Category Archives: internet

Did fake news on social media sway the election?

No U.S. election has ever been so highly swayed by news and ‘fake news’ filtered through online social media. The New York Times documented the many instances of hoaxes, fake news and misinformation on Election Day — arising from social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as printed fliers and inaccurate election guides sent to voters. Media companies have been slow to rise to this challenge.

I predicted this Echo Chamber Effect long ago, in my novel Earth (1989): “The problem wasn’t getting access to information. It was to stave off drowning in it. People bought personalized filter programs to skim a few droplets from that sea and keep the rest out. For some, subjective reality became the selected entertainments and special -interest zines passed through by those tailored shells.”

An analysis by Buzzfeed news found that viral fake news stories outperformed real news, resulting in more engagement of readers on Facebook than election news from nineteen major news sites combined. Merrimack Professor Melissa Zimdars has compiled a list of fake or misleading news sites that warrant caution. Some are merely click-bait; some unreliable or biased; a few may even be satire. The toxic Infowars by the ever-angry Alex Jones is an obvious offender.

John Pavley, Sr. Vice President at Viacom, takes this thought farther in his posting: Trolls Are USA, talking about how these new media are causing social breakdowns. moreover, this lobotomization is familiar, from history.

fake-news-electionRemember, the first effect of the printing press was to exacerbate intolerance… till printed books later empowered people to fight against it. Or ponder the way 1930s radio first wrought fanaticism and horror before it fostered empathy. Likewise, Pavley talks about how monsters are using the new media more effectively, before they can increase our reasoning ability and empathy:

“The broadcast technologies of the pre-social media world coerced us into consensus. We had to share them because they were mass media, one-to-many communications where the line between audience and broadcaster was clear and seldom crossed. Then came the public internet and the World Wide Web of decentralized distribution. Then came super computers in our pockets with fully equipped media studios in our hands. Then came user generated content, blogging and tweeting such that there were as many authors as there were audience members.

“Here the troll was born…. Every time you share a link to a news article you didn’t read (which is something like 75% of the time), every time you like a post without critically thinking about it (which is almost always), and every time you rant in anger or in anxiety in your social media of choice, you are the troll.”

trump-facebookMax Read argues in New York Magazine that our ‘echo chamber’ mentality, to gather in likeminded swarms online, may have been a crucial factor this year. Polemically fervid-uniform ’nuremberg rallies”… and there are (yes) some on the left, too.

“All throughout the election, these fake stories, sometimes papered over with flimsy “parody site” disclosures somewhere in small type, circulated throughout Facebook: The Pope endorses Trump. Hillary Clinton bought $137 million in illegal arms. The Clintons bought a $200 million house in the Maldives. Many got hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of shares, likes, and comments; enough people clicked through to the posts to generate significant profits for their creators. The valiant efforts of Snopes and other debunking organizations were insufficient; Facebook’s labyrinthine sharing and privacy settings mean that fact-checks get lost in the shuffle.”

Yes to much of that. Fretful over how social media are being blamed for the Echo Chamber Effect, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a response to accusations that “fake news” on Facebook influenced the outcome of the U.S. election, and helped Donald Trump to win. On NPR, Aarti Shahani points out a fundamental discrepancy: “He (Zuckerberg) and his team have made a very complex set of contradictory rules — a bias toward restricted speech for regular users, and toward free speech for “news” (real or fake).”

Faced with increasing criticism, both Facebook and Google have announced changes in their oversight of fake news sites. Google said that it would prohibit fake news sites from using its online advertising service. Similarly Facebook recently updated its policy about placing ads on sites that display misleading content. In a The New York Times article, Jim Rutenberg writes, “The cure for fake journalism is an overwhelming dose of good journalism.” And of course, you get what you pay for.

For modern journalism is being undermined by one flaw in today’s internet. By the net’s astonishing over-reliance on advertising to pay the bills. By sucking away the revenue source of old-fashioned, fact-centered investigative news media, this business model has harmed us all. In a series on Evonomics, I’ve made out a case for a micropayment system to effectively fund online content: Advertising Cannot Maintain the Internet and the follow-up: Beyond Advertising: Will Micropayments Sustain the New Internet?

We live in a tsunami of information. The problem is to avoid drowning in it. As citizens, we need to hone our skeptical skills to better sort truth from dross. And we need reliable methods to ensure accountability and trustworthiness for our news sources.


Filed under internet, society

A Threat to the Internet as We Know It

A United Nations summit has adopted confidential recommendations proposed by China that will help network providers target BitTorrent uploaders, detect trading of copyrighted MP3 files, and, critics say, accelerate Internet censorship in repressive nations. Approval by the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union came despite objections from Germany, which warned the organization must “not standardize any technical means that would increase the exercise of control over telecommunications content, could be used to empower any censorship of content, or could impede the free flow of information and ideas.”

Internet5_610x426Internet activists are warning that this month’s meeting of the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations body charged with overseeing global communications, may have significant and potentially disastrous consequences for everyday Internet users. Some of the proposals for the closed door (though leaky) meeting could allow governments more power to clamp down on Internet access or tax international traffic, either of which are anathema to the idea of a free, open and international Internet. Other proposals would move some responsibility for Internet governance to the United Nations.  Things could get scary. Rule changes are supposed to pass by consensus, but majorities matter and can you imagine the internet run by majority rule in the UN?  Not by the world’s people, but by the elite rulers of a majority of bordered nations?

