Joho the Blog » misc

April 16, 2013


Everything happens by ones.
Each step
Each cobble
Each mile
Each leg
crossing a line.

Then in a moment
we close our eyes
and remember how
the sea’s front edge
paws at its shore.

April 16, 2013

Please remember that according to the official Rules of Blogging, on the Web we must forgive one another’s bad poetry

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April 15, 2013

In place of a blog post, please stare into this pretty picture

I’d be blogging more, but I keep writing stuff and then realizing it’s wrong. I’d like to believe that that simply means I’m in a creative period, but it’s far more likely than I’m just wronger than usual, or possibly righter in recognizing my usual level of wrongness.

So, please just stare into this lovely pattern until you’re convinced you just read a highly insightful and 100% correct blog post…

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March 28, 2013


Andy Wasklewicz and Jeff Austin from Entwine [twitter:entwinemedia] describe a multi-institutional project to build a platform-agnostic tool for enriching video through note-taking, structured annotations, and sharing. It uses HTML 5, and allows for structured tagging, time-based annotation, and more.

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[berkman] Dan Gillmor on living off the privacy grid

Dan Gillmor is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk about his Permission Taken project. Dan, who has been very influential on my understanding of tech and has become a treasured friend, is going to talk about what we can do to live in an open Internet. He begins by pointing to Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked [two hugely important books].

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

He says that the intersection of convenience and freedom is narrowing. He goes through a “parade of horribles” [which I cannot keep up with]. He pauses on Loic Le Meur’s [twitter:loic] tweet: “A friend working for Facebook: ‘we’re like electricity.’” If that’s the case, Dan says, we should maybe even think about regulation, although he’s not a big fan of regulation. He goes through a long list of what apps ask permission to do on your mobile. His example is Skype. It’s a long list. Bruce Schneier says when it comes to security, we’re heading toward feudalism. Also, he says, Skype won’t deny it has a backdoor. “You should assume they do,” he says. The lock-in is getting tighter and tighter.

We do this for convenience. “I use a Kindle.” It makes him uncomfortable but it’s so hard to avoid lock-in and privacy risks. The fight against SOPA/PIPA was a good point. “But keep in mind that the copyright cartel is a well-funded smart group of people who never quit.” He says that we certainly need better laws, rules, and policies. “That’s crucial.” But his question this afternoon is what we as individuals can do. Today he’s going to focus on security countermeasures, although they’re not enough. His project â?? which might become a book â?? will begin simply, because it’s aimed at the broad swath of people who are not particularly technically literate.

“Full disk encryption should be the default. It’s not. Microsoft charges extra for it. Mac makes it pretty easy. So does Ubuntu.”

Disable intrusive browser extensions.

Root your phone. That’s not perfect. E.g., it makes you vulnerable to some attacks. But the tradeoff is that you now control your phone.

Dan blocks apps from particular permissions. Sometimes that keeps the app from working. “I accept that.” This is a counter to vendors insisting that you give them all the rights.

Use Tor [The Onion Router], even though “I assume some of the exit nodes” being run by the CIA. Tor, he explains, is a way of browsing the Web with some reasonable likelihood your ISP doesn’t know what you’re actually looking at, and what you’re looking at doesn’t know where you’re coming from.” This he says is important for whistleblowers, etc.

When loyalty cards came out, he and his friend used to randomly swap them to make the data useless. The last time he got one, he filled in his address as 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and the guy in the store said, “It’s amazing how many people live there.” If you use a false address with a card, it may not work. If you do it on line, you’re committing a felony under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The revisions are going in the wrong direction. “This is terrifying…We have to do something collectively.”

Pick your platform carefully. “I was the biggest Apple person around…I was a Mac bigot for years.” At prss events, he’d be the only person (beside John Markoff) to have a Mac. Many things happened, including Apple suing websites wanting to do journalism about Apple. Their “control freakery” and arrogance with the iPhone was worse. “Now that everyone except me at a press event has a Mac, I get worried.” Now the Mac is taking on the restrictions of the iPhone operating system (IOS). “I want to do what I want with my own computer.” All computer makers are moving to devices that you can’t even open them. “Everyone wants to be Apple.”

