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Between 1975 and 1979, a number of dialogues were held between various cultural and artistic figures on the then embryonic ARPANET network, which would, in time, become the internet. Here's Dialogue IV, held in April 1976, and featuring Yoko Ono, Sidney Nolan, Jim Henson and Ayn Rand. There are few surprises in how it plays out; the characters are true to form, with Ono as the fey hippy mystic, Rand as the original chatroom troll (who starts off in characteristic form by throwing shit from her self-declared moral high ground and ends up driving everyone else out), and Henson and Nolan presenting perhaps more nuanced perspectives:
JIM HENSON: But there is always conflict.
YOKO ONO: But it does not have to be this way. Does your work Mr Henson not try to prove this?
JIM HENSON: No. Conflict is what defines my characters in many ways and how they respond to it.
JIM HENSON: I think Ms. Rand and my character Oscar the Grouch would have a lot to talk about actually. I am laughing out loud at this idea.
AYN RAND: Why would I want to talk to him. What has he achieved or trying to achieve.
JIM HENSON: He has achieved what I think is the ultimate goal of your way of thinking.
Meet Nakamatsu Yoshiro, also known as Dr. NakaMats, the veteran Japanese inventor with 3,377 patents to his name and a stream of inventions dating back to 1952, when he invented an early type of floppy disk. Nakamatsu's floppy disk (a wood veneer disc designed to replace punched cards) was not immediately successful, and neither was the digital watch he invented a few years later, though both ideas found their place decades later. (IBM actually licensed Nakamatsu's patents for the floppy disk in 1969, despite having come up with it independently.) Nakamatsu followed these up with a steady stream of inventions; a few have been enormously successful, funding both his elaborate residence (a high-rise building shaped like a floppy disk) in Tokyo and his more out-there inventions:
Among his other creations (he will earnestly tell you) are the CD, the DVD, the fax machine, the taxi meter, the digital watch, the karaoke machine, CinemaScope, spring-loaded shoes, fuel-cell-powered boots, an invisible “B-bust bra,” a water-powered engine, the world’s tiniest air conditioner, a self-defense wig that can be swung at an attacker, a pillow that prevents drivers from nodding off behind the wheel, an automated version of the popular Japanese game pachinko, a musical golf putter that pings when the ball is struck properly, a perpetual motion machine that runs on heat and cosmic energy and...much, much more, much of which has never made it out of the multiplex of his mind.Dr. NakaMats is 84, though expects to live (and keep inventing) for another 60 years; he puts this down to his carefully controlled lifestyle regimen, which includes limiting sleep to only six hours a night, eating a special low-calorie diet (including a supplement, naturally, of his own invention, Dr. NakaMats' Rebody 55), as well as going on long underwater swims to starve his brain of oxygen, allowing inspiration to strike.
Dr. NakaMats is not without his detractors; some point out exaggerations in his claims (for example, the taxi meter, which he claims to have invented was patented in the US before he was born, and his claims to a perpetual motion machine, if taken at face value, are not compatible with the second law of thermodynamics). And none other than Kawakami Kenji, the founder of the absurdist (and militantly noncommercial) invention praxis of chindogu, has criticised Nakamatsu for his focus on money and self-glorification:
“Real inventions open our hearts and minds, enrich our lives, bring us closer together,” says countryman Kenji Kawakami, the anarchic founder of chindogu—intentionally silly and impractical creations that are not useful, patented or for sale. “Dr. NakaMats is all about money and fame and ego.”