To be plain, I consider one of the watershed moments of human history to be a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when powerful men in the United States of America chose a course of action that, in retrospect, seems completely uncharacteristic of powerful men… letting go of power.  I know some of those — for example Mike Nelson, now with Bloomberg Government — who served on staff of the committee under then Senator Al Gore, drafting what became the greatest act of deregulation in history: essentially handing an expensively developed new invention and technology, the Internet, to the world.  Saying: “Here you all go. Unfettered and with only the slenderest of remaining tethers to the government that made it. Now make of it what you will.”

Internet_map_1024And oh, what we’ve made of it! You, me, us… a billion other “usses” around the world. Mind you, there are many ways that I think the design can and must be improvede.g. in order to enhance the effectiveness of argument.  Still the Internet has become a spectacular thing — the nexus of our rising human intelligence. What could have been a system wrought for the purposes of control (and there were plans afoot to do exactly that) was instead unleashed to become the chaotic and problematic but utterly beautiful thing that empowered private individuals across the globe.  Gore and Nelson and the other visionaries (assisted in the House  by then-Congressmen Newt Gingrich and George Brown, in bipartisan-futurist consensus) proved to have been right. And, by the way, elsewhere I discuss how — in the struggle between underlying planetary memes – this was also the savvy thing to do.

net-delusionYet, it seems that now we’re at a turning point. The world’s powers, especially  kleptocratic elites in developing nations where middle class expectations are rising fast enough to threaten pinnacle styles of power, have seen what the Internet can do to all illusions of fierce, top-down control, fostering one “spring” after another.  Responding to reflexes inherited from 10,000 years of oligarchy they seize excuses to clamp down and protect national “sovereignty.”

I am reminded of how the film and music and software industries, dismayed by the ease with which people could copy magnetic media, sought desperately for ways to regain control.  As you will see (in my next posting) I am not completely without sympathy for copyright holders! But those industries went beyond just chasing down the worst thieves, or fostering a switch away from magnetic media. They forced hardware makers to deliberately make our DVD players and computers cranky, fussy, often unusable, even when we weren’t copying a darned thing!  Capitalism failed and consumers were robbed of choice, leaving us with products that were in many ways worse than before.

And yes, that is what will happen to the Internet. Not just a betrayal of freedom and creativity, but a loss of so many aspects that we now rely upon as cool, as useful and flexible. As our inherent right.

InformationQuoteNor is the threat only from one direction.  As Mike Nelson just commented: “while everyone is fixated on the UN meeting in Dubai, nations are taking independent actions that could have chilling effects.  It is not just the Great Firewall of China and Iran setting up its own easy-to-censor Iranian intranet.  It includes Australian efforts to block certain types of content, the French three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, Korea’s effort to prohibit anonymity online, and Russia’s new Internet law.” Worth noting, as an aside; some of these endeavors are being propelled not by brutal dictatorships, but by political correctness on the left. The all-too human impulse for control is ecumenical.

Few know the story of the way the Internet was set free… as, by a miracle, it was indeed freed, for a while. (In my latest novel we ponder: might this have been the fluke opening the way for us – and possibly only us – to take to the stars?)

forgivenBut no generation can be forgiven for relying excessively on the miracles wrought by the previous one. It is our job to keep the Enlightenment filled with light… by crafting miracles of our own.

Read more at  the Internet Society Web site about the UN conference that is deliberating on these issues, as we speak. Urge the U.S. and its allies to – ironically – exert enough control to keep the Internet uncontrolled. And develop a taste for that thing.  Irony.

200px-Consent_of_the_Networked_book_cover* Next time, a related matter. Is intellectual property (patents and copyrights) evil?

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Filed under internet, science

People Who Don’t “Get” Transparency or Positive-Sum Games

A recent research paper resurrects the idea of “security by obscurity.” A notion I’ve been fighting for decades. (e.g. in The Transparent Society). The basic idea is that you will better thrive by hiding information from your foes/competitors/rivals, even if this accelerates an arms race of obscurity and spying, creating a secular trend towards ever-reduced transparency.

Now, I want to talk about a special case in which my objection – still strong in principle – is softened by pragmatic arguments. In Gaming Security through Obscurity, Dusko Pavlovic contends that you can improve system security by making it hard to find out how the system works. This concept is familiar to computer programmers:  On I, Programmer, Alex Armstrong explains, “Your code can be disassembled and decompiled and in many cases, a well written program is much easier to reverse engineer. The solution generally adopted is not to write a bad program but to use “obfuscation” as a final step. That is, take a good clear program and perform a range of syntactic transformations on it to make it a mess that is so much more difficult to read and therefore to reverse engineer.”

In cryptography, Kerckhoff’s Principle says that a system should be secure even if everything is known about it, formulated by Claude Shannon as “The enemy knows the system.”  This stands in contrast to  security by obscurity. (Thanks to xkcd for the cartoon!) The recent paper by Dusko Pavlovic suggests that security is a game of incomplete information and the more you can do to keep your opponent in the dark, the better.

Now there’s a lot of misleading discussion about this, so, if you are expecting “Mr. Transparency” be all up in arms over this, you are mistaken.  What is at issue here is fundamentally the question of the ZERO SUM GAME.

