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July 31, 2007

Quick Links, City Lights & CBFP

Two very quick updates:

If you missed the event at the City Lights Bookstore last week, NeoFiles has put the first half of the conversation up as a podcast:

True Mutations Live! at City Lights (Part 1)

If you listen closely, you can hear me swear on the interwebs.

-=-=-=-

Woohoo! Independent confirmation!

Akifumi Ogino of the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Tsukuba, Japan has published a paper in Animal Science Journal, calculating the environmental impact of the production of Japanese beef. New Scientist summarizes the findings:

The team looked at calf production, focusing on animal management and the effects of producing and transporting feed. By combining this information with data from their earlier studies on the impact of beef fattening systems, the researchers were able to calculate the total environmental load of a portion of beef.

Their analysis showed that producing a kilogram of beef leads to the emission of greenhouse gases with a warming potential equivalent to 36.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide. It also releases fertilising compounds equivalent to 340 grams of sulphur dioxide and 59 grams of phosphate, and consumes 169 megajoules of energy.

36.4 kg of CO2e per kg of beef, at 2.2 pounds per kg and assuming a quarter-pound of beef per burger, works out to ~4kg of CO2e from beef per burger. The number I used in my estimates for the entire burger? 4.35 kg CO2e per burger. Definitely in the same ballpark.

(*whew*)

July 30, 2007

The Carbon Footprint of Talking About Carbon Footprints

It's a legitimate question: by flying me out to Denver and driving me around the state for much of the day, did National Geographic TV end up substantially compounding the very problem I talk about with the cheeseburger footprint story?

Let's do the math. According to Terrapass, my flight out to Denver and back ran about 867 pounds of CO2, total (per passenger). In the course of filming in a variety of locations, we drove two vehicles -- a standard pickup truck and a minivan, carrying a sum of six people and a huge amount of gear -- about 250 miles apiece. According to EPA estimates, pickups and minivans of appropriate size and vintage emit anywhere from 8 to 12 tons of CO2 over the course of driving 15,000 miles; call it 10 tons for easy math. 20,000 pounds of CO2 for 15,000 miles equals 1.3 pounds per mile, so 500 miles equals 666.7 pounds of CO2. That brings us to 1533.7 pounds for transportation alone; add in the incidentals of the day (power to charge the camera batteries, meals, and such), and we can reasonably estimate 1,600 pounds of direct CO2 emissions as the result of the day's activities.

Or, to put that into more familiar terms, that's about 160 cheeseburgers, a bit more than the average American's annual consumption.

Was it worth doing? I think so. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't thought the costs were worthwhile. Shows like Six Degrees get more viewers even on a lousy night than have ever read the Cheeseburger Footprint post, or have seen its various appearances in the blogosphere. Clearly, the meme is a good one -- I apparently stumbled across the right combination of cultural icon and environmental provocation -- and I'm still getting press inquiries about it. I expect that, when the show comes out in February, I'll get another flurry of emails. Depending upon how the material is presented, it may even end up as the hook used in promos and criticized in reviews.

Having worked in the TV industry for a couple of years in the late 1990s, I was sufficiently familiar with the sausage-making that goes into filming a TV show that I wasn't surprised by much of the NGTV day. Incessant retakes, technical flubs, material shot that would likely never even be considered for use, and the knowledge that at least six hours of filming would result in 3 minutes of screen time -- none of these were alien to me.

What I did find distressing was the nagging sense that I never really told the story right, that I had left off important parts, or that in the course of speaking extemporaneously about the subject, I'd messed up some numbers. I don't mind looking goofy for the show, I just don't want to come across as a fool.

July 27, 2007

Cheeseburger Footprint Goes To Hollywood

Capturing the CameraScenes from a day in Colorado:

I'm sitting on a camera suitcase on a grassy hill along highway 25, a few miles south of the Wyoming border. Cars and trucks whiz by at 80 miles per hour or so, while I'm instructed to gaze at the old-fashioned (but still functional) oil derrick a few dozen yards away. I'm pretending to take notes... on what, I'm not certain, so I end up just drawing the derrick.

...

I'm at a burger joint in Denver, using a wooden ruler to measure the burgers on the grill for the camera.

...

The cattle in the field watch me warily, moving away as I approach. Cued by the director, I pull on a latex glove with a snap, then look back at the camera with a "mischievous grin."

