Monday, December 24, 2007

10th Anniversary of Blogging

There was a short piece this morning on NPR radio celebrating the 10th anniversary of blogging. The series will continue all week. Ten years ago the term weblog was first coined, which was shortened into blog. It is estimated that there are now about 100 million active blogs, with another 100,000 added per day. There are also an estimated 200 million blogs that have been started and abandoned by users that experimented with them for a while.

This is an excellent example of the increased rate of change now happening. Ten years ago people only a very small portion of people knew what the term blog meant. In one short decade it has become a pervasive aspect of our society, along with its other variations of user generated content sites. Who could have predicted the arrival of MySpace, FaceBook, or Youtube ten years ago? Or that the US Senate would change hands because of a Macaca moment?

It's very hard to predict what the next ten years will bring in this area, since the rate of change keeps increasing. Two thoughts on its general characteristics though:

1) There will be more personal information being made available by people on the web. This will not trigger the fear of loss of privacy that you might expect, because it will be information that is controlled by the individual.

2) There will be a growth in the ability to establish one's reputation, or check on people's reputation. This is an absolutely vital part of the functioning of humankind's off-line society, and is desperately needed as part of the on-line society in order to sort through the unlimited amount of content available on the web.

By the way, the most popular blog in the world? It is run by Xu Jinglei in China according to a Wikipedia entry. Yet another sign of the times.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Positive Trends on the Death Penalty

One of the clear future trends that leaves me with an optimistic view that civilization is slowly but surely advancing and leaving its more barbaric past behind is the gradual abolition of the death penalty around the world. This is the news from the NY Times yesterday:

The United Nations General Assembly voted on Tuesday for a global moratorium on the death penalty. The resolution was nonbinding; its symbolic weight made barely a ripple in the news ocean of the United States, where governments’ right to kill a killer is enshrined in law and custom. But for those who have been trying to move the world away from lethal revenge as government policy, this was a milestone. The resolution failed repeatedly in the 1990s, but this time the vote was 104 to 54, with 29 nations abstaining. Progress has come in Europe and Africa. Nations like Senegal, Burundi, Gabon — even Rwanda, shamed by genocide — have decided to reject the death penalty, as official barbarism.

Wow, 104 to 54 - that's a rather lopsided victory after a long string of past defeats. Of course, the news was not entirely positive. Some nations still have a way to go.

The United States, as usual, lined up on the other side, with Iran, China, Pakistan, Sudan and Iraq.

But we'll get there. The state of New Jersey just set a fine example and outlawed the death penalty in their state. Other states will follow in the coming years. Thanks to Senegal, Burundi, Gabon, and Rwanda for also setting fine examples that the United States can someday aspire to follow. It's just sad that we no longer find our country in a leadership position on so many important trends.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Science Debate 2008

One of the most interesting presidential debates I can think of, and in many ways one of the most telling and important, would be one devoted to science. It's very clear that scientific issues will be in the forefront of the topics the next president will have to deal with. That's why I was glad to sign up as a supporter of the Science Debate 2008 movement. To quote from their website:
Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy.

I can't imagine a more interesting and unpredictable presidential debate.

The Future of Technology roundable at the Philoctetes Center

I had the pleasure of attending a roundtable discussion on “The Future of Technology” at the Philoctetes Center in NY City this weekend. It was not a comprehensive overview of technology issues, but there were some thought provoking discussions. Here is a summary of some things I found interesting:

PlayStation-3 is essentially a supercomputer in a box. We will soon have a supercomputer in a packet, coupled with pervasive access to everything from everywhere. We will be able to set up real time video monitors that call for help when an elderly person falls, or when someone in a pool seems to be drowning.

Another development is that everything about you will become more available to everyone. You will become more of a public persona, no longer the private individual the way you used to know it. One of the great urges of culture is to spread your virtual genes around, your name, thoughts, opinions, memes… This is already happening with FaceBook and MySpace. This is not generating a fear of the loss of privacy because the key aspect of these is that people have control over what information about themselves is made available.

Internet culture is a form of an extended childhood for adults. It goes back to the very early childhood phase dominated by fantasy and imagination, before the discovery of limits.

