Monday, December 18, 2006

Pumpkin Launching: Time's Person of the Year

Since Time has named me (and You) the person of the year for all the great videos we have uploaded, I thought I'd better do my part, so here is a video of Andy's Halloween party:

Yes, that is a trebuchet - we built it the weekend before the party. It is designed to have as much as a 1000 lb counterweight, able to hurl small pumpkins 700 feet! We never achieved the optimal configuration (couldn't get enough weight) but still were hurling pumpkins between 500 and 600 feet...

Saturday, November 04, 2006


And I mean YOU Mr. Candidate! I am SO TIRED of having my phone ring with a recorded message from one candidate or another. DON PERATA YOU JUST LOST MY VOTE. And I am keeping track. Anyone who dares to use an automated message dialing machine to harass me LOSES MY VOTE. Join with me in this campaign. Let's send a message to these idiots that spamming us with phone calls doesn't pay!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Google Enters Another Market (Custom Search)

Everyone on the Internet fears the day that Google will enter their market. Today the fear was tangible for Rollyo and Swicki. The Financial Times reported that Google will launch tomorrow (Tuesday) "...a customisable search engine that users can carry on their own blogs and other websites..." and compares the new service to Rollyo.

Matthew Ingram carries the photo of a shark on his post about this development. Ingram points out that when Google entered the calendar market, competitor Kiko gave up and sold themselves. He asks whether or not this was the right decision -- pointing to Paul Graham's post at the time "Google Does Not Render Resistance Futile."

I find myself agreeing with Paul and Rex Hammock puts his finger on it when he writes:
There’s a social networking aspect of Rollyo that probably won’t be a part of the Google product, however the Google product will likely offer publishers, including bloggers, an instant way to monetize narrow search in the Adsense program they’re already participating in.
For all of the things that Google has done right in technology, they have done very little well in the category of social. It isn't too late for them to learn but if history is any guide, they will miss the importance of the social network in search as well.

And frankly having a strong competitor forces you to do the two things which you most need to do in any case when you are a small business -- innovate constantly and be 500% better than your larger competition. Then Google can educate the market about why the market needs your product and then you can deliver on the market's expectations. That is what YouTube did.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Please help with your critique

Stop what you are doing.

Click on this link to the Personal Bee home page:

Then email or comment on this message with your thoughts about what we are doing right and wrong. Tell me, from looking at the home page, what business you think we are in. Tell me how you would use this and how you would get others to use it...



Sunday, September 24, 2006

Diebold Delivers Georgia for Republicans

In a follow up to his story on the 2004 election, "Was the 2004 Election Stolen," Robert Kennedy brings us, in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, specific details on how Diebold has rigged voting in Georgia, with the confessions of a Diebold employee, Chris Hood. "Will The Next Election Be Hacked," is a frightening article that shows exactly how far some corrupt politicians are willing to go to insure that they keep control of our government out of the hands of the people. Folks, our democracy is in danger.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Shake Rattle And Roll!

We spent the second quarter of 2006 testing the original "beta" concept site for the Personal Bee. We spent the summer implementing everything we had learned. Now we are ready and have released the Bee to the world.

You Can Be A Media Mogul

The idea is simple. Anyone one the world can create their own news site. You choose the topic. You choose the content sources. You brand your site. You decide which stories are important and which to remove... You are the master of your topic domain and can build a base of subscribers into a media empire.

Enjoy the Bee. Send your comments and suggestions!

Ted Shelton, CEO
The Personal Bee, Inc.
tshelton @

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Bush Administration Immune from Whistleblowers...

Posted without comment for your consternation:
On Labor Day, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) issued a press release whose title summarizes its contents all too neatly: Bush Declares Eco-Whistleblower Law Void for EPA Employees. Here's some of it:

Washington, DC - The Bush administration has declared itself immune from whistleblower protections for federal workers under the Clean Water Act, according to legal documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result of an opinion issued by a unit within the Office of the Attorney General, federal workers will have little protection from official retaliation for reporting water pollution enforcement breakdowns, manipulations of science or cleanup failures.

The rest of the post on the terrific blog Effect Measure

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Got Voice?

For the past few weeks I have been testing a new service, GotVoice, from a company based in Kirkland Washington with an interesting idea -- how can you profit from the stupidity of the phone company? Now perhaps that isn't the way that company executives in Kirkland would describe their strategic plan, but its hard not to look at them and think, "this is yet more evidence of how stupid US telecommunications companies are."

The idea is simple (too simple, you'd think). How can I have access to my home and cell voice mail from the web and through email? If we had telephone companies that knew how to build services that customers wanted, this wouldn't even be a question. But there is NO innovation going on at the phone company (fill in your favorite one, or AT&T if you are reading this after they have bought everyone else). Thus companies like GotVoice can come along and fill in the niche.

Here's how it works -- You sign up for an account with GotVoice (basic service is free, but added features are available at $4.95 and $9.95 a month) and give them your phone company, phone number, and voicemail "PIN" -- they will then place a call on a regular basis to your voice mail box, record your messages, and send you an email letting you know you have a message (or email you the message as an MP3 with a premium plan).

But this is absurd! Why can't the phone company simply email me the message? Why do I need a third party to glue voice mail and email together? Perhaps someone in the finance department of AT&T found a study conducted in the early 1990s which said that none of their customers wanted voice mails in their email... or maybe they have a trial of voicemail to email right now but they are only rolling it out in 3 small test markets over the next two years... or maybe they don't actually care at all about their customers and never think about introducing new products that we actually want!

In the meantime, Got Voice?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Future of Warfare

Hope that you never meet Crusher. Watch this video to see what I mean. This is a robot. Entirely autonomous, programmed to get itself from point A to point B, and capable of "aggressive" behavior -- especially if it has weapons (which this one doesn't). Even without weapons, I wouldn't want to be chased by one of these... Of course sophisticated robotics will have military applications before they have civil ones.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

How Republicans Plan to Steal 2006

Salon has published an interesting review of the six states where Republicans have schemed to "suppress" votes by traditional Democratic voters. Here is the article -- "Salon's Shameful Six" -- Here is an excerpt:
Opinion polls show that a majority of the public wants a Democratic Congress, but whether potential voters -- black and Latino voters in particular -- will be able to make their voices heard on Election Day is not assured. Across the country, they will have to contend with Republican-sponsored schemes to limit voting. In a series of laws passed since the 2004 elections, Republican legislators and officials have come up with measures to suppress the turnout of traditional Democratic voting blocs. This fall the favored GOP techniques are new photo I.D. laws, the criminalizing of voter registration drives, and database purges that have disqualified up to 40 percent of newly registered voters from voting in such jurisdictions as Los Angeles County.
Here are the six states that Salon calls on the carpet: Arizona, California, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio. What are people doing about it?

