I have turned my background green to express my support for the Iranian protesters and their Green Movement.
Shit is real over there right now. They always said the revolution would not be televised. Well, now a revolution is happening, and it's not being televised. The American cable TV news is barely touching it. The revolution is being captured with cell phone cameras and uploaded to YouTube where it is linked and blogged and re-blogged and analyzed. The protesters are organizing themselves through Twitter and text messages. This is the future.
The situation is complicated and keeps changing, but you can find good coverage of the latest developments on blogs like Enduring America, Iran News Now, Informed Comment, and The Daily Dish.
The Iranian regime are a bunch of election-stealing, holocaust-denying, women-hating religious fanatics who attack peaceful protesters with violent thugs. Those bastards need to go down. The protesters are really fucking brave to stand up to them. I hope they win.
Like Obama said:
What’s taking place within Iran is not about the United States or any other country. It’s about the Iranian people and their aspirations for justice and a better life for themselves.
After all the talk over the last few years about whether we would have to invade Iran to stop them from building nuclear weapons, it's sometimes hard to remember this lesson: The world doesn't revolve around us. People in other countries are not helpless victims waiting for America to come rescue them. They're the protagonists of their own story.
Are we going to look back on Ashura 2009 like we look back on the fall of the Berlin wall? Will this be the undoing of the 1979 Islamic revolution? Or will the protests be brutally put down and the regime tighten its grip even further? I hope with all my heart the Green Movement prevails. If I was a religious man I'd be praying for them.
The terrifying future of game design
If you haven't seen this yet, you should:
It's a talk by a guy named Jesse Schells, at the DICE 2010 game designer conference.
It starts kind of slow, but watch the whole thing. The first half is about how the computer gaming industry got totally blindsided by the unexpected success, in the last couple years, of games that extend into the real world in one way or another, as well as games that exploit human psychological flaws to keep people playing and paying.
The second half is what I really want you to see, though. He lays out a vision of the future which is all-too-plausible, horrifying, and yet strangely attractive at the same time. "It's coming", Jesse says, "Because what's gonna stop it?"
The talk about "achievements" also reminded me of this lovely thought experiment: What if Super Mario Bros. had been designed in 2010?
We're obviously living in the future
because I'm blogging FROM AN AIRPLANE!
From the crappiest possible seat on the airplane, the middle seat of the very back row. Because I missed my connecting flight, because Delta can't get a plane off the ground without dicking around on the runway for an hour first. So they're always an hour behind schedule, and they only give you an hour leeway to make connections.
And then they offered to put me on the next flight, but it was completely full, so they put me on standby, so the only way I could get on is if somebody else didn't show. Lucky for me, they didn't. If everybody had showed up I would have had to sleep in Minneapolis and get a flight out at 9am. Bluh.
That's on the way back. On the way there, they sat on the runway for 30 minutes, then kicked four people off the plane because they were over their weight limit. Then sat for another 30 minutes. Then announced that they had accidentally deleted the computer files with their permission codes for takeoff so they had to redo everything. Then sat for another 30 minutes before we finally left.
Delta still sucks, even here in the future.
They also suck because they charge $25 to check a bag at the desk, but they check it at the gate for free when people have too many. So everybody tries to save money by bringing all their bags to the gate, and the half the people who board first with all their extra luggage take up all the luggage space on the plane while the half who board last don't have anywhere to put anything. Basically they make it into a luggage lottery, so it's always a ridiculous game of jockeying for position at the gate and then waiting around while the overflow is checked.
I wouldn't care, except that my accordion HAS to go in the overhead bins. It doesn't fit under the seat and it's too fragile to check into the hold. It would surely be destroyed. So I have to fight to the front of the line to get a bin spot before it's all gone.
Contrast to Southwest, who checks luggage for free. There has always been enough overhead bin space to go around on Southwest flights because they don't encourage people to hog it all. I've never had a problem taking my accordion with them.
In-flight wi-fi is really expensive but it was worth it because I had to put out some fires related to Test Pilot. It's a long story, but every hour mattered and I didn't want to wait until I landed. Blogging in flight is just a side benefit.
Moore's Historical Observation
Well Time magazine ran a cover story about the Singularity (boldly predicting a date of 2045, even) which means a lot of generally non-tech-y people I know have been bringing it up, ask me if I believe it will happen, expressing various misunderstandings about it, etc.
