How to change the world.

This is a bit of rant post on something I thought of after watching bunch of old hacker-themed movies from the Hollywood. It continues to amaze me how I can participate in all sorts of crazy things even with the summer studies and jobs I need to keep up with. I guess that’s the benefit of living in place like NYC.

I’ve been watching some old hacker movies lately.  And I just can’t believe what kind of cool things those movie hackers were able to pull off with their now decades-old computers and laptops. Computers with interfaces and hardware that exudes that retro feel even across the projector screen. I know a lot of people with brand-spanking-new computers with state of the art hardwares and what they usually do, or can do with those machines aren’t as cool as the stuff on the movies being pulled off with vastly inferior hardware and network access. Of course, like everything in life it would be insane to compare the real with the imagined, and Hollywood movies have a bad tendency to exaggerate and blow things out of proportion (I’m just waiting for that next dumb movie with synthetic biology as a culprit, though it might not happen since Hollywood’s been barking about indecency of genetic engineering technology for decades now). Even with that in mind, I can’t help but feel that the modern computerized society is just way too different from the ones imagined by artists and technologists of the old.

Ever heard of younger Steve Jobs talking in one of his interviews? He might have been a rather nasty person but he certainly believed that ubiquitous personal computing will change the world for the better. Not one of those gradual, natural changes either. He actually believed that it’s going to accelerate the humanity itself, very much like how Kurzweil is preaching about the end of modernity with the upcoming singularity. Well, personal computing is nothing new these days. It’s actually quite stale until about a few months ago when people finally found out glut-ridden software with no apparent advantage in functionality were bad things, both in terms of user experience and economics. Ever since then they’ve been coming out with some interesting experiments like the atom chipset for netbooks (as well as netbooks themselves), and Nvidia Ion system for all sorts of stuff I can’t even begin to describe. And even with the deluge of personal computing in the world we have yet to see the kind of dramatic and intense changes we were promised so long ago. Yeah sure, the world’s slowly getting better, or changing at least. It’s all there when you take some time off and run the real numbers. It’s getting a little bit better as time goes on, and things are definitely changing like some slow-moving river. But this isn’t the future we were promised so long ago. This isn’t the future people actually wanted to create.

We have engines of information running in every household and many cellphones right now.  Engines of information meaning all sorts of machinery that can be used to create and process information content. Not just client-side consumption device where the user folks money over to some company to get little pieces of pixels or whatever, but real engines of information that’s capable of creating as well as consuming using all of the hardware capabilities. It’s like this is the Victorian Era, and everyone had steam engine built into everything they can think of. And nothing happened. No steam cars, no steam blimps, no nothing. The world’s rolling at the same pace as before and most people still think in the same narrow minded niches of their own. What’s going on here? Never had such a huge number of ‘engines’ responsible for creating an era in history been available to so many people at once. And that’s not all. Truly ubiquitous computing made available by advances in information technology is almost here, and it is very likely that it will soon spread to the poorer parts of the world and remoter parts of the globe traditionally cut off from conventional infrastructures.

But yet again, no change. No dice. Again, what’s happening here, and what’s wrong with this picture? Why aren’t we changing the world using computers at vastly accelerated rate like how we changed the world with rapid industrialization (not necessarily for the better, of course)? That’s right. Even compared to the industrialization of the old times with its relatively limited availability and utility of the steam engines we are falling behind on the pace of the change of the world. No matter what angle you take there is something wrong in our world. Something isn’t quite working right.

So I began to think during the hacker movie screening and by the time the movie finished I was faced with one possible answer to the question of how we’ll change the world using engines of information. How to take back the future from spambots, ‘social gurus’, and unlimited porn.

The answer is science. The only way to utilize the engines of information to change the world in its tangible form is science. We need to find a way to bring sciences to the masses. We need to make them do it, participate in it, and maybe even learn it, as outlandish as the notion might sound to some people out there. We need to remodel the whole thing from the ground-up, change what people automatically think of when they hear the term ‘science’. We also need the tools for the engines of information. We need some software based tools so that people can do science everywhere there is a computer, and do it better everywhere there is a computer and an internet connection. And we need to make it so that all of those applications/services can run on a netbook spec’d computer. That’s right. Unless you’re doing serious 3D modeling or serious number-crunching you should be able to do scientific stuff on a netbook. Operating systems and applications that need 2GB of ram to display a cool visual effect of scrolling text based documents are the blight of the world. One day we will look back at those practices and gasp in horror at how far they held the world back from the future.