(First, look up the concept of zero-sum and positive sum or win-win games.  It is probably the most vital idea you could possibly own in your head and being able to tell these things apart should be a pass-fail requirement for citizenship.)

Most human beings used to live pretty much zero-sum existences. If you wanted to get ahead in the world, you needed to win points by causing your enemy to lose. This applied when it came to mate-seeking, food-seeking, heck at almost any level. Tribes and societies formed in order to eke a small surplus that might go to positive-sum activities like irrigation and libraries, but the pyramid-shaped, inheritance-based oligarchies that ruled them made sure there were winners above and losers below. And when it came to human inventiveness, clever craft workers knew — if you discover a better way to do something, keep it secret or you’ll lose every advantage. Why do you think the Baghdad battery, the Antikythera Device, and the wondrous steam engines of Heron all vanished, to be forgotten and lost to progress?

The Enlightenment’s core discovery was the positive-sum game… ways that democracy, markets and science can “float all boats,” so that even those who aren’t top-winners can still see things get better, overall, year after year — leading to the diamond-shaped social structure we discussed in an earlier post (last week), with a vibrant and creative middle class outnumbering the poor.

This dream did not come true by emphasizing cooperation alone, though cooperation is an ingredient.  Just as important is competition, nature’s great locus of innovation and the driver of evolution. But it has to be regulated and carefully tuned. If competition results in a new oligarchy, you get right back to the pyramid again, with topmost cheaters restoring zero-sum thinking, and everybody loses.  Look at 6000 years of history, fer gosh sakes.

ownOne of the most ingenious “regulations” — supported by Adam Smith and Ben Franklin etc, — was the notion of intellectual property or IP.  Patents and copyrights were never intended to mean “I own that idea!”  No, intellectual property was born entirely as a pragmatic tweak, offering creative people a subsidy in order to draw them into openly sharing their discoveries… so that others might use and improve them and we get the virtuous cycle of positive-sum improvements, ever-accelerating knowledge, skill and wealth.

Let there be no mistake. That is one of many ways that regulated competition delivers on the promise of markets and Smithian capitalism vastly and demonstrably far better than anything that ever resembled laissez faire or Randian cannibalism festivals.

UnlikelinessPositiveSumSocietyWhich brings us full circle to Pavlovic’s paper and the storm of simple-minded misinterpretations that are going around.  As you’d expect, my initial reaction was “bullshit!” In The Transparent Society I show mountains of evidence that we’re all better off in an increasingly open world. All of our positive-sum Enlightenment “arenas” — Democracy, Markets, Science etc — are healthy precisely in proportion to the degree that all participants know what’s going on so they can make well-informed decisions and choose better products.

Even when it comes to security, we should all be aware of how the dream of Dwight Eisenhower finally came true, after Sputnik, when spy satellites flew around the globe taking pictures… and it did not trigger a third world war.  Rather, Ike’s “Open Skies” helped to prevent war, to calm the arms race, to save us all.

transpYet, I willingly accept the validity of Pavlovic’s paper, in the limited context that he chooses. True, a positive sum game is nearly always better than a zero sum… or a sick negative sum game. And true security will only really happen for us all when the world is so awash in light that thieves and oppressors generally get caught and deterrence reigns. Transparency isn’t a naive, utopian dream. It is empowerment of all, so that reciprocal accountability keeps the cycles virtuous. It is the Enlightenment’s core.

But Pavlovic is describing a specialized case.  A situation in which things are already decidedly zero sum. In which your company knows that its competitors cheat. They steal IP and our Enlightenment civilization is all too often failing to do anything about it. As America and other western nations are failing miserably to protect western IP… the goose that lays the world’s golden eggs.

Reciprocity has broken down and with IP no longer protected, innovators must fall back on the old ways. Concealment. Trade secrets. Squirreling away your tricks so the other guy won’t get to copy them.

Overall, that is the world we’re heading back toward, for a number of reasons.  Because certain countries and companies are rampant intellectual property thieves. Because Western leaders won’t act to stop it. Because some western mystics and idiotic “legal scholars” actually believe that IP is based on principles of palpable ownership, and thus secrecy is somehow equivalent to patent declaration, instead of its diametric opposite!

And because life is still life. Even in the context of a positive-sum civilization, you and your company may find yourselves in a zero or negative sum situation, needing to protect — with “obscurity” — the code tricks that you feel you have a right to benefit from.

Let there be no doubt, the prescription is a nasty and ugly one. Deliberately flood your own code with so much spurious junk that a competitor will be rendered clueless and unable to reverse engineer it? This may be an effective short term tactic, but it will also result in — well — junk-filled code!  Harder for YOU to engineer and repair. Or to benefit from crowd-sourced improvements. Sluggish and inherently inefficient.

ConsiderCopyrightThis is a different matter than slipping in Tattler Code…  segments that reveal if a competitor stole or copied from you. Even segments that go online and tattle when the code is run!  These are clever, legal, and involve transparency of a sort! A searinglight of accountability that seems a lot like an immune system, at work.

I could go on. But swamped, I’ll leave it there. Except to add this:

Fight for a civilization that becomes more filled with light, wherein competition isn’t cut-throat, but simply the way that people like you and me and Steve Jobs get the best out of ourselves! I push transparency as the most-frequently applicable medicine. But even more important is to stay calm, and understand what we should defend.

And defend it.