The human social contract was discussed in detail as something that can trump and control the exploitation of new technology. Unfortunately the social contract is not evolving fast enough to always keep up with changing technology. It is often difficult to figure out how to apply social norms (and formal laws) to new technology. They are adopting though. An example was given about a fraud suite pending in court for something that happened in the 2nd Life virtual world. This was viewed as something completely natural and reasonable by the panel. Another example of a development that the social contract will have trouble adjusting to - in 20-30 years it will become standard to know your genome and understand much about it.

Some aspects of technology use bring out the good and bad in people. Blog comments tend to bring out the worse in many people, for example. 50% of them seem to be just cruel personal attacks. The important thing in controlling poor behavior, and in judging the value of content, is the idea of “reputation”. We need a better way to establish and communicate online reputations. Anything with anonymous sources tends to be problematic.

While many of the poor behavior discussed has its roots outside of the online technology, the internet has lowered the barrier to creating fraud and deception on a massive scale.

Our physical metabolism craves sugar and fats, but you can get sick when you have an unlimited supply available and you don’t learn to restrict yourself. In the same way, our mental metabolism seems to have certain cravings that can be supplied in unlimited amounts online or in electronic games, and we can become psychologically sick when we don’t restrict our consumption of these. Additionally, the fact that you can tailor you online world to feed your phobias and prejudices is creating additional problems.

George Mitchell's Report and Denial About Professional Sports

So George Mitchell’s report on steroid use came out a few days ago. Is anyone really surprised that it concluded that steroid use was fairly pervasive in professional baseball? Some people were calling this report a major step forward in the effort to end the problem of steroid use. I think these people are living in denial. The report also stated that hundreds of thousands of high school athletes are now using steroids. There’s no way that we’re on the road to ending the problems with drug enhanced athletics, nor do I think we ever can be. If you somehow eliminate steroids, the race will be on to find a better replacement. Indeed, such efforts have been ongoing for years already. It’s an arms race where the offense (new drug manufactures) will always have the major advantage.

This is an example of a much large issue – advancements in technology tend to make old business models obsolete. The old businesses struggle to maintain their old way of making profits by increase rules and regulations. The music recording industry is a fine example of this. Technology has made their business model of the $15 music CD obsolete. In a recent legal argument, the recording industry made the incredible claim that taking a CD that you bought and own, and making a backup copy of it on your computer was an illegal act of theft. They can apparently do just fine by selling recordings of songs online for 99 cents, but their struggle to maintain their old business model has reached the level of absurdity now.

So getting back to sports. Any professional sport where strength, speed, or endurance plays a dominant factor is facing an increasingly obsolete business model due to the increasing dominance of performance enhancing drugs. Sorry to say it, but the days of professional sports as we knew them are coming to a close.

There were many people expressing strong emotional disappointment at the number of players listed in Mitchell’s report as having used performance enhancing drugs. “People looked up to these athletes as heroes and role models”. Actually, that is perhaps the much bigger problem that we have to come to grips with. The unhealthy obsession with professional sports in our society is leaving people in denial about the true nature of the business and the people engaged in it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Peak Oil and this year's heating bills

Al Gore recently gave a moving speech when he accepted the Nobel prize that was very worthy of the occasion (click here to read a transcript). While I believe that climate change is ultimately the chief moral challange for our generation, I have commented in previous posts that the peak oil phenomena will likely superseed it in the public's mind in a few years.

Well, that may actually happen this winter. I just paid for my first fuel oil tank fill-up for the winter here in the north-east part of the country - almost $900, ouch! These fuel oil costs are going to hit many people like a 2x4 across the forehead. For some unfortunate families, it will be hitting them about the same time that a substantial increases in their mortgage payments happen. Energy conservation will be pushed to the forefront of public concern. The bright side of this is that whatever the motivation, this will drive energy conservation measures that will reduce our overall carbon footprint.

Many people who criticise any attempt at responding to climate change often claim that the cost are unaffordable. In reality, most of the important first steps actually result in a net economic benefit. This will become painfully clear this winter as people are forced to deal with the escaliting heating bills. And hopefully people will realize that this is not a one year phenomena. It is the only one step near the beginning of the long term trend.