DNC Announces Expanded National Voter Protection Effort

Brennan Center Election Reform Resources

Common Cause Election Reform Agenda

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Shameful Behavior (Your Tax Dollars At Work)

At the risk of becoming the target of government investigations myself, let me now go on the record as saying that, if these reports are true, our government is engaged in the worst kind of anti-democratic behaviour, activities I thought reserved for dictators (or the Nixon Whitehouse). Yes, I am talking about the latest ACLU report "The State of Surveillance: Government Monitoring of Political Activity in Northern and Central California." The Berkeley Daily Planet has a story here which details a local incident on the UC Berkeley campus:
The local incident featured in the report was an April 2005 demonstration at UC Berkeley, sponsored by Berkeley Stop the War Coalition, aimed at military recruitment on campus.

The incident was described in an April 21, 2005, Department of Defense Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) report released to the ACLU by the Department of Defense following a freedom of information request and subsequent lawsuit.

The information released describes the demonstration—the “incident type”—as “specific threats,” and describes the subject as “direct action planned against recruiters at University of California at Berkeley.”

The source, whose name has been redacted from the released report, is described as “a special agent of the Federal Protective Service, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”
The full ACLU report can be found here:

I hope you will join me in supporting Jerry Brown as the next Attorney General for the state of California. Given the folks that currently control our national government, a strong liberal California AG may turn out to be suprisingly important for the future of Democracy in this country.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Participatory Consumption

The last couple of times I was listening to NPR on the radio I got angry. Why? Because I had a question, or a comment, or information about the discussion underway and there was no effective way to join the conversation. I thought about this and realized that since having converted my reading habits almost entirely to blogs I have been retraining my consumption habits from passive to participatory. I now expect to be able to leave a comment at the end of an article, or email the author to ask a question. I expect media consumption to be participatory! What a strange expectation...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Evidence for Global Warming

David Isenberg has done a tremendous job of adding value to a recent (great) article in the New York Times about global warming -- he has gone through the article and created links to all of the sources to which the article refers. All in all it is a compelling and worrisome picture of an earth in turmoil. Worth reading in its entirety. Here is the link: The Evidence for Global Warming.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

SD Forum Visionary Awards

98 degrees in Heidi Roizen's backyard but no one is complaining (we had
to wear sweaters last year). And the winners of this year's awards:

Vinton G. Cerf

Louis V. Gerstner

John L. Hennessy

Terry Semel

Quite a line-up this evening. Should be a lot of fun...

Monday, June 19, 2006

My Father's World, My World

In thinking about the death of my father last week, I have been comparing the world my father was born into (my grandfather's world) to the world I was born into (my father's world) and the one my daughter was born into (my world). Each of us as children enjoy and suffer from the decisions that our parents, and our parents' generations have made. And with the resulting "world order."

In 1938, the year my father was born, Hitler marched into Austria and declared that it was now part of the German Reich. Great Britian and France ceded Czechoslovakia to the Germans in a short-sighted attempt to avoid war. And on November 9th, in an event to be remembered as Kristallnacht, Nazis burned synagogues, destroyed Jewish shops, and killed Jews at random. 1938 was a dark year for the world.

The earliest years of my father's childhood were spent in an America fighting world war against governments unafraid of using their power to evil ends. In 1939 Hitler invaded both Czechoslavakia and Poland and entered into the axis agreement with Italy's Mussolini. In 1940 Paris falls and France surrenders to the Nazis. And in 1941, when my father was the age my daughter is today, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into the war.

My father was almost the age my step daughter is now when, in 1945, Germany officially surrendered and the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshimi and Nagasaki, accelerating Japan's surrender. At the age of 7, my father had lived his entire life in a world at war. Of course the coming years were dark as well, with the constant cloud of conflict with Stalin's Soviet Union hanging over the head's of his generation as they came into adulthood.

By 1966 when I was born, the pattern of proxy wars between the West and the Soviet Union had been established with a war in Korea mostly behind the US (well... it still isn't entirely behind us) but with war in Vietnam escalating. Despite continued hostility between the world powers, a half century of American dominance in business and technical innovation was well underway by then, making my childhood much different from my father's. Where America had been a relatively weak player in an enormously fragmented and dangerous world, my father came of age in a world where America became a world power.

After first getting a law degree from Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley, my father entered the business world with an inheritence wrested away from his wealthy uncles and grandmother. His father had passed away while he was still a child and he had grown increasingly concerned that his grandmother and uncles would spend all of the money before he received any of it... so he spent it himself instead.

He created a company called Shopper's Plan - one of the first credit card companies in the country. Before we had Visa and Mastercard, stores had "charge plates" that were specific to a particular store or sometimes (rarely) a chain of stores. The 1960s idea of the credit card was a store-independent charge plate. Shopper's Plan could offer this innovation because of the power of this new-fangled invention, the computer.

It was an audacious business idea and it would have required incredible execution to succeed with the (relatively) limited financial resources my father had at his disposal - just a few million dollars (although that was 1960s dollars...). Unfortunately my father was not a terrific business person and the business was soon on the rocks. Complicating things my father got his secretary (my mother) pregnant.

He was already married, with two daughters. Yet he left his wife and began over again with my mother. Within four years he had left my mother and moved on to a string of girlfriends before settling down with his last partner, whom he stayed with until his death (almost 30 years).

to be continued...

Friday, June 16, 2006

World as Symbolic System

For the past 14 hours I have been staring at a computer screen, logged on to various linux systems, moving files, configuring servers, testing... Deeply enmeshed in a particular symbolic system. As I drove home I saw the world with different eyes - the world as its own kind of symbolic system. Some of it imposed by man on the environment (stop sign, crosswalk) some natural (tree, rock). Each blade of grass is a symbol - albeit many without obvious meaning. Like a file you might touch but is devoid of content. Or perhaps each has a very simple meaning like all of those devices in /dev... I should really stop looking at a computer screen about now.

Monday, June 12, 2006

My Father with My Daughter April 2005

On a trip with the whole family down to Los Angeles a little over a year ago. The only time my daughter ever saw my father. He was still doing OK at that point, although the radiation treatments drained him of strength.

Charles Edward Shelton, RIP

I will be able to write more about this soon. But for now just the news. My father died today of cancer. My sister was with him in the Los Angeles hospital room.

He has been dying for 10 years of cancer - prostate cancer that was diagnosed too late to cure. The cancer spread throughout his body and fortunately for him, medical advances allowed him to live a good life over those 10 years. Only in the last 6 months or so had the disease progressed to far that his quality of life was diminished to the point where living was an enormous burden for him.

