Archive for September, 2009
This was one of those freaky moments when the future sneaks up and smacks you. I was on a plane earlier this week and took a break from work to watch the movie while they served dinner. It was Terminator Salvation, which once again tells us what happens when Skynet becomes self-aware and the machines take over. Then they cleared dinner, and I opened my laptop again and resumed work where I left off: programming unmanned aerial vehicles in RobotC.
Which is exactly, of course, how Skynet becomes self-aware. Have I learned nothing?!!
Seriously, it was a kinda weird moment. After all, if we ever do hit a singularity when the collective ability of machines (I won’t use the word “intelligence”, since we neither really know what that means, nor are we likely to recognize it in machines) exceed that of humans, it will because of lots of people like me doing just what I was doing.
And yet, I couldn’t imagine not doing it. I was programming UAVs in RobotC because I can—the technological opportunity was in front of me and I couldn’t resist taking it. Indeed, I was working rather than watching the rest of the movie because I was keen to finish the project faster, so nobody could beat me to it. My competitive drive was pushing to me to do what was possible, mostly just because it was possible and hadn’t been done yet.
In a sense, I couldn’t help myself. We are innovative animals. If something can be invented, we feel compelled to invent it. If I don’t do it, someone else will. That which can be invented, must be. It almost doesn’t matter how useful it will be or even if it might be dangerous. Matches must be struck, just to watch them burn.
I wondered if the inventors of the atomic bomb felt the same way. Atoms can fuse, so let’s fuse them. Chain reactions can take place, so let’s start one. They can happen faster with the right materials and conditions, so let’s create them. And so on. Each step of the way is just grabbing the natural opportunity in front of us, but the end result is a weapon of mass destruction.
Of course with the atomic bomb, it was eventually clear that the next step would lead to a terrifying weapon and wise minds considered whether or not to take that step (they decided to do so because they knew that others would get there soon, and with perhaps worse consequences).
But in the case of “Skynet becoming self-aware” (yes, I know that’s just a movie, but indulge me for the sake of the thought experiment), would that threshold be as clear?
Will it come someday with some guy like me fixing the last bug in his code and pressing compile? Will he even know what he has done? Or will it be more gradual, with loads of us building it bit by bit, with no single moment, technology or decision marking the point where we crossed the line?
Maybe that day will never come. But it stopped me in my tracks for a few minutes as I reflected on how amoral invention is. Technology wants to be invented and we are almost powerless to stop it. We are hard-wired to create the future, be it good or bad. Invention is its own master.
And then I went back to programming the robot. After all if I don’t make airplanes self-aware someone else will. And I can’t let them get the glory!
(Diagram of the real Skynet from the BBC.)
A team at Wharton did some Long Tail analysis on the Netflix ratings data the company released for its Netflix Prize. Although I don’t agree with many of the conclusions in their paper (like some other academics, they got confused over definitions of “head” and “tail” and fell into the common trap of doing percentage analysis in an absolute numbers world), the data was interesting. They kindly shared it with me before publication and incorporated some of my analysis in their paper. But for some reason they didn’t use the best part, which was this chart:
The vertical axis is percentage of total demand (with ratings used as a rough estimate of rentals), and the horizontal axis is the popularity rank of the DVD titles. Between 2000 and 2005, the Netflix selection grew from 4,500 DVDs to 18,000, and the effect on the demand of this increase in variety is shown above.
It was inevitable: Omniture acquired by another company. It’s not Google or Microsoft or Oracle. No, it’s Adobe!
Combined Company Will Deliver Comprehensive Solutions for Creation, Delivery and Optimization of Content and Applications.
Adobe Systems Incorporated (Nasdaq:ADBE) and Omniture, Inc. (Nasdaq:OMTR) today announced the two companies have entered into a definitive agrement for Adobe to acquire Omniture in a transaction valued at approximately $1.8 billion on a fully diluted equity-value basis. Under the terms of the agreement, Adobe will commence a tender offer to acquire all of the outstanding common stock of Omniture for $21.50 per share in cash.
Below is an excerpt from the blog post I guest authored for Timothy Hughes Rare Newspapers. It’s essentially a book review of Infamous Scribblers by Eric Burns. If you enjoy history and media, this one’s for you.