As for actual scientific applications, that’s where I have problems. I know there are already a plethora of services and applications out there catering to openness and science integrated with the web. Openwetware and other synthetic biology related computer applications and services come to mind. Synthetic biology is a discipline fundamentally tied to usage of computer, accessibility to outside repositories and communities, and large amateur community for beta testing their biological programming languages. It makes sense that it’s one of the foremost fields of sciences that are open to the public and offers number of very compelling design packages for working with real biological systems. But we can do more. We can set up international computing support for amateur rocketry and satellite management, using low-cost platforms like the CubeSat. I saw a launching of a privately funded rocket into the Earth’s orbit through a webcam embedded into the rocket itself. I actually saw the space from the point of view of the rocket sitting in my bedroom with my laptop as it left the coils of the Earth and floated into the space with its payload. And this is nothing new. All of this is perfectly trivial, and is of such technical ease that it can be done by a private company instead of national governments. And most of the basic the peripheral management for such operations can be done on a netbook given sufficient degree of software engineering and reliable network connection. There are other scientific applications that I can rattle on and on without pause, and there are plenty of people out there much better versed in sciences who can probably come up with even cooler ideas… So why isn’t this happening? Why aren’t we doing this? Why are we forcing people to live in an imaginary jail cell where the next big thing consists of scantily clad men/women showing off their multi-million dollar homes with no aesthetic value or ingenuity whatsoever? Am I the only one who thinks the outlook of the world increasingly resembles some massive crime against humanity? It’s a crime to lock up a child in a basement and force him/her to watch crap on T.V., but when we do that to all of humanity suddenly it’s to be expected?

We have possibilities and opportunities just lying around for the next ambitious hacker-otaku to come along and take. But they will simply remain as possibilities unless people get to work with it. We need softwares and people who write softwares. We need academics willing to delve into the mysterious labyrinths of the sciences and regurgitate it in user-friendly format for the masses to consume, with enough nutrient in it that interested people can actually do something with it.

This should be a wake-up call to the tinkerers and hackers everywhere. Stop fighting over which programming language is better than others. Stop with the lethargic sarcasm and smell the coffee. Learn real science and hack it to pieces like any other system out there.

Get to work.

Change the world.

Internet intelligence

So here’s an interesting short article on the possibility of internet gaining some type of consciousness due to its network based emergence-friendly structure. The author is the famous Ben Goertzel, one of the foremost minds of the futurist/AI school. If you’ve got time you should check out his blog for other articles as well. I’ve found a number of them to be quite compelling. I’ve always been interested in artificial intelligence, though my concentration is with artificial life. In time I’ve come to view the two as the same type of system manifesting in different mediums, and I’ve come to think that intelligence is a trait that naturally comes along with the collection of characteristic called life. Intelligence is life and life is intelligence. In that sense I consider even minuscule bacteria to be intelligent, though not in a way we usually think about intelligence. The very fact that certain collection of molecular machines can work in conjunction to behave in such a way that allows it to feed, evade harm and propagate, even in evolution-aided unconscious manner means that certain system should be considered intelligent. Of course, this is merely my personal view that is not backed by evidence based professional study. This is more of a personal impression with reasonable causes, something that’s on it’s way of becoming a hypothesis but not quite there yet as the things stand. Considering that I consider our current definition of intelligence to be lacking in many ways, I will be at ire of many neurobiologists should I exclaim such opinions carelessly. And for some reason there are a lot of neurobiologists around me so I try to keep my mouth shut most of the time regarding that issue.

Ben Goertzel’s answer to whether the net can become an intelligent construct is somewhat vague, but then he probably can’t help it himself. The question itself is a bit on the vague side when you think about it, including the whole uncertainty of the definition of intelligence that I just wrote about above. He briefly mentions the pervading ethos of the neurobiologists of the recent years, that many of them believe that intelligence/consciousness is a property that will inevitably emerge from any complex system that has the right sort of internal dynamics. I do definitely agree with him on that point, since when you think about it it’s about the only scientifically feasible explanation of the emergence of intelligence/consciousness without attributing some specific part of the brain to the trait of intelligence (like how Rene Descartes attributed ganglia as the sit of the soul). I also suspect that life arises in a very similar manner, and whether that pattern of internal dynamics can be an abstraction that can be applied to different types of physical systems is a major part of my current research as a fledgling science student (the one that’s helping paying my rent). Hopefully I’ll be able to come up with something in my lifetime, since I view the possibility of such a universal theoretical platform to be a big game changer in the upcoming human century, something that might as well change the world we live in along with applications of nanotechnology and modular biology.

