We're always going to associate high frame rates with something that's not acted, and our brains are always going to associate low frame rates with something that is not. If they're seeing something artificial and it starts to approach something looking real, they begin to inherently psychologically reject it." -- James Kerwin, Movieline

"Instead of the romantic illusion of film, we see the sets and makeup for what they are. The effect is like stepping into a diorama alongside the actors, which is not as pleasant as it might sound... Never bet against innovation, but this debut does not promise great things to come." - C. Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune

What's going on here? I really struggled to figure out what was happening to my own eyes and my perception that something as simple as changing a frame rate would trigger such drastic re-evaluations of cinema?

I researched on the web without much satisfaction, since few people had actually seen 48HFR. I asked a few friends in the advance cinema industry and got unsatisfactory answers. Then I was at a party with a friend from Pixar and asked him my question: why does HFR change the appearance of the lighting? He also could not tell me, but the man next to him could. He was John Knoll, the co-creator of Photoshop and the Oscar-winning Visual Effects Director for a string of technically innovative Hollywood blockbusters as long as my arm. He knew. I'll put his answer into my own words:

Imagine you had the lucky privilege to be invited by Peter Jackson onto the set of the Hobbit. You were standing right off to the side while they filmed Bilbo Baggins in his cute hobbit home. Standing there on the set you would notice the incredibly harsh lighting pouring down on Bilbo's figure. It would be obviously fake. And you would see the makeup on Bilbo's in the harsh light. The text-book reason filmmakers add makeup to actors and then light them brightly is that film is not as sensitive as the human eye, so these aids compensated for the film's deficiencies of being insensitive to low light and needing the extra contrast provided by makeup. These fakeries were added to "correct" film so it seemed more like we saw. But now that 48HFR and hi-definition video mimic our eyes better, it's like we are standing on the set, and we suddenly notice the artifice of the previously needed aids. When we view the video in "standard" format, the lighting correctly compensates, but when we see it in high frame rate, we see the artifice of the lighting as if we were standing there on the set.

Knoll asked me, "You probably only noticed the odd lighting in the interior scenes, not in the outdoors scenes, right?" And once he asked it this way, I realized he was right. The scenes in the HFR version that seemed odd were all inside. The landscape scenes were stunning in a good way. "That's because they didn't have to light the outside; the real lighting is all that was needed, so nothing seemed amiss."

Now some of the complaints make sense:

"While striking in some of the big spectacle scenes, predominantly looked like ultra-vivid television video, paradoxically lending the film an oddly theatrical look, especially in the cramped interior scenes in Bilbo Baggins' home." - Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter

"Instead of feeling like we've been transported to Middle-earth, it's as if we've dropped in on Jackson's New Zealand set..." - Scott Foundas, Village Voice

As digital recording continues to increase in resolution, fluidity, and sensitivity, this verisimilitude with "being in the set" will also increase. John Knoll wisely predicts that his industry will quickly learn that they have to abandoned the old style of lighting, and also increase the realism in such things as props and special effects. "I liked the HFR version," he said. "We are going to see a lot more of it."

But that is not what the filmish people want. They like the less sensitive, blurry style of film better. One critic even suggested that directors should use soft-focus filters to debase the clarity of the new digital recordings and restore the "painterly" aspect of classic films.

"Over all, though, the shiny hyper-reality robs Middle-earth of some of its misty, archaic atmosphere, turning it into a gaudy high-definition tourist attraction." - A.O.Scott, The New York Times

"At 48 frames, the film is more true to life, sometimes feeling so intimate it's like watching live theater. That close-up perspective also brings out the fakery of movies. Sets and props look like phony stage trappings at times, the crystal pictures bleaching away the painterly quality of traditional film. Like the warmth of analog vinyl vs. the precision of digital music, the dreaminess of traditional film vs. the crispness of high-frame rates will be a matter of taste." - Associated Press

I told Knoll that these complaints about the sterility of the new digital format reminded me of the arguments against CD music albums. Digital was "too clear" "too clinical" not "warm and fuzzy enough" according to audiophiles. CDs missed the musical ambiance, the painterly soul of a song. The critics were not going to buy CDs and the labels would have to pry their beloved analog vinyl albums from their dead hands. Of course, for average music fans, the clear hiss-free quality of CDs were soon perceived as much superior, particularly as the "frame" rate of the digital sampling increased past the point of most ear's perception. "That's exactly what it is like, " exclaimed Knoll. HFR is the CD of movies right now.

