Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Holiday hiatus

This blog is on a holiday hiatus. It will be back in full force the first week of January.

 Kind Regards,
 - Henk

Friday, December 17, 2010

Zuckerberg Time person of the year and why it's a good choice

To clarify my argument and where my starting point lies: I hate and I do mean hate, Facebook. I am not on it anymore and I don't plan to go back to it any time soon. Here is why: I just do not trust the ideas that are lurking in the shadows of the Facebook leadership.

So why does the headline say that it is a good choice? Because whichever way you look at it, Zuckerberg has made an impact on our world that is undeniable. Who else managed to get 500 million people hooked on a website in only a few years? Who else has had a film made about his life before he is even 30 years old? Who else has changed the way we interact so profoundly?

Whether Mark Zuckerberg did this all by himself or not is beside the point: the history books will say he did. Whether he achieved all this through honest hard graft or by bamboozling others out of million dollar ideas is also not relevant because, again, the history books will record his name as the person who changed our world.

It also does not matter whether Facebook survives another year or whether it will do a MySpace, the stage is set and there is no going back. Facebook now represents many billions of dollars of revenue for too many companies (like Zynga) to not have set a precedent. Facebook, by any other name will keep smelling just as sweet.

So yes, I agree with Time that Mark Zuckerberg should be named person of the year. Mind you, in 1938 Hitler was person of the year so it is a questionable honour and one that should be treated with circumspection by those that keep their eyes open...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Top Twitter Trends 2010

As I am going to flee from all the Christmas and New Year's hubbub, I will make a hasty contribution to the traditional end of year reviews with a look at the Top Twitter Trends of 2010.

The Twitter blog has this list:

  1. Gulf Oil Spill
  2. FIFA World Cup
  3. Inception
  4. Haiti Earthquake
  5. Vuvuzela
  6. Apple iPad
  7. Google Android
  8. Justin Bieber
  9. Harry Potter & the Deatly Hallows
  10. Pulpo Paul
A list like this is nice but what does it actually say?  On the Twitter blog they say it like this: "These Trends indicate the things that are most meaningful in our lives." As I have had an eventful year with a few pretty dramatic twists and turns, I feel compelled to add a little nuance to this statement because I am not the only one who spends a lot of time on Twitter and has had a tough year. Compared to the death of my father in law, the Vuvuzela is but a minor irritant. And yet, the death of my father in law is not among the trending topics.

Twitter is a filter. Especially when you try to discover trends. Because only that which a lot of people Twitter about passes through that trend filter. The personal aspect does not come into it while the personal aspect is hugely important to the success of Twitter. So only the hugely important issues on a global scale pass through the filter? That makes Justin Bieber of huge importance to human society according to this list - yet I somehow doubt that. So that's not it either.

No, a list like this only reflects what a lot of people Twitter about. No more, no less. It indicates what Twitter is used for by the masses. It is a (technology) news ticker, it is a sports cantina, it is an entertainment news channel. What this list does not indicate and can't indicate is the margins of Twitter use where, marginal though it is much of it's worth is hidden. How we sometimes send each other a supporting tweet in dark times. How help-desks learn to use Twitter to better assist their customers. How we send questions into the time line and get answers from total strangers. In short: Twitter is so much more than what this list of trends shows. I hope will remember that in 2011. Trending topics are all well and good but the real value of Twitter for most people is to be found in the shadow of all that trendy excitement.

Oh, and who the hell is Pulpo Paul anyway? #missedatrend 

Friday, December 10, 2010

"Get out of Afghanistan yesterday!" Scott Atran urges

Today a very short post. Why? Because I heard an interview on the BBC podcast "Arts and Ideas" that is most worthy of the monicker "Second Opinion" and there is nothing to add to what is being said on the programme. You can listen to the whole programme as it is more than worth the effort but the bit I'm referring to is the last interview which is with Scott Atran, an anthropologist who has studied terrorists all over the world in an up-close and personal manner. What he found takes the sting, indeed the entire back bone out of what we are made to believe about Al Qaeda and the Jihad.

Listen to it here: BBC podcasts, Arts and Ideas

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Prop 8: separation of church and state?

And again Proposition 8 is in the news. In August a federal judge ruled that upholding Proposition 8, forbidding same sex marriage, was unconstitutional. Apparently some people, in this case a coalition gathered at do not accept defeat easily and they appealed the ruling.

The site claims they are "a broad-based coalition of California families, community leaders, religious leaders, pro-family organizations and individuals from all walks of life who have joined together to defend and restore the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman." What I find strange is that the supporters of prop 8 seem afraid that the granting of a basic right to all human beings somehow devaluates their right. Surely, when gays are allowed to marry, it does nothing to a heterosexual couple's right to marry?

What frustrates me in this whole prop 8 affair is that tempers get riled up over nothing - as compared to the real problems of human society. And as usual it is a matter of narrow minded people feeling irrationally threatened by the unknown. Off and on I have read a lot about proposition 8 since 2008 and never have I read any supportive argument of prop 8 that held water. Every time the argument was either easily debunked as simply stupid or it was "fine in church but unconstitutional".