So it is with sadness, but also long expectation and relief that the living go on without him. He is survived by his long-time partner, his three daughters and me.

Memory Machine

What we write here may be much less important for who reads it today and more important as a record of our civilization at this time and place. The web is the collective memory of the millions of people that record their thoughts here. Hopefully we will find ways to record these transient memories into some more permanent form so that future researchers will have this treasure trove to draw from when trying to understand the insanity of our current times.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Jerry brown on election night

Jerry brown on election night
Jerry brown on election night,
originally uploaded by Ted Shelton.
Garvin Thomas, of NBC Channel 11 ended up being selected by my camera phone as the focus for this photo instead of Jerry Brown... and then I had to drop the phone in my pocket as Jerry was headed straight at me and I wanted to shake his hand to congratulate him on his win -- Jerry was modest - "the race isn't over yet."

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Jerry is in the building...

Currently giving interviews but is modestkly repeating that while he
currently has 66% of the vote, only 2% has been counted so far....

The venue

In the shadow of the 880 freeway, 555 5th avenue is home to the Oakland
Police Officers Association. Police organizations throughout the state
have come out in favor of Brown for attorney general...

Yes, we are killing time while awaiting Jerry Brown's arrival...

News crews awaiting Jerry Brown

National and state news organizations gather to hear Jerry Brown accept
the nomination from the CA Democratic party to run in his first
statewide election since stepping down as governor...

Jerry Brown Election Night Campaign HQ

Blogging live from 555 5th avenue in Oakland where Jerry Brown will be
accepting the democratic nomination to Attorney General for

Congrats to ORB

A number of exciting things are breaking this week and next week for Orb Networks where I continue to have many friends (and am a stockholder). AMD Live is one exciting partner for Orb:

"AMD LIVE! On Demand, powered by Orb extends your entertainment experience to anywhere you are, at home or on the go! Access and control your live or prerecorded TV, music, pictures, videos and more from virtually any web-connected device."

Another huge win is the distribution deal with Hauppauge which has over 8 million tuner cards in the market...

And my friends tell me that more announcements are coming! Congrats guys!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Stolen 2004 Election

The current issue of Rolling Stone Magazine is featuring an article by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. titled, "Was the 2004 Election Stolen?" -- Read this article. Rolling Stone also offers an editorial calling for an investigation. The lead to Kennedy's article:

"Republicans prevented more than 350,000 voters in Ohio from casting ballots or having their votes counted -- enough to have put John Kerry in the White House."

The editors of Rolling Stone:

"Enough. Only a complete investigation by federal authorities can determine the full extent of any bribery and vote rigging that has taken place. The public must be assured that the power to count the votes -- and to recount them, if necessary -- will not be ceded to for-profit corporations with a vested interest in superseding the will of the people. America's elections are the most fundamental element of our democracy -- not a market to be privatized by companies like Diebold."

Let's hope this gets the ball rolling with the electorate (since the politicians have been too afraid of the issue) to find out what really is happening to our democracy. Before it is too late.


Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Transportation Metaphor for Media

An essay on the future of media, using a transpportation metaphor (and comparison...)

Summary: From the perspective of mobility, the automobile is the mass-customization post-industrial technology. Railroads are industrial transportation -- they follow specific fixed paths and travel on time s...


Monday, May 29, 2006

Google Building AI

Could Google co-founder Larry Page be right (read this report from London) in saying that Google can succeed in building true artificial intelligence "within a few years?"? Late last year I wrote about an excellent speech by George Dyson republished at (and still worth reading if you haven't already). To excerpt just one comment again:

"When our machines overtook us, too complex and efficient for us to control, they did it so fast and so smoothly and so usefully, only a fool or a prophet would have dared complain."

The development of strong artificial intelligence by anyone - country or company - will be a worldchanging event. It seems that Google really is hard at work on this task. Assuming that such an effort succeeds in developing a system which works for the betterment of its creators, one can appreciate why Google doesn't worry much about competition from Microsoft or Yahoo. Google is playing an entirely different game.

Where everyone else in the tech industry is pursuing linear technical development strategies, Google is pursuing a corner-cutting strategy of building a better tool -- a tool that (if successful) will change the entire basis for competition. How can any group of engineers at Microsoft hope to compete against the development resources of a world-wide artificial intelligence?

Time to buy Google stock?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Watch Newsom Run

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a fundraising event for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. As luck would have it, I ended up standing right next to him as he addressed the crowd of 40 or 50 local business people that had gathered to help him pay off the last of the campaign debt from his successful mayoral campaign 2 1/2 years ago.

Newsom was articulate, knowledgable, and (for me) struck the right balance between progressive social consciousness and grounded pro-business realism. It was hard not to be impressed. In fact, the question I most wanted to ask Gavin (but respectfully did not) was "are you going to make a stop at the state house or head straight to Washington?"

When Senator Feinstein is ready to step aside, I hope our state gives Gavin a chance to represent our views, and a progressive option for our nation. I know I will be campaigning for him.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Peak Oil will change our lives

One of the most important articles you can read today (or even this week) is Erik Curran's "Peak Oil will change our lives" published on Monday in the Energy Bulletin.
Dozens of leading petroleum geologists as well others in the oil industry and in government have agreed that we are nearing the twilight of cheap oil. Chevron has launched a campaign to inform the public that oil is depleting. The U.S. Army is planning for permanent oil shortages. Even the U.S. Department of Energy put out a 91-page report on the subject in February 2005.

"As (oil) peaking is approached," the report said, "liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking."
Read the whole article. And also check out the "Peak Oil Primer" that the folks at the Energy Bulletin have put together.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

A Modest Proposal - Gasoline Taxes

Everyone is talking about how "high" gasoline prices are now in the US. One brave soul testifying to congress yesterday actually suggested that the best way to reduce America's dependency on foreign oil would be an increase in gasoline taxes. Yes, raise the price of gasoline. Think congress would consider this? Not if they want to be re-elected.

But lets take a quick look at the numbers. We are spending $10 billion per month fighting George's war in Iraq. According to the US Government Energy Information Administration we consume roughly 20 million barrels per day. A barrel is about 42 gallons of gas. So that 840 million gallons of gas per day. Or 25 billion gallons per month. So a $0.50 per gallon fuel tax would pay for the Iraq war and have money left over to rebuild New Orleans.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Question for Runners

I run fairly in the morning here in Berkeley, so (on a good morning) I often don't see anyone at all. But sometimes I see other runners. Invariably if the runner is male he will make some gesture in greeting, usually a wave. However if the runner is female, she will refuse to even make eye contact much less wave. Assuming my experience is similar to other male runners (and is not just because I look scary...) here is the question -- do female runners wave to other female runners? Is it that waving in greeting is something only male runners do or is it a separation of the sexes issues?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Personal Bee Beta Launched

It has taken longer than I had originally wanted. And we aren't as far along as I would have liked. And there are 2 or 3 bugs that are really nagging at me to go fix... BUT, we have done it - pushed the new look and feel of The Personal Bee live out to the world. You can read what Dan Brekke has to say about the launch over here on the Bee Blog.