Own your own domain. Why are journalists putting their work on Facebook or other people’s platforms? Because it brings distribution and attention. “We do these things on ‘free’ platforms at their sufferance.” “We all should have a place on the Web that is owned by us,” even if we don’t do most of our work there. Dan is going to require students to get their own domain name.

Dan says his book/project is going to present a gradient of actions. At the further end, there’s Linux. Dan switched last year and has found it almost painless. “No one should have to use the command line if they don’t want to,” and Linux isn’t perfect about that yet. “Even there it’s improving.” He says all the major distributions are pretty. He uses Ubuntu. “Even there there’s some control-freakery going on.” Dan says he tried Linux every year for 10 years, and how he finds it “ready for prime time.” He says some control features being introduced to Windows, for reasonable reasons, is making life harder for Linux users. [I'm not sure what he's referring to.]

Dan says the lockdown is caused by self-interest, not good vs. evil. He hopes that we can start to make the overlap of convenient and freedom larger and larger.


Q: If you should have your own domain, you should also do your own hosting, run your own Apache server, etc.

A: You can’t be independent of all external services unless you really want that. There’s a continuum here. My hosting is done by someone I know personally. We really need systematic and universal encryption in the cloud, so whoever is storing your stuff can’t muck with it unless you give them permission. That raises legal questions for them.

Q: I really like what you’re saying. I’m not a specialist and it sounds like a conversation among a very small number of people who are refined specialists in this area. How do you get this out and more accessible? Could this be included in basic literacy in our public schools? On the other hand, I worry there’s a kind of individualism: You know how to do it, so you get to do it, but the rest don’t. How do we build a default position for people who can’t manage this for themselves.

A: Yes, I worry that this for geeks. But I’m not aiming this project at geeks. It’s more aimed at my students, who have grown up thinking Facebook is the Internet and that the MacBook Air gives them complete freedom [when in fact it can't be opened and modified]. The early chapters will be on what you can do whatever it is that use. It won’t solve the problem, but it will help. And then take people up a ramp to get them as far as they’re comfortable doing. In really clear language, I hope. And it’d be a fine idea to make this part of digital literacy education. I’m a huge fan of CodeAcademy; Douglas Rushkoff wrote a wonderful book called “Program or Be Programmed,” and I think it does help to know some of this. [See Diana Kimball's Berkman Talk on coding as a liberal art.] It’s not going to be in big demand any time soon. But I hope people can see what’s at risk, what they’re losing, and also what they gain by being locked down.

Q: Do you think freedom and convenience will grow further apart? What are the major factors?

A: Overall, the bad direction is still gaining. That’s why I’m doing this. I don’t think people are generally aware of the issues. It’ll help if we can get word out about what’s at risk and what the choices are. If people are aware of the issues and are fine with giving up their freedom, that’s their choice. We’ve been trading convenience of the illusion of security. “We put our hands up in scanners as if we’re being frisked.” There’s more money and power on the control side. Every major institution is aligned on the same side of this: recentralizing the technology that promised radical decentralization. That’s a problem. I’m going to try to convince people to use tech that doesn’t do that, and to push for better policies, but …

Q: What exactly are you concerned about? I feel free to do anything I want on the Internet. Maybe the govt is managing me. Marketers definitely are. I worry about hackers stealing my identity. But what are the risks?

A: “I think a society that is under pervasive surveillance is a deadened society in the long run.” It’s bad for us “in every way that I can imagine” except for the possibility that can stop a certain amount of crime. “But in dictatorships, the chief criminals are the govt and the police, so it doesn’t solve the problem.” The FBI wants a backdoor into every technology. If they get one, it will be used by bad people. This stuff doesn’t stay secret forever. The more you harden the defenses, the more room there is for really bad actors to get in. Those are some of the main reasons.

Q: How can Tor can help whistleblowers? Do you have other advice for journalists?