Economist Robin Hanson presents a sustainability-based argument for derivative music:
Each new song sits somewhere in a range of originality, from very original to very derivative. The more new original songs are developed and marketed, the harder it gets to develop and market new songs that will be seen as relatively original. Song writers then become more tempted to develop and market recycled versions of old songs. As the supply of original songs is slowly exhausted, the music industry slowly changes its focus from original to derivative songs. Since original music cannot last forever, we face a “sustainability” question regarding whether we are using up the supply of original music too quickly, too slowly, or just right.So when you next see another ploddingly dull lad-rock band rehashing the Beatles or Joy Division once more, without feeling, or hear another cringeworthily trite song about being or not being in love, or roll your eyes at a hack lyricist rhyming "girl" with "world", perhaps consider for a moment that, rather than polluting the world with mediocre pap, they're wisely rationing the finite supply of original musical ideas by not using any. Meanwhile, if the space of original musical ideas is in danger of depletion, the musical snobs who turn up their noses at Robbie Williams or Oasis and listen exclusively to post-tropicalia glitch-hop mashups and avant-garde experimentalism are not so much laudably adventurous spirits as the cultural equivalent of the conspicuously consuming douchebags who drive Hummers and buy endangered animal products.
That is assuming that the space of new musical ideas is finite, of course, and that once it is depleted, there will be nowhere left to go; once every possible verse-chorus-verse song in a blues scale has been written, for example, that humanity will be doomed to listen to songs they've all heard before, rather than, for example, changing the rules of what constitutes (popular) music.
(via David Gerard)
Patrick Farley (the author of brilliant web comics like Delta Thrives and Spiders) has posted a list of his surplus story ideas from 2009, free for the taking:
Fake TV News Channel is created, catering to Conservative demographic. Similar to Fox News except the "news stories" presented are 100% fictitious: for example, after Kansas bans the teaching of evolution, there are giant fruits and vegetables growing on the farms, and cows are growing to the size of elephants. ("This bounty is clearly God's reward to the Great State of Kansas!") Much like "Wag the Dog," the question is how far this swindle can be taken before it collapses -- or will it ever?
Teenage gaming nerd is transported to fantasy realm, decides the Fair Folk are fascists and sides with the Orcs. (Alternate: a modern African American youth is transported to a Tolkienesque Euro-Fantasy realm, confronts the inherent racism of the genre.)
Take any "classic" story (Romeo & Juliet, Casablanca, Pulp Fiction) and re-stage it in a post-Greenhouse "Drowned World." The fun is in seeing how many conventional narrative tropes break down and how many new ones emerge.
This list has the usual variety of design/technological ideas (artificial engine noise for electric cars, artificial guilt for battlefield robots, a kitchen sink that puts out fires by filling the air with a fine mist, the glow-in-the-dark dog), environmental interventions/observations (artificial carbon-absorbing trees, a way of more efficiently disposing of corpses, bans on suburban culs-de-sac, pessimistic variants on the Gaia hypothesis), psychology and the social sciences (lithium in the water supply reduces suicide rates, randomly promoting employees works best, being given "counterfeit" goods to wear can increase one's likelihood of cheating), geopolitics (promoting communication in itself to undermine dictatorships) and business (subscription models for funding art). Where last year's had a recurring theme of trying to fix a dysfunctional capitalism, this year's theme seems to be zombies (both in the context of Jane Austen mashups and finding scientific models of how to survive a zombie epidemic; the answer, for what it's worth, is strike back hard and annihilate them before it's too late).
Idea: for their Windows 7 marketing campaign, Microsoft should reanimate Wesley Willis and have him say that it "whups the snow leopard's ass".
The problem is that many kinds of objects go through a period in their potential lifespans when they don't "pencil out"—they're not worth keeping or preserving because they're not worth any money.
My favorite example of the Trough of No Value comes from a former acquaintance whose back room had a high, narrow shelf running all the way around it, about a foot below the ceiling. Arrayed on the shelf were dozens of kids' lunchboxes from the 1950s and '60s. He told me that not only are such lunchboxes collectible now, but that they're actually fairly hard to find. Time was, of course, when most every schoolkid had a little metal lunchbox (poor kids "brown-bagged it"). But the kids grew up, the school lunch program got started, and who wanted to keep old lunchboxes around? They weren't useful any more. They weren't worth anything. And, since they were almost all used for their intended purpose, many were damaged or worn by use (I vaguely remember owning one that was rusty and had a dent). People naturally threw them away. The "trough of no value" for lunchboxes was long and harsh. That's why they're not so common today as you might guess—because not that many made it through the trough.