The biggest thing missing from this release, which I hope to rectify by the first week of May, is the ability to create new Bee editions -- this is still in a private beta. There are two primary reasons for this -- (1) the wizards we have under development which will make it easy to create a new Bee aren't ready yet and (2) we want to get a new phrase parser into production to handle significant increases in the number of bees that we will be handling...

So what IS in this release?

A beautiful new look and feel, access to 40+ public Bees, the ability to discover articles within those topic areas that are interesting and then tag, comment, and email those articles. Also, the ability to export a "reading list" to another website or blog...

Discover, Share, Build -- these are the three legs of our stool. We have more work to do to lengthen those legs and make this a platform for all kinds of news aggregation and distribution, but we have the core of the idea in place. Enjoy.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Save the Mercury News?

Saving the Mercury News? This strikes me as a little like the "third rail" of our world -- talking about the future of print media in an online forum run by the very print business being discussed... But it is an important question that deserves a serious answer.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a strong supporter of a free and independent media. I am in the camp that believes that democracy is only possible when the society supports and protects a free flow of information and ideas. I am strongly influenced by thinkers such as Richard Rorty ("Take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself").

But I am troubled by the notion that the Mercury News needs to be "saved." What exactly does this mean? A review of the "save the merc" website does not clarify the situation. On this site I read:
"We are apprehensive that a buyer who does not understand our community and value the journalism that we provide will adopt what one Wall Street analyst termed a "scorched earth" policy. Under this scenario, substantial cost-cutting and smaller staffs would follow a sale. The impact on our community of readers and advertisers would be severe."
If the impact on the "community of readers and advertisers" was severe, then this business strategy of destroying the value inherent in the community coverage would be counter-productive to the goal of running a profitable business. Why would a buyer destroy the asset that he or she purchased?

In the "State of the Media 2006" - a report out from The Project for Excellence in Journalism ( we learn that newspapers are reducing local coverage all over the country. Philadelphia, offered as emblematic, has half as many reporters (24) covering the local community than they had in 1980 (46). Some of this attrition might be attributed to increasing productivity, but clearly some of it is due to a reduced editorial budget which comes as a direct result of dropping readership and advertising.

So it is not unreasonable for the Mercury News staff to worry that their paper may get leaner in the years to come. Especially if the current trends continue and readership of print continues to decline. And especially if the print mode is the primary focus of their enterprise.

But as Silicon Beat itself has shown, there is a vibrant community of interest online for the kinds of local coverage (tech industry in this case) that journalists at what we have come to call big city newspapers can offer. So perhaps the real challenge for "saving" the San Jose Mercury News and other daily papers is to learn how the new online media can prove to be a generator of readership and advertising as the old media of print declines into our memories.

Change is hard. People have a lot of trouble with change. But somehow we live in a world of flush toilets, jet airplanes, and the Internet anyway.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Stanley - DARPA Grand Challenge

Sam Perry and I just did a very cool thing -- he couldn't be here at the MediaX conference this afternoon, but we both have the new MacBook Pro which has a built in camera and iChat video... so I just turned the laptop around and gave him a personal webcast of Sebastian Thrun's presentation on how Stanford won the DARPA Grand Challenge.

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Harvesting Implicit Knowledge

Bernardo Huberman, Consulting Professor, Applied Physics is speaking here at MediaX on "Harvesting Implicit Knowledge" -- he proposes that a key differentiator of great organizations is their ability to extract, aggregate analyze and properly act on information quickly.

Today we need to discover communities of interest. We can do this by looking at the electronic communications that we use - tools like email and even powerpoint. People that communicate often tend to establish links that persist. Thus using the connections implicit in email communications it is possible to surface the connections between individuals in a company, uncovering implicit organizational structures.

One of the reasons we are talking about this at MediaX is that this effort is an example of how there can be cross-fertilization from adjacent fields. The way in which this group is developing the notion of implicit communities is by applying a concept from mathematics -- "betweenness centrality" -- in which a graph has community structure if it consists of groups of nodes with many more links within each group than between different groups.

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Hooray I am a Gen-Xer

According to the presentation currently under way here at the MediaX conference, Generation X started in 1965... phew! I just made it. The presentation is on Aging -- "50 is the new 35" -- sound good to me. Hopefully by the time I am 50, 60 will be the new 35. That way I can be 25 forever...

MediaX Conference At Stanford

Enormous congratulations to Ellen Levy, Director of Industry Research and Collaboration for MediaX at Stanford University. I am sitting in the audience now, listening to the opening comments from John Hennessey, President of the University. The fact that John is here, giving these opening remarks, is in itself an enormous endorsement for the incredible work that Ellen and her organization are doing to connect industry with research. And the program over the next day and a half speaks to the enormous breadth of the collaboration that is being nurtured by this organization.

John notes that "..increasingly Universities will be the place that basic research and core technologies are developed." He is laying out an ambition program for evolving the educational initiatives as well as the research agendas that Stanford is undertaking. Examples that John offers for questions a University is uniquely suited to asking:

"How would you design the Internet today, if you could start with a clean state."

"What are the implications when people live not 10 years past their retirement age, but 20, 30, even 40?"

He closes with a quotation: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used to create those problems" - Albert Einstein

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Oakland Fuel Cell Busses

Some time ago I wrote about seeing a fuel cell bus on a flat bed truck headed for Oakland. Today comes news of these fuel cell busses going into service.
Integrating the UTC Power fuel cell with a hybrid-electric drive system has enabled us to achieve twice the fuel efficiency of diesel.
For the planet's sake, lets hope this trial is successful and brings more fuel cells to market quickly.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Yellow Machine Rocks

I rarely endorse products, but once in awhile I am blown away by how great a company, service, or product is -- so I want to tell everyone I know. Such is the case with Anthology Solutions which makes a terrific networked storage solution called Yellow Machine. I bought one for my home network, but they are focused on the small business market right now. For less than $2 per gigabyte I got a 680 gigabyte networked home storage solution that worked right out of the box with minimal setup (and nothing very technical). I bought their 1 terabyte version which, running RAID 5, comes out to the 680 gb of usable space. Now everyone in the family can safely back up files. More importantly, we are now running iTunes (which drives our stereo 90% of the time) from any computer in the house, accessing a shared iTunes music directory on the Yellow Machine.