By the way, hre's Vernor Vinge's essay which more or less kicked off the whole Singularity idea. It's short and worth a look if you haven't read it before.
Things to keep in mind are that Vinge is both a scientist and a science-fiction writer, so which hat is he wearing when he writes this? At least part of it seems to be expressing a writer's frustration: "Oh drat, this approaching singularity makes it really hard to extrapolate a plausible future history for a galactic empire setting". It's also worth noting that he regards the idea with dread, i.e. "Can the Singularity be avoided?".
Singularity dorks have taken this idea and turned it into the equivalent of an apocalyptic religion for atheistic nerds: it describes an approaching end to the human era (as superintelligent machines will take over), to occur at some unspecified but rapidly-approaching date, assumed to be within the believer's lifetime. It's got a god, except instead of creating man the god is created by man. It's got the same abdication of responsibility: Why worry about politics or the environment when the Singularity is about to happen and fix all the mistakes that humans have made? It's even got an afterlife (we all upload our consciousness into computers). The only thing it's missing is a Judgment where, you know, only the True Believers get to be uploaded while the heathens (Windows users) will toil in the server farms for all eternity.
Anyway, the reason I'm writing about this is because I just want to point out a certain logical fallacy that I keep seeing. The singularity guys say the Singularity is inevitable "because of Moore's Law".
Well Moore's Law is just an observation (made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore) that the speed (or power or number of transistors) of microchips doubles every X months, where X is in the 18-24 range. It's held true since the 60s. The logical fallacy is when people assume that it will continue to hold true indefinitely, and therefore extrapolate that a single microchip will have more processing power than all the world's human brains put together by the year 20X6, therefore POW! Singularity!
But Moore's Law isn't a law of nature or anything. It's not like entropy or gravity or nuclear decay. It's just an observation of economic trends within a particular historical period. It depends on competition between semiconductor companies and on the ability to make transistors smaller. At some point we run up against the fact that a transistor won't work unless it's a certain number of atoms across. Or, at some point people decide "Hey, my computer is actually good enough for anything I'd ever want to do with it, I think I'll spend my extra income on something besides a new laptop" and then the economic conditions that created the incentives for competition between semiconductor companies will change. Either way, the conditions that created Moore's Law belong to a particular period of history and they won't last forever. Even Moore himself says so.
I guess "Moore's Law" just sounds better than "Moore's Historical Observation". Call it whatever you want, but if your predictions are based on assuming that processor power must always grow exponentially, then I'm not gonna take them seriously.
Even if we do have an exponential increase in processing speed and network bandwidth, that doesn't mean that the Internet will somehow magically achieve self-awareness on its own someday. AI is hard. We don't know how our own brains work nor do we know how to duplicate them. We don't even know the right questions to ask. All the processing power in the world is useless if you can't figure out how to express your problem in terms of binary arithmetic.
That said, I watched IBM's Watson beat the human champs at Jeopardy and it was fairly impressive. Not impressive that it knows the answers -- it did have, like, all of Wikipedia and half of the Web stored in its database -- but impressive that it understood the questions as often as it did. What we now know, that the early AI pioneers didn't, is that knowing answers is easy but understanding questions is hard. When Watson got one wrong, it didn't make the kind of mistake a human would. Like, the clue specified an author and Watson named the book instead. Another clue specified an "American city" and Watson said "Toronto" leading to great LOLs. In both cases Watson's response correctly matched the rest of the data in the clue, but it misparsed or overlooked something obvious that a human never would have missed - a human would have recognized "this is asking for a person's name" immediately and ruled out all non-persons-name answers, for instance.
We've come a long way toward natural language processing but there's still a long way to go, in other words.
Last week there was a lunch at work, and after some discussion it turned out every single person at the table was married to somebody from a different culture than them.
For example, Jinghua's Chinese, she's married to Oscar, who's Venezualean, but the two of them met in Denmark; Oscar's parents live in Canada and his brother is married to a Romanian.
And that's not as unusual as it used to be. Everyone at the table had a story about negotiating a compromise between their family's marriage customs and those of their husband's family or wife's family.
