seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy


Science and Technology

From 1990, by Carl Sagan...

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster. It’s dangerous and stupid for us to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, toxic and radioactive wastes, acid rain. Jobs and wages depend on science and technology

26 years of stupidly ignoring the science of global warming. But the larger point of being science illiterate is well illustrated by this passage:

As we settled into the car for the long drive, he told me he was glad I was “that science guy”—he had so many questions to ask about science. Would I mind? And so we got to talking. But not about science. He wanted to discuss UFOs, “channeling” (a way to hear what’s on the minds of dead people—not much it turns out), crystals, astrology. . . . He introduced each subject with real enthusiasm, and each time I had to disappoint him: “The evidence is crummy,” I kept saying. “There’s a much simpler explanation.” As we drove on through the rain, I could see him getting glummer. I was attacking not just pseudoscience but also a facet of his inner life.

And yet there is so much in real science that’s equally exciting, more mysterious, a greater intellectual challenge—as well as being a lot closer to the truth. Did he know about the molecular building blocks of life sitting out there in the cold, tenuous gas between the stars? Had he heard of the footprints of our ancestors found in four-million-year-old volcanic ash? What about the raising of the Himalayas when India went crashing into Asia? Or how viruses subvert cells, or the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or the ancient civilization of Ebla?

The original is here.

The Birth of the Web

I recently finished You Say You Want a Revolution by Reed Hundt, Chairman of the FCC during Clinton's first term and the beginning of the second term. It is a fascinating and apparently candid account of how the Federal Communications Commission made decisions and dealt with the politics of DC. Beware that Hundt clearly has an ego and point of view -- one would expect nothing less from anyone in that position.

It was a fascinating time - the transition from heavily regulated cable to the birth of the Internet for the masses. It was a transition we were not destined to make merely because Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web. Cable companies and the AT&T behemoth wanted to use advances in communications technology to build a network they would control... one where people and businesses would undoubtedly have to ask permission in order to innovate, creating new applications and uses for the network. Perhaps the best feature of the modern Internet is that no one needs to ask permission to create eBay, twitter, or stream Netflix movies... though if Comcast had its way to day, Netflix would certainly have to beg its permission to do that.

At any rate, I found this book quite believable in how the Commission operates and how real decisions are made in DC. Without some of the important decisions that are detailed in this book, we would not have the Internet we do today. That said, some of the decisions could have been better decided... but then Chairman Hundt was no dictator but rather a sort of team leader with some rather petulant teammates who were more interested in themselves than serving the public. Some things just don't change...

Daemon - Daniel Suarez

Over the last weekend, I spent a fantastic weekend with my wife and good friends up at a cabin north of Brainerd in the middle of Minnesota. Between the long drives, waking up earlier than anyone else save Michelle, and a few moments here and there, I got hooked on a fantastic summer read. Geek-readers of the blog will know what a daemon is - a program that runs in the background on a computer that does specific tasks (DAEMON is short for Data & Execution Monitor).

In the mystery-thrilled "Daemon" by Daniel Suarez, a distributed daemon created by a genius geek is unleashed on the world after he dies. The book is gripping and hard to put down, especially for those of us with a strong tech background that can appreciate just how vulnerable we are to such an exploit. I knew Suarez had written a second novel, but I didn't realize that "Freedom" continues (and finishes, I believe) the story. As soon as I got back to the Internetz, I ordered it and hope it arrives by Friday at the latest.

You don't have to be a geek to enjoy it, but it sure is nice to see such a good story filled with accurate claims and realistic tech (for the most part).

Peering Into Google

Google is constantly peering into my life, so I was fascinated when Wired offered me a chance to peer into Google's algorithm. Want to know how it is that Google works so damn well? Constant improvement and good management. Google's continued success is actually pretty stunning when you consider how many companies lose their power and innovative spirit when they grow into a massive company.

Computer: Enhance!

Photographers and computer-literate people have long laughed at the cop dramas and movies where the good guys have the "enhance" button for some grainy photo. For instance, they get a photo off some red-light camera where some pass sideview mirror has a 2.5 pixels covering a key license plate. "Can you enhance it," is the question. The answer is always yes.

That just might be possible. Scary. Some math geeks came up with an algorithm called "Compressed Sensing" and it is already being used in medical imaging to improve MRI scans.

I'm not going to further spoil the story, but you read it yourself at

Support Network Neutrality

I just wrote to my Congressional Representative Betty McCollum to encourage her to sponsor a bill on Network Neutrality. You can learn more about the issue here as well as how your representatives have acted. If you recognize the benefits of freedom on the Internet (as compared to commercial-dominated FM radio and TV) to be a part of the conversation, you should take a few minutes to act.

The text of my letter is below:

I see the Representative McCollum is not a co-sponsor of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009 (HR 3458) and I find that a disappointment.