...

I'm informed as we break between scenes that: firstly, the producers at National Geographic told the director that, while looking at the script for Six Degrees (the global warming special for NGTV), they were most looking forward to seeing the cheeseburger footprint segment; secondly, my segment was being filmed in between filming NASA's James Hansen and filming RMI's Amory Lovins. No pressure.

...

DerrickMore at the derrick. After sitting in one spot for about 20 minutes, I move to the other side of the camera, take the same position, and gaze off in the direction that the derrick would be if I were back where I started; this will give the illusion that the camera has moved to the other side of me, I'm told.

...

Retrieving the Stuck EarbudThe sound engineer swaps his earbuds for headphones as we start, then lets out a shout: one of the earbuds has broken off deep in his ear. The crew scrambles around, looking for a set of tweezers or something to extract it. Within a few minutes, the director's assistant manages to use a set of needle-nosed pliers to remove the offending object.

...

We spend nearly three hours filming me at the burger joint. The majority of scenes are of me skulking around "surreptitiously" taking notes of the burgers being grilled, including one point where I'm asked to hide behind a counter, then slowly lift up to appear behind a tray of burgers, and one point where a worker finds me in the meat refrigerator, then slams the freezer door in my face.

...

I can't decide whether the crew thinks that I clearly don't take myself too seriously, or that I clearly don't have any sense of shame.

Six Degrees will be on National Geographic TV in February of 2008; the 12 hours or so of filming (including about an hour of interviewing me) will be boiled down to about 3-4 minutes for the show.

(More pictures from the day here.)

July 24, 2007

Scene from City Lights


(Picture taken by my wife Janice.)

July 23, 2007

Hell Week

Posting likely to be sporadic at best this week. I'm over-booked pretty much every day through Friday, evenings included. On Wednesday night, I fly out to Denver for National Geographic Television, spend Thursday talking cheeseburgers, and fly home on Friday. If I'm very lucky, I'll have time and space to do a blog post or two in the hotel and/or on the plane.

And a last reminder: if you're in the SF area, come out to the City Lights Bookstore tomorrow (Tuesday) night at 7pm for a special event with RU Sirius, David Pescovitz, and me (possibly among others).

July 19, 2007

"Geome Engineering"

atmocean.jpgThe latest Popular Science focuses on a variety of techno-fixes for environmental disruption, from home wind and solar to more eco-friendly laptops. Of particular interest, however, is a set of articles given the amusing description of "Duct Tape Methods to Save the Earth." One of the methods is a bit of biotech to make trees that can out-compete rain forest trees in lumber markets, but the other three are essentially ways to make local- and regional-scale changes to a geophysical system in order to mitigate environmental damage. In essence, these three are small-scale geoengineering projects. That's a bit of an ungainly (and arguably contradictory) name, so I've elected to refer to these methods as "geome engineering."

[You won't find other references to this concept, however. In looking for the right term to talk about a consistent geophysical region of the size these methods affect, I came across this chart of ecological land classification at Wikipedia. After checking the links and references, I realized that what I needed was the geophysical (or abiotic, in the language of the chart) equivalent of a biome, an ecologically consistent region of plants, animals and soil organisms. In parallel to a biome, then, I've conditionally opted for the term "geome" (but would, of course, welcome suggestions of a more accurate existing term).]

The three geome engineering projects described by Popular Science are artificial wetlands, insulating blankets for glaciers, and wave-driven cold-water pumps for hurricane-prone ocean regions.

Each of the three takes a different approach to the problem of environmental protection. The artificial wetlands attempt to repair a damaged biome by using an artificial matrix as a base for local plants and animals; the matrix material floats, and allows the plant roots and tendrils to reach the water. The insulation blankets for glaciers attempt to protect a threatened area by slowing the warming-induced melting of glaciers; for now, the use of the blankets is limited to ski resorts in the Alps -- but in the tests, the blankets led to an 80% reduction in glacial melting.

The last of the three, the wave-driven cold-water pumps, are to me the most interesting, as they are meant to mitigate the impact of hurricanes by lowering ocean surface temperatures by pulling colder water from 650' down. Warm oceans are the engines for hurricane strength; the designer, Phil Kithil, wants to cut hurricane power by cooling the water.