Remember – I’ll be holding an open house meet-up in New York City on Monday, October 17, at around 8:30pm at O’Reilly’s, 21 W 35th St. (upstairs: byo-drinks.) An informal gathering of folks who love the future, sci fi or just lots of talk! (If you really like all those things, then check out the Singularity Summit in NYC. I’m speaking on October 16.

I’ll also be the Guest of Contraflow, the New Orleans science fiction convention:November 4-6.  Join us if you’re in the area!

Also, see my updated profile and links collected on xeeme.


Filed under internet

The Steve Jobs Experiment: Outcomes Report

First some announcements: I’ll be holding an open house meet-up in New York City on Monday, October 17, around 8:30 pm at O’Reilly’s, 21 W 35th St. (upstairs: byo-drinks).  An informal gathering of folks who love the future, sci fi or just lots of talk! (If you really like all those things, then check out the Singularity Summit; I’m speaking on October 16.

I’ll also be Author Guest of Contraflow, the New Orleans science fiction convention on November 4-6.

The Steve Jobs Experiment: Outcomes Report

Steve Jobs had a knack for seeing the adult in a child, the grownup product that an infant idea could grow up and become. Looking at the toy computers that hobbyists soldered in their 1970s garages, he envisioned people like you and me wanting vastly more capable versions on our desks.  Looking back, you’d think it was obvious… which is pretty much the whole point about Steve Jobs’s genius.

For example, I wrote my first novel with a typewriter and edited using a pair of scissors. I cut-and-paste with lots of actual tape and glue. When I saw what an Apple II could accomplish, I bought one with a serial number in five digits and I’ve used its Apple successors ever since. They simply made life better.

The Xerox Corporation was a great American success story, but they never made this mental leap to thinking about people as customers — thereupon ignoring the market for home-copiers. They also snubbed their own innovators in Palo Alto, who wanted to turn the computer screen into a landscape, using a “mouse” to simply point at what you wanted. Executives at Xerox viewed this as a toy. Steve Jobs took one look at those early concepts and thought: “that’s how our ancestors’ brains worked on the savannah and it’s how to turn every human being into a computer-user.”

Even people who prefer Windows should still thank Steve for saving these inventions. He gave them to us all.

Early Macintosh computers offered a little program called Hypercard. It came with a few simple demo games, meant to illustrate the notion of click-linking from page to page. This was one of Steve’s worst marketing mistakes. He thought the concept of hypertext was so obvious, the world would see those little demos and run with it! But the same derisive sneers dismissed it as a “toy”… till Tim Berners-Lee invented the hypertext-based World Wide Web and it all became retroactively obvious.

Steve-Jobs-by-Walter-Isaacson-1By then, alas, Jobs wasn’t in much of a position to insist, having been cast into the wilderness by his own company.

So he built Pixar… giving us TOY STORY and other delights.  Nearly all of Steve’s financial wealth came from Pixar, not Apple. He sold all his Apple stock in the early 1990s. Kind of like Nicola Tesla refusing stock in alternating current. If he had kept that stock… or milked Apple later on, for huge compensation packages… Jobs could have been in the top tier of world’s richest men, instead of a mere single digit billionaire.

Instead, his passion was to make all of us richer, in the sense of the true positive sum game, when capitalism works. When millions of lives get better because we got insanely good products that were worth many times what we paid for them and that helped us be more productive in our own ways.  Alas, if only all of capitalism worked that way, as it’s supposed to.

Jobs never seemed as blatantly philanthropic as some — we’ll see how that turns out. And heaven forbid that most families or nations should be run in the imperial manner that, in some great companies like Apple, can get big things done, pursuing the virtue of exquisite product design above all else.

But those are minor cavils. What we ultimately see, in this bona fide American genius, is a light showing us the path out of America’s troubles. Do what we’re good at.  Innovate! Be thrilled by science and the infant technologies that may grow mighty tomorrow. Nurture the inner-tinkerer that all the world sees in us, and has ever since the nation’s beginning. Defend intellectual property! But stimulate others so much that nobody resents it. Make money not by financial parasitism but delivering better goods and services. (Duh?)

Help us all to both compete and cooperate with each other better than ever before.


Filed under internet, media

Transparency Wars Continue

RADICAL-TRANSPARENCYThe Silicon Valley Metronews features my article “World Cyberwar And the Inevitability of Radical Transparency.”  The topic is both ongoing and ever-new. I discuss how WikiLeaks ignited the first international cyber war — and how pro-business laws enacted to promote the growth of Silicon Valley’s digital media and technology companies inadvertently nurtured transformation activists shaking up and toppling governments around the world.

With this fresh look at the cyber wars. I zero especially on several main examples… e.g the surprising ways that Julian Assange helped U.S. foreign policy far more than he harmed it… plus the ongoing battle between police and citizens armed with cameras… and much more.

Never before have so many people been empowered with practical tools of transparency. Beyond access to instantly searchable information from around the world, nearly all of us now carry in our pockets a device that can take still photographs and video, then transmit the images anywhere. Will the growing power of elites to peer down at us—surveillance—ultimately be trumped by a rapidly augmenting ability of citizens to look back at those in power—or “sousveillance”?