That's why "being famous" is a great way to preserve your work—because value is the #1 preservative for old objects. But want to know another? Craftsmanship. One of the great hazards of survival through time is the lack of a market and a lack of trade value, but another is simply shoddiness. (I have to chuckle whenever I read yet another description of American frontier log cabins as having been well crafted or sturdily or beautifully built. The much more likely truth is that 99% of frontier log cabins were horribly built—it's just that all of those fell down. The few that have survived intact were the ones that were well made. That doesn't mean all of them were.) It's not just that things that are poorly made deteriorate more readily, it's also that they signal their own worthlessness. Or, in the case of an archive of photos, they might actually hide their own worth. I have in mind making a book of my best 35mm black-and-white pictures, for instance, and I have it in my head which pictures would be included. But if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, nobody will ever be able to extract that book out of the great motley of my hither-and-yon mess of negatives.
The New York Times has published its annual Year In Ideas for 2008; unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is a lot more rethinking of economics and the foundations of capitalism there ("Guaranteed Retirement Account", "Rising Tide Tax System", and a "Stock Transfer Tax", which months ago would have been seen as unwarranted interference in the majestic free market). Other ideas tackle the energy crisis ("biomechanical energy harvester", "gallons per mile", "smart grids"), environmental issues in general ("carbon penance", "the climate-change defense", and "eat kangaroos to fight global warming"), new findings from psychology (such as "scrupulosity disorder", research into why social exclusion feels cold, or the finding that chauvinistic men earn more than egalitarian men), and random inventions (airbags for the elderly, spray-on condoms) and trends (wine from China, zoning prohibitions on fast-food restaurants).
Meanwhile, LogoLounge has posted its annual roundup of trends in logo design. It seems that organic flourishes and wrapping things around spheres are still big, with bright colours making a comeback, while more corporate clients are going for the instant sincerity of hand-sketched logos.
A list of 10 bizarre inventions patented in the name of fighting terrorism, from nondescript trucks with machine guns to bomb-proof anti-suicide-bomber nets (which looked like repurposed Nixon-era hippie-containment apparatus) to trap doors on airliners and remotely triggerable tranquilliser syringes in airline seats for incapacitating suspicious individuals:
Make all passengers wear armbands that monitors their body for signs of falsehood and evil (ooh, say heart pulsation and blood pressure - hey, it's in the patent application, mmkay?). And did I mention there's a syringe filled with a strong tranquilizer connected to the thing? One "anomalous emotional condition," then off to dreamland they go!And, if all else fails, there's even a patent for mobile crematoria for disposing of all the bodies.
Kevin Kelly (one of the original WIRED contributors) and Brian Eno (no introduction needed) have a game where they try to come up with improbable trends for the near future and extrapolate them. While some of them are (at least nowadays), somewhat lacking in the "improbable" aspects (computer power plateauing has been predicted for a while, people are avoiding American citizenship for tax reasons, Sao Paolo in Brazil has already banned billboard advertising, a deadly airborne plague has been feared since SARS and bird flu and there are predictions that the end of cheap oil will enrich inner cities whilst turning formerly affluent suburbs into impoverished backwaters), others (particularly some of Eno's) are thought-provokingly out-there:
Everybody becomes so completely cynical about the election process that voter turnout drops to 2 percent (families and relatives of prospective politicians) until finally the "democratic process" is abandoned in favour of a lottery system. Everything immediately improves.
Suicide becomes not only commonplace but socially acceptable and even encouraged. People choose when to die: living too long is considered selfish and old-fashioned.
A new profession -- cosmetic psychiatry -- is born. People visit "plastic psychiatrists" to get interesting neuroses and obsessions added into their makeup.