Dropped from the deck of his ship, spools of barrel-width flexible tubing will unravel to form 650-foot-long cylinders. These are topped by buoys that bob up and down with each passing wave and drive pumps that draw cool, nutrient-rich water up from the deep ocean. Bigger waves mean more cooling, and, conveniently, big waves precede hurricanes. "So we get cooling only when we want cooling," Kithil says, "when there's a hurricane on the horizon."

Preliminary studies by Kithil's group Atmocean have shown a measurable reduction in sea surface temperatures in limited trials; a larger test, with pumps spread out over a one-third-square-mile section of ocean, is set to commence in August. The test will look not only for a reduction in water temperature, but also any indication of harm to marine life. There is actually a possibility of the system being beneficial to marine ecosystems, as the cooler water would contain nutrients that would promote the re-growth of plankton killed by warming oceans.

The attractive aspect of geome engineering is that, because the effects are more limited, the risks are likely to be similarly limited. The costs are lower, too, making it plausible that lower-income nations could use some of these techniques for ecosystem remediation, geophysical protection, and damage mitigation.

Reminder: City Lights Bookstore Event

Reminder: On THIS UPCOMING Tuesday, July 24, at 7pm, R.U. Sirius will be recording his radio show at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, in celebration of the release of his new book, True Mutations: Interviews on the Edge of Science, Technology, and Consciousness. Several of the people interviewed for the book, including Annalee Newitz, David Pescovitz, Lynn Hershman and myself, will be there to serve as co-hosts for the show.

I'd be really happy if there were OtF readers in the audience...

Update: Annalee has dropped out... but in her place, Howard Rheingold will be there!

July 18, 2007

This Really Says It All

[BusinessWeek] Would you consider a position in business or on Wall Street?
[Condoleezza Rice] I don't know what I'll do long-term. I'm a terrible long-term planner.

Source: "A Resolute Condoleezza Rice," BusinessWeek July 23, 2007

Footprint Database

fpco2e.jpgSo the folks who asked about milk's footprint run what might come to be a useful listing of the carbon footprints of a variety of everyday items. It's in the UK, so some of the examples aren't entirely universal (a train from London to York, for example), but it's a good start. As of today, they have 21 items (including... well, you know).

The Fishergate Environmental Panel Visual Index

Milk's Hoofprint

I was asked in email if I'd calculated the carbon footprint of milk, along with the footprint of a cheeseburger, and I realized that I had most of the figures I'd need already in hand.

[Caveat: In order to fully calculate the carbon footprint of milk, I'd need to have numbers on energy consumed in growing cattle feed for dairy cows, processing the milk (pasteurization, bottling, etc.) and transporting the results; however, the main carbon impact will be from the methane produced by the cattle, so that's where I'll focus.]

This calculation should be reasonably straightforward -- a first pass estimate would be

(Amount of methane produced by a milk cow in a year) / (Amount of milk produced by a milk cow in a year)

...or...

(242 lbs of methane)* / (19,951 lbs of milk)** = 0.012 lbs of methane per lb of milk

1 gallon of milk = ~8.5 lbs, so

1 gallon of milk = 0.102 lbs of methane

but!

1 unit methane = 23 units of CO2 in terms of greenhouse impact, so

1 gallon of milk = 2.35 lbs of CO2 equivalent

Add in a pound of CO2 equivalent for processing and transportation (as a very crude figure), and that ends up to be about 3.35 pounds of CO2 equivalent per gallon of milk. Call it three-and-a-half pounds of CO2 equivalent per gallon of milk.

Or, in metric:

1 liter of milk = 282 grams of CO2 equivalent in methane. With transport & processing, call it about 400 grams of CO2 equivalent per liter of milk.

As with the cheeseburger figures, these are very fuzzy numbers, and the actual amount will vary on the basis of how much carbon is produced farming and transporting cattle feed, collecting and pasteurizing the milk, and trucking the gallons to your local grocery store -- along with how much milk a given cow produces (which can vary considerably).

Repeat after me: everything we do has some level of a carbon footprint. The achievable goal is to make smart choices about what kind of footprint we'll make, and what we'll choose to avoid. The first step in making a smart choice is understanding one's options. So drink milk. Eat a cheeseburger. Heck, drive a big truck. But don't do it without accepting the consequences.

