Sunday, November 11, 2018

Derek Aug 2010

August 2010 Archives

While I'm a full-blown atheist, I find the idea of Ramadan fascinating for its key component: fasting during daylight hours, and only eating after the sun goes down, for a month. As an insulin-dependent diabetic who has to manage when and what I eat rather carefully, I couldn't even do that if I wanted to. But aside from their religious significance, the Muslim sawm (the fast itself) and iftar (the meal that ends it) are reminders of the significance of food and eating in all human societies.
Humans are far from the only animal to share food. Our closest relatives among the great apes do it. So do wolf packs and prides of lions. The whole structure of many communal insect societies (anthills, beehives, termite mounds) revolves around the procurement, storage, and distribution of food. But with our big brains and language, and with our elaborate methods of cooking and otherwise preparing meals, we have ritualized eating like no other creature, going far beyond food's role as fuel to keep our bodies running.
We organize our days around mealtimes. A gift of food or drink is appreciated as much—often more—than durable goods or money. Eating is a big part of our celebrations of holidays, birthdays, graduations, weddings, and other special events. We also serve snacks at funerals, eat for comfort when we are alone and sad, and offer a last meal to prisoners facing execution. Personally, one of the very worst periods of my life was three years ago, when I was unable to eat (or drink!) for several days in a row due to surgery. Our keenest memories often involve food: there's a reason one of the most popular new shows on the Food Network is The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
So when observant Muslims make a point this month of fasting each day, all day, and then breaking fast—almost always in groups—at sundown, it's a constant reminder of the value of food to all of us, and of our rituals of food. It's a tradition that secular society could learn something from, and perhaps even adopt in a less-regimented way, the way we have co-opted Christmas to celebrate the Winter Solstice and the end of the year with presents and coloured lights, and Easter to recognize springtime (which, come to think of it, is how those holidays got started anyway).
At the least, a secularized version of Ramadan would be a great incentive for a bunch of dinner parties, not to mention good business for restaurants.

She made an honest man of him

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These two handsome folks got married today after ten years together:
TJ and Tarya on Twitpic
Tarya, the one on the right, is my cousin—some of you may spot our resemblance, though she's much prettier than me. Her husband TJ is on the left. The picture is by my lovely wife Air. Since I was the official photographer at the wedding, I have a ton of other photos (more than 700!), but they need a bit of prep before I put some online.
It was a remarkable day, and I managed to avoid crying all over my cameras. Just barely.

Since our local Save-On-Foods outlet shut down its photo lab last year, I've been taking my rolls of film to the Costco down the hill, which will process them, make prints, and scan at high resolution to CD for a very reasonable price (about $9 Cdn per roll, taxes included). They do a great job in an hour or so, giving me the benefits of both film and digital photography.
Alas, they are now scheduled to stop handling 35 mm film in mid-September too. There's just not enough demand. (Apparently, they are the only Costco outlet in Western Canada still processing photo film.) So after that, I'll have to pay a higher price at one of the photo specialty stores in the area. Good thing Costco is still doing the work right now, though: I'm taking both digital and film photos of my cousin's wedding tomorrow, so I'll have a big batch of pictures to run through the service next week.
Contemplative puppy
It's a pity. Film photography is not going away, and people seem to like when I use it, but the days of truly cheap developing may be over.

Jellyfish, our past and future

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In the swarmFive years ago, for our tenth anniversary, my wife air got herself a tattoo of a bee, with the number 10 in the middle of its back. The tattoo is awesome, and at the time I considered getting myself something similar. But—as I'm prone to do—I proctrastinated, and now with all the cancer and chemotherapy and other crap that affects my circulation, immune system, and blood clotting, it's apparently no longer safe for me to get myself inked.
Since I specialized in invertebrate sea creatures when I was studying for my marine biology degree (back when Air and I first met in the late '80s), I had considered designs based on a couple of those animal groups: sea stars and jellyfish. Both are fascinating, widespread, and remarkably alien to those of us accustomed to bilateral symmetry, central nervous systems, and skeletons.
While personally I find echinoderms such as sea stars (and sea urchins, sea anemones, sea cucumbers, sand dollars, brittle stars, and crinoids) more appealing, it seems that in the long run, jellyfish are more important. They and their cnidarian kin are ancient: the earliest fossils are around 580 million years old. Relatively speaking, they are simply built, without brains or blood or any hard structure.
But they are remarkably resilient. As a recent article in Smithsonian magazine reveals, it seems that as human activities change the Earth's climate, we're making many ocean environments more amenable to jellyfish—often to the detriment of other types of life, including ourselves:
With the world's human population expected to increase 32 percent by 2050, to 9.1 billion, a number of environmental conditions that favor jellyfish are predicted to become more common. Jellyfish reproduce and move into new niches so rapidly that even within 40 years, some experts predict "regime shifts" in which jellyfish assume dominance in one marine ecosystem after another.
There are genuine consequences for people too, not just in fisheries and on beaches. Massive jellyfish blooms have clogged the water intakes of electrical plants, causing power failures—and have apparently even partially disabled a nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier. Last month, the CBC broadcast a documentary called "Jellyfish Invasion!" highlighting the increased prevalence of jellyfish in numerous locations around the world.
Air and I witnessed several local jellyfish blooms when we worked as park naturalists for the Greater Vancouver Regional District. I recall sitting on the rocks near Admiralty Point in Burrard Inlet in the summer of 1988, watching thousands and thousands of moon jellies (some of them as wide as a truck tire), as well as the occasional sea nettle, drifting by in the tide. That bloom was probably part of the natural cycle around here.
But increasing jellyfish blooms elsewhere are not so much an invasion as a symptom of warming, acidifying waters, many of which may be our fault as human beings. However, as that Smithsonian article notes, we...
...may be overreacting to a few isolated jelly outbreaks. Not enough is known about historical jelly abundances to distinguish between natural fluctuation and long-term change. [...] Are there really more of the creatures, or are people simply more prone to notice and report them? Are the jellyfish changing, or is our perspective? [Researcher Steven] Haddock worries that jellyfish are taking the blame for messing up the seas when we're the ones causing the damage.
One of Haddock's colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Chad Widmer, has a jellyfish tattoo, by the way.