A few other notable features -- the Yellow Machine ships with a VPN router with double firewall and an 8-port LAN switch and WAN gateway. So not only is this a RAID 5 storage solution, but it is also your network hub and firewall to the outside world. All for $1,299!

The company has 1.6 and 2 terabyte models planned as well.

The coolest thing? 1 terabyte tucked under my arm when I left work on Friday to go home and set it up. Geesh, I remember when the first commercial 1 terabyte data storage facility was turned on (to much fanfare)... oh well, I guess I am getting old!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Mighty Tots

There are 168 preschools within 5 miles of my house, at least according to Mighty Tots, a new web site launched by my friend (and Bee collaborator) Nick Chim. The site promises to become a valuable resource for parents of preschool aged children. The first feature, naturally enough, is a tool for finding preschools in your area. The hope is that directors of these preschools will fill out the information so that it can be a useful comparison tool. And that parents will write reviews... And what will the next resource for parents be? Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Transparency in Engineering

It is an interesting experiment -- develop a new product in the full light of day. Well, we don't release every bug-strewn version of The Personal Bee out into the wild, but we have been pretty close to our goal of a 2-week release cycle. The details of our latest release are here on the Bee Blog. Mostly we are hammering out bugs but cool features are sneaking in. But I can't wait for us to get this current nuts and bolts phase over with and start moving forward with work on the user experience. That will be exciting!

Talking to Larry Lessig at Mashup Camp

originally uploaded by dsearls.
Mashup Camp was one of the best conferences I have ever attended. I wish I could go down again today, but we need to get a new release of the Bee out the door... In the meantime, it is fun to see all of the Flickr photos of the conference showing up -- here is one that Doc Searls took of me talking to Larry Lessig about the future of software copyrights...

Monday, February 20, 2006

Larry Lessig at Mashup Camp

A long time ago (and I'll go and dig up the blog post link later) I had an extended debate with Larry Lessig about software copyright. It was great to hear him speak today at Mashup Camp and to hear how his thinking has evolved. Or maybe I just misunderstood him... The core of the debate was about whether when someone asserts a copyright claim over software, whether there should be a published human readable form of that software provided to the marketplace. I pointed out that if software companies were compelled to do so, it would gut the value that copyright might offer in the first place.

Today, Lessig offered a similar point, but with the clarity that such human readable form could be provided in a "time-encrypted" format, such that it could only be readable at the point that the copyright had expired. Now that idea makes sense.

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"Type O" - Mashup

Doc Searls made the comment, I think on the fly, that we are all "type O" here at Mashup camp -- which is to say, the blood type that can mix with any other... I have to say I am positively impressed with the results so far. 300 smart people in a room will result in interesting conversations, productive relationship development, and (I bet) a whole bunch of cool new ideas unleashed on the rest of the world...

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Bee About Mashup Camp

I am using Personal Bee to track the blog posts coming out of Mashup Camp -- check it out here

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More on the idea of Mashup Camp

"You are in charge of deciding what happens here, which also means that you are responsible for what happens here." OK, sounds reasonable. Talking about why they are trying this format -- the organizers are trying to achieve the "coffee-break like feel" that sometimes is the most productive part of a conference, throughout the conference... I love experiments in conferences. I really do. Because as I have written before (say about the first BlogOn conference) the way most conferences operate is completely broken. It sort of makes me want to run a conference...

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Mashup Camp

So here I am at the Computer History Museum, early on Monday (Presiden't Day). While most of the Bay Area sleeps, 300 geeks have converged on the museum to compare notes, collaborate on projects, and show off --> Mashup Camp Website. We are told that this is an "unconference" but I think it might be more appropriate to call it the anarchy conference...

At best we might say that it is "self-organizing" which might work... In the great Heideggerian tradition (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) I think the style is more of a reaction to standard conference style. So maybe this is an anti-conference rather than an unconference... But this is another way to say that I think we are on our way to another kind of conference but that we aren't there yet.

Right now there are a line of "technology providers" introducing themselves... at 30 seconds each none of this information is going to stick. So I guess this part of the morning is to give us a chance to wake up... Next up we are supposed to propose conference sessions and build our own conference organically -- hey, I'm game... just skeptical ;-)

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

This can't be good news department

You have to get a little bit worried with information like this --

twice as much ice is going into the sea as it was five years ago.

Independent Online Edition > Environment

The article goes on to talk about how sea levels were 25 meters higher than they are today the last time the earth's average temperature was 3 degrees warmer than it is now... and we are rebuilding the levees in New Orleans for a category 3 hurricane? Hmmm....


originally uploaded by michaelarrington.
Congrats to Scoble and Israel and Arrington -- a great party (400+ people!) and great launch of the Naked Conversations book.

And anyone who went to this party is now a believer (if they weren't already) -- the Internet craze is officially back on...

Actuarial Tables ARE Interesting

Most people when they hear the words "actuarial tables" think of statistical analysis and insurance and other boring subjects... But after reading a recent article about US biologist Shripad Tuljapurkar of Stanford University and his presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in St. Louis, I began to wonder if the way we create actuarial tables is all wrong. And if so, there will be enormous implications far beyond the insurance industry since we base many of our business decisions, political decisions, and personal life decisions on how long we think we will live.

According to the US Government, if you are born today you are likely to live to be about 74 years old as a male or about 80 as a female. Here is the statistical table from the social security website. What this means is that the average age at death for all people born today is 74 (I'll use the male statistics throughout this, but you can go look up the female statistics on the table if you are interested). This means that every infant that dies brings down the "average" life expectancy. Thus, as you would expect, as you grow older your "life expectancy" increases. At 20 years of age, the average life expectancy has increased to over 75 years. That is, of all the people still alive at 20, they will on average live another 55 years.

This method of calculating life expectancy assumes that relative lifespans are constant. Or, to quote the SSA website,

"The period life expectancy at a given age for 2001 represents the average number of years of life remaining if a group of persons at that age were to experience the mortality rates for 2001 over the course of their remaining life."

But this last point is precisely the one that Dr. Tuljapurkar brings into question in his report. He claims that at the current pace of medical advancement that we are adding one year of life expectancy each five years of medical research. Thus the life expectancy for someone born today should be 20 years longer than the "...mortality rates for 2001..." -- and this is just the average...

In his report he suggests that by 2050, we should be thinking that a retirement age of 85 is normal. Based on 2001 mortality rates, only the top quartile will live to be more than 85 years old. Even assuming that over the 50 years, we have added an average of 10 years of life (or, made 85 year olds as healthy as 75 year olds are today) only about half of all citizens live to be over 75 today. So these raises an interesting question about "retirement" age -- how should we think about these "golden years?" Who gets to participate? Only 50% of the population?

