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April 30, 2003

New Site Index

The free site index I’ve been happily using for years, Atomz, tells me I’ve gone over the 500 file limit. (I seem to have something like 1,600 pages on my site. Seems wrong to me, but, well, whatever.) Being a cheap bastard — and the fact that you have to call Atomz for a quote is a little off-putting — I’m looking for a new, free index. Care to kick the tires of FreeFind?

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April 29, 2003

Blog-free Wednesday

I’ll be on the road all of Thursday. I may not have time to check my email much less blog. Oh the horror!

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Ernie on the Singularity

Ernie the Attorney has a rollicking piece on why The Singularity — the moment when the humanity-robotronics combo at last exceeds the merely human — is to be feared. For example:

Unless technology is somehow going to make us better thinkers then we are going to carry into this brave (and sudden) new world our very strong tendency to be led by fear and dogmatic beliefs (a/k/a “bias and prejudice”). The only way we won’t pollute this new “Singular World” with our pathetic cognitive weaknesses will be if only the “intellectually pure” are admitted. Or let’s put it this way, you can’t send a “representative cross-section” of our current world there, that’s for sure.

(This makes the second time today that I’ve heard Kurzweilians accused of replicating religion’s mistakes.)


Steve Talbott on Taking the You out of Eugenics

Steve Talbott picks an excellent argument with Bill McKibben who argues in his new book, “Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age”, that once we’re able to alter our children’s DNA, our offspring will have no sense of a self that is their own. Talbott’s point is that McKibben gives too much credit to the power of DNA to determine who we are:

By appearing to validate the scientist’s (and the public’s) conviction that we are our protein-producing DNA, McKibben is assisting the engineers’ program. For while his commendable aim is to convince us to pull back from the eugenic brink, the fact is that those who think they are their DNA are exactly the ones who will clamor for a new and improved self, or at least for new and improved children.

Will the genetic engineers make our lives meaningless? This is ever so close to the truth, yet light years away from it. No one can, in absolute terms, rob someone else of meaning. What makes life meaningless is our rejection of meaning — a rejection we have already given expression to when we conceive ourselves as the product of DNA “mechanisms”.

Talbott then goes on to the larger point:

That the worshippers of machinery, efficiency, and power are engaged today in a fateful assault upon the human being is beyond all doubt. McKibben performs a valuable service by documenting this assault for a large audience from the mouths of the commandos carrying it out. There is no shortage of testimony.

And then the truth:

If it’s true, as I have suggested, that we unavoidably affect each other’s destinies — for ill, but also for good — then everything hinges upon our understanding of this mutuality. And the first thing to grasp is that healthy human exchange is, and is essentially, a matter of mutuality. We are called to engage each other in a mutually respectful dance or conversation, which is very different from unilateral manipulation. Conversation or manipulation: *this* is the decisive distinction.

Finally, the Parthian shot at the transhumanist extropians, et al.:

You can’t read the futuristic scenarios and personal hopes of the re-engineers of humanity without being struck by the utter childishness of it all. Genetic modifications that will save us from the necessity of bodily excretion; nano-contrived plants that look exactly like orchids but can grow in frigid climes; robots that wait on us like slaves; a cyber-nano- genetically engineered “elite race of people who are smart, agile, and disease-resistant”; nanobot swarms able to wander the human bloodstream and keep us eternally healthy; technological horns of plenty that will convert every “desolate” village into “a Garden of Eden, with widescreen TVs and cappuccino machines for all”….and so on ad infinitum.

And many of these visions come from the same people who delight in ridiculing the “childish hopes” of the traditionally religious!

I’m a-liking Talbott…


EULA Poll offers the results of this week’s poll.

Do you read your software licence agreements?

I never bother reading them. 45.9%
I don’t read them – they are too long. 23.9%
I don’t read them – they are too complicated. 6.8%
I occasionally read them. 20.4%
I always read them. 1.7%
I read them and abide by them fully. 1.3%

Responses 1339

Well, that can’t be scientific. I don’t believe for a second that out of 1,339 respondents, there are 18 people who actually read and stick to those stupid EULAs, much less that 0.4% bother to always read them but then don’t stick to them anyway. What’s the point of that??

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April 28, 2003

Sen. Santorum’s Guide to Sex

Hilarious call from the Scarlet Pimpernel to Senator “Sanctorum” Santorum.


[ETech] Wrap-up and Overview

This was a terrific conference for the two most important reasons: Terrific attendees and more than enough sessions to learn from.

If a theme emerged, I think it was emergence itself. Most of the presentations that most excited me played off of this in one way or another: Eric Bonabeau on emergence in nature, Clay Shirky on why groups resist explicit constitutions, the social software track, Alan Kay‘s “broadband collaboration” environment which is interesting because of the ease with which participants can set new creatures loose into it. Emergence is the way in which bottom-up organization happens.

There were, of course, other highlights. I loved Brewster Kahle‘s Internet Bookmobile project, Eric Blossom nd Matt Ettus‘ GNU radio, Ben Hammersley‘s proselytizing for threadsML/ENT, and Marc Smith‘s Netscan stuff. And more. And what could be better than getting to hang for three days with some of the smartest technoids around?

Things not to like? Yeah, sure: Not enough scheduled schmoozing time. Too many excellent sessions in competing time slots. Some dud keynotes from vendors. Terrible lunches. And way too many white men.

That aside, it was a first-rate conference.


April 27, 2003

Why social software now?

A small brouhaha is brewhaha-ing over whether “social software” is mere hype. (See Frank Paynter, for example.) After all, the category is about as broad as “software for people” and includes technology as old as holding hands.

And yet it’s the thing I came away from the O’Reilly Conference most excited about.

First, I consider social software actually to be emergent social software. That narrows the field to software that enables groups to form and organize themselves. Yes, it’s still broad but at least it’s not coextensive with any software that has a user interface.

Second, it doesn’t much matter to me whether the software is new or old. I’m excited about the fact that that type of software is now being recognized (i.e., “hyped”) as important. And my question is: Given that most of the software is old, why is this category now becoming hot?

Sure, in part it’s because consultants (like, um, me) and writers (like, um um, me) now have something new to flap their gums about. But, more important, I think and hope it’s because the central idea behind emergent social software is now becoming acceptable: We’re beginning to think that letting groups start without rules, letting people organize themselves as they see fit at the moment and in that context, is actually a good idea and not just a waste of time, a hippy dream, or a threat. Gosh, maybe a wiki isn’t only an invitation to vandals but is a useful way for people to collaborate! But to think so means trusting groups of people to work well together even when their choke collars are undone.

Much emergent social software may be old hat, but that now we’re willing to recognize its value is pretty damn exciting.


April 26, 2003

Orlowski Again

Jonathan at Way.Nu rants right back at Andrew Orlowski’s latest villification of blogging. Orlowski seems to be descending through the rings of his own private Inferno column by column.

No, I’m not putting in a link to Orlowski’s piece. You can get there through Jonathan. I don’t want to reward Orlowski by pushing him up the blog rank. (This is why we need Kevin Marks‘ “vote” attribute that lets us specify that although we’re linking to something, we don’t like it.)


April 25, 2003

My ambiguous breakfast with Esther

I had breakfast with Esther Dyson this morning (yes, lucky me) which she blogged. We talked about the importance of ambiguity, and Esther pushed me off my stuck point. I’m not sure exactly where that leaves me, but that’s the best place to be. So, thanks, Esther.

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