The curse of online identity

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I spent most of today writing out URLs, usernames, passwords, and instructions in a large spiral notebook, in longhand. That sounds silly, but there were good reasons for it.
A few months ago, my wife Air presented me with the notebook, asking me to write down the details of all our online activities, because since the very beginning of our relationship in 1994, I've been in charge of most of those things. (I showed her how to use email back then, for instance—though it was she who convinced me to join Facebook and Twitter.) Now that I've had cancer and have been undergoing treatment for close to four years, we have to prepare for a time when I could be too sick (or, to be frank, too dead) to handle that anymore.
Initially, I put together a big list of URLs, usernames, and passwords in a spreadsheet, and printed out a copy to put into the notebook. But that wasn't enough: what are all those sites for, anyway? What are the steps if we need to modify something, like renew a domain registration or update to the latest version of WordPress (easier than it used to be)? Sure, I could have typed everything up in a word-processing document and printed that out, but sometimes writing things with a pen, the way I used to write essays on the bus in high school, forces a better focus. Plus I could easily draw arrows and rule marks and circles and boxes if I wanted.
I ended up with pages and pages of notes, and realized that in addition to all the fairly complicated instructions they contained, there were dozens of different usernames and passwords involved. Yes, people like Air's former student Kaliya, organizations like the OpenID Foundation, and companies ranging from Sxip to Automattic to Facebook, Microsoft, and Google have been working at reducing that proliferation of logins. But those efforts have had mixed success, or have raised their own concerns.
So now we have our notebook, to which we'll add as we think of new things it should contain. It also got me thinking again of our digital legacies—specifically, what of my online life (like this blog) I want to endure, and what (like my Windows Live ID or my Apple MobileMe account) can be deleted or shut down. Not all those decisions are clear yet, but at least now Air has a decent reference to have them implemented, or to make them herself if I can't make them with her. That's a relief.
It occurs to me just now that I should make copies of those pages and put them in our safety deposit box, because paper needs backups too.

Still puppy after all this year

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Lucy on a boat 3A year ago, on August 25, 2009, a puppy—half shihtzu, half toy poodle—was born. I don't even know exactly where that happened, but a little less than three months later, we bought her, and named her Lucy. She's become accustomed to us, and now we're her pack.
By the time dog is a year old, you probably shouldn't call it a puppy anymore, but since Lucy will always remain a small dog, we still think of her as one. Most often, when I return home and she's waiting, I greet her with, "Hello, Puppy."
Until we got Lucy, I never imagined myself as a Dog Person. Dogs always seemed like so much work as a pet—needy and inconvenient, especially for a family such as ours that likes to travel. And yes, they are. Yet our dog is also a great comfort, especially when I'm sick, and she makes us all happier. I now understand the appeal of dogs, the oldest domesticated animal.
Lucy is, of course, entirely unaware that she is one year old today, or even that such a thing as "a year" exists as a concept. We mark the occasion for our own benefit. Today we plan to take her to the dog park, where she'll have some fun and meet some other dogs. Woof woof.

Unclear on the concept

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A few weeks ago, while we were in Disneyland, I saw this sign in the Downtown Disney shopping area:
Disneyland day 2 - Unclear on the concept
Yeah, it's obviously supposed to be a play on "Strawberry Fields Forever," but did no one notice the conflict in the message?

The Gnomedex Song 2010

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So here's the song I sang yesterday, updated for 2010 (sort of like "Don't Stand So Close to Me '86," I guess):

There are also a few photos of the experience around. Notice my Seattle-approved lumberjack shirt:
The Last Gnomedex Song
My original recording of "Tell Me About Gnomedex" (a.k.a. "The Gnomedex Song") from 2006 is still online too.