This is the future! International families are on the rise, and may even eventually become the norm. We're just a little ahead of the curve, here in immigrant-heavy, majority-minority Silicon Valley.
I hope that in the future, this trend will make people less eager to go to war, because more of us will stop and say "Wait a minute, I have relatives over there in [Iran/China/Russia/Israel/America]. They're not as bad as you're saying."
(Then again, maybe I'm too optimistic: lots of North Koreans have relatives in South Korea and they're still technically at war.)
A company called "Planetary Resources", started by a bunch of billionaires, yesterday announced their plans for commercial asteroid mining.
Damn it will be cool if this works!
Crowdfunding vs. DRM as the future of publishing
None of the songs I bought from the iTunes store will play any more because Apple thinks I've authorized them on too many computers; and I can't remember my Battle.net password so as far as Blizzard's concerned I no longer own that copy of Starcraft 2 I paid $60 for.
It used to be I only had to worry about losing my digital "posessions" when a magnet got near my disk drive or when an OS upgrade made my old data formats obsolete, but now... well, let's say I'm very reluctant to pay real money for an intangible electronic "product" when it can be taken away from me any time at the whim of an overzealous and glitchy DRM scheme.
This is why I'm not real keen on the idea of e-books; I like books that I can trust to stay on my shelf and continue existing even if the publisher changes their mind. Sushu's got several Kindles and was telling me about how you can now "loan" e-books to other people - the book is gone from your own Kindle for two weeks, then it comes back. (She likes this because books that she loans out the old-fashioned way pretty much never come back to her, she says.)
It's weird to think that some programmer had to write code whose sole function is to take a file that's still there on your Kindle and lock you out of it for two weeks. I imagine him at a Starbucks, swapping tips with the programmer from Blizzard who prevents users from playing Diablo 3 single-player without a connection to Blizzard's servers.
On a computer, every "move file" operation on a computer is actually a "copy file" followed by a "delete original". The "delete original" step is optional. The default state is for everybody to have as many copies of a file as they want; to reproduce the scarcity of the physical world takes work. Companies are paying workers to make there be less of their products.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. If we let everybody have copies of all the books they wanted for free, then writers couldn't get paid, and we wouldn't have any new books at all. I get that. It's just that, as people have been saying since at least the 90s, the publishing industry should really be coming up with new business models instead of trying to fight technological progress.
For a while we thought that new business model would be advertising. But web advertising has mutated into a creepy track-you-everywhere commercial panopticon, even as advertising fails to sustain print media. The value of web advertising is dropping as well. Advertisers can now see exactly how few people are clicking on their ads, and offer prices accordingly. Besides, I think relying on advertising too much puts the creators into an unhealthy relationship with readers: if the advertiser, rather than the reader, is the one paying your rent, then you have the incentive to do what the advertiser wants, even if the reader doesn't want it.
Lots of creative people on the web have moved to merchandise-supported model. That's great if it works for them, but many types of work (say, non-fiction books) that don't lend themselves to merchandise at all. And besides, there's only so many T-shirts the average comic-reading nerd can fit in their closet. Mechandise seems very limiting.
I donated to my first project thinking "huh, one of those ransom model things? OK, well, they won't take my money unless funding succeeds, so there's not much to lose; let's try it". I didn't think much more about it at the time. But as I've watched Kickstarters get more and more attention over the past few months I'm starting to think Kickstarter, or something like it, might be the answer.
(Obviously Kickstarter did not invent the ransom model of publishing; I know Stephen King did a book that way over ten years ago.)
But here's the thing: Kickstarter-style crowd-funding is one of the very few ways where the creator is actually getting paid for doing the work of creation. With advertising you get paid for delivering customer eyeballs to advertising, and that indirectly funds the creation of the work. Even with traditional publishing, the money comes from rectangular masses of dead tree pulp being shipped around to stores, and the sales of these objects refund the publisher for the advance they gave the author for work already completed.
The work of a creator is to make a thing exist which never existed before. Kickstarter relates this to money in a very direct way: if enough fans say "Yes, I am a potential audience member, and it's worth $X to me for this thing to exist", then they pool their money and the creator gets it. And the successful Kickstarters generally seem to be the ones where the creator explains why they need that amount of money, and what exactly it will be put towards -- the ones where the costs are transparent and justifiable, in other words.