This pattern of initial irritation followed by embrace has been found in other media introductions. When the realism of photography first appeared, artists favored soft lenses to keep the photos "painterly." Drastic sharpness was startling, "unnatural" to art, and looked odd. Over time of course, the sharp details became the main point of photography.

Color TV, technicolor, and Kodakchrome all had its detractors who found a purity and monumentalism in black and white. Color was all too gaudy, distracting and touristy, not unlike the criticism of HFR now.

I predict that on each step towards increased realism new media take, there will be those who find the step physically painful. It will hurt their eyes, ears, nose, touch,and peace of mind. It will seem unnecessarily raw, ruining the art behind the work. This disturbance is not entirely in our heads, because we train our bodies to react to media, and when it changes, it FEELS different. There may be moments of uncomfort.

But in the end we tend to crave the realism -- when it has been mastered -- and will make our home in it.

The scratchy sound of vinyl, the soft focus of a Kodak Brownie, and the flickers of a 24 frame per second movie will all be used to time-stamp a work of nostalgia.

The Technium

The Decisive Hour

I started out as a photographer. For years in Asia I was chasing the "decisive moment" in a still picture, that moment I would chose when everything lined up perfectly, the light, the angle, the eyes, the form, the motion -- in that micro-second it all came together just as I clicked the shutter. If I were lucky I got the exposure and focus right. (But I never knew until I developed the film later.)

I've also done a small bit of filmmaking and videoing. Different camera, different mode. Forget the decisive moment, you are searching for streams and flows. Many times I wished I was videoing when I had a still camera. Is there a way to do both?

Why not just digitally "film" a scene and then take perfectly crisp stills from the "footage" to get the best of both worlds? Then you could take a decisive hour's worth of motion and then later pick through it to retrieve the best stills. You would be working with the advantage of hindsight, something you don't have in the field or real life. Making a decisive moment image will be much easier; you don't just have to be lucky.

Until now this dream has not been possible technically. The extracted stills were never sharp or rich enough to stand on their own. But a new camera from Canon makes it practical now. Advances in lenses, sensors and storage mean that you can "film" a scene and then extract very crisp, well exposed, information rich still images. Watch this video for a introduction.

The distinction (what was left of it) between still images and cinematic images is gone. As this technology continues to shrink and improve, eventually moving to your phone, it will change what we think of as photography -- including cinematography. Even though I spent many years aiming for that elusive moment, I welcome the disruption.

The Technium

The Post-Productive Economy

Take a look at these farm houses which I saw under construction in remote areas of Yunnan province China. They were not unusual; farmsteads this size were everywhere in rural China. Note the scale of these massive buildings. Each support post is cut from a single huge tree. The massive earth walls are three stories high and taper toward the top. They are homes for a single extended family built in the traditional Tibetan farmhouse style. They are larger than most middle-class American homes. The extensive wood carvings inside and outside will be painted in garish colors, like this family room shown in a finished home. This area of Yunnan is consider one of the poorer areas in China, and the standard of living of the inhabitants here would be classified as "poor."

Part of the reason is that these homes have no running water, no grid electricity, and no toilets. They don't even have outhouses.

But the farmers and their children who live in these homes all have cell phones, and they have accounts on the Chinese versions of Twitter and Facebook, and recharge via solar panels.

This is important because a recent thought-provoking article by a renowned economist argues that the US economy has not been growing during the internet boom and probably will not grow any more than it has already because computers and the internet are not as productive as the last two industrial revolutions.


You can read the article here: Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? (PDF) by Robert Gordon.