And here's the last day:
  • 1:30 p.m. - Melissa Pierce (@melissapierce): Maker of the film Life in Perpetual Beta, funding crowd-sourced from people on Twitter and elsewhere, then via Kickstarter. How do we process information coming into our brains? How does text become context? And are we now in a contextual revolution? Revolutions include the American, French, Industrial, Russian, Chinese, Iranian. Even postal mail revolutionized the world. So did vaccines. Paper cups. Email. Twitter. The one thing that's creating our contextual revolution is access: to information, to ideas, to other people. We went to the Moon using protractors and slide rules, now we hardly cross the street without a GPS. Every click is a creative act.
  • 2:00 p.m. - Violet Blue (@violetblue): Time for some sex talk. We can't make stable or sustainable online social media models for sexuality. Culture and media talk about sex in increasingly problematic ways: either as a bad and scary thing, or as something that doesn't exist. Abstinence education caused spikes in STDs, unplanned pregnancies, and more, for instance. A sex-positive approach is descriptive, rather than proscriptive, and applies principles of harm reduction to sexuality. Understand what consent is, how safe sex works, and so on. Started podcasting in 2005, first female podcaster—but there was a backlash when iTunes started podcast support, and Violet was the top podcast. Another example of building a sex-positive community and then having the rug pulled out. If you want to see where things are most fragile, and where people are most hypocritical, start talking about sex. In social media now, we're swimming through an ocean of bullshit and snake oil. Facebook is Wal-Mart for your communities. Why do Terms of Service vaguely exclude sex, and get used to shut down sex talk online? Do 500 million Facebook users never have sex? We need a harm reduction approach to social media. Gatekeepers shouldn't decide what's okay and what's not okay to talk about. Sexuality is not a drug, not an illegal substance. It's something that keeps us connected to our bodies. It's beautiful, and gatekeepers can't keep telling us it's not.
  • 2:25 p.m. - Jason Barger: "Step Back From the Baggage Claim." Traveled to seven cities in seven days without leaving any airport or plane. How do we choose to move with each other in the world? Do we all crowd against the baggage claim, consumed in our own entitlement? Small moments of behaving better can change the world in aggregate. 90% of our interactions with others is negative, 80% of our internal dialogue is also negative. How do we reframe that, giving ourselves space to think about why we do what we do, and what we want to put out into the world?
  • 3:00 p.m. - Steven Fisher and Michael Dougherty: Browncoats Redemption is a fan-made Serenity full-length followup film for charity. I missed most of this talk, so that's all I'll say.
  • 3:45 p.m. - Tim Hwang (@timhwang): Playing databall: online influence and the future of social hacking, Analytics, how things move, how online communities work. Founder of ROFLCon, worked at the Berkman Center, Web Ecology Project, the Awesome Foundation. Inspired by Moneyball: as in social media, strategies were vague and value was hard to assess. Social wargaming: get teams to compete trying to influence a group of people online, who don't know they're part of the game. What gives you online credibility? How can you figure it out by analyzing data about people's online behaviour. Figuring out how to manipulate that behaviour and then doing it on a large scale with bots could make interesting things happen. And people can also defend against those attempted influences. Another rise of the quants. Could even use such analysis to hack the legal system, putting certain inputs into lower courts to maximize the chance of reaching a certain high court and attaining a certain result. But what are the ethical implications? Sleeps well at night—for now—knowing that the vast majority of bots online are extremely stupid.
  • 4:30 p.m. - Matt Inman (The Oatmeal): The Oatmeal is about a year old, and it's doing really well. Started with a dating site, viral-marketed with blog posts, comments, etc. that strike at the heart of geekdom. Quizzes worked even better ("How many cannibals could my body feed?"), with result badges that linked back to the dating site. Next moved on to comics, fake Zombie dating sites, etc. And they made the dating site outrank, eHarmony, etc. The Oatmeal followed after that, as a site just for the funny stuff. The formula: articulate a gripe, pick things everyone can relate to, create stuff that's easy to digest, create an infographic, talk about memes and current events, and incite an emotion.
  • 5:00 p.m. - Seattle Wine Gal: How to taste wine. Look for clarity, smell it, then taste it. Only take it as seriously as you want. Take a medium-sized sip, hold it in your mouth, suck in a bit of air through pursed lips, swish it around, then swallow. Think about what the "finish" is like to you. Avoid wearing scents. You don't need a new glass for each pour. You don't need to drink everything. Slow down, ask questions, feel free to try again.
Chris's entire family came up onstage to look back on 10 years of Gnomedex, featuring his parents speaking about what it's accomplished and where we can go from here. And then I sang a little song, and Chris thanked everyone, and we had a party with trapezes. The end.