I could even see somebody in the future making a living off of one crowd-funded project after another, setting the funding targets of the projects to cover all their living costs, and not even having to care about piracy or DRM or artificial scarcity. Who cares if some people get a pirate copy, if you've already been paid the value of your time and labor for making the thing exist?
Maybe the bigger risk is that a "creator" will take everybody's money and then never deliver the work. There has been at least one high-profile attempted Kickstarter scam already, but people got wise to it before it was funded and it got taken down. Sooner or later somebody will do a scam competent enough to succeed. It will be interesting to see what happens to Kickstarter then.
I read this interesting article today about how the Kickstarter website doesn't show you the 56% of projects that fail to meet their funding target. He says 56% like it's a bad thing. A 44% success rate is amazing, far higher than I imagined. And it's good that some projects don't get funded. The funding process is a way of gauging interest. If the interest isn't there, won't you be glad to find that out up front? You don't waste time making the thing and you don't go into debt financing it.
So yeah, projects fail. There are still no guarantees of success. Getting publicity for your kickstarter is still hard. There is only a finite amount of donor money out there, and a finite amount of donor attention. (Attention may be even scarcer than money). People who are already famous from other projects have a huge advantage getting attention for their Kickstarter campaign.
But none of those problems are new. It's always been hard for first-time creators to get attention for their work. There's always been competition for a limited number of audience dollars. That's part of the service that publishers provide - they know how to generate publicity. In fact, generating publicity may soon be the only function of publishers that technology does not render obsolete. (Well, that and editing. Editing is a valuable service and most stuff published on the internet would be a lot better if it had some!)
Maybe in the future, a "publisher" will be somebody you hire to manage your crowd-funding campaign for you? And the trustworthiness of the publisher's brand will be part of what convinces potential donors that you're not a scam -- that they can trust you to actually finish making the thing. It's also a reassurance that you meet somebody's standard of quality.
After all, there may be no limits on file duplication, but there are still limits on audience attention span, so that's the resource we need to pay attention to. The future will be interesting!
Hurricane Sandy: Is this the new normal thanks to global warming?
The day after Hurricane Sandy I called my relatives in Connecticut. They're all OK, though they've lost power and they report major chunks of what used to be the beach are now missing. My family lives on Long Island Sound, meaning they were sheltered from the worst of the storm, but even so it ripped up reinforced concrete and threw boulders up the road. Here's a picture Googleshng sent me from his neighborhood:
I have seen some amazing/horrifying pictures from New York City like this one and this one showing the blacked-out part of Manhattan.
Sandy smashed records for size, water levels, and tied with the great hurricane of 1938 for the barometicr pressure record. It was the worst storm ever to hit New York City.
Here's a page that had live updates of the damage - videos of the jersey shore wiped out, subway tunnels flooded, and over 8 million people without power.
There were a lot of fake pictures (either Photoshopped, or real-but-not-actually-from-Hurricane-Sandy) circulating. The Atlantic ran a guide to telling real pictures from fake ones. The one with the shark swimming down the street, and the one with the scuba diver int he subway, were 'shopped. It's not like the real ones aren't bad enough!
I've heard estimates of 20-50 billion dollars worth of damages, or about ten billion per day. (That's still less than Katrina!)
The thought that came to me as I watched the destruction unfold: Is this the new normal? With ocean levels rising and ocean temperatures increasing and extreme weather getting more common, are we going to look back on this decade as the start of the era of continuous, massive flooding of coastal cities and a never-ending refugee crisis?
The Onion read my mind with a non-fiction piece masquerading as satire: Nation Realizes this is just going to be a thing that happens from now on.
Three-quarters of the Arctic ocean melted this summer. We had a massive crop-destroying drought throughout the central USA. It's really hard to keep denying that the earth is warming, though some still argue that it's a natural process and not caused by humans. However, even a "natural process" can still kill us.
Bad Astronomy talks about how Sandy was made worse by warmer ocean temperatures. He calls it "The world's largest metaphor" and says it should be "a shot of adrenaline to the heart".
"We have a 100-year flood every two years now," said New York Governer Cuomo. "We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns. We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems and that is not a good combination."
NY Mayor Bloomberg says "anyone who says there's not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality".