I have a deep suspicion that the crux of the matter lies in the word church. Although the site claims to be a coalition of people from all walks of life, it is impossible not to recognise the Christian right wing undertones of every paragraph on that site. If I'm right, and I do believe I am, then it is no surprise that the arguments brought in favour of prop 8 are silly or unconstitutional. A orthodox Christian mindset is not a very practised one in the intelligence department and it is also not a very constitutionally minded one. As soon as a group of people start to step out of the dark ages and says, "You know what, let's evolve and become enlightened, more advanced humans," the Christian mindset gets confused and scared. The rules of the society they live in no longer echo the Bible, which means they have to start thinking for themselves. And no one has ever taught them how to do that. A Christian mindset always has a higher authority to go to when the questions of life get a bit hard. The priest, the bishop, Jesus, God. All higher beings that can be safely let the running of things to. As to the constitution and law: a Christian mindset recognises only one law, and that is the law of God as set down in that hugely controversial, self referential, man-written text: the Bible. So as long as a Christian can transfer laws from the Bible to state or country law, all is fine. But if laws start to conflict with the law of God, the Christian mindset has to adjust the way all those other-thinkers had to adjust for all those centuries.

So if prop 8 is upheld - which seems unlikely - but if it is it is proof that Church and State are still not separated as they should be in a multi-cultural society. Proof that modern California, like the rest of the U.S. is still a state where the law for every human being living in that state, of whatever religion, race or sexual orientation, is subordinate to a 1500 year old law book recognised by a powerful sub-section of the populace that forces the bitter pill called Bible down everyone's throat using state law as sugar coating.

Friday, December 3, 2010

And again science fiction writers led the way

"Life as we know it is universally based on some combination of carbon compounds, but what if life exists based on another element? For instance, silicon," Spock says in an episode of the original series of Star Trek (series one, episode 25 "The Devil in the Dark"). Spock was not far wrong. Scientists have discovered a life form that can substitute phosphorus, one of the building blocks of life on earth, with arsenic. The research was funded by NASA and it changes the definition of life. Both on earth and elsewhere in the universe. It means life in the universe is no longer dependent on carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur. These six building blocks are, or should I say were, the basic elements used to build cells in all known life forms on earth. Now a microbe has been discovered that builds parts of itself out of arsenic. Arsenic is a toxic element to most living organisms. Not to GFAJ-1, a strain of the Gammaproteobacteria. In a lab it was fed on arsenic instead of phosphorus and not only did it survive but it thrived. It incorporated arsenic as part of its biochemistry and happily lived ever after.

"The idea of alternative biochemistries for life is common in science fiction," Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute said. As a writer of many a science fiction story I can not help but feel a slight sensation of vindication. So many discoveries and developments have been predicted by science fiction writers. Yet, still we are often regarded as the dirt under the boot of literature. That will not change with this discovery I think but at least it shows science fiction is a thinking author's game. The imagination we use to create our stories is often based upon that which could be true. That is the root of the popularity of science fiction: no matter how outrageous the idea may seem, somewhere, some day, it might become reality. Apart from the apparent excitement of the story there is an inherent anticipation in science fiction that makes us think ahead about what may be.

The definition of life just changed. This means that life as we don't know it may exist elsewhere in the universe. It means all research done into the chemical make up of planets has to be re-evaluated. Some planets that were deemed not to contain atmospheres conducive to life may on second thoughts be teeming with little green creatures. Creatures that are chuckling at our narrow minds for thinking that life could only be defined by the narrow bounds we put upon it. Only six elements to build with? Pfah! Science has just received yet another lesson in the amount of 'thinking outside the box' nature is capable of. Once again Mother Nature showed us that to define and categorise may be a human hobby, it has nothing to do with her. I bet that Mother Nature loves science fiction stories.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

WikiLeaks: the empowered find out what it's like when you're being watched

Cartoon by Brendan Weekers,
On 21 January 2009, US president Obama signed a directive to his department heads saying: "Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known." Not yet two years later he criticises WikiLeaks for publishing US diplomatic cables and his press officer calls it "a criminal act".

WikiLeaks shook the US diplomatic world. Over 250,000 cables from more than 250 US embassies around the world are now in the process of being published. And they reveal some pretty embarrassing stuff about US diplomats and government officials. Of course there is much legal sable rattling and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has an international arrest warrant made out in his name for the alleged rape of two women in Sweden. An allegation he denies, admitting having had unprotected sex with two women but in both cases of the consented variety.

Be that as it may: there is a lot of information out on the street that many high ranking officials would have preferred to keep behind closed doors. Again! These last few years there are many cases of high ranking officials getting a bit of an airing. The UK paper The Daily Telegraph exposed some pretty creative use of the rules for claiming expenses by members of the UK parliament in 2009. It led to resignations, disciplinary actions, a few criminal charges and reform proposals for the way UK parliament works. In short: it exposed a faulty system, shook things up a bit and supposedly it changed the way things work.

Leaks like this do force governments that purport to stand for freedom and democracy to be rather careful in actually acting the way they profess to act. The modern information highway makes back room shenanigans a lot harder to keep in the back room. Whether you agree with WikiLeaks facilitating the publishing of sensitive information or not, the fact remains: diplomats and those in power need to realise that we humble citizens are watching them just as much as they are watching us. I can not deny that there is a certain satisfaction in that. It seems that the era of governing bodies that rely on the ignorance of the populace and the confidentiality of its elite is gone. In that respect Obama had a point, because standing on the side of those that withhold information means standing on the side of those that are inevitably found out. Pity he did not remember his own directive in the WikiLeaks case.