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I really enjoyed Andrew’s book. I thought I knew about the structure (and structures) of the Internet, but this is is a detailed, critical and fun illumination which quickly proved me mistaken. It’s also a travel book, about an unreal place that spans/permeates real places, lives, spaces. And a wonderful one at that. Highly recommended.

(My emboldening below)

Everything you do online travels through a tube. Inside those tubes (by and large) are glass fibers. Inside those fibers is light. Encoded in that light is, increasingly, us. [Location 94]

The Internet is everywhere; the Internet is nowhere. But indubitably, as invisible as the logical might seem, its physical counterpart is always there. [Location 276]

TeleGeography in Washington was asking a computer science department in Denmark to show how it was connected to a university in Poland. It was like a spotlight in Scandinavia shining on twenty-five hundred different places around the world, and reporting back on the unique reflections. [Location 418]

You can demarcate a place on a map, pinpoint its latitude and longitude with global positioning satellites, and kick the very real dirt of its very real ground. But that’s inevitably going to be only half its story. The other half of the story comes from us, from the stories we tell about a place and our experience of it. [Location 485]

“If you brought a sophisticated customer into the data center and they saw how clean and pretty the place looked—and slick and cyberrific and awesome—it closed deals,” said Adelson. [Location 1211]

But it wasn’t the machine’s mystery or power that terrified Adams most. It was how clearly it signified a “break of continuity,” as he puts it. The dynamo declared that his life had now been lived in two different ages, the ancient and the modern. It made the world new. [Location 1826]

He counted off the zeros on the screen. “This point is the millisecond … this point is the microsecond … and this one is usually expressed as nanoseconds, or billionths of a second.” I mulled all the zeros on the screen for a moment. And when I looked up, everything was different. The cars rushing by outside on Highway 87 seemed filled with millions of computational processes per second—their radios, cell phones, watches, and GPSs buzzing inside of them. Everything around me looked alive in a new way: the desktop PCs, the LCD projector, the door locks, the fire alarms, and the desk lamps. [Location 2045]

Nearly universally, they wore black T-shirts and zip-up hooded sweatshirts, handy for spending long hours on the hard floor of the server rooms, facing the dry exhaust blast of an enormous router.[ocation 2378]

The Internet “cloud,” and even each piece of the cloud, was a real, specific place—an obvious reality that was only strange because of the instantaneity with which we constantly communicate with these places. [Location 3159]

The Internet had no master plan, and—aesthetically speaking—no master hand. There wasn’t an Isambard Kingdom Brunel—the Victorian engineer of Paddington Station and the Great Eastern cable ship—thinking grandly about the way all the pieces fit together, and celebrating their technological accomplishment at every opportunity. On the Internet there were only the places in between, places like this, trying to disappear [location 3183]

The emphasis wasn’t on the journey; the journey pretended not to exist. But obviously it did. [location 3186]

“Want to see how this shit really works?” he asked. “This has nothing to do with clouds. If you blew the ‘cloud’ away, you know what would be there?” Patchett asked. “This. This is the cloud. All of those buildings like this around the planet create the cloud. The cloud is a building. It works like a factory. Bits come in, they get massaged and put together in the right way, then packaged up and sent out. But everybody you see on this site has one job, that’s to keep these servers right here alive at all times.” [location 3268]

“If you lose rural America, you lose your infrastructure and your food. It’s incumbent for us to wire everybody, not just urban America. The 20 percent of the people living on 80 percent of the land will be left behind. Without what rural America provides to urban America, urban America couldn’t exist. And vice versa. We have this partnership.” [location 3299]

It’s from the beautiful, beautiful book Bluebeard, and I think I first heard it first (as with many such things) from Matt Webb:

“The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.

The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius – a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in in general circulation.

“A genius working alone,” he says, “is invariably ignored as a lunatic.”

The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find; a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad.

“A person like this working alone,” says Slazinger, “can only yearn loud for changes, but fail to say what their shaped should be.”

The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pigheaded they may be. “He will say almost anything in order to be interesting and exciting,” says Slazinger.

“Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey.”

Review of Chris Anderson's "Makers" for Blueprint Magazine

A review of Chris Anderson’s “Makers” for the April issue of Blueprint magazine. Pleased to have used the phrase “Star Trek meets Mumford & Sons” in it, and indeed to have got it finished. Thanks to Shumi Bose for asking me to do it, and for nagging me to complete before the deadline!

On the surface, you’ll experience a distinct lack of surprise reading Makers, if – like me – you’re familiar with Chris Anderson’s previous output.