Will internet itself become intelligent at some point? I’m sure it will. Dr. Ben Goertzel points out that the internet is way too fragmented to display a coherent vision of an artificial intelligence and instead suggests that there might be a way to construct a sort of unifying backbone using the network infrastructure of the internet itself as a sort of raw data feed/complexity provider for that central structure. It makes sense, in a way that no one really thinks about it before someone else says it first. Most complex emergent systems, when laid out using some elements of graph theory (the graph theory, we are not talking about bar graphs and such nonsense here, for those who haven’t been keeping tabs on mathematics) displays inexplicable tendency to form central clusters around certain limited number of nodes instead of distributing indefinitely. And the change usually isn’t gradual or predictable. It happens rapidly under certain critical threshold as Stuart Kauffman put it very succinctly on his book “At home in the universe.” Internet is very obviously following in that pattern. The last graphic map of the internet I’ve seen displayed certain number of nodes (websites/services) with overwhelming number of links with a lot of nodes with limited number of links. Similar pattern is also observed in the growth of neural pathways and formation of galactic clusters, and who knows what other phenomenon in this universe escaped our notice, considering that complexity science is still a new field. Now I don’t have a very clear idea of what form that central structure would have to take to make the internet truly intelligent to observable degree… I assume it would be something on par with designing CNS for the distributed system that is the internet, possibly with a hint of recursive structure via Douglas Hofstadter, but this is all just some ideas bouncing around and I have no idea what physical/informational form such a construct would take. I’d assume it is something far past the simple matter of linking a lot of links within network nodes or providing raw processing power (that would be like saying any game of go can be won with large enough number of stones, which is just dumb. This isn’t a chess, kiddo)… I should definitely give some more thought to this, the ideas on the nature of the ‘central structure’ might as well be the catalyst I’ve been looking for.

The problem that continues to bother me whenever I think of artificial intelligence is the vague definition of intelligence we seem to share. Just how can we tell what is intelligent or not? Most definition at the moment seem to be about figuring out how human-like other organisms/systems are without regards to the actual ‘intelligence’ of that organism/system. I may not be a professional but I smell a very homocentric perception whenever I read something that pertains to the nature of intelligence. If intelligence is about being able to communicate with other beings then antisocial foreigners are not intelligent. If intelligence is about being able to react to the environment so that you can find sources of food and multiply, then bacteria are intelligent. Maybe even viruses. Both of them do not have any sort of nervous system like we do with ‘higher organisms’ so it makes the problem of intelligence a bit more complex.

Internet may become intelligent someday. This is the year that the internet will have the equal or higher number of hyperlinks as there are synapses in our brains. The real question is, how will we be able to tell if it is intelligent? Are we looking for intelligent traits or are we looking for human traits?  How would we be able to tell the difference when the time comes? Maybe the first machine intelligence that blossoms on the world wide web will be trampled on by us as a mere bug in the system. After all, we do it to each other all the time.

On a little side note, the diy-bio NYC had our second meeting this Monday. We made a gel box, extracted DNA, and had a jolly good time. More on that later.

Tweeting the future

A quick post in the morning before going off to school/work. There’s nothing like a little freewrite-ish post in the morning to prepare the morning for a day of hard work ahead. I keep on meaning to do one of the more ‘serious’ posts on this blog but for some reason my fingers stop typing whenever the topic gets a little too professional in any way. When I do a spur-of-the moment writing, however, I can write and write for hours on end, on all sorts of topics from personal to somewhat more academic themes, something that’s really beginning to piss me off. I can write when I want to but I can’t write when I should be writing.

Most of you have heard of twitter by now. I’ve been on it a lot lately jotting down little notes and thoughts via SMS and sometimes even having a small conversation on it time to time. The amount of theme-specific information I can get from twitter, from topics on android development to synthetic biology, is second only to the friendfeed except that twitter has the added benefit of being mobile and more active (I can’t remember the last time someone actually used the physicist room on friendfeed. What gives?). Most of all, twitter provides a tool to create a constant thought-stream from my brain to the net that can be indexed and searched later on by myself or others. Twitter is one of those things that doesn’t sound like much on paper but turns out to be really handy once you figure out how to use it properly. I’m willing to bet that if some sort of ubiquitous connection to the net is implemented in human beings sometime in the future (like the Clatter system imagined by Warren Ellis), it will be in form of twitter rather than IM protocols.