  • 9:05 a.m. - Bill Schrier (Seattle CTO): Chief Geek of City of Seattle. Current mayor used social media to help win his election. Always innovative in Seattle: carbon-free electric utility, Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft, Amazon, and newer startups. A Seattle company powers and But that's just data: how do we turn it into information? That's what the Open Government Hackathon/Tinkerstorm will help today. Because governments shouldn't be the ones building applications with the data.
  • 9:15 a.m. - Amy Karlson (Microsoft Research): MR works like a big Computer Science department, Amy in the visualization and interaction field specifically. How do people interact with their different devices (e.g. mobile phone and desktop PC)? What are the time relationships, the changes of context, what tasks do they perform, and so on? Different people use their devices differently, but tend to be consistent in their own behaviour day to day. Web and email remain the dominant activities right now, frequently moving back and forth between them. Handing off activities from phone to PC to phone, etc. It looks like the activities on the two types of devices are similar and related, but the devices don't necessarily take that into account. We might not expect enough from them, because people have some synchronization, but not true continuation of tasks between devices. 75% of the domains people visit on their phones are the same as those they look at on their PCs. Our devices can be smarter about that, but it's not a simple problem making it a good experience. For instance, often we'll read an email on our phone but forget to follow up with it on the desktop, and that's a failure of design. Desktop and mobile apps designed similarly don't reflect how mobile and desktop computing are fundamentally different experiences, with different sources of interruption. How do users work around that (e.g. Mark as Unread, Save as Draft)? Interruptions can include network problems (no connection), output problems (small screens, rendering issues), input problems (too hard to type, certain input not possible), missing features (different mobile functionality), environmental distractions, cost-benefit tradeoffs. Some of these can be improved, but some are simply inherent in mobile computing, all of them are independent of the specific tasks involved, and each has its own level of frustration (e.g. network problems are more frustrating than most environmental interruptions, mapping and media problems are more frustrating than email problems). Interestingly, following up on the same device can be more frustrating than switching to another. Even with email, which works fairly well between devices, people are hacking together workarounds that computing systems should handle automatically. Tasks do span devices, so we need to design for migration between them. Mobile task interruptions are inevitable, so we need to design to resume those tasks. People deliberately suspend tasks, so we need to design tasks to be broken into travel-size chunks that are still productive. State syncing is not enough, because where things happened first are important. The cloud is the right away to go, but it doesn't solve all the problems.
  • 10:00 a.m. - Shauna Causey and Melody Biringer (@TechMavens): Women in top technology positions. Melody has been dealing with small women-run businesses where there's a lot of fear about technology and the online world. By contrast, Shauna has always worked with big companies, and was often the only woman at tech events. Working together with a team, they won first place at Startup Weekend. Decided to write a book, and asked people online for nominations of trailblazing women in technology. Tech Mavens was born, at least as an idea: a non-profit organization focused on women doing amazing things in tech. Women dominate on the social web, and own 40% of small businesses, but only 8% of venture-backed firms. Need a set of role models, which is what Tech Mavens can be. Launching the website right now, this second! Take a look to see what the current ideas are.
  • 11:00 a.m. - Larry Wu (SmartCup): Assembling trends into interesting food products. How do I think about product development? Society, Technology, Environment, Economic, Political (STEEP) factors influence behaviour. For example, the trend of humanizing pets leads to pets controlling human behaviour, and yields ideas for food for pets. You can trigger human behaviour around products if you understand what's driving it. Some trends today, for instance: artisan products (food, furniture, housing, etc.), cultural fusion (food and music), fingerprinting (personalization), health monitoring (self treatment using "light," "anti-oxidant," etc.), hyperlife (multitasking everything), memory marketing (retro cool, nostalgia), merit badges (collecting experiences like bungie jumping), ready-set-go (innovation met with convenience). Can you trigger more than one macro-trend with your product or service? Giving people something they don't know they want yet.
  • 11:30 a.m. - Scott Draves (@spot): Artist with a Ph.D. in computer science. Computer art, Electric Sheep screen savers, and beyond. Working on computer art since the '70s, showing us examples from 1991 of "patch-based texture synthesis," available at Flame is an open-source visual language that initially took hours to render one frame with millions of variables, trying to make computers do unpredictable and surprising things: creates organic images, now used by amateurs, professionals, and even filmmakers. Bomb was an interactive visual-musical instrument 1995-2000, using audio and instrument input to create interactive music and visuals. Started commercializing artwork after that, which became Electric Sheep starting in 1999. Abstract animations based on the Flame code, working as a distributed supercomputer with other Electric Sheep users a la SETI@home, votes (yes or no) drive a genetic algorithm that evolves via Darwinian-style selection (adapting to please people), and which can also be edited manually. But bandwidth was a limit on resolution, it was taking too much time to maintain, and flashy-trashy sheep tended to win out over genuinely beautiful ones. Scott has now extracted, improved, and enhanced ones he considers beautiful and is selling them. Over time, his artwork has been getting slower, more like painting than television. Relationships (or mergers) between people and machines, but not necessarily negative ones. What is the source of creativity? It can be collective instead of solitary.
  • 12:00 p.m. - Alex and Scott Mueller: Sorry, missed this one.