I expected plenty of techno-utopian, libertarian, anarcho-capitalist “Californian Ideology“, which there is in spades – but perhaps not his family history in the garden sprinkler industry, Marx, or 1980s US punk-rock references.

The central thesis of Makers blends these around innovations in the manufacture of physical goods, specifically low cost 3d printing and robotics, and the ongoing disruptive forces of the internet and open-source software – to convince us that we are entering the era of ‘The Long-Tail of Things”. Herein, niche needs can be met by niche manufacturing eating into the dominance of the mass-manufacture models of the industrial age. Anderson’s last-but-one book “The Long Tail” argued this for culture and media, of course.

In this near-future, the 1980s Punk DIY ethic transmutes into a kind of on-demand artisanal yuppie boutique-consumerism, a cornucopia of high-margin corner-cases.

Star Trek meets Mumford & Sons.

Which begs the question – in the future, who does the boring stuff?

In Anderson’s view, much of it is automated – with mass-manufacture jobs becoming more precarious, lower-paid and rare driven by technology, commoditisation and globalisation. Although, interestingly, he sees the tide turning away from China as planetary factory – as robotics, middle-class wage aspirations and cost of shipping conspire against it’s dominance in the medium to long-term. He has Mexico marked down as the new China. At least it’s his choice for outsourcing his boutique robotics firm…

While 3d-printing is the subject of a lot of hype and hope, the steady march of robotics into small and medium enterprises from their beach-head in mass manufacturing is perhaps the most profound trend of our times covered in Makers. It’s one of the enablers, as well as the subject of Anderson’s business, but it’s not something that is critiqued in much depth by him. He does make strong points about the future of the American middle-class (our working classes) but for a more thorough look at this, I’d recommend “Race against the machine” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

The other powerful trend covered in Makers is the accessibility of tools and knowhow that the Open-Source movement has catalysed and provided to the small business. While capital might be in short supply, much of the (software) means of production is seizable for free, and as Anderson points out – the physical hardware and infrastructure of prototyping, manufacture and distribution is rentable as a service. This is a trend that we at BERG have made great use of in the last few years in our own small-scale product prototyping and manufacture e.g. Little Printer (http://bergcloud.com/littleprinter)

Anderson finishes with a short speculation on the open-source future of biology itself. With synthetic biological components being hacked on inside the canonical garages that created the computer industry, it promises to be a disruptive movement worth a book of it’s own. The analysis in Makers seems a little tacked-on, but it may prompt the curious to investigate further.

Ultimately however, “Makers” suffers, like most business books, of being a something that would made a great, insightful magazine article, but drags as a full book – and feels anachronistic in contrast to the digital communities, blogs and other online resources devoted to its subject matter.

Part invigorating, part infuriating, “Makers” is squarely aimed at airport bizbook crowd rather than designers or makers – although conversely designers and makers could learn from the business-y bits. It’s message is perhaps most urgent though for the UK’s education policy makers – hopefully leading them to question their victorian obsession with testing the three R’s, and instead shaping an education system centred around design, play, flexibility, invention, creativity and ingenuity – skills that Anderson’s vision of the near-future demands.

From Chapter 14, “Beethoven Was Wrong”, on Steve Reich’s accidental composition of ‘It’s Gonna Rain’

“In one sense, all he done was to isolate a technological quirk: the machines essentially wrote It’s Gonna Rain by themselves and he was simply smart enough not to stop them.”

from later on in that chapter – less profound perhaps, but no less wonderful:

[Philip] Glass also worked as a plumber, and one day installed a dishwasher in the apartment of the art critic Robert Hughes.”

That would have been one for http://awesomepeoplehangingouttogether.tumblr.com/

If you know me, then you’ll know that “Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs” pretty much had me at the title.

It’s obviously very relevant to our interests at BERG, and I’ve been trying to read up around the area of AI, robotics and companions species for a while.

Struggled to get thought it to be honest – I find philosophy a grind to read. My eyes slip off the words and I have to read everything twice to understand it.

But, it was worth it.

My highlights from Kindle below, and my emboldening on bits that really struck home for me. Here’s a review by Daniel Dennett for luck.

“Real aliens have always been with us. They were here before us, and have been here ever since. We call these aliens animals.”

“They will carry out tasks, such as underwater survey, that are dangerous for people, and they will do so in a competent, efficient, and reassuring manner. To some extent, some such tasks have traditionally been performed by animals. We place our trust in horses, dogs, cats, and homing pigeons to perform tasks that would be difficult for us to perform as well if at all.