One of the interesting aspects of the actuarial table is looking for the "knee" in the graph. If you think about the primary causes of death you can group them largely into 3 categories -- accidents, self-inflicted, and disease. Most of the medical research that Dr. Tuljapurkar is talking about addresses disease, and in particular disease afflicting us in our old age. Thus even if the ultimate age at which we leave does not grow substantially, the "knee" in the curve could move dramatically.

91% of all US males make it past their 50th birthday. 85% are still alive at 60. At 65, when our parents think they should retire, 78% of american males are still alive. The die-off acclerates into the next few decades. 10 years later, at 75, only 58% are still alive, a 20% loss in 10 years. By comparison, between 50 and 60 only 6% die.

It seems reasonable to assume that a lot of these people are dying from preventable diseases. Even that changes in social behavior (the reduction of smoking, for example) already is going to have a big impact on this "knee" in the graph. Thus it may be reasonable to think that, rather than assuming an 85 year old in 2050 will be as healthy as a 75 year old is today, that as many as 78% of all Americans in that cohort are still alive at 85. This is a lot different than thinking that they are as healthy as 65 year olds. In fact, we may be a nation of hospital bound, breathing tube linked, living dead in 2050. The fact that medicine can keep us alive does not address the question of our quality of life at that age.

There is one male in the US out of every 100,000 born in 1906 that is alive today. The real question for the medical profession is not whether 100 years old will become, for our children, the average life expectancy. But rather, whether or not we will be living happy and healthy lives into our second centuries.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Evolutionary Morality

I have been reading Samuel Clemens' novel "Huckleberry Finn" to my nine year old step-daughter. We just read the section where Huck is wrestling with whether or not he should turn in Jim, the runaway slave and Huck's companion on his trip down the Mississippi. This morning in the car on the way to school she asked me, "why doesn't Huck know that slavery is wrong? Why is he struggling with this decision?"

I thought about this and came up with an example to help her understand -- I said, sometimes when everyone around us is doing something, we think it is the right thing to do. In fact, we don't know any better. Huck is actually very brave and very thoughtful to be questioning slavery. After all, everyone around him assume that slavery is the normal course of events -- even Jim! (and here comes the example) Its like today where we all drive around in cars without worrying about whether it is right or wrong. Your children might say to you, your parents really drove around in gasoline burning private vehicles!? Didn't they know it was wrong? But what choice do we have? Look around you and everyone does it and thinks it is normal...

To which she replied, "well THAT I know is wrong. We should ride our bicycles to school..."

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Taking Flight

Today we are taking an enormous step forward for The Personal Bee. We are still quite a long way from regularly scheduled service (to stick with the flight metaphor for a moment) -- but we hope to get there in about a month. This is more like the test flight of an experimental aircraft -- click through to experience The Personal Bee. That's experimental, as in, fly with caution! And, just like experimental aircraft, all the features that you'd want aren't finished - just the bare bones.

Even so, I think if you take the time to look around you'll find that we have done some very interesting things. Part of our focus is on how people can use the Bee to discover news, and then share that news with colleagues and friends. So we have built something that we call a "Personal Bee Reading List." As you read articles and see ones that you'd like to recommend you can tag the article, write a comment, and click a radio button and we'll export the article to your blog or website using a short piece of javascript. We call this a widget and there are a couple of them, detailed here:

In this first version you can create a Bee account and subscribe to a small collection of public bees (created and managed by a volunteer group of beekeepers). The next step will be to add the ability for you as a reader to have your own RSS feeds included... over time we'll keep building on this structure and will eventually allow anyone to create a private or public bee edition. And you'll be able to construct your own personal newspaper...

So remember, when you go and take a look, this is NOT a beta... we are far from being ready for a beta! This is an experimental aircraft that we offer to those of you with a sense of adventure, interested in seeing some new ideas and sharing your thoughts with us.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Take Care of Freedom And Truth Will Take Care of Itself

It was a wonderful treat to hear Richard Rorty on KQED's "Forum" radio program yesterday. Rorty is one of the greatest living philosophers. Yesteday he was speaking about a new book of interviews that has just been published, entitled Take Care of Freedom And Truth Will Take Care of Itself. The basic idea behind this phrase is that in an open society, in which there is true freedom of speech and freedom of the press, there will be a marketplace of ideas in which the ones closest to "truth" will be the most successful. And when those freedoms are abridged, that we tend to see despotism and tyranny emerge, and we move further from "truth."

To illustrate his point, Rorty pointed to the past 200 years of western civilization as being a period of enormous moral progress. The freedom of speech that the US constitution and the French Revolution promoted provided for a series of events unparalleled in human history -- the elimination of slavery, universal male suffrage followed by female suffrage, anti-rascist organizations, pro-equality movements, anti-homophobic movements...

It was interesting to hear Rorty refer to this as a series of objective moral triumphs. While it is a position I feel comfortable agreeing with, it is one that would not resonate with religious fundamentalists - here or abroad.

The day before, I was listening to an NPR report on the Hamas victory in Palestinian elections. A senior Hamas politician was being interviewed and was asked about the need for economic connections to the west. The politician spoke of his ambitions to restore tourism to the Gaza strip but said it would not be the "debased tourism of the west." He spoke of a trip to the US in the early 1990s in which he saw "men and women together on the beaches, which is simply not allowed." And he described what he had witnessed as "the behavior of animals."

It was interesting to hear in this man's words and in his tone of voice the clear sense of cultural superiority that he feels his fundamentalist Muslim views provides him over what he seems to feel is a debased and morally bankrupt West. Of course he is not a product of a free and open society, nor are the conditions of Gaza and the West Bank ones which would foster a helpful and pluralistic attutude toward one's fellow man (toward, for example, the Israeli's).

But this makes it even more confusing when we look at our own brand of religious fundamentalists here in the United States. Presumably the evangelical Christians have grown up in the same environment that I have -- one which has provided for free speech and freedom of the press. And one in which their choices for how and where to live have not brought persection. And yet in many ways, these individuals express the same tone of cultural superiority that Hamas expresses. And the same desire to reform secular society to match their non-secular beliefs.

Rorty was asked in the interview about the rise of fundamentalists in the US and gave an honest answer -- "It is something I don't understand." He said, "sociologists will tell you that the evolution of urbanized human societies in the west ought to proceed in a fairly parallel manner." But in Europe there is no such religious revival, so why do we have it here in America? Rorty continued, "in Europe, since the enlightenment, there has been broad agreement that religious tolerance is a critical part of being able to live together in our urban environment. And a general dispostion to keep religious matters and civil affairs entirely separate."