The coupon code "Gnomedex" works at Throwboy, ThinkGeek, and Hover for discounts, contest entries, etc.
  • 1:45 p.m. - Tom Nugent (LaserMotive): An invisible extension cord... TO SPACE! People were excited about space in the '60s and '70s: what could you do with lots of people in space? But we need cheap, fast launch capability. Right now it's $5,000-$10,000 per kg into orbit. Does the launch capability or the market for it come first? A chicken-and-egg problem. What about a space elevator? Might happen eventually, but not for some time. The two main problems are (a) strong and flexible materials, and (b) power transmission for propulsion (onboard fuel is extremely inefficient). Microwaves were an early idea, but lasers are more effective, and are becoming more advanced in part because of laser hair removal (no really). First attempt in 2007 for a NASA-sponsored robot cable-climber contest failed—but so did everyone else's attempt. Time for testing and iterating designs is very, very important. In 2009, tried again, naming the climber "Otis" in honour of its elevator heritage. A strange combination of components from off-the-self consumer electronics parts, military supplies, space-grade solar panels, eBay, industrial auction sites, etc. Simulated climbs in the lab using a "cable treadmill," and even cooked hot dogs in the laser beam (which still took 4 minutes, so it's no death ray). And, when the competition came, the climber made it 1000 m and 3.8 m/s: success! Tried again by removing everything they could to reduce weight, but other technical problems and sleep-deprived mistakes prevented it from reaching the second-level prize of 5 m/s. Next round should be in 2011. But there are ways to use power beaming on Earth, and those can even make money: drone aircraft; disaster relief; rocket launches without explosive onboard fuel (inert gases instead) and small redundant systems instead of single massive motors. Eventually, those sci-fi orbital power stations may be feasible.
  • 2:15 p.m. - Todd Welch (The Trust Tour): Thinking about Integrity and Trust: "IT." Integrity is within you, trust between you and someone else. Maybe we should treat the "trust space" between each other as an ecosystem, which needs to be nurtured and maintained, avoiding corruption and pollution. Trust relies on integrity, which means "to be whole." Perhaps lack of trust is the #1 problem of our time—and maybe of all time. So, Todd's 1000-day Trust Tour around the world. Examining trust in business, in medicine, in athletics, in entertainment, in nuclear energy, in the military, in mental health. You don't have to agree with someone to trust them: you just need to know where they stand, and respect each other. Really notice the lies (even the little ones), the corruption, the pollution, and resolve not to be a part of it. Be a filter in that ecosystem, instead of contributing to the mess. Strive to have integrity, to be honest, to be trustworthy. We need to do better.
  • 3:00 p.m. - Willow Brugh (@willowbl00): Transhumanism: the grey area between human and posthuman, the conscious evolution of humanity via technology. I'm very careful about my capitalization because I read a lot of weird poetry as a kid. Not life extension, youth extension. We use all sorts of technologies, from eyeglasses and laser eye surgery to cochlear implants. But what about artificial oxygenation of blood, modafinil to stay awake longer, prosthetics (some DIY) that work better than our natural parts, memory- and productivity-enhancing drugs, magnetic-sensing implants, interactive tattoos, implant hacking? Biology vs. machinery? What can our genomes and brains handle? Will people with more money be more transhuman than others? How does this reflect the way humans have always used tools to change our relationship with our environment? (We die in car crashes because we're not evolved to go that fast and then stop suddenly.) If you're upset that you can't run three miles, then isn't the best approach to go try, not to wish you had robot legs?
  • 3:30 p.m. - Johnny Diggz (@johnnydiggz): Tropo and Geeks Without Borders. (UPDATE: See Pat Luther's comment on this post for how the Geeks Without Borders name has actually been in use by an unrelated organization since 2002. Whoops!) Went through a whole bunch of different communications startups and projects since the early '90s. Geeks Without Borders started with the idea that "Doctors [Without Borders] need to look shit up too." Intended to help people whose survival is threatened by lack of access to technology and communications. Need to create a communications hub that can work with all different methods of transmitting information (landline, mobile, SMS, IM, Skype, Twitter, social media, voicemail, smoke signals...). Also backpack networks: mini hubs in a backpack via satellite or other IP uplink. Applications that work with the hub based on simple development tools to local people can build what they need to on top of it (e.g. "Is there water in the well today so I don't have to walk five miles unnecessarily?"). Launching in some formal way on October 10, 2010 at 10:10 a.m. (10/10/10 at 10:10). Having a "Tinkerstorm" (hackathon) at the Edgewater Hotel next door over 24 hours from 5 p.m. Saturday (tomorrow) till 5 p.m. Sunday.
  • 4:10 p.m. - Darren Barefoot ( Open-source activism. Worked with the tcktcktck initiative trying to get a "fair, ambitious, and binding" climate change agreement in Copenhagen last year. A radically open approach to campaigning (anyone from an individual to Greenpeace could participate, with a simple universal message), quite a contrast to the traditional NGO structure. took the idea and ran with it. Alas, the desired result didn't come about, but the structure turned out to be useful. Roll out the resources and assets and then let them go so the world can create your movement.
  • 4:20 p.m. - Kyle: How social media are affecting the volatility of decision making. After the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986, Morton Thiokol stock stopped trading after falling within minutes (and years of investigating showed that Thiokol was indeed to blame). After the 2010 Apple iPad launch, reactions are all over the map, with stock prices fluctuating by the second during Steve Jobs's speech. Our decisions have become much more volatile and instantaneous. The VIX "fear index," invented in 1993, has become something people care about in the past five or six years.
  • 4:30 p.m. - Frank: Why is my digital privacy (i.e. my personal information) a marketable commodity? Coca-Cola basically invented marketing in the 20th century. We've always been willing to give up our personal information for free shit. We're always evaluating that tradeoff. There's no way to get free stuff without consequences. Anyone who thought Facebook would be free forever with no personal downside is deluding themselves, for instance. We have cognitive dissonance about that: we want openness, but we want privacy too. Your privacy is a currency. Make sure you're getting your money's worth.
  • 4:35 p.m. - John Donnelly: Geeks have been cool for quite a while, and non-geeks need help to get a clue. I can't read well (dyslexia), I have no website, I'm not good at explaining myself. ("My daughter's calling, hang on. Ig-nore.") For me, Twitter makes people like the collective intelligence of an anthill. Why would geeks want someone with so few geek skills to be part of the anthill? They have skills outside that geek domain. How do we bring them in?
  • 4:45 p.m. - Rob Knop (Seattle Repertory Theatre): "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," April-May 2011. A play about the rise and fall and rise of Steve, with background information from Foxconn, with the agony of our relationship with globalization.
  • 4:50 p.m. - Omni Tech News Crew ( Why kids should be in social media. Kids aren't participating in social media as much as you might expect, but they'll be part of the future of the online world. Kids have fewer of the limitations an inhibitions in their ideas than adults, so they're where some of the best new ideas are going to come from.
And hey, I just won a free night at the Hotel Max! Yay! Looks like Air and I will be coming down to Seattle again sometime soon...