Sources:
* Methane amount: http://www.epa.gov/rlep/faq.html (in kilos, 1 kilo = 2.2 lbs)
** Milk per cow: http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/current/MilkProdDi/MilkProdDi-04-27-2007.txt

July 17, 2007

Technology as Political Catalyst

camphonepol.jpgIt's become almost a cliché to observe that the Internet is changing the face of electoral politics at the national scale. The use of the web for fundraising (and to observe fundraising) is an obvious example, but for me a more interesting phenomenon is the way in which an existing Internet technology (one that had previously not been considered inherently political) can suddenly emerge as a major force in making and breaking a candidate. There's no reason to expect that to change -- and that adds a wildcard to the 2008 political races in the US.

In 2004, the big story was the use of MeetUp to make Howard Dean a frontrunner (and eventually the leader of the Democratic Party); social networking apps had been around for awhile, but suddenly people realized that they had power. In 2006, the big story was the use of YouTube to post damning video of George "Macaca" Allen; again, YouTube wasn't a new site, but suddenly it was able to bring down a leading candidate. For 2008, candidates across the political spectrum already have their social networking and web video strategies in order, and neither technology will have the same kind of "out of nowhere" transformative impact again.

For the 2008 campaign, we've yet to see which Internet technology will shake up the political world. What kinds of characteristics would such a technology possess? Let's see...

  • It's likely to be already commonplace, but without a real political footprint. One or two candidates trying to figure out how to make it work for them is fine, but there shouldn't be any coherent strategy for its use -- yet. (So MySpace and Facebook are out.)

  • It's likely to be something that obeys Metcalfe's Law, drawing power not from the number of users, but the connections between the users. (So Google Docs are out -- not that I really expected Google Docs to be a king-making app.)

  • It doesn't necessarily have to have an immediate impact, but it should be something that can be easily explained and understood. (So wikis are probably out, sad to say.)

What we're looking for is a technology that has the potential to make a dark horse candidate an unexpected contender, or make a leading candidate stumble and possibly fall.

Here are the technologies that I think might fit this role -- and, as always, I'm more than happy to entertain counter-arguments, alternative suggestions, and private insults.

  • Microblogging apps, like Twitter and Pownce. A couple of the candidates have presences in the microblogs, but nobody has quite figured out how to use the technology really well. Could Twitter (etc.) become engines for political flash mobs, or ways to spread information/disinformation more effectively?

  • Geolocative technologies, like Google Maps and cheap GPS. This is likely to manifest as a map mashup, connecting candidate/campaign-relevant information to location. I could see something like this used for pinpoint targeting of donors and visits by campaigners (e.g., "Mr. Smith donated to my opponent last time around by this time, but hasn't done so yet this campaign -- he may be a possible conversion."), or to create "open source intelligence" about the appearances of a candidate and his/her team.

  • Photo-sharing sites, like Flickr and Zoomr. Using these sites for open source intel or counter-campaigning seems the most likely possibility, but there may be some kind of application that really charges up a campaign.

  • Participatory Panopticon/Sousveillance. Okay, not technically an Internet technology per se, but clearly dependent upon Internet tools. As I think about it, this may end up being less its own candidate, and more a variant for each of the previous three suggestions. In either case, the value comes in large part from the swarm possibilities: not just a cameraphone video recording of a macaca-style gaffe, but a mass of recordings, from different positions, capturing a scene in greater detail than any single regular camera could.

(An early signal of the last becoming a real possibility would be a steadily-increasing use of cameraphones to record speeches at rallies and campaign stops.)

Given my work with the Metaverse Roadmap, some readers might be curious as to why I didn't include virtual worlds on my list. They certainly fit the listed criteria (the third a bit shakily, but close enough), and we're already seeing some initial efforts at campaigning in Second Life. My sense is that the technology isn't quite mature enough to make the big political splash this time around -- but virtual worlds have the potential to be catalytic in 2010 or 2012.

Of course, the 2008 campaigns may be run largely on TV, with the Internet used for fundraising and for organizing supporters, without any disruption from unexpectedly useful technologies... but I doubt it. A more real possibility is that the leading campaigns will have become sufficiently Internet-savvy that emerging technologies with disruptive potential get identified and co-opted before they have a chance to change the game. I hope that's not the case; political innovation in the use of social technologies remains one of the few democratizing elements in an electoral system that seems less and less responsive to the will of the people.