Gordon answers his own question with: Yes, US economic growth is over for a while. I think Robert Gordon is wrong about his conclusion, but I wanted to start with one of the bits of evidence he offers for his view. He is trying to argue that the consequences of the 2nd Industrial Revolution, which bought to common people electricity and plumbing, was far more important than the computers and internet which the 3rd Industrial Revolution has brought us. (Gordon's 1st Industrial revolution was steam and railroads.) As evidence of this claim he offers this hypothetical choice between option A and option B.

With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002. Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?

Gordon then goes on to say:

I have posed this imaginary choice to several audiences in speeches, and the usual reaction is a guffaw, a chuckle, because the preference for Option A is so obvious.

But as I just recounted, Option A is not obvious at all.

The farmers in rural China have chosen cell phones and twitter over toilets and running water. To them, this is not a hypothetical choice at all, but a real one. and they have made their decision in massive numbers. Tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, if not billions of people in the rest of Asia, Africa and South America have chosen Option B. You can go to almost any African village to see this. And it is not because they are too poor to afford a toilet. As you can see from these farmers' homes in Yunnan, they definitely could have at least built an outhouse if they found it valuable. (I know they don't have a toilet because I've stayed in many of their homes.) But instead they found the intangible benefits of connection to be greater than the physical comforts of running water.

Most of the poor of the world don't have such access to resources as these Yunnan farmers, but even in their poorer environment they still choose to use their meager cash to purchase the benefits of the 3rd revolution over the benefits of the 2nd revolution. Connection before plumbing. It is an almost universal choice.

This choice may seem difficult for someone who has little experience in the developing world, but in the places were most of the world lives we can plainly see that the fruits of the 3rd generation of automation are at least as, and perhaps more, valuable than some fruits of the 2nd wave of industrialization.

So if people value the benefits of computers and internet so much why don't we see this value reflected in the growth of the US economy? According to Gordon growth has stalled in the internet age. This question was first asked by Robert Solow in 1987 and Gordon's answer is that there are 6 "headwinds," six negative, or contrary forces which deduct growth from the growth due to technology in the US (Gordon reiterates he is only speaking of he US). The six "headwinds" slowing down growth are the aging of the US population, stagnant levels of education, rising inequality, outsourcing and globalization, environmental constraints, and household and government debt. I agree with Gordon about these headwinds, particularly the first one, which he also sees as the most important.

Where Gordon is wrong is his misunderstanding and underestimating of the power of technological growth before it meets these headwinds.

First, as mentioned above, he underestimates the value of the innovations that the internet has brought us. They seem trivial compared to running water and electric lights, but in fact, as billions around the world show us, they are just as valuable.

So back to Solow; if digital innovations, millions of apps, the vast social networks that are being woven are increasing our living standards where is the evidence in the GDP?

I think the key sentence in Gordon's paper is this:

"Both the first two revolutions required about 100 years for their full effects to percolate through the economy."

Repeat: it took a century for the full benefits of the innovations to show up.

By my calculation we are into year 20 of this 3rd upheaval. Gordon wants to start the clock on the 3rd Industrial Revolution in 1960 at the start of commercial computers. That's an arbitrary starting point; I would arbitrarily start it at the dawn of the commercial internet because I don't think unconnected computers by themselves are revolutionary. Unconnected computers did not change much. Standalone personal computers hardly changed our lives at all. They sped up typing, altered publishing, and changed spreadsheet modeling forever, but these were minor blips in the economy and well-being of most people. Big mainframe computers helped the largest corporations manage financial assets or logistics, but a number of studies have shown that they did not elevate much growth.

Everything changed, however, when computers married the telephone. This is when ordinary people noticed computers. They could get online. Everything went online. Retail changed, production changed, occupations changed. This communication revolution accelerated change elsewhere. Processes and gizmos got smarter because they were connected. Now the advantages of personal computers made sense because in fact they were just local terminals in something bigger: the network. As the Sun Computer company famously put it: the network is the computer.

So the 3rd Industrial Revolution is not really computers and the internet, it is the networking of everything.
And in that regime we are just at the beginning of the beginning. We have only begun to connect everything to everything and to make little network minds everywhere. It may take another 80 years for the full affect of this revolution to be revealed.