Gnomedex 10 day 1, the morning

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Point-form notes? An attempt at completeness or accuracy? Bah! Here's what I've got, typed up using Elements for iPad. There is also live streaming video at
  • 9:15 a.m. - Brian Solis ( You have the right to post whatever you want to Facebook, Twitter, the Web, whatever. But no one has to give a shit. Just because you can tweet doesn't mean it's automatically interesting. Still, social networks are reducing the distances between people, say from six degrees of separation to four. And they're increasing our Dunbar number from about 150 to several times that number, because each niche has its own context for you. You're in control of your idea of celebrity and relevance and how long you're famous for. Audiences have audiences with audiences. You have a public life, and a private life, and a secret life: which one are you putting online? Influence is not popularity. And women are both the majority and the most influential on social networks. Anyone who says they're a social media expert is fucking lying to you.
  • 9:40 a.m. - Trish Millines Dziko (#trishdex): Public schools need some help. While at Microsoft's high-school outreach, discovered that people of colour and low-income people were not getting access to information technology. The brightest students in the U.S. are still near the bottom worldwide in measures of student achievement, especially in math and science, even though they think they're near the top. 48% of people entering college in Washington need remedial classes. Kids in communities where parents and families can make up for public underfunding do much better. You can have a small class with a crappy teacher in front of it. Those with less education are not only more likely to be incarcerated, more likely to be poor, and so on—they're more likely to die. And each high-school dropout costs $200K in public assistance over a working lifetime. You can't create a new society without a proper education. So what works? Raised expectations, leadership at every level (in school, in class, etc.), measurement, etc. Projects include TechStart, TAF Academy, Teach21, and Community Learning Space. Download "A Right Denied" and devour the data. If kids could vote, we would have a better public education system. Unlike in other countries, the U.S. does not honour teachers, doesn't pay them well and doesn't support them, and as a consequence, those who get teaching degrees are in the bottom 25% of SAT scores. Legislators and public servants have absolutely no backbone, and in some cases have no power to have backbone. Brick walls are most often made of flesh.
  • 10:50 a.m. - Charles Brennick ( Reusing old computers around the world. In South America, 8% of people have home computer access, 1% in Africa. But they still want access to the communication, education, job skills, support, health information, news, and entertainment that computers provide. 14 million PCs discarded every year, and at least half can be reused. InterConnection has a facility in Seattle that refurbishes PCs (wiping or destroying the hard drive for data security), training people in the process and getting them free computers, and recycles ones that can't be reused. Distribution of refurbished machines throughout the world, focused on South America and Africa—and recipients are checked to see that they have power and Internet to make the machines useful. Computer donations can be made by mail (primarily laptops), by U.S. nationwide pickup (mostly corporate or enough to fit on a pallet), local drop-off in Seattle. Starting to get into smartphones too, partnered with Datadyne for software: much more promising in areas with little electricity or connectivity. Contest for an Xbox Kinect: send business leads to or donate a PC. Older computers like 286 and 486 machines are worth more for recycling because they have more metal in them (gold!).
  • 11:20 a.m. - Austin Heap (@austinheap): Censorship Research Center. Recently helping Iranians access the rest of the world. There are cycles of how information flows around, out of, and into countries with repressive regimes. Text, email, phone cams, YouTube, mainstream media, rebroadcast via pirate radio, and now Twitter. But Twitter isn't going to overthrow a government. The tools don't matter, it's the people that matter. Still, tweets managed to find free flights, contacts at the UN, a big law firm to work pro bono, and even a leaked document showing how Iran's entire filtering system worked—so it's insanely valuable. Haystack is a tool to bypass that filtering, which encrypts data and then obfuscates it to make it looks like Iranians are visiting innocuous websites. But making it available contravened U.S. sanctions against Iran! Unfortunately, the ragtag team that went to Washington, D.C. was naive (and sometimes dumb and inappropriate) when dealing with legislators and regulators. Eventually became the first-ever U.S. organization licensed to export anti-censorship software to Iran, and hopefully soon elsewhere. That happened fast by D.C. standards, but that's still very slow in real-world terms. Iran is 70 million people who are exactly like us: now have made a film for HBO about Neda Agha-Soltan, including 15 hours of interview footage with her family, who were willing to take that risk. Made it available online in various languages and formats (including 3GP for phones), and even illegally broadcast via satellite into Iran—which seems to have prompted a power shutdown in Tehran. Online piracy sites also re-ripped the DVD format for distribution, even though it was already available as a torrent from the legit site. 35% of the Internet is under some form of government restriction, so this is not a problem that's going away or getting better.

Happy anniversary from afar

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One big clubhouseToday, August 19, my wife Air and I celebrate our 15th anniversary, but I'm in Seattle for Gnomedex (we had dinner and a movie last night). I'm pretty sure it's the first time we haven't been at home or travelling together on our anniversary.
So to my wonderful wife, I toast a margarita, on the rocks, from afar in the bar of the Pan Pacific Seattle. Mwah.
P.S. I ate a bit of a clubhouse sandwich too, as you can see.