(Photo adapted from Creative Commons-licensed image by Unsure Shot on Flickr.)

July 15, 2007

Blade Runner

Oscar Pistorius is the South African sprinter I mentioned in my piece The Accidental Cyborg -- a world-class runner who happens to have artificial lower legs and feet. Because of the shape of the carbon fiber prosthetics, his nickname is now "Blade Runner."

Here's the Blade Runner in action last Friday:

He was profiled in the Financial Times last week, in a piece that highlights many of the dilemmas arising from the intersection of augmentation technology and sports, and exploring what might come next.

Laboratory experiments with genetic implants on mice have produced massive muscle growth, and it is only a matter of time before such (perfected) experiments will be enacted on humans.

Precedent suggests that sports competitors will be the first to try them. Power-to-weight ratios will then go haywire, and world records could be reduced by 10 per cent. And who will know? It is difficult enough at present to test for an excess of naturally occurring body chemicals, such as testosterone.

If we don't see gene-doping in 2008, we'll almost certainly see it by 2012 Olympics. The next sports arms race may well be between athletes with enhanced genomes vs. athletes with super-prosthetics.

July 13, 2007

The Futures Meme

Okay, this is one everyone can play with, and hopefully won't lead to veiled recriminations and bitter feuds in the comments. It's also perfect for a lazy summer weekend.

This one nicely riffs on a few recurring themes here at OtF: open source scenarios, human agency (that is, the future is something we do, not something done to us), and the possibility of achieving a positive future. It's one of those "web meme" things that kids today are all talking about; I'll take the traditional path and tag five people, and encourage them to tag five of their own (etc.). Please feel free to play along in the comments or on your own blogs. Here we go:

Fifteen years is a useful time period for thinking about the Future. It's long enough that we'll go through a couple of major political cycles, see noticeable improvement in common technologies, and undoubtedly experience a radical breakthrough or two. At the same time, it's near enough that most of us will expect to still be around, living lives that might not be too different from today's.

So here's the task: Think about the world of fifteen years hence (2022, if you're counting along at home). Think about how technology might change, how fashions and pop culture might evolve, how the environment might grab our attention, and so forth. Now, take a sentence or two and answer...

  • What do you fear we'll likely see in fifteen years?
  • What do you hope we'll likely see in fifteen years?
  • What do you think you'll be doing in fifteen years?

    There are no wrong answers here -- only opportunities to surprise, provoke and amuse.

    Here are mine:

  • Fear: I'm afraid that we'll have hit a climate tipping point much sooner than anticipated, Storms, floods, drought, disease, and more, all leading to millions upon millions of refugees, drawing upon dwindling resources and wondering what disasters await them.
  • Hope: I expect that we'll have working cures for most forms of cancer by 2022, probably sooner. Most of the treatments will involve inert IR-sensitive nanospheres, some types of which tend to accumulate in tumorous growths -- and when illuminated with an IR laser (which passes harmlessly through tissue) heat up enough to burn away cancer. Animal trials in 2005 saw a 100% success rate with some cancer types.
  • Doing: I figure that, by 2022, I'll be well-established in the US government's Department of Foresight (based on the UK's Foresight Directorate, which exists now), started as an Executive Office group during President Gore's first term (2017-2020), and expanded into a full Department in his second.

    Tags:

    Let's see....

    I'd like Jon Lebkowsky, David Brin, Dale Carrico, Siel, and Rebecca Blood to give this one a whirl. Don't forget to tag five more of your own, and link back here in the comments when you're done.

    (And if you're a regular and I didn't tag you, I'm sorry, I'm a bad person, but please don't let that stop you from giving it a shot anyway, either in the comments here or at your own site.)

  • July 11, 2007

    Wednesday Topsight, July 11, 2007

    Jumping right in.

    The South African Model: Robert Rossney has a terrific idea: given that political machinations and partisanship are likely to continue for quite some time, the notion that the cabal currently holding power in the White House will ever see legal justice for its actions is absurd. We won't see impeachment or post-2008 trials -- and even if we did see such attempts, the ever-present nasty partisanship could easily turn violent (or, to be accurate, more violent). What might work better, however, is a Truth and Reconciliation commission:

    ...what if, when 2009 rolls around, the way you get out of being prosecuted for your role in caging black voters or selectively prosecuting "vote fraud" cases or corruptly obtaining a no-bid contract from Homeland Security or, you know, imprisoning and torturing innocent people, what if the way you avoid prison is to sit before a commission and relate, in as much detail as needed, exactly what you did, why it was criminal, and why you believed that you would never be held to account for it?

