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The blog of reports and reviews from the events and sessions of Techonomy 2010 was extremely effective and helpful. Please continue the practice !
TahoeBlue is now following techonomy
Aug 7, 2010
The topic and theme presented by Mr. Gelernter resonate with other information-centric aspects of the interaction of technology and the economy with recent cultural trends. The rapid upshot of various kinds of time-streaming via the internet and mobile devices constitutes a dramatic departure from modes of interaction and communication which have heretofore been possible. However, Gelernter's metaphor of "time-indexed" as opposed to "space-arranged" as a new paradigm for organizing data has some shortcomings, in my opinion. I would suggest that *data* is still organized by humans in a spatial, categorical fashion, even if the files, folders, and rooms are electronic and virtual. This is particularly true if the data is viewed as being something which has informational value and which may be desired to be located or randomly accessed on demand. Although archives of conversations -- be they email, blogs, forums, or social network updates -- contain a time-ordered record of streaming experiences, information, opinions, facts, and thoughts, it seems to me that the recent advent of time-streaming is a completely new development and dimension when it comes to human interaction with each other and the web. Streaming in and of itself is not the most natural way to organize data, if only because, if left untended or groomed, streams upon streams will defy the temporal mode of the mind to remember, locate, and recall specific points in the stream -- however much we may recall experiencing a particular event in a past stream. There is also the issue of time itself. It takes time to simply monitor and interact with a variety of streaming interfaces -- to the extreme that a growing percentage of the younger generation are becoming glued to the hip with their realtime mobile updates of their current experience in the world as they move through it. At some point, the "cup runneth over", and, as the cursor of time moves on, previous stream interactions fade into the fuzzy fabric of historical minutiae. I would offer up two "use cases" which might be illustrative. First, consider the (now outdated and unheard of) practice where people would record radio broadcasts on reel-to-reel tape. A simplex radio broadcast is of course an early form of streaming :) Those who would record radio programs would need to put the tape in a carton and label the carton with not just the date of the recording but also -- in order to have any chance of 'indexing the stream archive' at a later time -- the pseudo-random sequence of music titles recorded from the broadcast. This is an early example of recording metadata needed to locate information in a stream. One of the issues with current streaming interfaces, as discussed elsewhere in these Techonomy sessions, is the *absence* of metadata which accompanies unstructured streams. Another issue is the simple fact that, to replay or access stream archives, time itself is required. The more time-based streams that we record and archive, the less likely that we will ever be able to replay or re-experience them because of the unbounded accumulation of former time and the unsuitability of "time acceleration" to revisit them given the limitations of current (and finite) time. A second example, which is closer to the point that Gelernter makes, is the use of "labels" (keyword attributes) which users of gmail can assign to tag emails, as well as the grouping by gmail of emails sharing the same subject into "conversations" (threads). This is a good example of 'organizing' stream/conversation content for later use. Surprisingly, gmail does not allow the sorting of emails, which is a gratuitous gripe that I will throw in while on the subject.
I would pay to see a real 30-ton gorilla ! I suspect that the figure was really 300kg.
I realize that you have reported on the climate change debate in the past. For example, in your column in The Nation last year, "Unpopular Science", you present your thoughts on climate change in the course of describing the attrition in the state of science journalism in the mainstream media. In that column, you write well about the important topic of science journalism, and the unfortunate waning of resources and qualified talent devoted to conveying popular understanding and assessments of topics grounded in science. However, you do err in one significant instance: you have chosen to take a political, and not a scientific, stance vis-a-vis the controversial topic of 'global warming'. The system of the Earth's climate is about as complex a dynamic system that one could imagine, and there is no simple field of "climate science", as the phenomenon involves so many scientific disciplines that it would take experts from a dozen or more fields to even begin to have a comprehensive investigation of the subject. When you support "consensus" as a basis for scientific legitimacy, you are abandoning the principles of science, which above all relies upon demonstrable and incontrovertible evidence in the observed and observable universe to support a theory, however elegant and or intriguing a theory may be. I mention this not merely to raise the specter of 'unable to be proven' simply to counter the hypothesis of 'global warming' -- even though it is quite true that the theory in question -- that amplified negative feedback in the Earth's climate brought about by increased levels of CO2 will cause exponential and catastrophic changes in the state of the Earth in mere decades -- is still completely unproven, and, for decades to come, unprovable. Rather, I of course agree that studying the climate of the Earth is a very important topic of scientific investigation and study -- just that computer models (and selective statistical graphics) do not a demonstrable proof make. You are quite right to consider climate change theories. Where you cross the line is to deride and ridicule the legitimate efforts of scientists to debate, discuss, and yes, to disagree with the theory of imminent and dire climate change caused solely by the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere contributed to by human activity. When you write "The mass media, however, ...