Science commons

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Just a quick post before going to sleep (it’s 2:45 in the morning and I have class at 10:00 ugh).

This is one of the coolest things I’ve seen on the net today. 120 second introduction to what science commons is.

I can think of lot of things that can explain why the idea of ‘opensourced’ science or science commons must be one of the coolest and most revolutionary ideas of the generation, but my brain is turning into a jello right now, so detailed post will have to wait.

Just one thing though. Library of Alexandria. 

Just think about it. Why was library of Alexandria so important? Was it because it housed a lot of books? No, it isn’t. If anyone believes that the significance of the library of Alexandria was about stacks of books he/she lacks the understanding of the origin of modern civilization. Books or any individual units of information pop into existence all the time. Libraries are meaningful because they centralize and organize those individual information clusters. Centralize and organize, meaning giving accessibility to. 

Greatest threat to any knowledge is not in its misuse or incomprehension. It is in obscurity (as Cory Doctorow pointed out as he released his works under CC license). Libraries made human civilization by providing accessibility to knowledge that would have been forgotten otherwise by centralizing them in one geographic location and organizing them according to a system. From that location new ideas were born since people no longer had to spend their lifetime re-learning what someone else figured out half a century ago.

Science in general, lacks accessibility. Which is very weird when you think about it. Science is about accurate description of this universe, this universe every single member of the Homo sapiens sapiens share. Yet science lacks accessibility, both to the nonspecialists and specialists alike. It’s like having limited access to one of your eyes or limbs or organs.

Accessibility is catalyzing and empowering. When economic systems become accessible we get flourishing finances and trades system, with all the subsequent benefits of arts and culture. When human opinions become accessible we get one of the biggest human community ever, with subsequent benefits of policies and philanthropy. The first time academies and libraries became accessible we began a march toward a new civilization. What will we be able to accomplish once the sciences are truly open and known to every willing member of the humanity? 

Enhancing Mutitasking to Enhance Our Minds

I find myself writing less and less these days. With the amount of workload I had been subjected to lately, most of my writings tend to be in physical format. They are written on notebooks with ink and lead, and usually accompanied by crude drawings to illustrate ideas that words alone can’t describe effectively (my horrible verbals skills take part of the blame). Or else they are so closely related to my current work/thesis that I can’t help but to feel a bit reluctant to share them with the unknown masses of the global network, a source of endless chagrin for me since I consider myself an avid believer in the openscience/science 2.0 future. Of course, then there is the fact that I am getting increasingly worn out by the time I get home which makes it harder for me to stay up like an insomniac manic compulsive and type away musings in the night.

During my recent sojourn through the net I came across an interesting blog post in a random tweet. The post is titled “Enhancing Multitasking to Enhance Our Lives“, and it should resonate with anyone who experienced the effects of the distracting information overload that is so common to people of our generation. The author describes her experience with the occasions of information overload and proposes an interesting system to organize her information based on the ‘tabbing’ system found in most modern web browsers (she focuses on FireFox, however). It is an interesting read and I would recommend it to anyone who uses the net for reasons other than viewing random junk on youtube and facebook, i.e. serious work (not that there’s anything wrong with occasional youtubing or facebook-networking).

The problem of information overload had been around for a disturbingly long time. While the modern world wide web stands out as one of the most important achievement (emergence?) within the information history of humanity, there are recorded cases of respectable figures of society complaining of information overload in 1700’s, citing the emergence of political/philosophical ‘pamphlets’ that were so common in those times. If we still had the proper records I’m sure we would have been able to find some similar parallel in any civilization with a copy-distributable system of information not limited to written language, dating from the age of Sumerians. While the overloading capability of information in this day and age is disturbing, I’m sure we’ll be able to find a decent method of organization and concentration through all that mess just as we have done so for thousands of years… There are already quite a number of strides being made in that regard, like the integration of AI-like systems of increasing accuracy and sophistication, and smaller scale community based toolset proposals like the one made in the aforementioned blogpost (as for the web browser project for helping concentration in face of massive amount of information, I’m placing my bets on Google Chrome-based Academic research browser… I believe there are already a number of webkit based research oriented browsers on the OS X platform).