The real life examples of twitter being put into good use are too numerous to write here in its entirety. Lot of people heard about the Mumbai bombing the moment it happened from people standing in the actual ground zero, streaming messages to the net as the events came to pass. I’ve heard about the Russian/US satellite collision incident in the space faster than the local news through twitter. Now these examples are at best gonzo journalism that may or may not appeal to some people out there. How about this? It’s a PLoS article on the benefits of microblogging tool like the twitter in conference reporting. Twitter provides an access for enthusiastic public of scientific bent to gather insight into major academic events and the concise key points that might have been lost in bustle of person-to-person conference. I myself tried to do a little bit of microblogging during the synthetic biology 4.0 in Hong Kong, something I didn’t get to do much due to the difficulty I had with my laptop during the event (like trying to find a suitable power converter). My understanding was that lot of people were still very interested in the venue, both from the professional and hobbyist sector of the public. Twitter provides an efficient networking tool between fellow professionals so that they can share information and insight over the net and beyond.

All of this means nothing. The medium of twitter is new. The very nomenclature of microblogging is quite new to most of us and the bubble we are experiencing may someday die out, perhaps even with the twitter itself. However I do suspect that the very format of microblogging itself will only mature as the time goes on doing what it does best. Providing a human-to-network interface, where everyone becomes a broadcasting center with all their stream of thoughts encoded into digital information regardless of their physical location, accessible by the net as a whole. There will be set backs, and most of the content on the thought-streams will be useless. I mean, who really cares if someone in Brussels had pizza for lunch or not? We must keep in mind, however, that in any form of media any worthwhile content is a mere fraction of the total output of the said media (I think someone came up with a math for this, but can’t quite recall it in the morning rush). There are probably thousands of new books published per day. How many of them are actually worth reading? How many do you actually get to read during your lifetime? The same can be said for movies, or even, academic papers on printed journals.

People are still looking for ways to define what microblogging is and how to use it properly, in both its physical usage and integration of the results of microblogging into conventional infosphere. Like data mining for information within the thought-stream provided by people all over the place. This isn’t some random text cloud we are talking about. This is the kind of information already filtered once or more by living thinking human beings according to their interests. Google and other such information based corporations are probably eyeing the twitter-verse and other potential microblogging services as if they were goldmines.

The potential of twitter and twitter-like microblogging services as a sort of radio station of the future present is really interesting for me. The information people stream into twitter can be channeled through cellphone SMS providing ubiquitous access to information. Say you like works by Bruce Sterling and are interested in hearing more of his thoughts. You can set your twitter account so that you can receive his twitter updates via SMS, wherever you are. That’s basically a radio station isn’t it? It’s only that twitter isn’t censored or regulated by the conventional authority like it is the case with normal or pirate radio station. Twitter, it turns out, is the result of the abstraction of modern technology and infrastructure into simple little pieces that can be integrated into each other.

The question of how to best use twitter still remains a great unknown for me. I do admit that I am a moderate twitter user, doing everything from complaining about some daily event to jotting down notes or thoughts on artificial life and such when I am on the move. I even set my cellphone up so that I can receive updates from some of the more eccentric personalities across the globe on the convenience of my cellphone. What I can’t figure out at the moment is how to use all this ‘properly.’ Every time I use twitter I am surprised by its potential, and at the same time I am enveloped by certain uneasy feeling that I still do not understand twitter, and that there must be some way of using it properly. I feel as though there is some arcane method for twitter that escapes my notice every time I send or receive an SMS update on my cellphone to/from the twitter. And that empty feeling make it impossible for me to predict the future of twitter, and the future of the world with microblogging.

Microblogging is a natural evolution of blogging for people who don’t like to write much. Such statement might sound like a bad thing but it isn’t. Some people don’t want to write stories. They just want to write down ‘something’ without spending a large portion of their life doing it. Not everyone can end up writing ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ Microblogging combined with ubiquitous communications technology give people an output for something to do whenever they feel like doing something. It plays on the basic human instinct to be doing something all the time instead of lying on their backs with dead fish eyes. And the result of the medium of ubiquitous microblogging is a continuous stream of thought posted on the net that numbers in the millions and counting. All of them mine-able for information, all of them capable of being broadcast into any cellphone and any machine with internet access, instantaneously. This makes nomenclatures of web 2.0 look old and grumpy. I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of future this picture will evolve into, because I don’t understand what’s happening. I don’t think anyone has a clear picture of what’s happening at this moment.
I guess I should tweet more for the time being.