In the year 2095 when economic grad students are asked to review this paper of Robert Gordon and write about why he was wrong back in 2012, they will say things like "Gordon missed the impact from the real inventions of this revolution: big data, ubiquitous mobile, quantified self, cheap AI, and personal work robots. All of these were far more consequential than stand alone computation, and yet all of them were embryonic and visible when he wrote his paper. He was looking backwards instead of forward."

Finally, Gordon is focused, as most economists, on GDP which measures the amount of "labor saving" that has been accomplished. The more labor you save while making or serving something, the more productive you are. In the calculus of traditional economics productivity equals wealth. Gordon rightly points out that so far the internet has not saved a lot of labor. As I argue in my robot piece in Wired, Better Than Human (not my title), I think the real wealth in the future does not come from saving labor but in creating new kinds of things to do. In this sense long-term wealth depends on making new labor.

Civilization is not just about saving labor but also about "wasting" labor to make art, to make beautiful things, to "waste" time playing, like sports. Nobody ever suggested that Picasso should spend fewer hours painting per picture in order to boost his wealth or improve the economy. The value he added to the economy could not be optimized for productivity. It's hard to shoehorn some of the most important things we do in life into the category of "being productive." Generally any task that can be measured by the metrics of productivity -- output per hour -- is a task we want automation to do. In short, productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring. None of these fare well under the scrutiny of productivity. That is why science and art are so hard to fund. But they are also the foundation of long-term growth. Yet our notions of jobs, of work, of the economy don't include a lot of space for wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring.

Long-term growth of that type that Robert Gordon studies is really weird if you think about it. As he notes, there wasn't much of it in the world before 1750, before technological progress. Now several centuries later we have a thousand times as much wealth as before. Where does this extra good stuff come from? It is not moved from somewhere else, or borrowed. It is self-created. There's a system which manufactures this wealth "out of nothing." Much like life itself. There are certainly necessary conditions and ingredients, but it seems once you have those in place, the economy (the system) will self-generate this wealth.

A number of economists have wrestled with the origins of this self-generating wealth. Paul Romer and Brian Arthur both separately point to the recombining and re-mixing of existing ideas as the way economic growth occurs. This view focuses on knowledge as the prime motor in a self-renewing circle of increasing returns. Unlike say energy or matter, the more knowledge you spend, the more knowledge you earn, and the more breeds more in a never-ending virtuous spiral.

What is important is that this self-increasing cycle makes things that are new. New goods, new services, new dreams, new ambitions, even new needs. When things are new they are often not easy to measure, not easy to detect, nor easy to optimize. The 1st Industrial Revolution that introduced steam and railways also introduced new ideas about ownership, identity, privacy, and literacy. These ideas were not "productive" at first, but over time as they seeped into law, and culture, and became embedded into other existing technologies, they helped work to become more productive. For example ideas of ownership and capital became refined and unleashed new arrangements for funding large-scale projects in more efficient ways. In some cases these indirect ideas may have more long-term affect on growth than the immediate inventions of the time.

Likewise the grand shift our society is undergoing now, moving to a highly networked world in the third phase of industrialization, is producing many innovations that 1) are hard to perceive, 2) not really about optimizing labor, and 3) therefore hard to quantify in terms of productivity.

One has the sense that if we wait a while, the new things will trickled down and find places in the machinery of commerce where they can eventually boost the efficiency of work.

But it seems to me that there is second-order tilt in this shift to a networked world that says the real wealth in the long-term, or perhaps that should be the new wealth, will not be found merely in greater productivity, but in greater degrees of playing, creating, and exploring. We don't have good metrics for new possibilities, for things that have never been seen before, because by definition, their boundaries, distinctions, and units are unknown. How does one measure "authenticity" or "hyperreality" or "stickiness"?

Productivity is the main accomplishment, and metric, of the two previous Industrial Revolutions. Productivity won't go away; over the long term it will take fewer hours of human work to produce more of the goods and services those economies produce. Our system will do this primarily because most of this work will be done by bots.

