James Fallon is a neuroscientist. Once day while working on a project into Alzheimer’s, using his own family’s brain scans as raw data, he discovered that his own brain was, in clinical terms, the brain of a psychopath. That is to say, he quite accidentally, discovered that he was to all intents and purposes a psychopath. So he wrote a book about it. This link is an interview with him. Fascinating.
Again, I was joking around, but it was a real danger. The next day, we walked into the Kitum Caves and you could see where rocks had been knocked over by the elephants. There was also the smell of all of this animal dung—and that’s where the guy got the Marburg [a fatal virus]; scientists didn’t know whether it was the dung or the bats.
A bit later, my brother read an article in The New Yorker about Marburg, which inspired the movie Outbreak. He asked me if I knew about it. I said, “Yeah. Wasn’t it exciting? Nobody gets to do this trip.” And he called me names and said, “Not exciting enough. We could’ve gotten Marburg; we could have gotten killed every two seconds.” All of my brothers have a lot of machismo and brio; you’ve got to be a tough guy in our family. But deep inside, I don’t think that my brother fundamentally trusts me after that. And why should he, right? To me, it was nothing.
This is the text of Maciej Ceglowski’s talk at this year’s Webstock. Under the guise of exploring the moments when the future makes itself known to us he treats us to the story of Lev Sergeyevich Termen. And it really is a treat. Termen was a soviet scientist, first under Lenin, then under Stalin. He also invented the Theremin, technology that was a distant precursor to the touch screens we all carry around today.
There’s a very important rant about 2/3rds of the way through about the centralisation of power, as a result of the current internet architecture. Its long but also very entertaining.
Why make such a big deal of electrification?
Well, Lenin had just led a Great Proletarian Revolution in a country without a proletariat, which is like making an omelette without any eggs. You can do it, but it raises questions. It’s awkward.
Lenin needed a proletariat in a hurry, and the fastest way to do that was to electrify and industrialize the country.
But there was another, unstated reason for the campaign. Over the centuries, Russian peasants had become experts at passively resisting central authority. They relied on the villages of their enormous country being backward, dispersed, and very hard to get to.
Lenin knew that if he could get the peasants on the grid, it would consolidate his power. The process of electrifying the countryside would create cities, factories, and concentrate people around large construction projects. And once the peasantry was dependent on electric power, there would be no going back.
This last link is also a small trip back into recent history, telling the broad story of former congressman Otis Pike who died earlier this year. Pike was the unfortunate soul who in 1975 led the house committee investigating the American security apparatus, both the NSA and CIA, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. He was an earnest man and he tried to do the job properly, not that it did him any favours. If you have found yourself wondering why no American politicians are putting their neck on the line with regard to the problem’s with the NSA as revealed by Snowden, this piece may help explain why. Parts of the rhetoric read as if they are written about 2013 not 1972.
Meanwhile, an even more radical subcommittee on privacy in the House, headed by Bella Abzug, targeted the NSA’s domestic spying program, subpoenaing government officials and the heads of the major telecoms and cable telex firms—AT&T, ITT, Western Union and RCA. The more the House dug into the NSA’s foundations, the more they discovered about the murky extralegal arrangements and deals made between private telecom firms and the National Security State apparatus. In the late 1940s, as the NSA was being formed out of the Army Security Agency and other military signal intelligence branches, Truman’s top defense officials cajoled the major US cable telex firms to agree to let the nascent NSA tap into all international communications. Some of the firms were more reluctant than others; all asked for written legal assurances and legislative action, but were given less than they were promised
There was a price to pay, and Pike paid it.
American public opinion proved to be fickle and shallow, and the reactionaries in the intelligence community took advantage of this fickleness to destroy Pike and others like him. When in January 1976 the Pike Committee approved its draft report slamming the intelligence community as a dangerous boondoggle, calling for radical budget reductions, the abolition of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and other radical structural reforms, the special counsel to CIA director George H. W. Bush called Pike’s office and warned that if the report was approved, “we’ll destroy him for this.”…..And so they did
I’ve read 2 recommendations for this book, both emphatically positive, overwhelmingly so, and so far 100 pages in I’ve not been disappointed at all. My favourite quote at the moment…
The first school I taught at had one woman teacher. When she went out shopping at lunchtime, the men pulled their chairs round and told dirty stories non stop. Down in the playground, as usual, the children were swopping similar stories, or writing ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’ on the walls, always correctly spelt; yet the staff considered the children ‘dirty little devils’ , and punished them for saying things which were far milder than things the teachers themselves would say, and enjoy laughing at. When these children grow up, and perhaps crack up, then they’ll find themselves in therapy groups where they’ll be encouraged to say all the things that the teacher would have forbidden during school.
The book is about teaching improvisation in the theatre, but as billed by those that recommended it, its much more than that.
It is something of a letdown to realize that while the Enlightenment’s goal was dethroning God, our post-Enlightenment technologists and philosophers are satisfied merely to get us to loosen our grips on that Big Mac.
That’s why we’re seeing a rise of treaties and international bodies attempting to create rules governing these systems, because regulating the web in the U.S. is like trying to solve a cockroach infestation by fogging a single apartment in a multitenant building.