A: I have a chapter in a book that’s coming out about journalists and closed platforms. Journalists need to learn about security right away because they’re putting the lives of their sources at risk. The Committee to Protect Journalists has done important work on helping journalists understand the risks and mitigate them. It’s a crucial issue that hasn’t gotten enough attention inside the craft. although I had my PGP signature at the bottom of my column for 6 years and got 2 emails that used it, one of which said he just wanted to know if it worked. Also, you should be aware that you can’t anticipate every risk. E.g., if the US govt wants to find out what I’m talking about online, they’ll figure out a way to do it. They could break into my house and put up cameras. But like the better deadbolt lock stopping amateur criminals, better security measures will discourage some intrusions. When I do my online banking, I do it from a virtual machine that I use only for that; it has never gone anywhere else on the Internet. I don’t think that’s totally paranoid. There are still risks.

Q: The Supreme Court just affirmed first sale of materials manufactured outside of the US. Late stage capitalism want to literally own their markets, offline as well as online. How much of that wider context do you want to get into?

A: If the Court hadn’t affirmed first sale, every media producer would have moved all their production facilities offshore so that we wouldn’t be able to resell it. These days we buy licenses, not goods. Increasingly, physical goods will have software components. That’s an opportunity for the control crowd to keep you from owning anything you buy. In Massachusetts, the car repair shops got a ballot measure saying they get access to the software in cars; that was marvelous. BTW, I’m making common cause with some friends on the Right. Some of the more far-seeing people on the Right are way ahead in thinking about this. E.g., Derek Khanna. I will be an ally of anybody.

Q: [harry lewis] Great project. Here’s your problem: What are you worried about? This is a different sort of surveillance society. This is the opposite of the Panopticon where everyone knows they’re being spied upon. People won;t be motivated until there are breeches. The incentive of the surveillors is to do it as unobtrusively as possible. You’ll never know why your life insurance premium is $100 higher than my. You want ever see the data paths that led to that, because the surveillance will be happening at a level that will be ompletely invisible to the individual. It’ll be hard to wake people up. “A surveillance society is a deadened society” only if people know they’re being surveilled.

A: If they don’t see a consequence, then they won’t act. If the govt a generation ago had told you that you will henceforth carry a tracking device so we can where you are at any time, there would have been an uproar. But we did it voluntarily [holding up a mobile phone]. The cell tower has to know where you are, but I’d like to find a way to spoof everything else for everyone else. (You should assume your email is being read on your employer’s server, Dan says.)

Q: I worry about creating a privacy of the elite that only a small segment can access. That creates a dangerous scenario. Should there be govt regulations to make sure we’re all operating with the same levels of privacy?

A: It’s an important point. The govt rules won’t be the ones you want. We need to create a market-based solutions. Markets work better than advice or edicts.

Q: But hasn’t the market spoken, and it’s the iPhone?

A: The iPhone has important security features. But people aren’t scared enough to create a market.

A: The ACLU should be advised on how to create pamphlets that will reach people.

A: So much of hacker culture and open source culture are based on things being difficult. Many of the privacy tools work but are too hard to use. There is a distinct lack of design, and we don’t see poorly designed things as legitimate. And that’s a fairly easy thing to fix. A: Yes.

Q: Younger people don’t seem to care about privacy. Is there a generational shift?

A: There are two possibilities for the future. My hope is that we’ll all start cutting each other more slack; everyone will recognize that we all did unbelievably stupid, even possibly criminal things, in our 20s. I still do plenty of stupid things. But it worries me that cultures sometimes grow less tolerant. This could be catastrophic, if the country goes toward the Right.

A: There are tools to make it easy to do this. E.g.,, the Pirate Party. And are there alternatives to social media that are ready for prime time?

A: Still pretty geeky, but it’s a wonderful start. But many of the tools cost money.

Q: Any thoughts about ways to use govt and corporate interests to promote your goals. E.g., protect the children.