Chrome rant

First, take a look at this. Bunch of ‘monsters‘ written in the processing language. This little language from MIT is even more versatile than I first thought. I’m thinking of writing a small visualization bot of sorts later on, which might take some time since my primary medium of choice Mathematica just got bumped upto version 7. I’m harassing the school depot so I can get the latest copy without having to pay the ridiculous price tag that comes with this (albeit vital) program environment. 

These days I find myself using three web browsers at once, four if I include a little text-only script stuff (much like modified emacs) that I use exclusively to communicate with my school computer (which does all the heavy lifting these days). 

I use IE for all those pesky Korean/Japanese community sites that requires all those active x for full functionality (yes folks. For all the glitter the Asia is a backward place when it comes to CC licences and GNU philosophy) so I can keep in touch with people there. I’m currently in process of bugging them to ditch the crappy web services and migrate to twitter/tumblr/swurl/friendfeed. For some reason there’s already a sizable Japanese community on the twitter I think. Though most of them just ends up making a post or two and revert back to their original active x crap services (because all their other friends are still on the other service. Ugh).

I use firefox for all the research stuff. I have noscript which block out practically every single content on the website except for pure text unless I manually configure the site to show its content, which is a lifesaver when I have fifty tabs open and some website decides to pull in ‘bling is the thing’ flash content on my laptop. The ADP is just as essential. I usually spend most of my time in firefox without encountering a single ad, so less distraction, and less processing power/RAM wasted for something I’m not going to buy anyway. The zotero and ‘science toolbar’ courtesy of the thriving firefox plugin/extensions community makes making notes and bibliographies a sinch. I can practically fly through dozens of archives and scientific data depots on the web in course of minutes using my fully customized setup.

And then there’s the google chrome. The chrome is still in the beta stage (like most other google services really), and lacks some significant functionality like ADP and zotero integration, but I still come back to the browser time and time again. There’s something innately elegant about the basic design and layout of the chrome browser that make it a joy to use it to surf the web. And the speed isn’t half bad either (I guess all that webkit engine hypes have a good reason). I like how the bookmark bar appears and disappears at the touch of a shortcut, and I like how I can browse the web without using the mouse.  I love the maximum amount of screen estate allotted to the content of the website itself instead of browser interface, a big faux pas firefox 3.0 made with its big shiny buttons. I love how i don’t have to lose entire sessions of tabs when a single tab fails to respond. I can just shift-esc, pull up the in-browser taskmanager, and cancel or troubleshoot the problem tab. I love how the ctrl-f brings up the search bar at the top of the browser window instead of the bottom, and I like how it doesn’t take an entire line of my screen estate. it’s ergonomically sound, and just plain makes sense.

Google chrome is the browser I use when I ‘just want to go to Disney Land’, so to speak. And since the chrome is open source I can live with my conscience, unlike with IE (though I wouldn’t use it if it was open source). Google chrome is the web browser firefox 3 should have been. And things can only get better as the time goes, with the obvious amount of effort google is pouring into the chrome browser.

Augmentation

I’ve had a chance to encounter a service on the web called ‘tumblr.’ So far I like it.

Tumblr is a service that’s somewhere in between the constant microbursts of the twitter and full-scale blogging of the wordpress. Only more modern, not in sense of any aesthetic faux pas, but in sense of integration with the user, like being able to post animation/picture directly from one’s cell phone, rssing different services on the web and etc… More media centric friendfeed would also be a reasonably accurate description of the Tumblr service.

While I am somewhat tired of such deluge of ‘web 2.0’ applications that are practically everywhere these days, I do feel that the whole experience is a positive one. Some people might argue that broadcasting one’s own thoughts and lives are somehow ‘arrogant’ or something such because no one would care about their lives in the first place anyway… Well people who argue that point must not have many friends. 😛

Seriously though, I do not see services like twitter and Tumblr as a channel to reach out to people. Rather, such web applications are augmentations of modern human mind, something physical technology is hard pressed to catch up to. Augmentations of memories and visions one would encounter in the daily life, recording bit and pieces of ‘experiences’ that are separate from carefully mediated thoughts that permeate the decent portion of the web these days…

A rough continuum created to fill the vacuum left by the lack of physical technology of memories and experiences.

