November 2008

“Fausto Fernós’ eye” by Jason Smith. Click photo for details.

[Updated: November  2016]

When I lived in London I used to attend lectures and talks at least once a week (often at the Royal Institution, a wonderful place).

They were one of the mainstays of my intellectual life, and I used to leave many of them babbling with excitement (the adult equivalent of kids doing chops and kicks as they leave Kung-fu movies).

Here in Belgrade there are still many talks and lectures that one can attend, but unsurprisingly, it cannot match London.

Luckily there are several superb sites at which you can see (or sometimes just hear) recorded lectures and talks that are guaranteed to stimulate you intellectually.

Here is a list of my favourite sites and resources:

  1. TED.com  / TEDed – The runaway best video lecture series. Superfood for the mind. I have seen some literaly stunning presentations on this website. Brilliant men and women are given 20 minutes to make their main points. Do yourself a favour and go and check it out, especially the Way We Think series.
  2. edX.org – Founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012, edX is an online learning destination and MOOC provider, offering high-quality courses from the world’s best universities and institutions to learners everywhere.
  3. University of Reddit (ureddit)  – Reddit have launched an education portal.
  4. Pop!Tech – Is a “one-of-a-kind conference, a community of remarkable people, and an ongoing conversation about science, technology and the future of ideas”.
  5. Edge.org – Undoubtedly one of the most concentrated sites of brilliance and inspiration on the planet.
  6. What Is Enlightenment Unbound – “WIE Unbound delivers fresh weekly audios, videos, and downloadable MP3s featuring the leading-edge visionaries, mystics,scientists, philosophers, and activists found in the pages of What Is Enlightenment? magazine.”
  7. @Google Talks (YouTube Channel) – Authors, scientists, politicians and other luminaries talking to staff at Google.
  8. UChannel (University Channel) – A collection of public affairs lectures, panels and events from academic institutions all over the world for you to view, listen to, stream or download.
  9. World Lecture HallWorld Lecture Hall, your entry point to free online course materials from around the world. 
  10. WGBH Forum Network –  an audio and video streaming Website dedicated to curating and serving live and on-demand lectures given by some of the world’s foremost scholars, authors, artists, scientists, policy makers and community leaders.
  11. MIT OpenCourseWare – It was MIT that kicked off the whole lectures-made-public phenomenon when it made its learning materials available online. Addendum Feb 2014: Also see the Open Courseware Bookshelf where you have textbooks and accompanying materials for the courses.
  12. MIT World – Lectures and talks
  13. Learn Out Loud – largest Catalog of educational audio books, podcasts, downloads, & free audio & video
  14. Zencast.org – OK, this may look like religious proselyting, but Zencast has beautiful lectures on the theme of Buddhism and mindfulness from the likes of Alan Watts, Gil Fronsdal, Thich Nhat Hanh and Eckhart Tolle.
  15. Academic Earth – “Thousands of video lectures from the world’s top scholars.”
  16. YouTube Edu – Videso from colleges and universities, including lectures.
  17. iTunes University – Thousands if lectures and courses delivered via Apples iTunes
  18. Khan Academy – “The Khan Academy is an organization on a mission. We’re a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.
    All of the site’s resources are available to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a student, teacher, home-schooler, principal, adult returning to the classroom after 20 years, or a friendly alien just trying to get a leg up in earthly biology. The Khan Academy’s materials and resources are available to you completely free of charge.”
  19. Coursera – Excellent, free online courses.

Here are some other sites I am not so familiar with:

Other resources

For a list of my current favourite Podcasts, Streams, Radio Stations and Audio Blogs , see this post.

Study.com maintains a list of courses – http://study.com/articles/Universities_with_the_Best_Free_Online_Courses.html

400 free online courses – http://www.openculture.com/freeonlinecourses

{ 2 comments }

Bryan Appleyard

by Limbic on November 29, 2008

I am now tracking Bryan Appleyard via his blog after realising that he and I seem to share strong interests, not least of which our admiration for Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Arthur De Vany (Evolutionary Fitness).