“Autonomy implies freedom from outside control. There are three main types of freedom relevant to robots. One is freedom from outside control of energy supply. Most current robots run on batteries that must be replaced or recharged by people. Self-refuelling robots would have energy autonomy. Another is freedom of choice of activity. An automaton lacks such freedom, because either it follows a strict routine or it is entirely reactive. A robot that has alternative possible activities, and the freedom to decide which to do, has motivational autonomy. Thirdly, there is freedom of ‘thought’. A robot that has the freedom to think up better ways of doing things may be said to have mental autonomy.”

“One could envisage a system incorporating the elements of a mobile robot and an energy conversion unit. They could be combined in a single robot or kept separate so that the robot brings its food back to the ‘digester’. Such a robot would exhibit central place foraging.”

“turkeys and aphids have increased their fitness by genetically adapting to the symbiotic pressures of another species.

“In reality, I know nothing (for sure) about the dog’s inner workings, but I am, nevertheless, interpreting the dog’s behaviour.”

“A thermostat … is one of the simplest, most rudimentary, least interesting systems that should be included in the class of believers—the class of intentional systems, to use my term. Why? Because it has a rudimentary goal or desire (which is set, dictatorially, by the thermostat’s owner, of course), which it acts on appropriately whenever it believes (thanks to a sensor of one sort or another) that its desires are unfulfilled. Of course, you don’t have to describe a thermostat in these terms. You can describe it in mechanical terms, or even molecular terms. But what is theoretically interesting is that if you want to describe the set of all thermostats (cf. the set of all purchasers) you have to rise to this intentional level.”

“So, as a rule of thumb, for an animal or robot to have a mind it must have intentionality (including rationality) and subjectivity. Not all philosophers will agree with this rule of thumb, but we must start somewhere.”

We want to know about robot minds, because robots are becoming increasingly important in our lives, and we want to know how to manage them. As robots become more sophisticated, should we aim to control them or trust them? Should we regard them as extensions of our own bodies, extending our control over the environment, or as responsible beings in their own right? Our future policies towards robots and animals will depend largely upon our attitude towards their mentality.”

“In another study, juvenile crows were raised in captivity, and never allowed to observe an adult crow. Two of them, a male and a female, were housed together and were given regular demonstrations by their human foster parents of how to use twig tools to obtain food. Another two were housed individually, and never witnessed tool use. All four crows developed the ability to use twig tools. One crow, called Betty, was of special interest.”

“What we saw in this case that was the really surprising stuff, was an animal facing a new task and new material and concocting a new tool that was appropriate in a process that could not have been imitated immediately from someone else.”

A video clip of Betty making a hook can be seen on the Internet.

“We are looking for a reason to suppose that there is something that it is like to be that animal. This does not mean something that it is like to us. It does not make sense to ask what it would be like (to a human) to be a bat, because a human has a human brain. No film-maker, or virtual reality expert, could convey to us what it is like to be a bat, no matter how much they knew about bats.”

We have seen that animals and robots can, on occasion, produce behaviour that makes us sit up and wonder whether these aliens really do have minds, maybe like ours, maybe different from ours. These phenomena, especially those involving apparent intentionality and subjectivity, require explanation at a scientific level, and at a philosophical level. The question is, what kind of explanation are we looking for? At this point, you (the reader) need to decide where you stand on certain issues”

“The successful real (as opposed to simulated) robots have been reactive and situated (see Chapter 1) while their predecessors were ‘all thought and no action’. In the words of philosopher Andy Clark”

“Innovation is desirable but should be undertaken with care. The extra research and development required could endanger the long-term success of the robot (see also Chapters 1 and 2). So in considering the life-history strategy of a robot it is important to consider the type of market that it is aimed at, and where it is to be placed in the spectrum. If the robot is to compete with other toys, it needs to be cheap and cheerful. If it is to compete with humans for certain types of work, it needs to be robust and competent.”

“connectionist networks are better suited to dealing with knowledge how, rather than knowledge that”

“The chickens have the same colour illusion as we do.”

For robots, it is different. Their mode of development and reproduction is different from that of most animals. Robots have a symbiotic relationship with people, analogous to the relationship between aphids and ants, or domestic animals and people. Robots depend on humans for their reproductive success. The designer of a robot will flourish if the robot is successful in the marketplace. The employer of a robot will flourish if the robot does the job better than the available alternatives. Therefore, if a robot is to have a mind, it must be one that is suited to the robot’s environment and way of life, its ecological niche.”

“there is an element of chauvinism in the evolutionary continuity approach. Too much attention is paid to the similarities between certain animals and humans, and not enough to the fit between the animal and its ecological niche. If an animal has a mind, it has evolved to do a job that is different from the job that it does in humans.