A: I’ll rename this Protect the Children and then everyone will do what I want :) Overall, the problem is that power is shifting, pulling back into the center. This has long term negative consequences. But speculating on what the consequences will be is never as effective as showing what’s going wrong now. I want the power to be distributed. “I’m pretty worried, although I’m a relentless optimist.” “I’m a resister.”

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March 10, 2013

[2b2k] The increasing opacity of facts

First a disclaimer: Facts matter. The world is one way and another. It is entirely possible to be wrong. Not all statements are true. The statement “That is true for your but not for me” is almost always nonsensical. Ok? Can we proceed?

In an argument, facts — or, more precisely, statements that assert facts — usually are presented as stopping points. If it’s a fact, it’s a fact, and there’s no arguing with facts. If we are challenged to back up our facts, we’ll point to the source where we learned the fact. This is a delegation of authority: I don’t know how lung-less grasshoppers breathe, but this biology text — which is perhaps cited by Wikipedia — does. And how did that text learn it? It probably doesn’t tell us. And if it cites another source, I’m probably not going to be able to find it (unless I happen to be at a university with a generous set of journal subscriptions). And there’s a very good chance that ultimately I’m not going to be able to find out how the original source figured it out. Not all facts are opaque in this way, but many are, and we generally don’t mind when they are, since we probably invoked the fact to stop a line of discussion anyway.

So now I have to name-drop a little: This morning at SxSW I spent an hour with Stephen Wolfram, which is a rare treat; he is as completely fascinating as you think he is. He mentioned that a particular Nobelist had recently reluctantly acknowledged that most of the models being proposed these days are algorithmic and computational, just as Wolfram had predicted. Models are at the high end of the knowledge chain. At the lower end, there are facts, and WolframAlpha is about deriving facts algorithmically from a vast store of data. But computers often solve problems in ways completely other than how a human would; Wolfram’s example was differentials. In many of these cases, while a computer programmer might be able to understand the algorithm, no one could reproduce the outcome except by using another computer. So, in a very real sense, these computed facts are opaque not because the sources are untraceable — WolframAlpha curates the data that drive the site — but because they were not derived by a human intelligence.

Thus, we have knowledge without understanding not only at some of the highest levels of human knowledge, but also increasingly at the factual layer.


January 12, 2013

Rest in peace, Aaron Swartz

It was with a shock of emotions beyond articulation that I read this morning that Aaron Swartz killed himself yesterday.

I first met Aaron when he was 14 or 15, at a conference where he was being consulted by graybeards with technical questions. I kept in touch, and followed his activities. Aaron was a prodigy not only of technology but of democracy. Every single project he undertook aimed at improving the public sphere — more open, with lower barriers, richer connections, better information, and less corruption. He wanted the public sphere to be more of us and be more ours.

I was so looking forward to watching him continue to grow, invent, and contribute. I admired him, and I enjoyed his company, and I didn’t ever want to have to use the past tense in talking about him. The future was so much more appropriate.

Cory Doctorow writes movingly and clearly about Aaron’s here.

I am so sorry for his family, for his friends, for all of us who knew him, and for those who did not have that chance.

Young Aaron (14-15) with Larry Lessig
Young Aaron (14-15 years old) with Larry Lessig


Here’s something I just posted at Reddit:

Aaron was a hero of the Internet.

Everything he did in his way too short life was aimed at making the connected world more open, with lower barriers, richer connections, more knowledge, more sharing, and less corruption. Consider Aaron’s work on standards for sharing ideas, his commitment to progressive and bottom-up politics, his efforts to provide free access to public domain court records), his work against corruption in politics, his contribution to the struggle against SOPA, the app he wrote for making it easier to create blogs and wikis (acquired by Reddit), his commitment to open information. And more.

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December 25, 2012

Some ways Jews are different from Christians

For the holidays, here are some differences between Judaism and Christianity.

But first, here are some caveats:

  • I know there are many different branches of Christianity, and there are different types of Judaism as well. I’m generalizing.