=== One-sided Transparency ===

H.P. and Cisco Systems Inc. will help China build a massive surveillance network in the city of Chongqing — aimed at crime prevention. The technological part of it is impressive, as it will “cover a half-million intersections, neighborhoods and parks over nearly 400 square miles, an area more than 25% larger than New York City.” This extensive surveillance system may potentially implement as many as 500,000 cameras, far more even than the 8,000 to 10,000 surveillance cameras estimated to exist in cities like New York. Yet — note that few of those New York cameras report to a centralized system.

The anti-crime benefits of such systems might be achievable without tyranny — if citizens were equally empowered to look back at the mighty, via “sousveillance.” But such reciprocality is not likely in the near Chinese future. Human rights activists worry that such extensive surveillance will inevitably be used for other purposes — to target political protests.

Are companies responsible for how their products are used? In a recent Wall Street Journal poll, over half responded that U.S. companies should be allowed to sell high-tech surveillance tech to China. Meanwhile, H.P. executive Todd Bradley dodged the issue, commenting that “It’s not my job to really understand thewhat they’re going to use it for.”

Meanwhile, in New York City, there are 238 license plate readers. Many of these are mobile devices, mounted on the back of patrol cars. Others are set up at fixed posts at bridges, tunnels and highways across the city. These license plate readers have helped in the tracking down of major crimes suspects; they have provided also clues in homicide cases and other serious crimes. But they have been used in lesser offenses, such as identifying and locating stolen cars. But there are concerns. The police have established an extensive database tracking citizens’ driving patterns. How long is this data maintained and who can access the information?

Meanwhile, Cracked gives us six legit ways cops can screw us over… including the fact Asset Forfeiture is factored into their budget. Or in other words, if cops weren’t allowed to seize our stuff and sell it, even without proof of a crime, they’d suffer budget shortfalls.

====Looking toward the Far Future====

NASA’s Hundred Year Starship and the Yucca Mountain nuclear depository are two examples of “deep time” thinking — casting our eyes over the next horizon, anticipating the needs of our descendants. While top priority must go to freedom, progress, full brains for all kids and saving the planet — some ambitious, forward-looking innovation and commitment to our grandchildren must be on the agenda.

=====More News====

Japanese scientists announced that massive deposits of the 17 elements used to produce hybrid cars, laptops, smartphones and other high-tech devices can be extracted from nodules on the floor of the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. Nodules were first touted as setting off a sub-sea boom in sci fi stories way back in the 1950s.  I certainly spoke of this in more detail… in EARTH (1989). But will it be economic to retrieve these resources?

For real? Israel will be using new technology to get oil from oil shale in the Shfela Basin. There’s an estimated 250 billion barrels vs the Saudi’s 260 billion barrels. This article is clearly biased and somewhat polemically exaggerated  – and conveniently ignores Rupert Murdoch’s deep bed-buddyness with certain pretro princes.  Still, if it is even half true….

The Educational Value of Creative Disobedience: Read this article in Scientific American by Andrea Kuszewski about teaching children how to solve problems creatively, instead of flooding them with memorized information.  It really is worth your time.

A lovely portrayal of the scaling of the universe: ranging from moons and planets, to galaxies and clusters: Play this at full-screen. Enjoy the beauty and majesty of it all.

Are the Japanese making human clones? Actually, just putting your face on a robot!

Thor-Meets-Captain-AmericaFinally, I’ve placed several of my novellas on Kindle: Thor Meets Captain America, The Loom of Thessaly, Tank Farm Dynamo, and Stones of Significance.


Filed under future, internet, media, politics, technology

Milestones Leading up to the Good Singularity

The-singularityThe Technological Singularity – a quasi mythical apotheosis that some foresee in our near, or very-near, future. A transition when our skill, knowledge and immense computing power will increase exponentially — to enable true Artificial Intelligence and humans are transformed into… well… godlike beings.  Can we even begin to imagine what life would look like after this?

An excellent article by Joel Falconer, on The Next Web, cites futurist Ray Kurzweil’s predictions of the Singularity, along with my warning about iffy far-range forecasting: “How can models created within an earlier, cruder system, properly simulate & predict the behavior of a later, vastly more complex system?” 

singularityIf you want an even broader perspective, try my noted introduction: “Singularities and Nightmares: Extremes of Optimism and Pessimism about the Human Future.” For there are certainly risks along the way — one being renunciation, people rejecting the notion of progress via science and technology.

How about portrayals in fiction? I mean, other than clichés about mega-AI gone berserk, trying to flatten us? Now, from a writer’s perspective, the Singularity presents a problem. One can write stories leading up to the Singularity, about problems like rebellious AI, or about heroic techies paving the way to bright horizons. But how do you write a tale set AFTER the singularity has happened – the good version – and we’ve all become gods? Heh. Never dare me! That’s the topic of my novella, Stones of Significance.
Ah, but not all techies think the Singularity will be cool.  One chilling scenario: serving our new machine Overlords: Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak,  speculates that humans may become pets for our new robot overlords: “We’re already creating the superior beings, I think we lost the battle to the machines long ago. We’re going to become the pets, the dogs of the house.”