The main accomplishment of this 3rd Industrialization, the networking of our brains, other brains and other things, is to add something onto the substrate of productivity. Call it consumptity, or generativity. By whatever name we settle on, this frontier expands the creative aspect of the whole system, increasing innovations, expanding possibilities, encouraging the inefficiencies of experiment and exploring, absorbing more of the qualities of play. We don't have good measurements of these yet. Cynics will regard this as new age naiveté, or unadorned utopianism, or a blindness to the "realities" of real life of greedy corporations, or bad bosses, or the inevitable suffering of real work. It's not.

The are two senses of growth: scale, that is, more, bigger, faster; and evolution. The linear progression of steam power, railways, electrification, and now computers and the internet is a type of the former; just more of the same, but only better. Therefore the productivity growth curve should continue up in a continuous linear fashion.

I suggest the growth of this 3rd regime is more like evolutionary growth, rather than developmental growth. The apparent stagnation we see in productivity, in real wages, in debt relief, is because we don't reckon, and don't perceive, the new directions of growth. It is not more of the same, but different.

Say we are watching an organism evolve. It might over time become extremely efficient in its energy use. Or it might become very large, cleverly optimizing its metabolic rate to manage its new girth. In either case, if we were biological economists watching it we would declare the organism to have grown in productivity.

But we can also imagine many other ways this organism might grow or evolve while keeping its metabolism steady. It could start complexifying, becoming multicellular. It might develop new sensors increasing its range of interaction. It might sift its reproductive strategy from making only one offspring garnering much attention, to making thousands of them with less care. It might evolve a tail and change its mode of locomotion entirely -- all the time leaving its metabolism rate unaltered.

Our economy is moving into the latter mode of growth -- an evolutionary uplift, which may or may not show an increase in productivity, particularly at the start of this phase. We see hints of this evolutionary growth already. The US economy shows:

Increased complexity -- Derivatives, derivatives of the derivatives, flash crowds, dark pools of money, there are hundreds of new instruments and states of money.

Increased interdependency -- National economies, particularly the US, are not longer independent cells, but part of a multi-organel system.

Increasing ubiquity of finance and monetization -- More of our lives, from games to socializing to cooking to child caring, are now part of the greater economy.

Decreasing emphasis on ownership -- In the parts of the economy run on information, data, and knowledge, these key ingredients can be used without owning them, and in fact often are more valuable when not "owned."

There are many more, but these few demonstrate the way the economy is shifting rather than simply accelerating (although it is doing that too).

Technology will continue to increase productivity for the commodities of life, even if it takes another 80 years. But the next phase we are rushing into -- the 3rd Industrial Revolution, the world of networks -- the non-commodities of life will play a greater role in economic terms. When science fiction author Neal Stephenson laments: "I saw the best minds of my generation... writing spam filters" he should not give up. It's not that different that the best minds of a former generation designing oil filters. These are the unglamorous but essential tasks in constructing a whole new infrastructure.

In his paper Robert Gordon talks about the huge value gained from "one-time" events, such as the one-time (first and last) move of a large proportion of women into the workforce. This new gain happens only once (assuming they remain). In this computer-internet economy we are experiencing a one-time gain from a huge one-time event. This is the first and only time a planet will get wired up into a global network. We are alive at this critical moment in history, and we are just at the beginning of the beginning of the many developments that will erupt because of this shift.

Happy new economy!


On January 23, 2013 Robert Gordon sent me a response to my critique of his paper after hearing about a podcast interview I did with Russ Roberts on EconTalk. I will post my reply to Gordon later; here is his letter in full:

Dear Russ (and hello Kevin aka KK)

While I don’t look at videos longer than two minutes (yours is listed at 58 minutes), I did download and print out KK’s essay in the Technium and have quite a few reactions.

The first 1/3 or so of KK’s essay features the Chinese with their well-built houses which are equipped with cell phones but no running water or toilets, indoor or outdoor. This is supposed to prove that, at least to some people, running water and indoor toilets are unimportant.

The commentators on KK’s essay immediately picked up the fact that he had not priced out the options. Cell phones are cheap and toilets are useless unless the neighborhood has been reached by urban sanitation infrastructure (pipes carrying fresh water and removing sewerage). This infrastructure was built in the U.S. between 1870 and 1930, and running water/ indoor bathrooms were almost universal in urban America by 1929. That is one of the greatest inventions of all times and overshadows today’s innovations.