The real problem of such abundance of information might be the social implications of the breadth-first approach to the information lacking introspection and patience. The world at large is already quite a problematic place with massive disenfranchisement of certain sectors of the general human populace from the fruits of human civilization. Access to superficial information without any depth might as well work to exacerbate the discontent of the population at disadvantage… While there are plenty of legitimate reasons for people to be discontent with their situation, lack of understanding as to the true cause of their condition will commingle legitimate discontent with perceived fantasy… At that stage any well-mannered group of concerned citizens might as well turn into a group of frenzied mob, turning their anger towards certain generalized group of people/culture/circumstances as was frequently observed throughout the course of human history. Of course, I am running a sort of generalized simulation, but it is true that proliferation of knowledge without depth can be destabilizing to the society at large.

Neal Stephenson’s recent book, Anathem, also talks about the possible dangers and discomforts of the information overload. Those of you who like nine hundred pages of science fiction and philosophizing might want to pick it up. Personally I enjoyed it very much, and might put up a review sometime soon.

Rice shortage-Network demonstration

The matter of rice shortage is becoming increasingly mainstream. The warning of possible shortage and dangerous increase in price had been around for a long time, and unusual price hike of rice in major exporters like Thailand had been reported in (relatively) mainstream media about three to four months ago. In fact, major United Nations advisers and IMF personnel had been giving warnings since mid 2007 in mainstream sources. I myself remember scoffing at a particular warning given by a United Nations forecaster, warning of possible food shortage and criticizing the rapid increase in biocrop cultivation as a major player. I guess such is the evanescence of appealing to mainstream media, where the specific sources and logistical data to support novel claims are frequently invisible or simply unavailable.

The warning was in place, and the back-up system for possible shortage in each of the nations most heavily affected had been more or less in place. So why do we have a developing crisis at hand with reported casualties? The answer I believe, lies in the lack of distribution network in the world today. Of course, with the advent of the technology the world itself is ever more networked than before. As each second passes it is predicted that the network of the world will become thicker and wider, someday possibly encompassing every single member of humanity in direct and accessible way. But that is the network of information. What about the physical network, the infrastructure, the ones we use to ship the things we order through the virtual spaces of the net? The airlines, the shipping lanes, the railroads and the expressways. I have on reliable sources that the actual range and volume of physical shipping across the world had remained at similar or lower levels since the height of the age of imperialism so long ago (the specific source I can’t find at the moment, if someone knows otherwise please correct me). It is somewhat unlikely that there is an actual shortage of food (at least not to the degree that some sensationalist media would have us believe). What we have at hand is more akin to the lack of distribution network, so that the flow of resources are channeled into the most readily available physical network without regards to economical balance, or even, the need. In the type of eschewed free market system we have in place at the moment, there is virtually no incentive for tapping into parts of the world without pre-built infrastructure. And without the resources of the world available at hand, popular discontent is bound to rise, leading to further instability.

Living in New York city, I am physically and mentally insulated from most of such problems plaguing the world. Hipsters in fashionable clothings walk into fashionable restaurants and eat a plateful of vegetables, supposedly crafted from fashionable ingredients, possibly grown in fashinable dirt, as they clutch their fashinable laptops while hoping someone sees them writing down a ‘novel.’ In the subway a woman so bloated that she has to take up two sits and a half holds onto her third bucket of KFC. Is there something wrong with this picture? I do not particularly think so. Of course, the scene I’ve just described is certainly distasteful, but I do not believe people should be judged and criticized for utilizing the resources made available to them by the environment. The physical network of the world is configured in such a way that massive amount of cheap resources and resources expensive beyond their actual value exist hand-in-hand, composing the greater fabric of the market system.

We are all cogs reinforcing the current system of the world. And this system of the world, this world-wide system of ‘free-market’ seem to be suffering from some sort of bug. A free market system without proper physical distribution network for the market to take place on is fundamentally oppressive and exploitative, even without malice, even with good will of the individual members of the system. Perhaps it is possible to speculate that the fiasco experienced by certain biocrop based national economies are very similar to that experienced by planned and enclosed economies of the old communist nations. There had been a few novel attempts at readjusting the system of the world through various means, like freer access to information network from poorer places of the globe allowing development of a market system based on information and knowledge, but outcome of such works-in progress are unpredictable at the moment.

All I can say is, I think the problems like the kind we are seeing right now seem to stem from certain inadequacy of the global network itself, and will persist in different forms so long as that inadequacy continues to plague the system of the world. And the developed nations of the world are making a huge mistake in allowing such unbalance to continue, as such difference in network-system tend to cluster individual components into groups sharing similar traits, which in this case would be poverty and isolation of economic and cultural nature.

This reminds me, how about donating some rice to the UN? It won’t cost you a dime and you’ll probably have fun doing it.