And when you tinker around with one of those services, you are tinkering with an augmentation service for your mind itself, albeit in crudely executed form that requires multiple intermediaries.

It is interesting how then the user’s lives get increasingly intermingled with the web, as the experience of the living stands next to the fantastic shapes and movements scrounged from the remotest corners of the infosphere.

A Note: Propagation of Learning

I’ve finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem some days ago. As is usual with all his works so far, I enjoyed it immensely. This is the kind of book that grips your attention and never let it go, the sort of reading experience that many people don’t get to enjoy very often past a certain age. Other than some technicality like how stable elements from one universe can remain stable even in another universe (and if it is because the physical laws are the same, what caused those elements to be different enough to be incompatible with life forms in another universe) that keeps on nagging at the back of my mind, I see no reason to criticize the book in any way. Of course, Neal Stephenson won’t be winning Nobel prize for writing the Anathem, but he never meant for it to be that kind of work, did he?

The premises of Anathem is obviously reflective of that of the current world we live in, notably the ubiquity and evanescence of information. The fact that most people lack learning of significant depth (which isn’t really all that much of a change from any other time in history) while becoming increasingly irreverent of the devotion to learning itself is a trait of the modern world frequently discussed in variety of media. Anathem also devotes quite a number of pages to discussion of the issue, and I hit upon a simple idea while thinking about a section on dangers of unintentional misinformation born through insubstantial learning.

In conventional process of teaching and learning, an individual opts to become a node of a degree of knowledge. The individual-node then connects with other individuals of varying degrees of learning and transmit his/her learning to those individuals in a process reminiscent of propagation of thermodynamic equilibrium. Currently the system of public knowledge-the web-is like an ever expanding vacuum. Lack of reliable sources of data and knowledge combined with abundance of random bits of knowledge that remain nonetheless incoherent and worthless in light of a greater system of thought is the symptom of such a vacuum. Maybe this symptom can be alleviated once the academic sector of the knowledge network begins to open its data to the world at large? Maybe the web itself can become a coherent learning environment through steady injection of respectable nodes of knowledge that expands along with the noise of the internet vacuum. I believe we already have the beginnings of the groundwork for such a project in the guise of openscience/science 2.0. If the openscience movement remains unhampered by the increasing haranguing of special interest groups and economic fundamentalists, we might be able to observe a true renaissance of human learning some time in the future that makes current advances in human network and information technologies pale in comparison.

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.

Wondering chrome

A little life update, as usual.

Now I am not as busy as before… Meaning that I have fewer deadlines to worry about at the moment, though there are a number of them looming on the horizon. Now that I have a bit of time I want to write a proper blog post like I did before, but the sudden relaxed lifestyle led to an unexpected flood of ideas and curiosities that I just do not know where to begin writing now. Oh well, I guess I gotta take it slow and one at a time.

Google Chrome had been generating a lot of fuss since the very moment it was released, from the interesting user interface and multi-processing/self-contained architecture to its future development as a product of the ubiquitous Google nation (especially with Android OS set to come up in a very near future, and who knows what other surprises Google has in store for us with all their employees getting 1/5 workday set aside for personal projects). Those of you who have not tried Chrome yet for some strange reason should at least give it a whirl, see how it is like.

Despite some issues with the technical execution (usually centering around accessibility issues and memory-hogging… Which should be expected of a beta product) and the draconian EULA included with the default Chrome distribution (which Google claims is a mistake on their part), I must say that I like this browser, and can not wait to get my hands on the final release. There is certain atmosphere of simplicity and elegance sewn into the very fabric of the program itself that appeals to me. It is like looking at a baby. So little now, yet with so many promising future ahead of her/him/it.

Indeed, the true appeal of Google Chrome is not what it is right now, (though it is one nifty browser as it is) but what it can become and what it can push other browsers to aspire to, using its extensive database support, opensourced architecture, and inevitable wave of third party plugins.

Now that I think about it, maybe even the whole memory-hogging issue of the beta Chrome is some part of its intended design acting up (of course, it is the multi-process architecture gone bad, but beyond that). With Snow Leopard update coming soon from Apple widely proclaiming full support/utility for the 64bit+ architecture, it makes me think if Google also has in mind some sort of 64bit utilizing browser architecture that had been designed from the ground up to take advantage of the advances in hardware/software mode.