  • It will amuse my Jewish friends that I have the chutzpah to write about Judaism since I am at best an agnostic, and am non-observant except occasionally to support my wife, who is an observant Modern Orthodox Jew.

Jews are a people

You are a Jew if your mother was a Jew. Even if you despise all Jewish beliefs, you are a Jew, just as you would be an Italian even if you rejected every aspect of Italian culture. (Even the cooking? What are you, crazy?)

This is one good reason we generally have not evangelized our religion. You can’t convert to Italian. Exceptions can be made, however. So, if you go to a rabbi and say you want to convert to Judaism, he will send you away. On your third try, he’ll probably agree to start you on some instruction. If you do convert, the fiddle is that we assume your soul must have been at Mt. Sinai back at the revelation, so you were really a member of the people all along.

Note that this means that Judaism is not a religion based solely on belief. You are a Jew even if you lack Jewish beliefs — you’re probably not a particularly good Jew (as I am not), but you’re a Jew. This is way different from Christians who believe that you come to their religion by deeply accepting a set of propositions.

There is no Jewish fundamentalism

I’m taking fundamentalism as an adherence to the literal meaning of a religion’s basic text. Keeping in mind that I’m generalizing (and I’m now going to stop inserting that caveat), Jews believe something like the following:

God gave the Jews a sacred text. That text has been preserved letter by letter throughout the ages through some careful information-transmission techniques. But, that text cannot be simply read and understood, because reading a text requires human participation, and participation is always based on one’s history and situation. There is no possibility of reading without interpreting, and thus there is no possibility of fundamentalism.

Put differently, God intended this text — what Christians call “The Old Testament” — to last through the ages. The ages are historical. Therefore, the text has to be capable of being reinterpreted within each age. What made sense to people wandering through the desert 5,000 years ago doesn’t make sense now if taken exactly as written. For example, treating your slaves exceptionally well made sense then, but not having slaves makes sense now. Having multiple wives made sense then. Re-re-defining marriage so that it can be between two men or two women makes sense now (at least according to many Jews — this is still a controversial issue).

But we are not free to interpret the text any old way we want. The interpreting of the text requires many years of scholarship. Interpretations must also be done in close conversation with the history of interpretation by the revered tradition of scholars. You must cite your sources. And not to avoid plagiarism. You have to be in dialogue with those sources, using a critical methodology that has evolved over the millennia.

This mix of fidelity to a text and an ability to re-interpret it for modern times while in conversation with the continuing tradition of interpretation is what has kept Judaism alive for 5,000 years. (At least according to my interpretation :)

This enables most Jews to favor harmonizing the divine text and science. That’s why few Jews are Creationists, and many are scientists.

Judaism is not a matter of faith

The caricature of religion put forth by atheist ranters such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins is entirely wrong about Judaism. They portray religion simply as a belief in impossible things, belief against all evidence.

Now, there are elements of faith in Judaism, if only the beliefs that the Torah was given by God to Moses, and that it is a guide suitable throughout all of human history. But Jews also believe that God gave us minds and hearts so that we can progress in our understanding, and we need to apply His gifts to our understanding of the text he gave us.

Jews also believe that if forced to make a choice, it’s better for Jews to act in accordance with the Law than to believe in God, although it’s of course best to act well and to believe.

Rabbis have no special relationship with God

Rabbis are teachers and scholars. That’s it. You don’t need a rabbi in order to pray.

You do need a minion, though: ten Jewish men. Judaism is a community-based religion.

Arguments about the Torah are not signs of failure but of health

We do not think there is one right interpretation of the Torah even within any one time or community. An interpretation that does not acknowledge the wisdom of contradictory interpretations will gather little respect.

This is why Jews are argumentative.

It’s always why we make such good lawyers.

(My wife adds that Jewish thought has vacillated over time, sometimes stressing the power of differences, and sometimes aiming for a consolidation of interpretations.)