Perhaps what thrilled me the most about this book was its style. To me, Burns was masterful at marrying the story-telling flair of David McCullough with the newspaper history acumen of Mott, Emery and others. More so, I enjoyed learning several fun facts and exciting stories about many of the newspaper titles I see for sale at rarenewspapers.com or even hold in my own collection.
The Boston Gazette, according to Burns’ C-SPAN presentation on his book, is the most influential newspaper this country has ever known. He says the Gazette got us into the Revolutionary War, sped up the course of the war and may have even determined the outcome of the war. A good chunk of Infamous Scribblers is dedicated to supporting this thesis.
“Almost certainly the war would not have ended with an American victory in a period of seven years – from first shot to signed treaty – had not the newspapers constantly reminded the colonists of the cause they shared, thereby inspiring the valor of soldiers, and the patience and support of civilians,” Burns said.
He points out that newspapers were the only form of media at the time and served as the great unifier of our nation during a time when America “needed unity as much as we needed ammunition.”
On 18th century journalism: “As a rule, newspaper publishers of the time did not chase after interviews or hustle to the scenes of events with their juices flowing and pen fingers twitching. For the most part, they were denizens of the print shop, preferring that the news be spoken in their ears or slipped under their doors – that it be delivered to them, in other words, as spices were delivered to the grocer or bolts of clothes to the tailor.”
On reporting and publishing during the Revolutionary War: “The Revolutionary War was not an easy one to cover. For one thing, once the fighting started there was more news than ever but no more shipments of ink or type or spare parts for the presses coming into American ports. There were no more shipments of paper either, and, as for the quantities still available or smuggled into the colonies from a friend in the motherland or a trader in another European nation, there were higher priorities for it than journalism.”
Click here to read the entire blog post about the must-read book on American journalism history (includes a great video presentation by the author).
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While publishers are contemplating the future of journalism (and J-schools are missing in action), I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the good ol’ days…
Is technology really making a difference?
Of course we all love our iPods and Blu-Ray players and doing research before Google came along was slow, often times requiring you to get in your car and go to a library. Anybody remember using library tools such as card catalogs and Microfiche to perform research? Now we can do it from our beds, simply by entering a few words into our mobile device and get instantaneous results; fantastic, no doubt.
Today’s cell phones look like something out of Star Trek. Actually, they look better and have more options.
We truly live in marvelous times. But, what does it all add up to? Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, more productive and in some areas eliminate work altogether. And for the most part I think we can say it’s worked. So how come I, like you, still work forty plus hour work weeks? In fact, since World War 2 the number of hours worked per week has grown. In her recent book, “Willing Slaves – How the Overwork Culture is Ruling our Lives“, Madeleine Bunting states that from 1977 to 1997 Americans working full time have increased their average working hours from 43.6 hours to 47.1 hours each week. (This does not include time required to travel to and from their places of business). How can this be? In addition to working longer hours, many families have both family members working. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics states that between 1950 and 2000 the number of individuals in the active labor force grew 227 percent from 62 million to 141 million.
The whole goal of a software developer is to make someone’s life easier. If we’re successful our software or device will allow a user to be more proficient, saving them time and allowing them to get more work done. But does it really matter if the user is now able to get their work done faster if the end result is still working forty hours? What does it matter if you can get twice the amount of work done? Forty hours is forty hours. I’m sure that by increasing the amount of work we are able to get done each day that someone benefits, someone higher up, but it isn’t you and it isn’t me.
It seems like life just keeps moving at an ever accelerated pace. Like a merry-go-round that started off slow and built up speed. Perhaps it’s moving so fast now that we can’t jump off? Or maybe we still don’t feel we need to jump off?
Terpsichore is among the places you would enjoy visiting in the universe. This was a planet where people emerged in the usual way in the community of life. For a time they lived as all others live, simply eating whatever came to hand. But after a couple of million years of living in this way, they noticed it was very easy to promote the regrowth of their favorite foods. You might say they found a few easy steps that would have this result. They didn’t have to take these steps in order to stay alive, but if they took them, their favorite foods were always more readily available. These were, of course, the steps of a dance.