== Singularity related miscellany! ==

KurzweilSingularityCoverCreepy… but probably helpful… new teaching tool! Do you want to play the violin, but can’t be bothered to learn how? Then strap on this electric finger stimulator called PossessedHand that makes your fingers move with no input from your own brain.  Developed by scientists at Tokyo University in conjunction with Sony, hand consists of a pair of wrist bands that deliver mild electrical stimuli directly to the muscles that control your fingers, something normally done by your own brain. 
Or do Cyborgs already walk among us? “Cyborg is your grandma with a hearing aid, her replacement hip, and anyone who runs around with one of those Bluetooth in-ear headsets,” says Kosta Grammatis, an enginner with the EyeBorg Project. 

Author Michael Choroset, in the World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines and the Internet, envisions a seamless interface of humans with machines in the near future. Wearable computers, implanted chips, neural interfaces and prosthetic limbs will be common occurrences. But will this lead to a world wide mind — a type of collective consciousness?
And how do we distinguish Mind vs. Machine? In The Atlantic, Brian Christian describes his experience participating in the annual Turing Test, given each year by the AI community, which confers the Loebner Prize on the winner. A panel of judges poses questions to unseen answerers – one computer, one human, and attempts to discern which is which, in essence looking for the Most Human Computer. Christian, however, won the Most Human Human award.

Ray Kurzweil discusses the significance of IBM’s Watson computer  — and how this relates to the Turing Test.

Hive Mind: Mimicking the collective behavior of ants and bees is one approach to modeling artificial intelligence. Groups of ants are good at solving problems, i.e. finding the shortest route to a food source. Computer algorithms based upon this type of swarm intelligence have proved useful, particularly in solving logistics problems. 

Finally, how would we begin to define a universal intelligence  — and how to apply it to humans, animals, machines or even extraterrestrials we may encounter?  

== How to Manage a Flood of Information ==

In the last decade, a tsunami of data and information has been created by twenty-first century science, which has become generating huge databases: the human genome, astronomical sky surveys, environmental monitoring of earth’s ecosystems, the Large Hadron Collider, to name a few. James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, discusses how we can avoid drowning in this sea of data, and begin to make sense of the world.
Kevin Kelly discusses his book: What Technology Wants “We are moving from being people of the book….to people of the screen.” These screens will track your eye movements on the screen, noting where you focus your attention, and adapting to you. Our books will soon be looking back at us. 

All books will be linked together, with hyper-links of the sort I envisioned in my novel, Earth. Reading will be more of a shared, communal activity. The shift will continue toward accessing rather than owning information, as we live ever more in a flux of real-time streaming data.

Google looks to your previous queries (and the clicks that follow) and refines its search results accordingly…

…Such selectivity may eventually trap us inside our own “information cocoons,” as the legal scholar Cass Sunstein put it in his 2001 book Republic.com2.0. He posited that this could be one of the Internet’s most pernicious effects on the public sphere. The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser’s important new inquiry into the dangers of excessive personalization, advances a similar argument. But while Sunstein worried that citizens would deliberately use technology to over-customize what they read, Pariser, the board president of the political advocacy group, worries that technology companies are already silently doing this for us. As a result, he writes, “personalization filters serve up a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.”…”

Very entertaining and informative… and the last five minutes are scarier n’ shit! Jesse Schell’s mind-blowing talk on the future of games (from DICE 2010)… describing how game design invades the real world… is just astounding. Especially the creepy/inspiring worrisome last five minutes.  Someone turn this into a sci fi story!  (Actually, some eerily parallel things were already in my new novel, EXISTENCE. You’ll see! In 2012.)

Enough to keep you busy a while?  Hey, I am finally finishing a great Big Brin Book… a novel more sprawling and ambitious than EARTH … entitles EXISTENCE.  Back to work.

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Shibboleths that define — and separate us

* On his “Crooked Timbers” blog, John Quiggin offers a discussion of political shibboleths.  A shibboleth is “an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe,” a definition which seems almost perfectly made for the “birther” claim that President Obama was born in Kenya, is a Muslim and wants to impose Sharia law in the United States… a general belief set now held (according to recent polls) by a substantial fraction of likely Republican voters.

Quiggin’s essay is seriously thoughtful and filled with important insights. It is being widely circulated and deserves your attention, even (especially) if you are a conservative American who feels bewildered by the direction that your movement has lately veered. (Hint: what’s gone sour has nothing to do with any of the old-style, libertarian values espoused by Barry Goldwater. It is at right-angles to the so-called “left-right axis.”)

Other issues, creationism and abortion, as well as climate change, are defining separators of our day. These ‘badge beliefs” are viewpoints that connect one to fellow-believers. Why these particular issues? “A badge belief is easy to adopt because it does not commit the holder to any particular effort or action….In other words, it should be a narrowly-held belief that is easy to display, but does not require the holder to do anything,” writes Jon Jenny on The Secular Web.

* Was it really only back in 1994 that major media figures were still saying “what’s an inter-net?” See this amazing Today Show clip.  And remember that five years earlier, in 1989, I portrayed what could only be web pages in my novel EARTH. (There was, as yet, no web!)

* Is the news all negative? In the category of: I have been telling you folks about this for years…

“A widely used index of civic scientific literacy, sufficient understanding of basic scientific ideas to be able to read the Tuesday Science section of The New York Times,  showed that 28% of American adults scored high enough to understand scientific ideas at that level.   In 1988, well before Science 2.0 and a time when only a few print magazines and expensive journals monopolized science, just 10 percent of U.S. adults had sufficient understanding of basic scientific ideas. … In the wave of criticisms about America, one thing gets lost that explains American adult knowledge – America is the only major country that requires almost all its college and university students to complete a full year of science. So the scientific literacy of U.S. adults is higher than the general adult populations of other developed nations.”