But a more important objection to this irrelevant detour to China is that it has nothing to do with my paper. My choice of “Option A” vs. “Option B” explicitly states that option A allows you to keep everything invented up to 2002 and allows you to keep running water and toilets. All you have to give up is everything invented 2002-2012, including ipod, iphone, ipad, facebook, twitter, etc.

One of the things that existed in 2002, as it did in 1992, was the standard cell phone. This is what the poor people of China are using, not iphones. Just think of all the things you can enjoy with Option A – dumb cell phones, and on a desktop or laptop google, amazon, Wikipedia, full networked access to all the knowledge of the world.

The next section of KK’s essay claims that I “undervalue” the inventions of the third industrial revolution. Again, remember that I am giving a lot of credit to the computer for keeping the growth of productivity growing from 1960 to 2000 with the succession of inventions – computer printed bank statements and telephone bills (1960s), airline res systems and memory typewriters (1970s), personal computers, ATMs, and bar-code scanning (1980s), and then the marriage of the computer and communications in the 1990s. That is all given suitable appreciation in my story of what was invented before 2002.

Much of the rest of KK’s essay repeats the word “networking.” But this is really old stuff. I sent my first e-mail in 1993, 20 years ago, and was soon fully networked. My university web site was developed in the fall of 1998 and its design has not changed in 15 years (and it is quite unique, including 325 photos of economists, among other things).

But what KK misses is that the essence of networking was what the 2nd IR created. Virtually no house was connected to anything in 1870. By 1929, virtually every urban residence was connected to electricity, gas, phone, water, and sewer. The chapter in my book about the utter transformation of the living standard over 1870 to 1930 is subtitled “The Networked House.”

Then KK proceeds to criticize the concept of “productivity” by missing much of what is valuable to people. Let’s settle on several definitions. The standard of living is real GDP / population (Y/N). Productivity is real GDP / hours (Y/H). The growth of these can differ when H/N rises (female LFPR in the 1965-90 period) or falls (retirement of baby boomers and dropping out of lower income prime-age men now).

For KK to argue that real GDP does not capture the entire variety of human life, with his making art and playing sports, this is not a new idea but an ancient theme. The rising standard of living throughout 1870-2007 made possible a decline in H/N, much of which was taken as leisure time (far more in Europe than in the US). All this extra leisure time allowed human talents to flourish, and now we have “soccer moms” pushing their children into an endless round of activities from which my generation was exempt (I took piano lessons at the home of a teacher who lived in between my school and my house, which I walked every day. I was never chauffeured by my mother or father to any activity).

At a broader level, which KK does not consider, throughout history real GDP has understated the increase in the standard of living, because conventional price data do not give credit for the consumer surplus added by new inventions. KK would be right that smart phones are perceived as making the lives of their users better by more than the amount they have to pay for their data plans.

But the bias due to the undervaluation of the value of new goods goes way back to the beginning. The internal combustion engine created an entirely new “product” called “free personal travel.” Previously, ordinary people couldn’t afford a horse and its needs for stables and food and care in between uses. Suddenly there was this horseless carriage which did not use fuel when it was standing still. Suddenly ordinary families could venture outside of crowded cities and explore the country side. That was a “new product” as valuable as the iphone.

Some factoids are useful. The price of the Model T Ford declined so fast that in 1923 it cost only 15% of annual average personal income, and installment financing was available. Suddenly everyone could afford a motor vehicle, and the ratio of motor vehicles to households rose from 0 in 1900 to 85% in 1929.

The last section of KK’s essay is hopelessly vague. “this organism might grow or evolve.” If you want to talk about the value of new inventions, I highly recommend that you read Chapter 4 on the current state of medical care and technology in the following book:

Jan Vijg, The Technological Challenge: Stagnation and Decline in the 21st Century.