But here in the US some now openly refer to our country as a "Christian Nation" which immediately suggests a prejudice against other religions. Rorty points out that 30 years ago, this wouldn't have been possible.

In thinking about this, I wonder if an answer can be found in the unintended consequences of the race wars and forced desegregation that our nation's urban centers experienced in the 1960s. The re-segregation of America through white suburbs, ringing the old urban centers, un-did generations of urban evolution. The fact that we have so much open space in our country and our love of the automobile simply made this re-segregation that much easier. And what happens in these suburbs? It is much easier for a group of like minded people to close themselves off from the marketplace of ideas, and live entirely within a world of their own closed ideas and information. Living in the city, riding public transportation, eating and shopping in diverse social environments it becomes impossible to close out competing ideas and information. But in the suburbs, you can isolate yourself (and your children) from differences, and the need to be tolerant of these differences.

So perhaps Rorty and the sociologists are right -- that the evolution of urbanized societies in the west IS parallel. After all, the "blue" states are the ones that are the most urbanized. But the difference in the US is that we continue to have a large non-urbanized population and thus a population that has no need for or interest in the enlightenment and its separation of religious belief from a tolerant secular civil society.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Nick Douglas on Silicon Valley Gossip

According to this morning's SiliconBeat, some guy named "Nick Douglas" is moving to Silicon Valley to become a gossip columnist about the technology industry... but who the heck is Nick Douglas?

Nick Douglas

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Kevin Kelly on the WWW

An old article by Kevin Kelly, re-dredged up by the blog Sentient Development, caught my attention today. Here is the quote in particular:
Ultimately, as the Web becomes more brain-like, it will be a near-literal extension of our own minds. "What will most surprise us is how dependent we will be on what the Machine knows - about us and about what we want to know," writes Kelly. "We already find it easier to Google something a second or third time rather than remember it ourselves. The more we teach this megacomputer, the more it will assume responsibility for our knowing. It will become our memory. Then it will become our identity. In 2015 many people, when divorced from the Machine, won't feel like themselves - as if they'd had a lobotomy."
To which I reacted - gee, I already do feel like I had a lobotomy when disconnected from the web. I have already given up so many parts of my memory to the idea that "oh, I can just find it again when I need it" that when I can't get online, I feel claustrophobic, irritated, dull-witted... OK, maybe I feel those things at other times too :-) But seriously, the trends that Kelly talks about are already at work...

Here is the Sentient Develoment post

And the original Kevin Kelly article

Monday, January 23, 2006

A risk of total collapse

"We would be foolish to take for granted the permanence of our fragile global civilisation," writes Dylan Evans in a thoughtful and sobering commentary, the full text of which you can read on the Guardian website. Dr. Ralph Metzner, co-president and founder of the Green Earth Foundation goes even further in his reply, posted here on the non-prophet website. He writes:

In one respect, though, I have already left the company of the “intelligent and credible”, since I don’t think civilizational collapse is possible — I say it is happening now. Even as we read each other’s e-mail, and drink to the New Year. That deadly duo of monsters — resource depletion and overpopulation -- are killing off vast areas of biosphere.
Both articles are worth reading...

Friday, January 20, 2006

The Personal Bee

Many of you reading this know that I have been hard at work on a new project, The Personal Bee. While we are far from ready to open our doors for visits, I thought I'd start writing a bit about the ideas that are driving this new business. We have also created a blog specifically about all things Personal Bee-related which you can find at and I have my own work related blog over there at

So what is the Bee? It is an attempt to rethink the traditional relationship between the people and processes involved in the production and consumption of news and information.

Maybe the best starting point is a little of the history of how I got here...

The Internet has had this amazing capacity to transform the way we think about media. From my earliest interactions with the Internet (in the late 1980's at the University of Chicago) I have been thinking about how this technology is transforming communications and society.

While working for a first wave Internet startup, WhoWhere, in the mid-1990s I had my first opportunity to really participate in this tranformation. The mission of WhoWhere was to build a suite of Internet based tools to allow people to find, connect, and communicate with each other. At the time our "communicate" tool was a personal home pages portal that we acquired (Angelfire). We had a lot of ideas about how we wanted to evolve this technology but (sadly) most of these ideas were never implemented by our acquirer, Lycos.

Some years later, after I had joined the executive team at Borland, I encountered the idea of blogging. I wrote my first Blogger post on August 8, 2000. I called my first blog "My life, as bizarre as that may seem." While I have removed the blog from public access, it still exists in the limbo of the Google/Blogger database. Here is my first post:

This is a first entry in my personal "diary" - I am trying out a new web site called blogger which is supposed to give me the ability to create a running log of comments to my site. We'll see how well that works!

I remember my feeling of excitement as I started to play with the rudimentary blogging tools. I thought to myself, this is the first truly new thing I have seen on the Internet for a long time! It also seemed like an interesting continuation of the kinds of things we had been doing with personal home pages through WhoWhere. Blogging was the next logical step in creating a medium for people to get news and information out into the world without the filter of publishers.

But the strength of blogging is also its weakness in that it only addresses one part of the dynamic -- it fractalized the writing component of the news production process, but did little to update the editorial and publishing sides of the media business. In addition, the ability to comment on blog posts (and more recently, trackback) has started to change the dynamic between readers and writers, but there is still much to be done here as well.

In 2004 I was introduced to a very interesting print publication called "The Week" which summarizes the top news from around the world and, in a thoughtful and useful format, presents this summary in a weekly magazine. This model seemed to me to be applicable to narrower topic domains and as a test of this idea I created a technology blog called IP Inferno in May of 2004. Here is a link to the first month of my posts to this blog.

As an explanation of the site's mission I wrote that IP Inferno would be,

The news, what the pundits said, and selections from bloggers... A complete roundup of news and current events on VoIP, Wi-Fi, WiMAX, mobile telephony and computing, and advanced IP applications.

I originally thought that I would create this type of vertically focused news portal for a number of different topics and I went so far as to create a Typepad account and sites on gadgets and investing. But the work of collecting the news, organizing it for presentation, and commenting on it in interesting ways proved to be too burdensome (if I was also going to have a day job). While I have kept up with IP Inferno off and on over the past two years, it has more often been as a writer contributing new material to the world of VoIP then as a news summarizer a la "The Week."

Nicholas Chim, then an associate with MDV in Menlo Park, started work on what we now call "The Personal Bee" early in 2005. His goal was to create a tool for himself, to help him sort through vast quantities of information that MDV partners wanted him to track on a wide variety of technology topics. He set up an account for me in May of 2005, but I didn't do much with the Bee at that time as I was busy with my job at Orb. But when that came to an end in August of last year, I stopped by to see Nick and chat about his idea.