Also see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bryan_Appleyard

{ 0 comments }

Analysis, Second Order Effects and Black Swans

by Limbic on November 29, 2008

Two emerging complexities, fusionning into beauty. The first one, the Dandelion Clock is from biology. The second one, the "Artificial Blue structure " is from "The Horizon Project". (By PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE - click image for original)

Kevin Kelly has a super interesting section of his upcoming book “The Technium” devoted to what he calls “The Pro-Actionary Principle”:

The current default algorithm for testing new technologies is the Precautionary Principle. There are several formulas of the Precautionary Principle but all variations of this heuristic hold this in common: a technology must be shown to do no harm before it is embraced. It must be proven to be safe before it is disseminated. If it cannot be proven safe, it should be prohibited, curtailed, modified, junked, or ignored. In other words, the first response to a new idea should be inaction until its safety is established. When an innovation appears, we should pause. The second step is to test it offline, in a model, or in any non-critical, safe, lowest-risk manner.  Only after is has been deemed okay should we try to live with it.

Unfortunately the Precautionary Principle doesn’t work as a reliable safeguard. Because of the inherent uncertainties in any model, laboratory, simulation, or test, the only reliable way to assess a new technology is to let it run in place. It has to be exercised sufficiently that it can begin to express secondary effects. When a technology is first cautiously tested  soon after its birth only its primary effects are being examined. But in most cases it is the unintended second-order effects of technologies that are usually the root of most problems. Second order effects often require a certain density, a semi-ubiquity, to reveal themselves. The main concern of the first automobiles was for the occupants — that the gas engines didn’t blow up, or that the brakes don’t fail. But the real threat of autos was to society en masse — the accumulated exposure to their minute pollutants and ability to kill others at high speeds, not to mention the disruptions of suburbs, and long commutes – all second order effects.

Second order effects – the ones that usually overtake society – are rarely captured by forecasts, lab experiments, or white papers.

…The absences of second-order effects in small precise experiments, and our collective impulse to adapt technology as we use it, make reliable models of advance technological innovations impossible. An emerging technology must be tested in action, and evaluated in real time. In other words the risks of a particular technology have to be determined by trial and error in real life. We can think of this vetting-by-action algorithm as the Proactionary Principle.

[The Pro-Actionary Principle by Kevin Kelly]

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, agrees:

Taleb believes in tinkering – it was to be the title of his next book. Trial and error will save us from ourselves because they capture benign black swans. Look at the three big inventions of our time: lasers, computers and the internet. They were all produced by tinkering and none of them ended up doing what their inventors intended them to do. All were black swans. The big hope for the world is that, as we tinker, we have a capacity for choosing the best outcomes.

We have the ability to identify our mistakes eventually better than average; that’s what saves us.” We choose the iPod over the Walkman. Medicine improved exponentially when the tinkering barber surgeons took over from the high theorists. They just went with what worked, irrespective of why it worked. Our sense of the good tinker is not infallible, but it might be just enough to turn away from the apocalypse that now threatens Extremistan.

[Times Online, 1st June 2008]

There seems to be some sort of backlash against the deluge of “Analysis”, especially “Risk Analysis”. Right now the signal to noise ration in public discussion – especially about futurity, policy and risks – is now heavily dominated by noise. As Charlie Edwards from Global Dashboard put it recently”

Do we need to call ‘time out’ on global risk analysis?  The NIC report on global trends 2025 is one of a plethora of recent publications on global risks and security challenges from think tanks, Government departments, the defence community, NGOs, business, academia, and the media. Do we really need any more?

3 questions spring to mind:

1. Are we suffocating under the weight of all this analysis?
2. Should we consider having a period of consolidation and reflection?
3. Do we need a transformational shift from analysis to action?

[The Seduction of Analysis, Global Dashboard, 25th November 2008]

This is a theme explored by sociologist and skeptic Frank Furedi writing in the Times Higher Education:

As someone devoted to academic research, I feel increasingly embarrassed when I encounter the words “research shows” in a newspaper article. The status of research is not only exploited to prove the obvious, but also to validate the researcher’s political beliefs, lifestyle and prejudice.

…advocacy research has now acquired an unprecedented significance in Western culture. One important driver of its expansion is the growing significance that people attach to their lifestyles. The very subjects that advocacy research addresses suggest that lifestyle issues such as emotional orientation, parenting styles and the management of relations have become increasingly politicised.

In a world where lifestyle has unprecedented significance, people seek to endow it with moral worth. So it matters when a study concludes that children of gay parents “do just fine” or that single mothers’ sons can succeed at school, or that marriage protects elderly adults from mental illness.