Vijg is the chair of the genetics department at Alfred Einstein medical school in NYC and is a distinguished scientist. His Chap 4 on medicine is worth reading. Much of the rest of his book is admittedly the contribution of an educated amateur, although I was impressed by his deep level of reading.

-- Bob Gordon

The Technium



Tourism is at least 1,000 years old. Ancient Chinese accounts record a parade of tourists coming to gawk at West Lake in Hangzhou (contemporary scene above), then the capital of China in the Song Dynasty. Emperors prettified the lake with causeways, pavilions, and stone bridges to woo and impress visitors. People came just to see the sights, which is the definition of tourism.

While there was some tourism then, and even earlier in Roman times, it was rare and limited to a few places. Today there is not a town in the world that does not see at least a few tourists in a month. Globally, tourism is a trillion dollar industry. We underestimate the consequence of the constant mixing that tourism produces. The term globalism encapsulates many things; one of them is simply the awareness and experience of others far away. Some of this global experience comes via movies and websites -- being able to inspect other ways of living -- but much is increasingly coming from the eye witness during travel. Travel is no longer a luxury of the rich, but an expectation of the middle class.

It made the switch somewhere around 1970s. Prior to that time, travel into remote otherness and wholly alien cultures took a great deal of resources. You needed connections, letters of credit, introductions, porters to move luggage, help in moving money, and you need a wad of money. Visiting a tribe required a great deal of planning, and a network of expert support. Anything outside of a city was an expedition. An expedition was not done casually. But the final result of all that planning and preparation was entry into a separate reality, a different culture with different norms and only small areas of overlap with home. Few could afford this treat, but it was very potent for those who did. It was the realm of missionaries, anthropologists, and explorers.

Fast forward to today when nearly anyone can zoom to the most distant place. With almost no exaggeration I can arrive in the most remote place on earth in 3 days, with no advance planning, and not much money. Within less than 24 hours from my bedroom I can be at 95% of the locations of the world, squatting in someone's hut. It might cost two week's worth of income for most people. But while it is now super easy to go into any culture, including tribal life, this culture has much in common with home. It is not as different as it once was. The young there will be listening to the same music, watching the same movies, studying the same things in school, using the same devices. Even the remote villages of any country is deeply connected. This semi-different world is the realm of NGO aid workers, travelers, and the Pancake Kingdom of Lonely Planet cafes.

But there was a brief two decades in the 60s and 70s when anyone could get to anyplace for very little money and when they arrived, it was still not touched by globalization. There were no maps, no guidebooks, no cafes, ATMs, no forums, even no hotels. It was all surprises. That was the time I was traveling -- going very deep, very different, for very cheap. Someone like me with almost no money could ride trucks and jeeps and canoes and arrive in the most medieval village in Afghanistan, or Mali, or ancient Indonesia island to experience a remarkably different and deeply alien culture. I would often have no idea at all what the next village or city would be like. It was like going on a interplanetary cruise for a few dollars.

That time is now past. There is almost no place left on earth untouched by globalism. Evidence of which is in the things sold in the market, to the cloths folks wear, to the converging conventions of signage, transportation, architecture, etc. Also the business of travel is global. You can read a review of any hotel, inn, or even home-stay on the planet, and get a orientation of the "best of" any city, with maps and chatter. You can be fully educated and only select the most interesting places (to you) to visit. Before you leave.

The bad news is that great difference is harder to find in the world (although there are pockets here and there and my hobby is to hunt them down). But the good news is that you can get to anywhere you want very cheaply and easily. Most important -- there is still enough difference in most places to make travel worthwhile every time. The medicine of travel, though weaker, can still disrupt, heal, or stimulate. So I still go to different places in order to find places of difference. It can be done. It is easier to arrive but you have to choose where you arrive with more care.

But we are not going back to a pre-connected world. I am glad of that, and so are the inhabitants of those formerly unconnected places. We cannot return to the time when it was a shock (to all) for a foreigner to visit a village. Now every village gets visitors every now and then. Just as you get electricity, you get visitors. Multiplied by millions every year, the exchange produces a subtle leavening, a quite education, a silent bridging that may in the end be as powerful as electricity and roads.