(bowing to pressure from special interests and their pet scientists, who strategically attacked the scientific consensus)" you are adopting the belief system, not the science, of those who would defend the theory simply by attacking those who disagree. Science is not about 'consensus', nor something to be voted on by a majority. Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein -- these scientists were the opposite of 'consensus' -- they were stand-alone radicals who bucked the 'consensus' of the day. Your own un-scientific bias is further revealed when you characterize Anthony Watts challenges to "mainstream understanding of climate change" as a "misinformation machine". A misinformation machine ?? Come now. That is not objective science journalism -- you are clearly showing what you have come to believe. It is certainly fine for you to have adopted the opinions and views of your choosing -- each and every one of us has that right. But when your reporting on the topic indicates your choice by clearly dismissing the analysis of one side of the debate as being somehow illegitimate, you are no longer a science journalist -- as difficult a fence as that is to ride with regards to this subject in particular. It is perhaps natural that you might see challenges to a theory that you have chosen to personally accept to be some kind of hypocritical propaganda motivated by other-than-scientific factors. However, you unnecessarily and unfairly smear honest science by doing so and seek to adopt the mantle of 'science judge' when you, as a journalist, can make such pronouncements regarding this scientific debate. Although you may not see it, *believing* in a 'global warming consensus' is a stone's throw from other culturally-propagated beliefs, many of which advanced and adamantly argued by the likes of conspiracy theorists in a number of facets of life. I would urge you, as a science journalist, to not have such a closed mind (and condescending attitude) when it comes to the legitimate debate over theories of climate change. Even though your adopted position might be thought to be 'popular', your treatment of the subject detracts from the many other areas in which your analysis and commentary are quite valid and valuable. I would be more than willing to discuss the subject with you further should it be of interest. But, again to the specific point: how on Earth can you think that the notion of pumping acid-rain-inducing sulfur oxide into the atmosphere can in any way be a proposal that is reasonable to consider ?
This is certainly a topic, and field, that will become increasingly relevant as time goes on. As you point out, increasing the (active and healthy) human life span has rather pronounced effects on the economics of retirement, pensions, and healthcare -- above and beyond the inexorable drive of the human species to increase the length and percentage of the joyful component of life's journey while minimizing the amount of time spent in the pain and suffering of debilitation. The "fountain of youth" has long been sought -- but there are some "catches". For starters, can you imagine such a 'pill' being inexpensive and available to the masses ? Such a treatment would almost certainly tend to increase the gap in the quality of life between rich and poor, as opposed to uniformly float the boats of humanity. That, of course, is no reason to stifle medical research and advances -- it is just an observation about likely social 'side effects'. More importantly, if the issues associated with the aging of the most vital organ for human experience -- the brain -- are not successfully addressed or solved, then extending organic existence another few decades could have tremendous negative blowback. Life in general, and we humans in particular, are lucky enough to inhabit a mysterious, entropy-defying vehicle for far longer than chaos theory would have predicted, and -- if we can manage to meet our basic needs -- should be thankful for the opportunity to be part of the fabric of human consciousness for however long a flash-in-the-pan window that we are given. Longevity is a good thing -- as long as it is truly healthy.
Toggle Commented Aug 6, 2010 on Bullish on Longevity at Techonomy
To propose injecting sulfuric oxide into the atmosphere, when so much effort and cost has historically been expended to eliminate the acid rain caused by sulfur emissions, patently shows the misguided developments and consequences that climate change alarmism can produce. When you say "climate change looks increasingly unstoppable", you have encapsulated your beliefs into an ironic Moebius strip type of assertion. Climate has always been changing, with high and low extremes long before humans cultivated cattle or began using fossil fuels. Climate change is unstoppable in the sense that the dynamic and complex system of the Earth and its climate is beyond the direct control of humans. I suspect that I am not going to affect your *beliefs* about 'global warming' in the space of a short paragraph -- that is perhaps for another day, when and if time and willingness would support an open and objective discussion. Hopefully your allegiance and support of truly objective and scientific principles will allow you to re-examine some of your assumptions, or at least reconsider the subject. But suffice to say that to entertain pumping acid-rain-generating pollutants into the atmosphere to somehow 'geoengineer' away a 'problem' that is still a hypothesis and not a proven causal relationship by any stretch clearly reflects the real downside of climate change alarmism.