Naturally, academics also take their lifestyles very seriously. But it is important that we resist the temptation to discover the moral worth of our lifestyle through our research. And maybe we should take the lead in informing the public that when they see the words “research shows”, they should assume the role of a sceptic.

[The Times Higher Education, 20th November 2008]

I see some themes developing here: advocacy research, journalism of attachment, flat earth news and cognitive biases all mutating and amplifying in recursive reinforcing feedback loops. It is some sort of incestuous emergence that generates confusion and entropy. These confusions and false choices are paralysing us, all of us, at precisely the time when urgent action is required in multiple domains.

Kevin Kelly again:

Technologies must be evaluated in action, by action. We test them in labs, we try them out in prototypes, we use them in pilot programs, we adapt our expectations, we monitor their alterations, we redefine their aims as they are modified, we retest them given actual behavior, we re-direct them to new jobs when we are not happy with their outcomes.

Of course we should forecast, anticipate and minimize known problems from the start.

All technologies will generate problems. None are problem free. All have social costs. And all technologies will cause disruptions to other technologies around them and may diminish technological benefits elsewhere. The problems of a new technology have to be weighed, balanced, and minimized but they cannot be fully eliminated.

Furthermore the costs of inaction (the default response called for by the Precautionary Principle), have to be weighed together with the costs of action. Inaction will also generate problems and unintended effects.  In a very fast changing environment the status quo has hidden substantial penalties that might only become visible over time.  These costs of inaction need to be added into the equations of evaluation.

Kelly then goes on to list the 5 Pro-actions that for the basis of the Pro-Actionary Principle (which in turn is a revision of Max More’s original):

1. AnticipationAll tools of anticipation are valid. The more techniques we use the better because different techniques fit different technologies. Scenarios, forecasts and outright science fiction can give partial pictures. Objective scientific measurement of models, simulations, and controlled experiments should carry greater weight, but these too are only partial. The process should try to imagine as many horrors as glories, and if possible to anticipate ubiquity; what happens if everyone has this for free? Anticipation should not a judgment. Rather the purpose of anticipation is to prepare a base for the next four steps. It is a way to rehearse future actions.

2. Continuous assessment

We have increasing means to quantifiably test everything we use all the time. By means of embedded technology we can turn daily use of technologies into large scale experiments. No matter how much a new technology is tested at first, it should be constantly retest in real time. We also have more precise means of niche-testing, so we can focus on susceptible neighborhoods, subcultures, gene pools, use patterns, etc. Testing should also be continuous, 24/7 rather than the traditional batch mode. Further, new technology allows citizen-driven concerns to surface into verifiable science by means of self-organized assessments. Testing is active and not passive. Constant vigilance is baked into the system.

3. Prioritize risks, including natural ones

Risks are real, but endless. Not all risks are equal. They must be weighted and prioritized. Known and proven threats to human and environmental health are given precedence over hypothetical risks.

Furthermore the risks of inaction and the risks of natural systems must be treated symmetrically. In More’s words: “Treat technological risks on the same basis as natural risks; avoid underweighting natural risks and overweighting human-technological risks.”

4. Rapid restitution of harm

When things go wrong – and they always will – harm should be compensated quickly in proportion to actual damages. Penalizing for hypothetical harm or even potential harm demeans justice and weakens the system, reducing honesty and penalizing those who act in good faith. Mechanisms for actively fixing harms of current technologies indirectly aid future technologies, because it permits errors to be corrected quicker. The expectation that any given  technology will create harms of some sort (not unlike bugs) that must be remedied should be part of technology creation.

5. Redirection rather than prohibition

Prohibition does not work with technology. Absolute prohibition produces absolute outlaws. In a review of past attempts to ban technology, I discovered that most technologies could only be temporarily displaced. Either they moved to somewhere else on the planet, or they moved into a different niche. The contemporary ban on nuclear weapons has not eliminated them from the planet at all. Bans of genetically modified foods have only displaced these crops to other continents. Bans on hand guns may succeed for citizens but not soldiers or cops. From technology’s point of view, bans only change their address, not their identity. In fact what we want to do with technologies that produce more harm than good is not to ban them but to find them new jobs. We want to move DDT from an insecticide aerial-sprayed on crops to a household malaria remedy. Society becomes a parent for our technological children, constantly hunting for the right mix of beneficial technological friends in which cultivates the best side of each new invention. Often times the first job we assign to a technological is not at all ideal, and we may take many tries, many jobs, before we find a great role for a given technology.