Judaism is not a universal religion

God revealed Himself to the Jews at Mt. Sinai and gave us our divine text. In that text are seven universal principles that apply to all children of Noah (= everyone). But then there are the many, many practices and rituals required only of Jews. For example, non-Jews don’t have to keep kosher or keep the Sabbath. You’re free to, of course, but there’s no reason to, unless your religion tells you to. (Jews were chosen to carry out a special burden of practice; that is what “the chosen people” means. At least as I understand it.)

About the status of other religions, there is unresolved discussion. There are inferences, for example, that God revealed Himself differently to different peoples (cf. Amos 9.7). What it comes down to is: There’s no reason for others to follow our Laws (excepting those seven biggies from Noah), and it’s not our business what others believe.

The golden rule is not enough

People looking for a universal religious core sometimes cite an anecdote about Rabbi Hillel, who lived during the time of Jesus.

Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai [a friend with whom Rabbi Hillel often disagreed], and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”

This is close to the Christian’s golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But there are two differences. The first is often noted by those citing Hillel: The Jewish version is cast in terms of what you should not do, rather than in terms of what you should do. But the other difference is I think more important. Rabbi Hillel does not conclude with this rule. Rather, he continues by telling Jews to study the Torah. My understanding of this is that humans are not wise enough to be able to conduct themselves according to one general rule. We need the details of the divine text, we need a community, and we need a tradition of wise but divergent interpretations with which we can engage. Life is more complex than that, and humans are too small and weak.

Of course Christians also don’t think the story begins and ends with the Golden Rule. Yet it seems to me that Judaism favors complexity in a way that few religions do. But about this we could have a good argument!

Merry Christmas to all my Christian friends!


Based on some reactions, I want to clarify three points I did not express clearly enough. First, I meant my comments about Hitchins and Dawkins to apply to their writings about all religions, not just Judaism. The idea of religion that they argue against is drawn from a caricature of Christianity, and is false about Christianity just as it is false about Judaism.

Second, am I committing exactly the same mistake I’m attributing to Ditchin’s and Hawkin’s? I was aware of the danger while I was writing this post, which doesn’t mean that I avoided it. I am even less comfortable talking about Christianity than I am about Judaism, so I tried to stay away from doing so. But the theme of the post at the very least implies some assertions about Christianity. The one that troubles me most is the unintended implication that Christianity is not complex. The fact that Christians have four Gospels to square argues against that, not to mention the history of Christian theology. So, I offered my generalization about Jewish comfort with complexity tentatively. And I’ll continue to maintain it, albeit it even more tentatively. I meant to compare not Christian and Jewish scholars and theologians, but non-scholarly believers. My point was that ordinary Jewish practice has more of the scholarly element than most other religions do. I might be wrong about that and would be happy to learn otherwise. But I certainly wasn’t intending to diminish the work of scholars and theologians in other religions.

Third, I may be using “fundamentalism” differently than others do. I meant it the way I defined it, as a type of literalism, not as a measure of the extremity of belief.


December 7, 2012

Are things different? Taleb on the future

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan (a book about modeling that is unlikely to star Natalie Portman) has a new book out — Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder — that has been excerpted by Salon in an article titled “The future will not be cool.” I haven’t read the new book. so what follows is based purely on this 2,000-word excerpt.

Taleb makes a point that challenges some pretty deep assumptions. Life, he says, really hasn’t changed much in the past few thousand years:

Tonight I will be meeting friends in a restaurant (tavernas have existed for at least 25 centuries). I will be walking there wearing shoes hardly different from those worn 5,300 years ago by the mummified man discovered in a glacier in the Austrian Alps. At the restaurant, I will be using silverware, a Mesopotamian technology, which qualifies as a “killer application” given what it allows me to do to the leg of lamb, such as tear it apart while sparing my fingers from burns. I will be drinking wine, a liquid that has been in use for at least six millennia. The wine will be poured into glasses, an innovation claimed by my Lebanese compatriots to come from their Phoenician ancestors, and if you disagree about the source, we can say that glass objects have been sold by them as trinkets for at least twenty-nine hundred years. After the main course, I will have a somewhat younger technology, artisanal cheese, paying higher prices for those that have not changed in their preparation for several centuries.