One does not need to look at forecasts of future costs of education to pick out a perhaps overlooked gorilla in the room: the current cost of higher education -- a cost which has risen at over 10 times the rate of other costs in the past several decades. By way of example, In 1970, the cost of room and board at an Ivy League university was $2000. One year of tuition was $2000. Currently, the cost of room and board is $4000, and one year of tuition is $40,000 !! On top of that, institutions of higher education are behaving every bit as a cartel. Financial statements by parents of applicants are shared across the board, and the calculation for determining "financial aid", at least at private institutions, works basically by (1) establishing a very large "suggested retail price" for the cost of tuition (one which is out of reach by all except the very wealthy), and then (2) providing "assistance" to a degree that would just barely avoid insolvency of the revenue producer, the parents, and 'discounting' the high cost with a combination of grants and loans. Couple that with both the perception and in part the reality that an undergraduate education is considered an essential rite of passage to even have a chance at starting out on the path to a successful life and career, and you have the makings of a gatekeeper that can collectively charge whatever it wants for the price of admission. Also, those who have made a career within the citadels of academia naturally find the earning power of being a member of a select club quite enticing, and powerful. Finally, the feeder system of public elementary and secondary education has fallen far behind and is not producing minimal skills in a sufficient percentage of the youth population. Fortunately, electronically available sources of knowledge still make it possible for someone eager to learn and acquire knowledge. As far as what the "top 10 schools" will be in 20 years, I agree that it is a completely self-serving and misguided question.
Ha ! some 'bozos' from Bezos. Simply term limits would accomplish the same, only better !
Information is clearly an important source of economic value, but when Mr. Robinson opines that "information is the most important resource of the 21st century ... not oil, not water", he is taking the role of electronic cheerleader over the top. There may be 'gold in them thar hills' with regards to managing, capitalizing, and monetizing the increasingly informational and interpersonal nature of human interaction in the 21st century, particularly in light of the fact that it is easier to move electrons and light in wire or glass than it is to move humans from point A to point B. But Mr. Robinson is having a bit of an "out of body experience" when he relegates the importance of such things as sources of physical energy and life itself to a status that is less than 'information'. Simple cause-and-effect: the human mind can not enjoy the fruits of its conceptual interactions with others if the physical basis for life support is missing or wanting ! He has perhaps rushed a bit too headlong and prematurely into the 'singularity' anticipated by Ray Kurzweil (and feared by Bill Joy). One other thing about 'information', such as "unstructured data" in the form of video and audio streams: such data is largely unbounded, and can be created, manufactured, or instantiated by simply turning on billions of devices and pouring the output of their codecs and transponders into the waiting arms of the Web. One thing that techno-evangelists should consider, a lesson learned from basic economics, is simply that over-abundance and over-supply actually *reduces* relative value. Just look at what has happened in the music industry, for starters. If personal and social information -- and privacy -- is of such inherent value, then individuals should be compensated by the social networks of the world to be able to monetize the activity and identity of the participants, not the other way around. I suspect that, as important as technology and information is to the total economy, that Mr. Robinson is on a bit of a well, flight of fancy !
If we divide energy use into two large camps, terrestrial and mobile (vehicular, not wireless ! ), then Lovins' objective to reduce oil and gas consumption by engineering more efficient, lighter-weight vehicles is certainly on target. However, transportation itself is of several varieties: individual, freight, and aviation. We would be well advised to focus usage of hydrocarbon fuels for aviation -- planes can not fly on electricity -- they need the propulsion provided by burning hydrocarbons. Individuals can be moved in urban areas by electrical or electrcally-supplemented vehicles, and rail transport is certainly amenable to be powered by terrestrial electricity. Transport of freight by trucking, however, will also need portable power, and natural gas -- which is relatively plentiful in the North American continent -- is a much better source than foreign oil. But Lovins appears to miss the boat by not factoring in nuclear generation of terrestrial electricity as an efficient source of the increased demand on electrical power which will definitely accompany the move away from foreign oil.
Toggle Commented Aug 5, 2010 on Lovin' Energy Efficiency at Techonomy
I agree with your critique. Nuclear power is clearly the most efficient and promising source of terrestrial energy for the future. Even Stewart Brand, the champion of the Whole Earth, agrees !
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Aug 5, 2010