People sometimes ask what possible role of humans might play in a world of extremely smart autonomous technology? I think the answer is we’ll play parents; redirecting active technologies into healthy jobs, good friends, and instilling positive values.

If so, we should be looking for highly evolved tools that assist our pro-actions. On our list should be better tools for anticipation, better tools for ceaseless monitoring and testing, better tools for determining and ranking risks, better tools for remediation of harm done, and better tools and techniques for redirecting technologies as they grow.

[The Pro-Actionary Principle by Kevin Kelly]

{ 1 comment }

Recursion: The wonder of “Strange Loops”

by Limbic on November 29, 2008

Kevin Kelly explores a topic I also find fascination – recursion:

In 1978 Douglas Hofstadter wrote an mind-boggling book about recursive forms, called “Godel, Escher, Bach” after his three favorite geniuses who reveled in recursiveness. The award-winning book explored the nature of systems which bend their output back into themselves to make something new. GEB conjured with these “strange loops” with such wit and appropriate playfulness that is hard to imagine another book on the subject ever topping it.

The Technium is shaped by these same recursive forces. As Hofstadter showed, computer programing is founded on the notion of strange loops and regression, the most extreme representation being the infamous circular “infinite regress” of bad programming. Technology, like biology, is governed by feedback circuits. Up and down its being, technology will find itself looping back to create some weird strange loop of influence, and in that strange circuit some new force is launched into the technium. Recursive loopiness is thus the prime engine for bootstrapping and self creation.

Progress, intelligence, and life itself are all fueled at the fundamental level by bootstrapping, self-creation, autopoeis, auto-genesis — all names for recursive organization.  [Kevin Kelly — The Technium]

From the comments:

“Cybernetics is the study of systems and processes that interact with themselves and produce themselves from themselves.” Louis Kauffman

{ 0 comments }

Eraseable Shower Note Tablet vs Mnemonics

by Limbic on November 29, 2008

 

I have been waiting years for an Eraseable Shower Note Tablet (above). I just cannot find one. In the meantime I have mastered the common Memory Place trick (I use my old house in Ireland) and that seems to give me at least 10 topics or tasks I can easily hold in memory buffer until I can input them in to my todo.

For more memory and mind hacks, I recommend the book “Mind Performance Hacks” by Ron Hale-Evans (O’Reilly).

{ 2 comments }

Obama on Osama

by Limbic on November 29, 2008

Something troubled me about  Barak Obama’s comments about Osama bin Laden in his recent 60 Minutes interview with Steve Kroft. When askedWhere does capturing or killing Osama bin Laden fall?”, Obama replied:

I think it is a top priority for us to
stamp out al Qaeda once and for all. And I think capturing or killing
bin Laden is a critical aspect of stamping out al Qaeda. He is not just
a symbol, he’s also the operational leader of an organization that is
planning attacks against US targets. [Source: Clips and Comments]

That is the first time I personally have heard something from Obama that I completely disagree with.

I think Osama bin Laden is either dead or at least completely ineffective as operational leader of “Al Qaeda”. 

Additionally I am not signed up at all to the idea of Al Qaeda as a cohesive organisation (i.e. with a formal command structure). It is a convenient myth for politicians and media to group together an ideologically bound set of independent operators.

It tells me that even though Obama is hellbent on “change”, he is still required to repeat the old party platitudes about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

{ 0 comments }

Wikipedia and the Administrator problem

by Limbic on November 29, 2008

Last week I had a discussion with the administrator of the Claus Beck-Nielsen memorial who was visiting Belgrade for a lecture and gig.

He was asking me how Wikipedia works because he – the worlds foremost expert on Claus Beck-Nielsen – had tried to update the article on Claus Beck-Nielsen and found his update reversed by an anonymous administrator.

He had of course encountered exactly the problems Carl Hewitt discusses in his blistering criticism of Wikipedia found on Google’s Wikipedia rival Knol. The abstract reads:

Wikipedia’s business model is generating Web traffic (primarily from search engines) for articles on conventional wisdom that are tightly controlled by a commune of mostly anonymous Administrators to motivate (financial) contributions.