    Really, it's not that important to me that the President of the United States be impeached by the Senate. What's important to me is that Americans learn unequivocally what the men they chose to lead them really were. They are not going to learn of the contempt in which this Administration holds them through ritualized name-calling in Congress.

    South Africa's experience with its Truth and Reconciliation process is instructive here. There, "partisanship" included mass riots, state murder, and violations of rights and bodies that the interrogators at Gitmo can only dream of. Yet, despite all of the fury, hatred and regret wrapped up in that experience, the Truth and Reconciliation commission managed to enable both a peaceful transfer of power and a relatively accurate accounting of the nation's past.

    NanoConference: September is shaping up to be a good month for events. The Singularity Summit takes place in the San Francisco area over the weekend of the 8th and 9th, and will be followed in Tucson, Arizona by the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology's conference, "Challenges & Opportunities: The Future of Nano & Bio Technologies." The CRN conference will run from September 10 through 12, with an additional day of touring local bio- and nano-research facilities.

    What I find particularly interesting about the agenda is that it's not just tech talks on nano -- the first day of the conference looks at bioscience as a stepping stone to other advances, and the third day looks at the implications of the ongoing development of bio and nano technologies.

    Presenters will discuss both technical details and the larger meaning of their work, and attendees will have multiple opportunities for open dialog with the speakers. [...] The program will feature speakers covering a number of topics including: Tuberculosis and Bird Flu - New Epidemics in 2007; How to Build a Nanofactory; Military, Security, and Surveillance Issues; and more.

    CRN asked me to speak at the conference, and I would surely love to do so... but I'm currently committed to giving a series of presentations in Switzerland that week for Swiss Re. Next year, guys.

    Open and Meta: My colleague at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Giulio Prisco, has written up a report on the current status of a couple of open, distributed projects for building virtual worlds: OpenSim, an open source Second Life server (unaffiliated with Linden Lab); and Open Croquet, an entirely new virtual world system. I noted Open Croquet last year, and it appears that progress continues, albeit slowly. Of the two, Open Croquet is more interesting in part because of its design as a metaverse swiss army knife -- really a toolkit to work with other systems than a stand-alone world -- and in part because I expect that OpenSim is likely to be undercut by Linden Lab making the real Second Life server app open source, something they've indicated they'd like to do.

    Tangible Virtual Cities: Ogle Earth, a site specializing in understanding the geospatial web, links to a new exhibit at Lodon's Tate Modern museum, "Global Cities." The exhibit, which runs through August 27, offers physical instantiations of normally intangible concepts like population density, urban diversity, and speed of growth. The sculptures, shown above in an image from Ogle Earth's Flickr set, are especially compelling, bringing to life issues around density and population in a way that raw numbers rarely provoke.

    The four models shown in this section compare, at the same scale, the number of people living within the administrative boundaries of four of the ten cities featured in the exhibition. The peaks show the highest residential densities, with the largest number of people concentrated in a square kilometre. They range from the high-density of Cairo and Mumbai to the more dispersed, but bounded London (contained by the Green Belt) and the sprawling Mexico City.

    The exhibit also includes lush photography and a wide array of video presentations.

    The Global Cities website includes some of this material for those of us not able to get to London by the end of next month, along with information packs aimed at instructors and at students (both PDF).

    Always Make New Mistakes: The title of this bit is a .sig line that Esther Dyson used to put in her email, and the concept has stuck with me. New mistakes are good, because they give you a chance to learn something you previously didn't know; repeating the same mistake is a sign that you're not learning an important lesson. Now researchers at the University of Exeter have uncovered the neurophysiological process that underlies learning from mistakes.

    Published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, their research identifies, for the first time, a mechanism in the brain that reacts in just 0.1 seconds to things that have resulted in us making errors in the past.

    Previous research has shown that we learn more about things for which we initially make incorrect predictions than for things for which our initial predictions are correct. The element of surprise in discovering we are wrong is conducive to learning, but this research is the first to show how amazingly rapid our brain’s response can be.