A few steps of the dance, performed just three or four days a month, enriched their lives greatly and took almost no effort. As here on earth, the people of this planet were not a single people but many peoples, and as time went on, each people developed its own approach to the dance. Some continued to dance just a few steps three or four days a month. Others found it made sense for them to have even more of their favorite foods, so they danced a few steps every second or third day. Still others saw no reason why they shouldn’t live mostly on their favorite foods, so they danced a few steps every single day. Things went on this way for tens of thousands of years among the people of this planet, who thought of themselves as living in the hands of the gods and leaving everything to them. For this reason, they called themselves Leavers.
But one group of Leavers eventually said to themselves, “Why should we just live partially on the foods we favor? Why don’t we live entirely on the foods we favor? All we have to do is devote a lot more time to dancing.” So this one particular group took to dancing several hours a day. Because they thought of themselves as taking their welfare into their own hands, we’ll call them Takers. The results were spectacular. The Takers were inundated with their favorite foods. A manager class soon emerged to look after the accumulation and storage of surpluses — something that had never been necessary when everyone was just dancing a few hours a week. The members of this manager class were far too busy to do any dancing themselves, and since their work was so critical, they soon came to be regarded as social and political leaders. But after a few years these leaders of the Takers began to notice that food production was dropping, and they went out to see what was going wrong. What they found was that the dancers were slacking off. They weren’t dancing several hours a day, they were dancing only an hour or two and sometimes not even that much. The leaders asked why.
“What’s the point of all this dancing?” the dancers said. “It isn’t necessary to dance seven or eight hours a day to get the food we need. There’s plenty of food even if we just dance an hour a day. We’re never hungry. So why shouldn’t we relax and take life easy, the way we used to do?”
The leaders saw things very differently, of course. If the dancers went back to living the way they used to, then the leaders would soon have to do the same, and that didn’t appeal to them at all. They considered and tried many different schemes to encourage or cajole or tempt or shame or force the dancers into dancing longer hours, but nothing worked until one of them came up with the idea of locking up the food.
“What good will that do?” he was asked.
“The reason the dancers aren’t dancing right now is that they just have to reach out and take the food they want. If we lock it away, they won’t be able to do that.”
“But if we lock the food away, the dancers will starve to death!”
“No, no, you don’t understand,” the other said with a smile. “We’ll link dancing to receiving food — so much food for so much dancing. So if the dancers dance a little, they’ll get a little food, and if they dance a lot, they’ll get a lot. This way, slackers will always be hungry, and dancers who dance for long hours will have full stomachs.”
“They’ll never put up with such an arrangement,” he was told.
“They’ll have no choice. We’ll lock the food away in storehouses, and the dancers will either dance or they’ll starve.”
“The dancers will just break into the storehouses.”
“We’ll recruit guards from among the dancers. We’ll excuse them from dancing and have them guard the storehouses instead. We’ll pay them the same way we pay the dancers, with food — so much food for so many hours of guarding.”
“It will never work,” he was told. But oddly enough it did work…
So here we are today, dancing away and no amount of technology seems to matter. We keep creating better and better technology and yet we dance more and more.
I love being a software developer. I love coming up with creative solutions to peoples problems. Over the past ten years I have been fortunate enough to work on a variety of projects ranging from POS software, market analysis software, life and health insurance software and educational school system software. For the most part the feedback has been positive. But I’ve yet to have anyone say “thanks to your software I am now able to spend more time with my family.” In the end I don’t know that I have made anyone’s life better. I may have allowed them to get more work done in a day by speeding up their processes. I may have simplified their work life and improved their experience, but have I made their life any better?
“I submit that Egyptian workers, relatively speaking, got as much out of building Khufu’s pyramid as Microsoft workers will get out of building Bill Gates’s pyramid (which will surely dwarf Khufu’s a hundred times over, though it will not, of course, be built of stone).”
“It took Khufu twenty-three years to build his Great Pyramid at Giza, where some eleven hundred stone blocks, each weighing about two and a half tons, had to be quarried, moved, and set in place every day during the annual building season, roughly four months long. Few commentators on these facts can resist noting that this achievement is an amazing testimonial to the pharaoh’s iron control over the workers of Egypt. I submit, on the contrary, that pharaoh Khufu needed to no more control over his workers at Giza than pharaoh Bill Gates Exercises over his workers at Microsoft.” Exercise
Throughout time man has asked – Who are we? Where did we come from and where are we going? Perhaps these questions are more pertinent now more than ever…
What are your thoughts?