In a time when the Supreme Court has just greatly increased the power of major corporations to shape our government and country, I think we need to preserve freedom from corporate control on the only mass communications medium they do not currently dominate (compare to TV, radio).

Network Neutrality is, at best, a flawed approach to preserving freedom on the Internet but it is the best option Congress has today. Network Neutrality is necessary to prevent major companies from becoming gatekeepers to content.

Comcast is already the only real option for Internet in your district (Qwest is pathetically slow by comparison) - if they are able to exert even more control over how people use the Internet, nothing good will result.

Thank you for your time.

Too Cheap to Meter, 2009 Edition

Chris Anderson gets it. The editor-in-chief at Wired magazine, I find him uniquely insightful when it comes to describing modern technology and its effects on culture and society. This article, Tech Is Too Cheap to Meter: It's Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity explains why we need to change the way we think about technology - particularly when it comes to communications and data storage.

When scarce resources become abundant, smart people treat them differently, exploiting them rather than conserving them. It feels wrong, but done right it can change the world.

The problem is that abundant resources, like computing power, are too often treated as scarce.

And then there is YouTube -- where some folks recognized what is scarce and what is abundant and how each was changing over time. Though the bandwidth that site consumes is quite expensive, it is becoming less so over time, allowing the owner (Google) to gamble that it will be able to get more benefit from it despite the increasing popularity and traffic (and no obvious means of generating revenue without sacrificing popularity).

But then there are the critics - the gatekeepers (sometimes self-appointed, sometimes not) - who say that most people are incapable of producing "good" content ... perhaps music or movies or amateur porn. Anderson has an answer to them:

Perhaps the best example of a glorious embrace of waste is YouTube. I often hear people complain that YouTube is no threat to television because it's "full of crap"—which is, I suppose, true. The problem is that no one agrees on what the crap is. You may be looking for funny cat videos and think my favorite soldering tutorials are of no interest. I want to see funny videogame stunts and couldn't care less about your cooking tutorials. And clips of our own charming family members are of course delightful to us and totally boring to everyone else. Crap is in the eye of the beholder.

This is the power of abundance! I love television shows that are often cancelled because most Americans do not share my views. Fortunately, as video content distribution goes from being scarce to being abundant, the need to capture a mass audience actually diminishes. So I can have my Dollhouse and someone else can watch their bullshit unscripted brain-numbing "unscripted" television (not that I would judge).

We have less of a need for high minded critics that just don't get the appeal of Transformers II and more of a need for finding others we trust to get our reviews. The future of newspapers may be dim, but I would hope there is a brighter future for local reporters than local movie reviewers. I actually like the local Star Tribune movie reviewer, but I would rather see the Strib investigating local government than reviewing movies released nationally.

Of course, many thought that electricity would soon be too cheap to meter. It isn't there yet. But it is damn close - why else would we have so many inefficient devices that few care about? Your computer, television, and cell phone charger are sucking electricity even while turned off? Big deal! It is more of an effort to unplug them than to pay the extra $.02 they rack up each month. These inefficiencies do add up, but so do all the inefficiencies resulting from treating an abundant resource as though it were scarce. Sometimes you just have to revisit your assumptions.


The Internet, far from being a mere free-porn distribution engine, allows "mass collaboration." As more and more people come online, each person is better able to find others that share niche skills. In your community, you may be one of 5 or 10 that is interested in, say open source content management system programing (like drupal, the software that runs this site). But on the Internet, you can associate with thousands of people that share that.

Pehaps the defining book describing how this technological innovation impacts culture and business is Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams.

It is a slightly dated book for those of us living the tecnica vida loca, but should still be interesting for those who don't live and breathe on tech sites and philosophical treatises on technology.

As people are better able to associate and work with others who share their specialty, they are able to make unexpected breakthoughs - from esoteric scientific knowledge to the mass sorting of photos of flickr. Oh - and almost all of this is only possible because of itself. Mass collaboration created the infrastructure on which the Internet runs - from the operating systems (linux) to the server software (apache) to the databases (MySQL and Postgres) to the scripting languages (PHP and Perl) all of which are combined into the "LAMP" stack.

The implications are stunning - for instance, Scorecard allows you to learn about pollution in your community. Laws require businesses to report on pollution they emit. Historically, that would go to a government agency that would or would not do anything about it. Now the government agency puts out data feeds that are incomprensible to most people. But groups formed to deal with just this information created software to automatically categorize and update these government feeds, making it more presentable to anyone who wants to easily access the information. And no, on some sites, people can actually upload their own data to contribute to the site, making the data more accurate.

The book is filled with examples like this and will be a good read for those who have not yet grasped how everything is changing in a "The World is Flat" kinda way.

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