A new kind of holiday becomes popular: you are dropped by helicopter in an unknown place, with two weeks' supply of food and water. You are assured that you will not see anyone else in this time. There is a panic button just in case.
A highly successful new magazine -- Ordinary People, edited by the nonagenarian Studs Terkel -- focuses only on people who have never done anything in particular to deserve attention.
A new type of artist arises: someone whose task is to gather together existing but overlooked pieces of amateur art, and, by directing attention onto them, to make them important. (This is part of a much larger theory of mine about the new role of curatorship, the big job of the next century.)
Manufacturers of underwear finally realize that men have different-sized balls.
(via Boing Boing)
After the recent "privacy Chernobyls", in which the personal data of millions of Britons went missing, possibly ending up in the hands of criminals, Cory Doctorow argues that personal data should be regarded with the same caution as nuclear waste:
The metaphor is apt: the data collected by corporations and governmental agencies is positively radioactive in its tenacity and longevity. Nuclear accidents leave us wondering just how we're going to warn our descendants away from the resulting wasteland for the next 750,000 years while the radioisotopes decay away. Privacy meltdowns raise a similarly long-lived spectre: will the leaked HMRC data ever actually vanish?
The financial data in question came on two CDs. If you're into downloading movies, this is about the same size as the last couple of Bond movies. That's an incredibly small amount of data - my new phone holds 10 times as much. My camera (six months older than the phone) can only fit four copies of the nation's financial data.
Every gram - sorry, byte - of personal information these feckless data-packrats collect on us should be as carefully accounted for as our weapons-grade radioisotopes, because once the seals have cracked, there is no going back. Once the local sandwich shop's CCTV has been violated, once the HMRC has dumped another 25 million records, once London Underground has hiccoughup up a month's worth of travelcard data, there will be no containing it.
The New York Times, has published its seventh annual Year in Ideas, containing 79 hot memes from 2007, including:
Sure enough, when Field’s team tested a mere teaspoonful of water from a sewage plant — which it ultimately did in many American cities — the sample revealed the presence of 11 different drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamine.
Because it allows for sampling on a daily basis, community urinalysis can track a drug epidemic in real time, showing the police and doctors how the popularity of a particular drug is waxing or waning. For instance, Field says that the use of methamphetamine was constant from day to day — because “once you’re hooked, you’re hooked” — whereas the usage of cocaine sometimes peaked on weekends.
Should we tax tall workers at a higher rate than their shorter peers? The answer — yes — “follows inexorably” from reigning academic theories of taxation, argues Greg Mankiw, an economics professor at Harvard (and former chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers), in a working paper first circulated in April.
In April 2003 the Pentagon created decks of playing cards to be given to soldiers, all featuring wanted members of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle. When he heard this, Special Agent Tommy Ray, a state law officer in Polk County, Fla., got inspired. Two years later, he made his own deck of cards, each bearing information about a different local criminal case that had gone cold. He distributed the decks in the Polk County jail. His hunch was that prisoners would gossip about the cases during card games, and somehow clues or breaks would emerge and make their way to the authorities. The plan worked.
Collins mounted a production of “The Great Gatsby” without cutting a single word. “Gatz,” which refers to Jay Gatsby’s original name, is the most faithful version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book ever produced. The more-than-six-hour-long drama begins silently in a dismal contemporary office in which white-collar employees go through the motions of their seemingly ordinary days. But when one character has trouble with his computer, he picks up a well-worn paperback copy of “Gatsby” and starts to read aloud. Before long, this office drone evolves rather seamlessly into Nick Carraway, the narrator of the book, and his fellow employees morph into Jazz Age denizens of high society New York, re-enacting the book’s famously flamboyant parties while interjecting lines of dialogue.
And then there are concepts such as Braille tattoos, the "cat lady" conundrum, Craigslist vengeance, the edible cocktail, criminal recycling, vegansexuality, weapon-proof school gear, and genetic-profile-based social networking; not to mention the Gomboc, an inanimate three-dimensional object which can only stand on one side and rights itself if placed any other way.