Whether you like Chrome or not, its development in the future will certainly be worth keeping tabs on.

Wordie=Not too wordy.

A little update on the state of my life first. I have been working on something that might be awesome for the io9 madscience contest. Although I am approaching the contest through a sort of team-based brainstorming and responsibility sharing method, I have become increasingly aware of my limited understanding of the molecular biology and genomics, so there are a whole lot of things I need to brush up on before the contest deadline of August 25 midnight PST. So no blog posts about nothing for a while, folks.  I would like to take advantage of this moment to urge anyone still not aware of the awesome coolness that is the io9 madscience contest on synthetic biology to get cracking for that secret mad science idea you have been hoarding to yourself, and drag all your friends and families with you into participating.

Despite the busy lifestyle I lead between the study for all the crazy exams and the field of synthetic biology, I also manage to surf the web and fish out interesting websites… Which might suggest that I am not actually busy but I assure you that I am nearly numb from all the busy-ness that is my life. Eating fast and sleeping less does wonders for time micromanagement-on-the-go. Anyway, I came across this website, wordie during one of my excursion around the Internet. It is one of the many web 2.0 based sites we see popping up all around these days, with emphasis on entering and making lists of words, while sharing those lists and favoriting other peoples lists and words… Basically a web 2.0 community website devoted to the pursuit of lexicographical side of the world. The feeling and layout of the website reminded me of the eponymous everything2 for some odd reason… And I believe that the spirit and purpose of the website is not very far from some of the more obvious characteristics of the everything2 as well. Which is a good thing.

I was rather surprised to find out that the *words* I could enter into the website database were not necessarily limited to words in dictionaries, or words in any form, actually. One of the most commented on words at the wordie website at the moment is *shaken baby syndrome* which is quite clearly something you will not find in any dictionary that came off the printing press. There are a number of words in foreign language, like Chinese (though such are few at the moment, who knows what will happen in the future?), with the function to make diverse lists and being able to favorite words I especially like being some of the more notable, and welcomed features.

What I especially love about the wordie webpage is its design. Just white background and black letters, with the fonts I find attractive for some odd reason. I think the wordie blog Errata is especially representative of the minimalist aesthetics underlying the design of the main wordie webpage. It is simple, it gets the point across, it is easy to access using variety of Internet-enabled devices, and the service as a whole seem to integrate well with other Internet/communication services, which I admit is a work-in-progress but shows great potential nonetheless. Sometimes people underestimate what can be done with simple arrangement of black things on white spaces and certain choices of fonts.

I like what I have seen so far of the wordie. I think this is a service I see myself using frequently for a long time, whether it be entering an interesting word I found, or tagging and commenting numerous words already present in the webpage. If you have a minute or two to spare, maybe you might want to give it s try as well. Who knows, maybe it will even increase your vocabulary.

From virtual to real

I must admit, there was a time when I would play computer/video games late into the night. I was a wee-lad back then, so impressionable and curious about the whole plethora of things of this universe. And the allure of the virtual worlds to such mind was just too sweet to resist. I gave a lot of thought to my then-current condition during the phase of my life. Why would I be captivated by certain types of virtual reality? Is there something shared in common between the hundreds of different worlds constructed using a number of different mediums-writing, visual, and aural-that composes the fundamental idea of what an enjoyable world should be? Would the impression of such an ‘idea’ of the mysteriously attractive world be common to all human beings? Or only human beings of certain memories and experiences? I would spend many days just thinking about the nature of all possible virtual worlds imaginable by human mind and their possible implications while my hands played the mechanical play of controlling my representation within the display.

Deus Ex was a computer game created by the now-defunct ION storm that came out during the aforementioned impressionable period of my life. This game isn’t aesthetically pleasing by any stretch of imagination. It’s gritty, ugly, in a very superficial and unintended kind of way. It is based in imaginary near-future where nanotechnology and artificial intelligence are just coming into full gear among the financial and political turmoils of a new human age. Conspiracy theories based on some real-world conspiracy fads play an important role in the setting and the plot, and there are lot of techno-jargon thrown around in one of the numerous conversations within the game world which might add to its depth. Any way you look at it, Deus Ex is not a work of art, and it was never meant to be. Deus Ex as a game was designed to be immersive. Immersive as in realistic within the confines of the plot and available technological means to execute that plot. Whatever the Deus Ex was meant to be, it did its job and it did its job fantastically. Deus Ex took itself just serious enough to be immersive.