True Films

All In This Tea


Take something as simple and ordinary as tea, then dig deeply into its roots to show that it is far more complex, subtle, varied, challenging and interesting than you would have ever believed. That's the recipe for a delicious documentary, and this one delivers. A fanatical tea drinker in California becomes a connoisseur of fine teas, and then goes on to restore now forgotten traditions of organic artisan tea growing in China. Along the way he reveals the fascinating intricacies of how tea is hand-crafted, almost like a bottle of wine. This low-key journey into the hinterlands of China will completely transform your idea of tea.

-- KK






All In This Tea
Les Blank, Gina Leibrecht
2007, 70 minutes
$2, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

Rent from Netflix

Available from Amazon

True Films

Being Elmo


This is another one of those films that is far more interesting than the title would suggest. It follows the unlikely trajectory of a black kid from the tough side of Baltimore who finds his genius as the invisible soul of a furry puppet with a high voice on public TV. In a flash of inspiration after many decades of struggling as an unknown puppeteer, Kevin Clash re-invents Elmo as a being who radiates unconditional love, and thus elevates this overlooked character (and himself) into universal stardom. (After this film was released Clash resigned over sexual accusations, but it does not detract from brilliance of his creations, or his impact on our culture.) The insight offered in the film that even puppets have to be ABOUT something, was worth the ride for me. It is also a pretty good view into the dynamics of what makes the foam Muppets believable as beings.

-- KK






Being Elmo
Constance Marks
2011, 96 minutes
DVD, $13

Official website

Rent from Netflix

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True Films

Jiro Dreams of Sushi


The Tokyo sushi chef Jiro has done the same thing at work every day for 60 years, no vacations, no holidays. He says he has loved every day of this repetition. The secret to his happiness is that everyday he tries to make his sushi even better than the day before. According to his customers he succeeds since his tiny 10-seat shop in a subway station is sold out a year in advance at $300 per meal. This documentary is an insightful and inspirational portrait of a craftsman seeking mastery, and the quest for perfection. Jiro's life is now an inspiration for others following mastery as a way to find their passion. Oh, and the film is also a tremendously great view of the quality of work that world-class sushi really entails. You'll look at sushi differently now. This is a deliciously perfect film about a perfect craftsman.

-- KK





Jiro Dreams of Sushi
David Gelb
2011, 82 minutes
DVD, $25

Official website

Rent from Netflix

Available from Amazon

True Films

Cave of Forgotten Dreams


Master documentarian Herzog invites you to join his rhapsody as he examines very recently discovered 30,000-year-old cave paintings -- the most intact and pristine old paintings we know about. This film will move you back in time while he connects you with the neolithic painters who worked their art. Despite the vast time shift, and the geographic relocation, and the inaccessibility of the cave, you will feel, as Herzog intends, that these were painted by your uncle just last week. They will make sense and you'll feel you made a journey. (The original was filmed in 3D which may be worth seeking out.)

-- KK





Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Werner Herzog
2010, 90 minutes
DVD, $15

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

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True Films

Project Nim


This is an amazing film. What would happen if you raised a chimp as a human in an ordinary home and taught it sign language from infancy? Would it learn language? A professor and his hippie girlfriends tried this experiment during the 1970s with a chimp named Nim. Everyone of the dozen of humans who raised and cared for the chimp, bonded and communicated with Nim as if he were human. Nim was raised by a free-love mother who never disciplined him. When he got too strong to handle he was sent off to an animal farm where a long-haired hippy befriended him, and hung out everyday with him for years; he and Nim often smoked joints together. The farm ran into financial difficulties so, despite the outrage of his human family, Nim the "talking" chimp was sold to a research center where he was the subject of "medical experiments." Finally he was rescued. Amazingly, Nim was filmed for much of his life so the director was able to put together this fantastic visual biography. Woven together with interviews from all the principle characters in Nim's life we get an intimate record of this grand but misguided adventure. A hundred questions are raised by the experiment and many are answered by this superbly crafted film. I recommend it highly.

-- KK





Project Nim
James Marsh
2011, 93 minutes
DVD, $11

Official website

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Available from Amazon


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