“When I first became interested in robotics I visited, and worked in, various laboratories around the world. I was extremely impressed with the technical expertise, but not with the philosophy. They could make robots all right, but they did not seem to know what they wanted their robots to do. The main aim seemed to be to produce a robot that was intelligent. But an intelligent agent must be intelligent about something. There is no such thing as a generalised animal, and there will be no such thing as a successful generalised robot.

Although logically we cannot tell whether it can feel pain (etc.), any more than we can with other people, sociologically it is in our interest (i.e. a matter of social convention) for the robot to feel accountable, as well as to be accountable. That way we can think of it as one of us, and that also goes for the dog.”

Philosophy & Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason by Manuel DeLanda

This was incredibly hard-work as a read for this bear of little brain, but worth it. Very rewarding and definitely in resonance with earlier non-fiction reads this year (The Information, What Technology Wants, The Nature of Technology)

I’ve put the things that really gave me pause in bold below.

an unmanifested tendency and an unexercised capacity are not just possible but define a concrete space of possibilities with a definite structure.

a mathematical model can capture the behavior of a material process because the space of possible solutions overlaps the possibility space associated with the material process.

Gliders and other spaceships provide the clearest example of emergence in cellular automata: while the automata themselves remain fixed in their cells a coherent pattern of states moving across them is clearly a new entity that is easily distinguishable from them.

This is an important capacity of simulations not shared by mathematical equations: the ability to stage a process and track it as it unfolds.

In other words, each run of a simulation is like an experiment conducted in a laboratory except that it uses numbers and formal operators as its raw materials. For these and other reasons computer simulations may be thought as occupying an intermediate position between that of formal theory and laboratory experiment.

Let’s summarize what has been said so far. The problem of the emergence of living creatures in an inorganic world has a well-defined causal structure.

The results of the metadynamic simulations that have actually been performed show that the spontaneous emergence of a proto-metabolism is indeed a likely outcome, one that could have occurred in prebiotic conditions.

Because recursive function languages have the computational capacity of the most sophisticated automata, and because of the random character of the collisions, this artificial chemistry is referred to as a Turing gas.

An evolving population may, for example, be trapped in a local optimum if the path to a singularity with greater fitness passes through points of much lesser fitness.

Roughly, the earliest bacteria appeared on this planet three and a half billion years ago scavenging the products of non-biological chemical processes; a billion years later they evolved the capacity to tap into the solar gradient, producing oxygen as a toxic byproduct; and one billion years after that they evolved the capacity to use oxygen to greatly increase the efficiency of energy and material consumption. By contrast, the great diversity of multicellular organisms that populate the planet today was generated in about six hundred million years.

The distribution of singularities (fitness optima) in this space defines the complexity of the survival problem that has to be solved: a space with a single global optimum surrounded by areas of minimum fitness is a tough problem (a needle in a haystack) while one with many local optima grouped together defines a relatively easy problem.

from the beginning of life the internal models mediating the interaction between a primitive sensory system and a motor apparatus evolved in relation to what was directly relevant or significant to living beings.

with the availability of neurons the capacity to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant, the ability to foreground only the opportunities and risks pushing everything else into an undifferentiated background, was vastly increased.

Finally, unlike the conventional link between a symbol and what the symbol stands for, distributed representations are connected to the world in a non-arbitrary way because the process through which they emerge is a direct accommodation or adaptation to the demands of an external reality.

This simulation provides a powerful insight into how an objective category can be captured without using any linguistic resources. The secret is the mapping of relations of similarity into relations of proximity in the possibility space of activation patterns of the hidden layer.

Both manual skills and the complex procedures to which they gave rise are certainly older than spoken language suggesting that the hand may have taught the mouth to speak, that is, that ordered series of manual operations may have formed the background against which ordered series of vocalizations first emerged.

When humans first began to shape flows of air with their tongues and palates the acoustic matter they created introduced yet another layer of complexity into the world.

Says(Tradition, Causes(Full Moon, Low Tide)) Says(My Teacher, Causes(Full Moon, Low Tide))

A mechanism to transform habit into convention is an important component of theories of non-biological linguistic evolution at the level of both syntax and semantics.

a concentration of the capacity to command justified by a religious tradition linking elite members to supernatural forces or, in some cases, justified by the successful practical reasoning of specialized bureaucracies.

Needless to say, the pyramid’s internal mechanism did not allow it to actually transmute a king into a god but it nevertheless functioned like a machine for the production of legitimacy.

social simulations as enacted thought experiments can greatly contribute to develop insight into the workings of the most complex emergent wholes on this planet.

abandon the idea of “society as a whole” and replace it with a set of more concrete entities (communities, organizations, cities) that lend themselves to partial modeling in a way that vague totalities do not.