(via Boing Boing)
In light of Google Maps launching their Australasian coverage, I am of the opinion that one geographical innovation Australia could do with is street-level post codes.
If one thinks of postcodes as merely a bit of stuff you write on a letter to help the postman, it may not seem like such a big deal. Though once postcodes are seen in a broader context, as coordinates optimised for specifying how to get to a location, they really come into their own. A 4-digit Australian postcode gives a few square kilometers of urban area, or several times that in the outback. A 6-7 character British postcode, however, can home in on a street or a segment of a street, down to a few dozen houses. Type in a postcode like "NW6 7JR" into Google Maps and you'll get a map showing you where your destination is; enter it into something like the Transport for London Journey Planner, and it has enough information to determine an optimal route for getting to the location in question, getting you close enough to find your destination without any further help. Because the postcode is a code in a very specific format, there is no need for guesswork, address parsing, or the computer asking you to select which location you meant from a list of alternatives.
I modestly propose that Australia would benefit from street level postcodes. The increased efficiency in mail delivery would save the Post Office money, and the streamlining of computer-based navigation technologies would boost the increasingly high-tech, high-speed economy, not to mention provide a valuable public utility. One could possibly even make an environmental argument for finer-grained postcodes, that in optimising navigation, they would reduce the amount of fuel used and pollution emitted. The street-level information could be added on as a suffix to existing postcodes, much in the way ZIP+4 was added to US ZIP codes in 1983, and could consist of an alphanumeric suffix. For example, a segment of a street in Fitzroy could be designated by something that looks like 3065-AB3. (They could also be purely numeric, though alphanumeric suffixes would allow for more information in fewer characters, and keeping the total length to 7 characters or less (as per The Magical Number Seven +/- 2, this being the capacity of human immediate memory) Punch that into a website or mobile phone application and you can get detailed instructions on how to get to your desired location.
Of course, proposing such a scheme is one thing, and getting bureaucrats, politicians and various vested interests to run with it is another, so one probably shouldn't hold one's breath.
And if it never happens, we could always move to a purely latitude/longitude-based coding system like the Natural Area Coding System. The problem with that is that, being purely physical, it does not take into account local geographical features, such as whether two points are adjacent houses on a street or houses in two streets only reachable by a long detour.
This looks pretty nifty: a gadget the size and shape of a mobile phone which is a WiFi-based Skype client; it will connect to wireless base stations and send and receive calls over the internet using Skype, showing which contacts are online and calling phone numbers (credit permitting) as well. Best of all, it does not require a PC to be switched on and running Skype.
Of course, it is less than ideal, given that most wireless hotspots use a web-based kludge to collect payments, which renders them unusable for appliances not suited to web browsing. What the world needs is a standard for publishing access point metadata and negotiating payment or roaming. Perhaps, on each access point, an IP address (say, 10.255.255.254) to be reserved for responding to HTTP requests, which could give XML-based metadata about the access point, handle logins in a standard fashion, and speak some kind of digital-wallet protocol if needed for payment. With that, a wireless VoIP phone (or satellite navigation client or news-ticker wristwatch or whatever appliance one wants to imagine) could ping this, grab data on the access point, and see if it can use it on its existing credentials (such as roaming agreements). If not, it could display the point's charges and ask the user if they want to pay for access.
Freaky Trigger has one of the best music-book concepts I've seen:
The book was being edited by SR and was called Biology, named after the famous Old Skool Rave party organisation. It was a series of essays exploring the interface between biology and music taste - race, gender, endo/ectomorphs and dancing, the extent to which attractiveness defines taste (music scenes and the idea of "beautiful people"), notions of blindness in blues and rock, plus more general explorations of the theories of evolutionary biology as they might apply to pop! WOW, I thought, this sounds like it's going to be a great read! I was about to click and read more but then I woke up.Unfortunately, it only exists in a dream.