The sea level in New York harbor is already about a foot higher than it was in 1900. That's not a prediction, that's a measurement.
And yet, we have a candidate running for president (Romney) who openly mocks the idea of sea levels rising.
He also wants to de-fund FEMA, the federal agency that responds to disasters.
FEMA, which I hear has been working a lot better under Obama than it did under Bush. Enough that New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has been campaigning for Romney all along, stopped to praises Obama's leadership of the hurricane response. Because, surprise, when you staff a federal agency with competent people instead of partisan flunkies, and when you're trying to make the government work instead of trying to prove your "government-is-always-incompetent-so-cut-everything-to-pay-for-tax-cuts-for-millionaires" ideology, then an agency like FEMA can do its job.
Yeah, I know, I should feel dirty even to be thinking "how will this hurricane affect the election" -- but look: responding to, and preventing, tragedies is one of the important functions of the federal government and the candidates have very different ideas about this function. Disasters are already political, whether we "politicize" them or not. Disaster preparedness/response is relevant to the election and vice versa. Far more relevant than, say, how many horses Romney's family has or whether Obama is going to show Donald Trump his college transcripts or any of the other stupid, stupid stuff that the media used as News-Like Filler Product all year.
The longtime predictions of climate scientists are coming true, and if Manhattan being underwater is the new normal, I would really like to have a government that's not in denial about it.
Robots are gonna take all our jobs
Even if we survive the displacement from rising sea levels, and the food shortages from climate-changed induced droughts and the bee die-off, we can look forward to a future where robots have made us all obsolete:
The robot threat: In the long run, we are telepathic androids | The Economist
Assuming Moore's Law keeps churning away at its normal exponential pace, Mr Drum figures that will happen somewhere around 2040, and it will gradually make our current economic assumptions untenable: most humans will become permanently unemployable since there will be nothing they can do that a robot can't do better and cheaper, which means there will be too few consumers to create demand for the products the robots can create.
Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don't Fire Us? | Mother Jones
Increasingly, then, robots will take over more and more jobs. And guess who will own all these robots? People with money, of course. As this happens, capital will become ever more powerful and labor will become ever more worthless. Those without moneyâ€”most of usâ€”will live on whatever crumbs the owners of capital allow us.
Of course, this disruption is already happening. People are already losing their jobs to "robots", even though they don't look much like science-fiction robots -- they're mostly internet-connected algorithms.
There used to be a job called "video rental store clerk", for example (I used to be one) but Netflix has rendered that job obsolete. There used to be a job called travel agent, but Expedia and other airline-search websites eliminated that. And of course Google is putting a lot of research into taking away the jobs of taxi drivers and truck drivers with their driverless cars.
Jaron Lanier (author of "You Are Not A Gadget", which I highly recommend) says in an interview with Slate that The Internet Destroyed The Middle Class:
At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear? And what happened to the wealth that all those middle-class jobs created?
If you think about it, software is only profitable if you can sell it to an organization. An organization is only going to buy the software if it saves them money. And how does it save them money? By letting them fire workers.
Whenver startup guys talk about "disrupting" an industry, what they mean is "we're going to fire all your workers and replace them with software, so that we -- the controllers of the software -- can be the new middlemen".
There are currently a lot of startup guys talking about "disrupting" education. Which means that teachers should be very, very afraid.
I can imagine a world where robots do all the work. In that world, capitalism and the current social contract of labor-for-wages are simply untenable. They'd have to have some other economic system for distributing the goods and services produced by all their robots. But how do we get there from here? In the short term, capitalism isn't going anywhere. And capitalism is going to ensure that technological advances continue to displace workers, while all of the productivity gains from the new technology are captured by the owners of industry.
It's a lot like what happened during the industrial revolution. If you take the very long view, you could say that the industrial revolution ended up making the economy better for everyone -- worldwide living standards and education levels and so on are higher now, and we have new jobs that are better than the old crappy jobs that were eliminated. But the long term benefit was small comfort to the people who lived through the industrial revolution and saw their jobs replaced by machines.
I'm not saying we should stop technological progress, even if we could. Instead, I think that the ongoing destruction of jobs by technological progress should be an argument for re-examining our economic system and our social contract, to try to come up with a system where the benefits of technological efficiency gains can be shared across society instead of accruing only to the top.