Another reason that people like to hear black-or-white predictions about the future is that it makes them feel better. Uncertainty is uncomfortable.
It’s the gadget equivalent of the solution to the “don’t think of an elephant” problem (the answer is “think of a giraffe instead”)
I want the secret of the Coca-Cola company not to be kept in a tiny file of 1KB, which can be exfiltrated easily by an APT,” Shamir said.”I want that file to be 1TB, which can not be exfiltrated. I want many other ideas to be exploited to prevent an APT from operating efficiently. It’s a totally different way of thinking about the problem.”
Q: About three-quarters the way through the Illustrated Hitchhikers Guide there is a strange illustration of 42 multi-coloured balls lined up in columns 6×7. I can only assume this is the famed “42 Puzzle”. My question is, how do you play? What’s the puzzle?
A: The point of the puzzle was this: Everybody was looking for hidden meanings and puzzles and significances in what I had written (like ‘is it significant that 6 * 9 is 42 in base 13?’. As if.) So I thought that just for a change I would actually construct a puzzle and see how many people solved. Of course, nobody paid it any attention. I think that’s terribly significant. – Douglas Adams
Reality is frequently inaccurate – Douglas Adams
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?” – Ford Prefect
The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought ’42 will do’ I typed it out. End of story. – Douglas Adams
“The best advice I think was given by Douglas Adams: “Don’t panic.”” – Arthur C Clarke
The only way I know to predict the future of science is to look at the choices of beginning graduate students – Daniel Kahneman
And propaganda thrust into a community looks way more dodgy than propaganda in a paid ad on TV. We’re more sensitive to it here. The big worry? the implications of ad-funding as THE model. If all our actions are made possible by that, we’re complicit or parasitic… We either ‘pay our way’ by buying the shit that gets advertised, or we are happy to let someone else’s untrammeled consumption pay for us – Steve Lawson
It is important to discuss the emerging power of algorithms as new gatekeepers. Not as bad as old media, sure, but still powerful – Zaynep Tufecki
The most important reasons have to do with the snowballing replicability of the iPhone framework. The App Store model has boomeranged back to the PC. There’s now an App Store for the Mac to match that of the iPhone and iPad, and it carries the same battery of restriction – Jonathan Zittrain
Get ready, too, because AI bias is going to start replacing human cognitive bias more and more regularly – Alexis Madrigal
I have technology fantasies from time to time, a moment of two when I “invent” the latest new tool that will revolutionise how we organise our thinking and our data. It’s always short lived of course. My ideas are usually hopelessly specific and therefore have a narrow appeal, often just me, and then, even if they are good ideas this is hardly the stuff of revolution.
Sometimes I’m pretty sure it’s all already out there, the required technology that is, and I just need to assemble my version of it. That is to move from thinking about it, to actually doing it, building it.
So, here’s what I’m thinking I want today.
It’s a mixture of software and hardware, a browsing aid. A tool that helps me to extract certain key bits of data, quotations, webpages, forum posts or just snippets from any digital source, transfer them to a separate location (both in terms of storage and presentation), annotate them automatically with relevant metadata such as authorship and source, prompt me and aid me with setting up a tagging folksonomy, provide randomisation through visual presentation and lastly, as if all that wasn’t enough, I’d like a highly versatile analysis interface designed to help me yield interactions and relationships between all the information I will have gathered.
Imagine a browsing session. Maybe single topic, maybe not. And you come across a short paragraph that encapsulates a certain point, a viewpoint a position. You snap the words with your fingers, as you currently do to select text on a smartphone, and issue a voice command
“Push to window”
And in an instant the quote, author, source are stored in what I guess only needs to be a fairly rudimentary database. Immediately I return my mental energy to the thread of my session, the full depth of the single source I was reading. This may well happen many times an hour.
Visually meanwhile, the data is being randomly built onto a massive digital whiteboard that covers the whole of one wall to my left. When I issue the command “Push….” I see in my mind’s eye the quotation being flung across the room and landing on my whiteboard.
On a regular basis, which will be customisable but maybe every 45 minutes, I will be prompted by the system to assign a purely subjective tagging folksonomy to each data point. Why subjective? Because I want to use it to drip thoughts into developing streams of inter-related ideas.
The tagging lets me come back to the data at later times, and using a variety of combinations facilitated by the tagging, use the whiteboard to push the data back to me in ways designed to help me see otherwise missed connections and value.
Today’s “Push to window” quotes:
My great-grandfather was born into a world where there was no recorded music. It’s very, very difficult to conceive of a world in which there is no possibility of audio recording at all. Some people were extremely upset by the first Edison recordings. It nauseated them, terrified them. It sounded like the devil, they said, this evil unnatural technology that offered the potential of hearing the dead speak
We know that something happened then. We know that broadcast television did something—did everything—to us, and that now we aren’t the same, though broadcast television, in that sense, is already almost over. I can remember seeing the emergence of broadcast television, but I can’t tell what it did to us because I became that which watched broadcast television
Conversation is not the same thing as correspondence
Just as we look back at the beginning of the previous century and shake our heads at how people could ignore the pollution they caused, future generations will look back at us — living in the early decades of the information age — and judge our solutions to the proliferation of data
So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself
So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship
Links for the original source material