The New York Times Magazine has an alphabetical list of the key ideas of 2004. They make for interesting reading, with items like Genetic Family Values, Wal-Mart Sovereignty, Democratic Providentialism, The Acceptable Knock-off, Kill Midlevel Terrorists, Feral Cities and Psychopathic CEOs, and more. (via worldchanging)
Foreign Policy (that's the Carnegie Endownment magazine, not the
Illuminati Council on Foreign Relations one) has a set of articles on eight of the World's Most Dangerous Ideas, such as War on Evil, Transhumanism (by Francis "End of History" Fukuyama), Spreading Democracy (by Marxist academic Eric Hobsbawm), Religious Intolerance, and Anti-Americanism. (via FmH)
Interesting idea of the moment: the well curve. Apparently, the WIRED article suggests, many trends today, if plotted on a graph, would appear as an inverted bell curve, peaking at the edges and declining in the middle. Some sound rather contrived (i.e., great demand for mobile-phone-sized video displays or gigantic plasma screens; meanwhile, people are still buying 17" monitors); others point to an increasingly fragmented and polarised world (more businesses are either very small and very large; the numbers of very rich and very poor rose, with the middle declining). This trend could be interpreted to back up two interpretations: a pessimistic one (society is becoming more balkanised, the middle class is facing extinction, and things will soon look like Brazil or South Africa, or perhaps Snow Crash) or an optimistic one, from a classic WIRED long-boom neophilic milieu (the old conformistic norms are falling apart, ushering in a new renaissance of creative anarchy and diversity). In either case, we live in interesting times.
Via Peter's as always astute blog, Butterflies and Wheels, an online article site dedicated to fighting "fashionable nonsense", such as postmodernism, ideological denunciations of entire areas of research, ideologically-sound pseudoscience and the woolly-headed Freudian-Marxist claptrap that haunts institutions of higher education. Have a look at their glossary, for example.
Tim O'Reilly (of the books with animals on their covers fame) has an essay on file sharing, piracy and copy-denial technologies; in it he argues that piracy is progressive taxation, taking from established producers and giving (distribution, recognition, etc.) to the up-and-coming. (Via Slashdot, to whose readers the article was undoubtedly crafted to appeal, right down to the Star Wars reference at the end.)
Life imitates Borges: A professor in Japan plans to create a database of every human idea. Darryl Macer from the University of Tsukuba believes that the number of possible human ideas is finite and enumerable. The database is intended to shed light on cross-cultural differences and to be used to help come up with international agreements acceptable to all parties.
From the ancient world to Enron, one thing is clear: destroying information is harder than you think.
A letter from Jane Welsh Carlyle concludes, "Pray read all this unto yourself and burn the letter." A scholar has added this gloss: "Such an injunction is one of the surest methods of guaranteeing that a letter will not be burned."
Fragments of the works of Sappho have come down to us because someone in antiquity, wanting to get rid of papyrus copies of Sappho's poetry, threw them into the trash in the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, where archaeologists found them. Certain works by Archimedes have survived only because his words were scraped off by medieval scribes; the scribes re-used the parchment for a sacred book, whose sanctity ensured its survival into an age when a different kind of eyes could tease out the underlying original. The mosaics of Hagia Sofia, in Istanbul, were inadvertently spared degradation when the Ottoman Turks covered them with plaster. The early Christian writer Irenaeus spent a lifetime denouncing heretical books; many of the books were lost (burned), and yet the ideas survived through extensive quotation in his own fiery writing.
The ultimate weapon against ideas is indifference, not opposition; with "repressive tolerance", or the capacity of a laissez-faire society to bury ideas by not reacting to them. (via Techdirt)
David Brin on the five memes that shaped the planet on a deeper level: feudalism, machismo, paranoia, "the East" and neophilia (which Brin terms the Dogma of Otherness). (via the Horn)
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