* And in the category of “I’ll believe it when I see it…”  Apparently “hardcore Isaac Asimov purists who are already despondent at the idea of Roland Emmerich  on the Foundation Trilogy. It’s all in the headline, really: Emmerich’s adaptation of Asimov’s story won’t just be predictably big and explode-y; it will be 3D and made with motion-capture goodness.” 

* TED, an organization best known for its annual gathering of top thought leaders, launched a social discussion platform on its website today. The move is part of a larger effort to spread, as TED’s motto goes, “ideas worth spreading” beyond the 1,300-attendee, five-day conference.  —  Now, if only I had time to play this “quora” thing. 


Some folks are thinking about how to anchor-in the freedom enhancing effects of the internet, by fostering inherently cheap/free/distributed systems that cannot be centrally controlled.  (My own software invention may prove extremely useful in that effort. So has the general approach to openness pushed in The Transparent Society.)  Anyway, to get a good picture of how others view the need, read: “Decentralizing the Internet So Big Brother Can’t Find You,” in which reporter Jim Dwyer describes Professor Eben Moglen’s  efforts to develop a “freedom box.”
”If revolutions for freedom rest on the shoulders of Facebook, Mr. Moglen said, the revolutionaries will have to count on individuals who have huge stakes in keeping the powerful happy. “It is not hard, when everybody is just in one big database controlled by Mr. Zuckerberg, to decapitate a revolution by sending an order to Mr. Zuckerberg that he cannot afford to refuse,” Mr. Moglen said.

“By contrast, with tens of thousands of individual encrypted servers, there would be no one place where a repressive government could find out who was publishing or reading “subversive” material. In response to Mr. Moglen’s call for help, a group of developers working in a free operating system called Debian have started to organize Freedom Box software. Four students from New York University who heard a talk by Mr. Moglen last year have been building a decentralized social network called Diaspora.”  A key set of ingredients. Not only for ensuring freedom, but allowing even the slim possibility of human survival.


Anyone watch the jeopardy “Watson” event?  Fascinating! One more milestone down. A commentary I found illuminating is by Kent Pitman.

I believe the one unfair aspect of the show was the input-output discrepancy. Input is a very large part of the difficult task faced by human contestants and hence, Watson’s should have been speech recognition. As Kent Pitman points out:  “IBM actually sells speech recognition software. This should have been a chance to showcase it.” Also, I believe Watson should hand to send signals to a “hand” to push the regular buzzer, same as the humans.

(BTW… I have a particular use for speech recognition.  I attend a lot of conferences at which attendees have their laptops open in front of them, fiddling away while the speaker speaks onstage. (Funny about that; it would be rude if they read a newspaper!)  Thing is, I hope to offer a service at one conference where the people with laptops could have a window open while a speech recognition program scrolls the speaker’s words as they are being spoken onstage.  This would let people take notes by selecting and copying passages as they scroll by. Yes, I know it would have many errors! The notes aren’t expected to be accurate or perfect, just a way to save talking points for later consideration. Does anyone have a notion how to proceed with something like this?)


Almost as if the author had read my classic essay on J.R.R. Tolkien (and perhaps he had) there has appeared a new English translation of a Russian novel that retells Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” from the perspective of the “bad guys.” 

From the Salon review: “That’s the philosophy behind “The Last Ringbearer,” a novel set during and after the end of the War of the Ring (the climactic battle at the end of “The Lord of the Rings”) and told from the point of view of the losers. The novel was written by Kirill Yeskov, a Russian paleontologist, and published to acclaim in his homeland in 1999. Translations of the book have also appeared in other European nations, but fear of the vigilant and litigious Tolkien estate has heretofore prevented its publication in English.”

Now let me be clear that I do not insist that Tolkien’s epic be viewed as “history written by the lying winners.”  I have enjoyed it both ways. First taking JRRT’s word for it that the villains were utterly deliberately vile, with self aware desire for ruination… and again the other way, with a critical awareness that the “good” elves had a lot to answer for — a position that was actually held (if you read his deeper works) by Tolkien himself!

(I have always consider JRRT to be a retro-nostalgist romantic, and hence and enemy of the progressive enlightenment. But he was an honest and smart retro-nostalgist, who came by it with sound – or at least understandable – grievances against modern technological society, acquired on the killing fields of Flanders. Tolkien is miles better than other future-hating romantics, like George Lucas, who spit on a modern, scientific society that has been very, very good to them.)

In my essay I pondered if the “villains” in Lord of the Rings might have been rebels against a reactionary order — one that insisted – for example – that all the glass boxes capable of showing faraway lands (which we call TVs and computer monitors) be held only by top elites (he called them “palantirs”) and that racism, classism and sexism be rigidly enforced. To me, it was just a brief thought experiment. Apparently (though I have not yet read it), Yeskov’s work goes headlong down this path!

“In Yeskov’s retelling, the wizard Gandalf is a war-monger intent on crushing the scientific and technological initiative of Mordor and its southern allies because science “destroys the harmony of the world and dries up the souls of men!” He’s in cahoots with the elves, who aim to become “masters of the world,” and turn Middle-earth into a “bad copy” of their magical homeland across the sea. Barad-dur, also known as the Dark Tower and Sauron’s citadel, is, by contrast, described as “that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle-earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic.”  (From Laura Miller‘s Salon Magazine review. Read this before downloading!)