However, according to Correa, Correa and Askanas:

“in Wikipedia, ultimate decisions about what constitutes ‘encyclopedic fact’ and what constitutes ‘vandalism’ devolve to a cadre of Internet bureaucrats with no other qualifications than their devotion to Wikipedianism… One of the main problems stems precisely from the fact that Wikipedia’s de-facto arbiters of what constitutes ‘science’, ‘information’, ‘fact’, ‘knowledge’ – those who make it into the ranks of Wikipedia administrators … are Internet technobureaucrats without any actual love of knowledge or any respect for those who spend their life fighting for it.”

The purpose of this article is to explore issues regarding the corruption of Wikipedia. It does not address other Wikipedia issues.

[Corruption of Wikipedia (http://wikicensored.info/) by Carl Hewitt]

It came as quite a shock to him that all internet communities (and perhaps all software systems) are governed by an hierarchical whereby internet morals (“users”) are governed (in a given digital realm) by moderators (the “cadre of Internet bureaucrats”) who in turn are subservient to the all powerful system administrator (“God-king”), who may or may not take their orders from the owners (of the hardware, code, business, internet link etc).

There is nothing even remotely democratic about such systems. They are all, ultimately, based on arbitrary power, and therefore dissent and disaffection is ultimately expressed by schism and the setting up of rival communities.

I do not know of anyone who has overcome the administrator problem in a software based community. The fighting and arguments rage on and are considered by many to be toxic and evidence of decline. I see them as wonderful cleaning systems flushing out confusion revealing the fundamental substrates of our cultural systems, acting like radioactive compounds highlighting x-rayed arteries.

To hear more from Carl Hewitt, a fascinating man, expounding on Wikipedia, Cloud Computing and Scalable Semantic, listen to him being interview by John Udel, another brilliant man.

Carl Hewitt on cloud computing, scalable semantics, and Wikipedia

{ 3 comments }

Twitter Updates for 2008-11-28

by Limbic on November 28, 2008

  • Moschino Cheap & Chic perfume smells like hospital disinfectant. I should know, as a doctors son, the smell of hospital is unmistakable. #

Powered by Twitter Tools.

{ 0 comments }

World’s first Timesculpture Advert

by Limbic on November 26, 2008

Shot using the revolutionary new Timesculpture technique using 300 Gigashot cameras. Here is the “making of video“.

YouTube – Toshiba Timesculpture Advert

(via Tomorrow Museum)

{ 0 comments }

Mortgage sluts

by Limbic on November 26, 2008

Fascinating article in Business Week reveals the seedier side of the now near dead mortgage broking business:

It may seem like ancient history now, but not long ago the mortgage industry was turning ordinary people into millionaires. One of them was Sharmen Lane, a high school dropout who, like many other young women during the boom, found her way into an obscure banking job with the clunky title “mortgage wholesaler.” Her experience—and the experiences of other wholesalers like her—offers a glimpse into the recklessness and indulgence that drove the industry to ruin.

The rise of mortgage wholesalers from grunts to rainmakers is one of the more curious developments of the housing bubble. Wholesalers work for banks and other lenders. The wholesaler’s job is to buy loan applications from independent mortgage brokers so that lenders can turn them into loans. Wholesalers are paid on commission: the more loans they generate, the more money they make.

…But as the housing bubble inflated, wholesalers—though hidden from public view—became high-earning superstars. Lane, a manicurist before joining now-defunct subprime lender New Century Mortgage in 1997, says she brought home $1 million in 2002 and $1.2 million in 2003.

Eventually the deal-making turned frenetic. Multiple wholesalers began inundating mortgage brokers with offers for the same applications. Some brokers chose to exercise their power by asking for something extra in exchange for their business: sex.

Dozens of former brokers and wholesalers say the trading of sexual favors was so common that it came to be expected. Lane recalls one visit to a mortgage brokerage near San Jose (Calif.) in which the manager lewdly propositioned her in his office. She says she declined the advance, and he didn’t sell her any applications. But other female wholesalers didn’t have the same qualms about crossing the line. “Women who had sex for loans were known very quickly,” says Lane, who left New Century before it failed in 2007 and now works as a $200-an-hour life coach and motivational speaker in New York. “I didn’t want to be a mortgage slut.”

Read more at Sex, Lies, and Subprime Mortgages – BusinessWeek

{ 0 comments }