I immediately saw something quite a bit different in Nick's product from his original vision of a reader's tool for aggregating and sorting through news. While the Bee could serve that need as well, I saw a set of tools that would automate the hardest part of the tasks that I had encountered in creating IP Inferno and a platform that would allow anyone to painlessly publish a vertical news portal on a narrow topic of their choosing. I saw the beginning of an ecosystem between readers, editors, and writers...

This has been a lot of background on how I came to be involved with The Personal Bee. For more on what it is today, and where it is headed, go over to my blog on the Bee site...

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Kurzweil Interviews Himself

Read this fascinating "self-interview" of Ray Kurzweil author of "The Singularity is Near." From the interview, what is the Singularity?

"We’ll get to a point where technical progress will be so fast that unenhanced human intelligence will be unable to follow it. That will mark the Singularity."

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Nanobot Knees

I have finished reading, but not digesting, Ray Kurzweil's book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. The most startling part of the book for me actually comes in the exploration of metaphysical questions, not the issue of our transcending biology.

As a student at the University of Chicago I took a graduate course in Aristotle's Metaphysics, one of his least read and least understood books. I remember the course only vaguely but one of the things that stands out is the instructor's consisent counseling to us about how we needed to read this text very differently from Aristotle's other works. While couched in the same kind of what we might now call "scientific" language that Aristotle's other works are known for, the Metaphysics nonetheless has a very different subject matter. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle is trying to explore why the universe is the way we find it to be... one might even call Aristotle's work in this area a kind of religious text because it ultimately must rely on unknowable conjectures.

Similarly Kurzweil goes out on a limb of his own in speculating about where the universe has come from and where it may be headed. While thought provoking, what is strange to me is that Kurzweil would find it necessary to explore these issues in this manner, as the answers to the questions he poses are not essential to the fundamental argument he is making about the coming "singularity."

To illustrate this other point he is making, which is about how humans are evolving now into something radically different, I have invented something I call Nanobot Knees. I thought of this example while running this morning...

Runners know that their knees are one of the fragile links between their bodies capability and their chosen form of exercise. As we grow older, our knees are one of the first parts of our biological system that causes problems. Thus a wide variety of shoes have been developed to help runners improve the likelihood that they will still be running in the future, by reducing the strain on our knees. This is the first step in "transcending our biology" - the use of prosthesis to extend our bodiy's natural capability. We can also see that this is what defines us as tool makers - the ability to extend our natural abilities through tools. Swords extend the reach of our arms, cars extend our feet, phones our voice...

But at some point our knees give out anyway and we have the option of quitting the daily run (and suffering the health consequences of reduced activity). We then have the option of surgical processes which can "repair" the damage done by time and stress. This is a much newer expression of our tool making behavior -- and has snuck up on us so we don't think of it as making us different from our forefathers. Prosthesis was the first phase of humans impacting their own evolution -- this has been going on for 100,000 years (or whenever the first club was lifted from the ground) while this second phase of medical operations have really only been around (in any form) for a few thousand (from the first attempts to remedy injuries through drugs or procedures).

What Kurzweil is proposing is a third phase which accelerates us beyond prosthesis and medicine and into something entirely new. To stick with the knee example, Kurzweil is suggesting that in the next few decades we will have the technical ability to augment our knees using nanotechnology -- manufactured miniature machines - tools - which we use like medicine to correct (and enhance) our bodies. Imagine that the very molecular structure of the knee could be replaced with a material that was stronger and more durable. What runner wouldn't jump at the opportunity to eliminate the possibility of knee injuries?

What sounds entirely reasonable and acceptable when applied to a runner's knee, might sound very different when you apply this same logical progression to the brain. But this is the heart of Kurzweil's surprising prediction -- that we will be augmenting our brains (and our bodies for that matter) in the next few decades. Using nanotechnology on our bodies, people alive today, in their 40s and 50s, will have the ability to extend their lifetimes first, through biotechnology and then through nanotechnology. The key, Kurzweil points out, is to live long enough to take advantage of the technologies currently in development. Using nanotechnology to extend our brains, however, does more than just extend our lifetimes. It fundamentelly shifts what we are as human beings.

Imagine for a moment the "what if?" of everyone simply being capable of enhancing themselves to known human limits -- as smart as Einstein, as creative as Mozart... equivalent to making my knee as good as it could possibly be... That prospect is daunting enough. A world full of Einsteins? But now what happens when we go beyond? And Kurzweil suggests that we will go far beyond -- that this is the natural next evolutionary step as human beings.

Reasonable people can differ with Kurzweil on the rate at which these technologies will be made available at all, if not just to the super-weathly. And the ability to modify our brains certainly seems further out than modifying our bodies. But just the prospect of using technology (even without nanotechnology) to extend our lives brings up an important question for those of us young enough to benefit -- what should we be doing today to remain as healthy as possible, and to amass as much wealth as possible (in case these therapies are still expensive when we need them) in order to radically extend our lifetimes? If you throw out the idea that we will die "of natural causes" at 80-100, and suddenly suggest that there are things that we can do today which will double that lifespan (or more), shouldn't we be doing these things?

Kurzweil goes on to suggest that it is possible to "live long enough" that you can "live forever..." and if you go to that radical extreme and question the entire process of human ageing and death, you really have thrown yourself back into a whole set of metaphysical questions. So perhaps it isn't so strange for Kurzweil to a bit like Aristotle grasping at unknowable conjectures.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Sad but True Department

It appears that social conservatives (who unfortunately seem to be running our country) would rather have our children get cancer than have sex... or maybe they actually think that kids who have sex should get cancer... What the heck am I talking about? The fight in Washington is over whether or not a new vaccine against the virus that is the leading cause of cervical cancer should be broadly available to our children. As father to three children, all girls I WOULD PREFER THEM TO HAVE SEX. It might be a mistake, and they might regret it later, but at least they won't DIE! It isn't enough to just vaccinate my own children, although clearly we will do this. Anyone they might make the mistake of having sex with should be vaccinated as well! We can eliminate the virus if vaccination is mandatory. Polio is a useful case study...

Excerpt from the article:

Because the vaccine protects against a sexually transmitted virus, many
conservatives oppose making it mandatory, citing fears that it could send a
subtle message condoning sexual activity before marriage. Several leading
groups that promote abstinence are meeting this week to formulate official
policies on the vaccine.

Debate rages on use of cervical cancer vaccine / While almost 100% effective, some contend use condones teen sex