    We all know people who just don't quite seem to "get it" about past mistakes, and continue to repeat them (or escalate them) despite all of the evidence to the contrary (any link to the first item in today's Topsight is purely coincidental). While it's easy to ascribe this to ideology, faith or ignorance, this research suggests that there might be a neurological component. What if, in at least some cases, the seeming inability to learn from past mistakes is really a delayed reaction, arriving too late after other cognitive processes (the aforementioned ignorance, faith, etc.) have kicked in.

    Conversely, what would it take to speed up the process?

    July 9, 2007

    Come Say Hi

    On Tuesday, July 24, at 7pm, R.U. Sirius will be recording his radio show at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, in celebration of the release of his new book, True Mutations: Interviews on the Edge of Science, Technology, and Consciousness. Several of the people interviewed for the book, including Annalee Newitz, David Pescovitz, Lynn Hershman and myself, will be there to serve as co-hosts for the show.

    True Mutations looks at the wild changes that may be coming to the human species during the 21st Century. In a series of interviews, author/host RU Sirius explores a series of (r)evolutions in disciplines ranging from the evolution of clean energy to the possibilities of endless neurological ecstasy; from open-source free access to nearly everything under the sun to self-directed biotechnological evolution; from psychedelic culture mash-ups to the possibilities of a technological singularity that alters not only humanity but the entire universe.

    If you're in the area, please come by and say hi!

    Solving Problems by Getting Away From It All

    Musing a bit recently about the intersection of crisis-response thinking and transformational-future thinking, and it struck me that this slogan:

    The Rapture is not an exit strategy.

    ...has a useful parallel in:

    The Singularity is not a sustainability strategy.

    (It's too much of a tongue-twister to make a good bumper sticker, for better or worse.)

    The second line may be speaking to a somewhat smaller audience than the first, but I've seen more people advocating for ignoring climate disruption because the Singularity Will Change Everything (tm) than people clamoring for the Rapture to make the Iraq war moot.

    July 4, 2007

    Don't Forget

    [Kind of unsettling to read this in 2007.]

    When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

    He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

    He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

    He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

    He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

    He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

    He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

    He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

    He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

    He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

    He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

    He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

    He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

    He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

    For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

    For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

    For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

    For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

    For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

    For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

    For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

    For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

    For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

    He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

    He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

    He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

    He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

    He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

    In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

    Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

    We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

    July 3, 2007

    Tuesday Topsight, July 3, 2007

    Quickly:

    Woz, Not Woz: The transcript of the R.U. Sirius show with Steve Wozniak is now up, if you're more inclined to read than to listen. Surprisingly, this transcript has already been Slashdotted.

    JAMAIS CASCIO: So what do you think are the rules for being an ethical prankster?

    STEVE WOZNIAK: Ethical prankster? It's tough. I don't think there's 100% ethical. In theory, you have agreements with society not to do things that are going to be disruptive — to not do things that are gonna be different. And yet, practically, all of us have to do things that are a little bit different. And there's always some weird little laws that are written to catch you just for being different.

    Ethical hacking today is largely finding flaws in major computer systems, or possibly the phone systems. And to be ethical, you don't use it to harm anyone. And generally, that means you don't want to keep it secret forever.

    Mech Me: Hugh Herr, director of the biomechatronics group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media lab, came up with a new generation of prosthetic legs for himself, and is using that expertise to develop an exoskeleton for the currently-abled. New Scientist (naturally) has the write-up, and the patent application is also available.

    The novel aspect of the prosthetic legs (and, presumably, the exoskeleton): the legs are extensible for the full-on "Machine Man" effect. (Via Medgadget)

    I, For One, Welcome Our New Taser-Wielding Roomba Overlords: That's right -- iRobot, the company behind the Roomba robo-vacuum, has now built a tactical bot for the military that's armed with a taser.

    For iRobot, its Taser-equipped system will be the first robot capable of using force to disable a person, rather than a bomb. The 17-year-old company is best known for its mobile robots for the consumer market, including the disc-shaped, carpet cleaning Roomba.

    But home robots account for only 60 percent of the company's revenue. The rest comes from government and industrial customers, including the military and police.

    Versions of iRobot's PackBot have disarmed roadside bombs and searched caves and buildings in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some scout dangerous areas before soldiers or emergency responders go in.

