Wednesday Topsight, July 11, 2007
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?