I played and finished Deus Ex numerous times since the day it came out. The game had the semblance of a virtual world, just enough to be a better game, not enough to be a real virtual world, which was actually a good thing. I’d figure out a number of different ways to achieve the objective of the specific stages and the game as a whole, each of those paths gradually beginning to encompass different processes that the designer of the game probably never intended in the first place-a first form of truly emergent game play on digital medium. I can still remember a number of quotes and conversations from the game by heart, not through any diligent study, but simply through repeated exposure stemming from the interest in the world itself. And to be perfectly honest, while I was aware of nanotechnology and its growing prominence before playing the game (I was a little precocious for my age), I began to truly comprehend what such technology could mean to the world and the people in the far future by seeing it applied within the virtual world built and maintained by fictional premises. It would not be far from to truth to say that my interest in ‘industries’ of biology and other fields of science (with my current ‘official’ pursuit being plasma physics, which is an entirely different field altogether) began with my introduction to this game… I place much emphasis on the term ‘industry’ because it was through the application of the idea of technology within a virtual (no matter how absurd it might be compared to the real) world that I began to grasp the requirements of science and its true impacts in the modern human civilization of rapid prototyping and mass production. Yes, I’ve come to learn that science effects the human world as a whole, just as the hand of economy reaches into the deepest pockets of the remotest corners of the globe, and such permutation of ideas and information might have a reasonable pattern of causality behind it, forming a system of sorts. All this at the first year of high school, all this because I’ve seen it applied in a limited virtual world whose goal was to entertain, perhaps mindlessly.

People talk of the web 2.0, the web based virtual reality (like the second life) all the time, perhaps without grasping what it truly means. To me, the change on the web and its technical and semantic updates are merely superficial effects of the real change that is taking place right now. The real change we are about to face at this moment, is the change to the nature of the human network. I find that I’m using the term human network more often these days. The human network had been present since the very first moment of human civilization (perhaps even before, going back to the start of the human species) and has the same mathematical and sociological properties of networks that more or less remains the same on some compartmentalized level. The changes we are seeing in the emergence of the web 2.0 ideas and virtual realities merely reflect the technological advances applied to the same ever present human network that had been in place for as long as anyone can remember. At the core of the web 2.0 is the idea of user interactivity. What happens when there is a freedom of interactivity between millions and billions of people? The medium providing the room for interactions itself begins to take on closer resemblance to the concept we call ‘the world.’ Forget reality. What is a ‘world?’ What satisfies the definition of a ‘world?’ The core of a ‘world’ as it stands happen to be a place where people can interact with the very components of the world itself and with each other. In that sense, if our reality somehow forbid certain type of interaction between us and the ‘world’, it would cease to be real.  The world as seen from information perspective, is a massive space/concept/thing for interactivity, and interaction between the ‘things’ within the world builds and evolves the form of the world itself.

The web 2.0 in that sense, is the beginning of a virtual world that builds upon human interactivity rather than superficial (though still quite important) reliance on resembling the physical characteristics of the real. And the real change being brought on by the advent of the web 2.0 thought to the general population is the enlargement of the perspectives of the real world brought on by interactions with other human nodes within the virtual world. I am not suggesting that people are somehow becoming more conscious. Just as I have demonstrated with my old experience with the computer game Deus Ex where seeing certain kind of ideas applied to a virtual world left an impression of impact of such ideas on a rapidly prototyping, global world, the population of this world is becoming increasingly aware of the true global consequences of their and others actions and thought. It is the awareness that in this highly networked world, science, industry, economics and politics all walk hand-in-hand as ‘ideas’ and its currencies, a single change in one sector of one corner of the world giving birth to certain other events on the opposite corner of the globe in entirely different field of ideas. It is the beginning of the understanding of the malleability of the human world and its thought.

I’ve started with remembering my experience with an old computer game, and came to the talks of virtual reality, the human network and the changes of the world. I hope I didn’t confuse you too much. This is what I call ‘taking a walk’, where I begin with one thought and its conclusions and apply them to different yet related thoughts to arrive at interesting ideas. In case you are wondering about the game itself, it seem that they are giving it away for free now. Go grab it and spend some time with it. It’s still fun after all these years.