Prints in the ash

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Laetoli footprintsThere is a set of footprints in Tanzania, a few dozen metres long, preserved in stone that hardened from fresh volcanic ash, which had been rained upon. Those walking on that ash were side by side, close enough to touch one another. The prints are 3.6 million years old, and they were left by two (or perhaps three) sets of feet—human feet.
But the walkers had much smaller brains back then, so some might call them humanoid rather than human. Whatever you call them, they were our relatives (though not actually our direct ancestors). Their footprints include nothing fossilized from their bodies, not one bone. Yet the prints tell us remarkable things: that the apes that left them were human, in that they walked like us, upright on two legs evolved to walk that way, with feet that look like ours.
If you didn't know the prints were millions of years old, you could easily mistake them for a recent set, left by people walking barefoot on the beach. I think that, from the perspective of modern humans, they're one of the most remarkable fossil finds ever. Look at them, and you can easily imagine a group of australopithecines, maybe a family, walking across the plain. Some researchers say the gait of one of the walkers implies it was carrying something, perhaps even a young child, on its hip.
As far as I know, we don't have access to the footprints of Plato or Aristotle, Caesar or Cleopatra, Buddha or Jesus or Muhammad, Shakespeare or Moliere or Confucius, or even of my own grandparents. But we have these ones, eons older. We don't know what happened to those ape-humans of Laetoli after they passed over the ash, but they were walking into their future. And here we are.

Enough for now

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Despite going to and having fun at a couple of big parties this past weekend, I wasn't feeling good. Saturday night in particular was unpleasant. I had an ache on the left side of my back reminiscent of a similar pain I felt last year, which by all accounts was probably a relatively minor intestinal problem. Unlike a year ago, however, sitting up in bed didn't help, and I slept very little. By Sunday morning, when I took some Advil and ate some food, the pain subsided and I was able to nap in our hammock for an hour and a half, which kept me going for the rest of the day. And last night was better, though I still have a bit of an upset stomach this morning.
These are complaints, part of the territory of having cancer and getting a bit older. But I know that eventually I'll develop one of those pains and it won't go away, because it won't be something simple or minor. It's strange to say, but I've been relatively lucky because, since my major cancer surgery in 2007, the pain and discomfort and nausea and other symptoms I've suffered have been mostly from my treatments, not from my disease.
However, I'll be heading into yet another round of throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks chemotherapy in September. That's happening because my previous chemo wasn't working anymore, just like the treatment before that wasn't, and the one before that, and so on. (There have now been so many I've lost track of them.) Even if this new regimen is effective, given my experience over the past three and a half years, it's not likely to stay that way in the long term. And as far as I know, there aren't many other options beyond it.
The cancer I have, spread through both of my lungs, doesn't tend to go away. It's too widespread for surgery or radiation, and chemotherapy and other systemic treatments have merely slowed it down or shrunk the tumours temporarily. It's possible, though rather unlikely, that some upcoming treatment will really beat my cancer back. But success in a case like mine is almost always measured in extra years of life, not extra decades.
So I've been packing in the fun this summer: Disneyland, Whistler, the beach, weddings, parties, geek conferences, and more. That's because someday—likely not especially far off—I'll develop symptoms that are from the cancer, that won't subside, and that will need management. For at least a couple of years now, whenever I feel pain of any kind (unless it's from something obvious like whacking my shin on a table), I wonder if it will be that one, the one telling me something in my body is failing. I wondered that on Saturday night, but the pain went away, so perhaps it wasn't one to worry about that way, not yet.
Am I okay with this situation? No, I'm not. It's fucking stressful. It sucks for me, for my wife, for my daughters, for the rest of my family, and for my friends. But I think I have come to accept it. More accurately, I have had to come to accept it.
So today, I can still walk the dog and buy some groceries, enjoy some food and the hot summer weather. I can move, and laugh, and appreciate the day. It's enough for now.

How Mad can you get?

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Like many others, my wife Air and I have become big fans of AMC's television series Mad Men, set in New York's hard-drinking, hard-smoking, philandering advertising industry of the early 1960s. Aside from the usual reasons to like the program (i.e. it's really good), it intrigues me because the character of Peggy Olson, played by Elisabeth Moss, is the same age my mother was at that time—though I think my mom had a better time of it.
If you're a Mad Men enthusiast too, I recommend the post-show analysis published each week at The House Next Door Online's Mad Men Monday. Here are the followups for this season's first, second, and third episodes, for instance. For me they provide good critical thought without trying to be too clever, as reviews can often do.
So far each episode this season has been set around a holiday: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve 1964. Will this week see us at Valentine's Day '65? In real life, that was the one right before my parents got married in April.