    It's interesting how attached the soldiers get to these little 'bots -- Joel Garreau's "Bots on the Ground" article in the Washington Post provided some details in May. What makes this particularly interesting is that, from a techno-futurist perspective, these aren't robots at all, they're remote-operated devices. Unlike a "real" robot, they're not autonomous or even (as with the Mars rovers) semi-autonomous -- they're not much more than high-quality RC cars.

    But it makes me really curious as to how people are going to respond when real, autonomous robots enter the mix, devices that receive high-level commands ("check for traps") and figure out how to do it, rather than needing a human operator. If soldiers get emotionally attached to RC bots, how will they respond when something that seems to have its own identity gets damaged or destroyed?

    Will the inability of human soldiers to cope with the destruction of robotic devices end up as the primary roadblock to the greater use of autonomous bots on the battlefield?

    July 1, 2007

    An Insufficient Present

    I've had three particular web pages open in my browser for a couple of weeks now. I knew that they were saying something to me, but I wasn't quite sure what. I think I may now have finally figured it out.

    The future belongs to those who find the present insufficient.

    The phrase is a deliberate variation of something that Clay Shirky argued recently, that the future belongs to those who take the present for granted. By this, Clay means that people who can accept the (technological) conditions of the present are better-able to see what's next than people who are still wrestling with whether those conditions of the present make sense. He cites Freebase and Wikipedia in this: while some people still argue about whether Wikipedia is a good thing, folks at Metaweb are already building a next-generation collaborative knowledge base.

    Look at these two graphs, generated by Forrester Research for the New York Times and for Business Week.

    The Time graph shows the comparative value of mobile phones, computers and television across five different generational cohorts*. For Gen Y, computers and phones are more important than TV, in that order; for Gen X, phones and television swap rank, with computers still on top; for the remainder, TV is the most personally valuable technology of the three. The Business Week graph splits similar cohorts (Gen Y has "Youth" split out at the bottom end, and a "Young Teen" is added below that) along six different online usage patterns. What's notable is that, although these are all ostensibly computer-based activities, some of the activities map nicely to abstracted uses of TVs and phones. The same cohorts that put TV above computers and phones predominantly engage in passive consumption of online content; the same cohorts that put phones above the others predominantly engage in social networking. (Gen X'ers seem to do a little bit of everything.)

    Now, from the "takes the present for granted" perspective, these graphs can be interpreted to mean something along the lines of Boomers are still trying to figure out if social networking tools are a good thing, even while younger generations are just going ahead and using them as if they've always been there. That maps to the moral panic we've seen about MySpace and the like. As older generations say "wait, it can do *that*?" the leading edge says "of *course* it can."

    But taking the present for granted is not enough. Saying "of *course* it can do that" isn't a catalyst for change, it's a symptom of complacency; it's looking back with a sneer at what has gone before, forgetting that the present that one takes for granted will be just as ridiculous soon enough. Transformation comes from saying "...but why can't it do *this*?"

    And this is about more than technology. The exact same set of reactions -- "wait," "of course," and "but why" -- work equally well to social and political phenomena. We could apply the reasoning to global warming, for example:

  • As the entrenched economic and political leaders fight over whether or not we should do anything about it...
  • ...up and coming cohorts have already gotten past that debate, and take it for granted that action is required...
  • ...even as the people who will take charge of tomorrow are asking not just how to stop global warming, but how to use the effort to make the world a better place.

    Dissatisfaction with the present, not simply acceptance of it, drives change.

    *Note: The age splits for those cohorts is inaccurate: "Boomers" skews too young for both start and end years, and "Seniors" is not a generational cohort description but a chronological age description -- it should be "Silent Generation."

  • Talking Cyborgs & Revolution

    The R.U. Sirius Show about augmentation mentioned below is now available (here's the MP3).

    Half of the program is a discussion of cyborgism, gene-doping, and what it means for a culture when some people can make themselves "better than normal." I wish we'd had more time to talk about this; there's a lot to think about.

    The second half of the program is a discussion of whether "Battle in Seattle"-style protests are useful any longer. I make the inevitable pitch for participatory-panopticon-style tech as a means of documenting protests and political action.

    Jamais Cascio

    Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

    Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

    Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

    Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

    Affiliate, Institute for the Future

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