Had someone in 1950 predicted such a minor gathering, he would have imagined something quite different…

So, why, Taleb wonders, do we keep predicting that technology will radically transform our future? His answer:

Odds are that your imagination will be adding things to the present world. I am sorry, but this approach is exactly backward: the way to do it rigorously is to take away from the future, reduce from it, simply, things that do not belong to the coming times.

I am not saying that new technologies will not emerge — something new will rule its day, for a while. What is currently fragile will be replaced by something else, of course. But this “something else” is unpredictable.

The excerpt doesn’t explain what Taleb means by “fragile,” which is the theme of his book apparently, but, after a digression critiquing hip technologists who are too technocratic and uncultured for his taste, he gives some examples. Paperwork was fragile, which we know because the Internet has removed so much of it. Shoe manufacturers are moving from over-engineered shoes to “shoes that replicate being barefoot.” The iPad et al. return us to the “Babylonian and Phoenician roots of writing and take (sic) notes on a tablet. “My dream would be to someday write everything longhand…”

Oh dear.

I’m confused by his overall theme as expressed in this exceprt, since he uses Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and George Orwell as examples of futurists who got it wrong, but they would have gotten it far wronger if they had predicted the future by subtraction. The very things Taleb hopes will be subtracted — “deleterious, unnatural, alienating, and, most of all, inherently fragile preceding technology” — were by and large added during the past 150 years. Thus, predictions would have gone right if they had anticipated those additions. Presumably this is cleared up in the book itself.

But let’s go back to the passage I quoted at the beginning that argues that futurologists have tended to over-estimate the extent of change, and that life is pretty much as it always was.

Well, yes and no. At the highest levels of abstraction, Taleb is right: We still eat, shit, and fuck. We still talk with one another. Many of us still live in climates that shove our unclothed bodies out of homeostasis. We still have a system of specialization and economic exchange that lets you cook for me if I provide you with some compensation. So, yes, we eat together, wear clothes, and go to restaurants. We have not transcended our biology, our basic sociality, or our need for a culture and economy. Therefore we have not progressed?

Perhaps the problem is with using eating dinner in a nice restaurant as our example. Perhaps we might look at the systems by which Taleb is served his wine and artisanal cheese. If you can’t tell the difference between a basket and a truck, between a scythe and a thresher, between a root cellar and a refrigerated container vessel, between vassals and unionized farm workers, between planting last year’s seeds and genetically altering crops, between slavery and social mobility, then, yes, you’ll see no progress on your plate.

Ok, I admit that I’m not getting it. I look forward to reading his book.


October 7, 2012

Obama’s argument

This is by Lucas Gray, a Simpson’s and Family Guy animator. (Hat tip to Gawker)


[Minutes later:] I came across this at Gawker as well.

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September 27, 2012

[2b2k] What knowledge is losing

Jon Lebkowsky in a discussion of Too Big to Know at The Well asked, “What new roles are emerging that weren’t there before?”

Here’s part of my answer (with a few typos fixed):

- Taxonomies, nomenclatures, classification. Having common ways to refer to things is really helpful. We can make up for them to at least some degree by cross-walking and mapping. It’s always going to be messy. The rise of unique IDs and namespaces is helping a great deal.

- Filters. We used to not worry about filters because all we could get was the filtered product. Now we have to worry about them all the time. But we also now filter forward rather than filter out: When the site puts together a front page with 10 items on it from around the Web, all the other items that didn’t make it onto the front page are still fully available; has merely shortened the number of clicks it takes to get to its ten.

- Consensus. We used to think that we “all” agreed on some things. We had authorities we “all” trusted. Now we have communities of belief. Links and conversation can help us get past the fragmentation that makes us stupid, but not past all fragmentation.

But we should keep in mind that we’ve lost these old formations to a large degree because they don’t scale, and because they presented themselves to us under false pretenses: they were never as baked into the world as they seemed.

It’s our knowledge now.

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