We breed our pets for cuteness

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Since last November when we bought her, I've posted more photos than are sensible of our dog Lucy online. We find her irresistibly cute still, even as she approaches her first birthday, and pretty much everyone else she encounters seems to agree:
Well hi there
That is no accident. As Jerry Coyne explains, we find certain animals cute. More specifically, in breeds like the shihtzus and poodles that are Lucy's ancestors, we have made them cute: the big eyes of the Chihuahua, the short snout of the fluffy Pomeranian, in the round face and small ears of the Scottish fold cat [...] in all the features of animals bred for appearance rather than work, we find our desires, evolved and otherwise, sculpting the beasts in our environment.
Lucy is growing out of her puppyhood—she's reached close to her maximum size, her behaviours are changing and settling down (for example, she is better housetrained and a bit less hyper than before, and now she barks at unfamiliar dogs instead of staying silent and unnoticed), and she seems comfortable with her place in our household (or, more accurately in her doggy mind, our pack hierarchy).
But while she acts less like a puppy, she still looks like one, and she always will. Not only that, she looks more like a human baby or child than any wild wolf cub, ancestral dog puppy, or typical newborn mongrel mutt does. That's because as humans bred her ancestors—especially the shihtzus—they preferred:
  • Smaller size
  • Rounder, higher foreheads
  • Floppier, less pointy ears
  • Bigger eyes relative to the rest of the face
  • Shorter snouts
  • Coats more like hair than shedding fur
It makes sense that we find human babies cute. Indeed, sometimes their cuteness seems like the only thing that keeps us parents going in the early sleep-deprived days of parenthood. And so it makes sense that we have bred many of our pets, especially the most popular ones that are mammals (as well as many fish and birds) for neoteny, to resemble our children too.
People must have other reasons for getting reptiles or spiders or other creatures as pets, though, since none of them are inherently cute on the face of it. Surprisingly, and probably by mere coincidence, some cephalopods are. But, with their generally short lifespans and hard-to-maintain aquarium requirements, squid and octopuses make lousy pets anyway.
I'm not sure about this, but I think we even speak in baby talk to Lucy more than we did to our own children when they were little.

Green and orange

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Grand Canyon & Painted DesertMost likely, I love the American Southwest for a simple reason: while not especially far away, it is so unlike the Pacific Northwest where I've grown up and lived my whole life. That, and it was the setting for the Road Runner and Coyote cartoons I loved watching with my dad as a kid. (Bonus: they're making new ones.)
Here around Vancouver we have magnificent trees in lush forests, towering mountains, beautiful oceans, snow and glaciers, sun and rain and a distinctive kind of slanted sunlight that helps those in the know identify movies and TV shows that are filmed here. We are a wet and green place.
In contrast, much of eastern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Nevada is dry and orange. (Colorado and Wyoming are sometimes included too, though look at a map and they're not very south and not especially west in the U.S.A.) There are canyons, hoodoos, pueblo architecture, sagebrush, cactuses, and often relentless heat. I've travelled through much of that area, including the Colorado River a mile below me, Santa Fe, Meteor Crater, Zion National Park, Las Vegas, Carlsbad Caverns, and El Paso (which was, to be honest, a pit). I even saw a Space Shuttle land on the dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base near the wonderfully-named town of Boron, California.
When I think about that vast dry Southwest, I remember dust devils swirling across the Interstates; watching "Beavis and Butt-Head" on MTV for the first time in a motel on Route 66; the Hungry American Texas Pit Bar-B-Que in Roswell, New Mexico; a squirrel stealing food during my lunch break hiking part-way into the Grand Canyon; saguaro cactuses growing around the University of Arizona the way Douglas firs grow here; a rainbow made up only of reds, oranges, yellows, and browns in the sediments of mesas and escarpments; and the blast of hot air when opening the door to get out of an air-conditioned station wagon at each fuel-and-snack stop.
Of course it also evokes images of cowboys and miners, freight trains and wagon trains, nuclear tests and UFO sightings, the Navajo and Hopi and Zuni and the extinct Spanish Empire. It is both a new and modern place and an ancient one, sculpted by wind and heat and sand and eroding rivers in a different way than our Northwest landscape carved by the Ice Age, rainstorms, our own big rivers, and vegetation.

The last Gnomedex?

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ChairsSince 2005, I've been going to (or at least involved with) Chris Pirillo's annual Gnomedex conference in Seattle. A couple of weeks from now will be Gnomedex 10, and from the sounds of it, that will be the last one.
I hadn't planned on attending this year: it's been a busy summer, and my wife Air and I didn't quite have the budget to go. (Plus the first night falls on our 15th anniversary.) But now, hearing that this pioneering leading-edge nerd-fest might soon be over, and being on a break from chemotherapy, I'm seriously considering booking a last-minute ticket for myself and driving down for that weekend—like last year, Air and I can celebrate our anniversary a day early, perhaps.
It's hard to describe what gives Gnomedex its mojo: while it is irredeemably geeky, and often covers trends in technology and society before they hit the mainstream, it's neither a dry technical meeting nor a science-fiction con. In a way, it's like an annual online-community family reunion, except all you need to do to join the family is show up. I've made lots of friends and deepened other friendships there. It's where I finally understood podcasting, jammed with one of the Presidents of the United States of America the same night I saw an original Monet "Water Lilies" painting, and stared in awe at a photo of the Earth from the surface of Mars while listening to a talk by one of the people who helped take the picture.
With luck, I'll get myself together enough to go, and see Gnomedex out in style. If this is the final one—which will be a pity—it will still have outlasted its (satirical) namesake COMDEX by seven years.

Mellow, with smoke

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I'm up in Whistler for a few days. Don't think I'll be writing much when there's a pool to hang out next to:
It's sunny and very warm (28°C) here. The weather also includes the risk of a few light showers and, unfortunately, lightning strikes, which might trigger more forest fires in the area. Whistler itself is so far largely unaffected, except for some haze from the Jade Mountain fire not all that far away. A large firefighting helicopter flew over about an hour ago on the way there.
Thanks to my aunt and uncle Christine and Norbert for use of their condo while we're here. It's become a rather nice tradition—although this time my wife Air stayed in Vancouver with our dog Lucy, and our friend Leesa from Australia has joined us to visit this resort town, which happens to be chock full of Australians all the time anyway.

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