People who find such re-imaginings interesting should not miss Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky.  Now this one I have read and can totally vouch for! It is fascinating and vastly better-written than the original books.

Is this the future of fiction?  Online publishing has many advantages… and disadvantages. Evasion of copyright restrictions? Unleashed creativity? Freedom to perform variations on a theme?  Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson have their MONGOLIAD project and I have some thoughts in mind.  Maybe. If time allows.


And now, by popular demand… The abstract is now online!
Evolution of Cometary Nuclei as Influenced by a Dust Component
by G David Brin
Doctoral Dissertation for the University of California, San Diego March 1981

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Information Overload….and the Dark Side of Hollywood Movies


“We live naked on the internet…in a brave new world where our data lives forever,” writes John Hendel in The Atlantic. Americans have come to accept this, but Europeans are trying to maintain a legal “right to be forgotten” — even a “right to delete” one’s data trail. The bizarre assumption that anything “erased” will stay erased is nonsense. The mighty will never let themselves be blinded. A so-called ‘right to delete’ only guarantees the elite castes a permanent advantage.

Can you turn off the internet for a day without suffering Information Withdrawal Syndome? Its effects are similar to those seen in drug addicts.

A map of the Twitterverse: an evolving ecosystem by Brian Solis.

Facebook topped Google as the most visited website of the year, accounting for 8.9% of all visits in the U.S. for 2010. Google accounted for 7.2% of visits, and Youtube 3.3%

Wired’s Clive Thompson bucks current wisdom, suggesting that Tweets and Texts actually serve as catalysts for subsequent in-depth analysis: “We talk a lot, then we dive deep.” Oh, I am sure that’s true for some. Still….

How do we define wealth? More and more, in the modern world, reputation is wealth: The Whuffie Bank (a term coined by author Cory Doctorow) aims to build an economy based, not on productivity, but on reputation — which could be redeemed for goods (real and virtual) and services.

Quora: a site dedicated to questions and answers created and answered by users My page is:

A graphic comparison of Facebook (500 million users) vs. Twitter (106 million users)

Room for mistakes? There are applications where a margin of error is acceptable. The payoff for allowing imprecise calculations is that computer chips could operate thousands of times faster.

Time for a return to cursive? Less legible fonts promote better recall of information.

Is there an afterlife in cyberspace? What happens to one’s digital identity after death? Increasingly, the record of our life is online: photos, videos, musical creations, posts, tweets, opinions, manuscripts, avatars — an unsorted, chaotic mass of digital expression. This will become profound legal implications in the near-future. Businesses are attempting digital afterlife management.


Welcome to the Information Age Each day we are bombarded with the equivalent of 174 newspapers a day. There was a time when most of the news you needed landed on your doorstep each day.

The Coming Data Deluge: Petabytes, exabytes and more. Our vocabulary expands to keep up with data-intensive science, such as mapping the brain’s neurons, and sensors scattered across the Earth, tracking climate, toxins and ocean currents. The Large Hadron Collider will generate about 15 petabytes of data per year.

How much data can the world store and compute? The fraction of the data stored digitally has increased from 0.8% in 1986 to 94% in 2007. And even higher today…

“Of course, just because there’s more information out there doesn’t mean we are consuming it,” says Roger Bohn of UCSD in Science News.


My latest Youtube video: A look at sci-fi movies. Who was the bad guy in the movie, E.T. The Extraterrestrial? How about District Nine? Sometimes, the villains are obvious, as in Independence Day or Lord of the Rings – in other flicks, the real bad guy may not be who you think it is.

Inspired by news of uprisings overseas? How about 12 Revolutionary Uprisings from Sci-fi movies, TV shows and books: From Star Wars to District 9, I, Robot to V for Vendetta.

Five scientific reasons the Dark Side Will Always Win, by Paul & Trevor Pickett on

5. The color black is scientifically proven to intimidate people
4. Thinking evil thoughts & clenching your fist makes you stronger
3. Arrogance inspires confidence
2. Doom & gloom makes you smarter
1. Speaking with a deep voice gives you power

To which I would add Five Reasons the Good side will win:
5. Evil guys get better clothes, but messed-up faces. Good is always pretty.
Pretty always equals good.
4. Red glowing eyes really sting after a while.
3. Your underlings (whom you’ve Force-strangled) will sabotage the targeting sites in your special TIE fighter.
2. Wimpy American audiences can’t stand unhappy endings
1. Really easy to convert new converts from dark side. They’re so dumb, they’ll believe unlikely stories about being someone’s father.


Evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar claimed the size of the average human’s social network is 148 – correlating the size of the average human neocortex vs that of a primate & the size of species’ social groups. Dunbar also said that in order to maintain a cohesive group, 42% of the group’s time would be devoted to social grooming. Does nit-picking count? Clearly I’m going to have to unfriend a lot of ‘friends’ on Facebook…

Nit-picking? Studies of lice DNA shows humans first wore clothes 170,000 years ago

Time declared that 2045 is The Year Man Becomes Immortal with an article on the Singularity and Ray Kurzweil’s vision for “humanity’s immortal future.” Hm… well… maybe that’s the year a baby will be born who will be the first immortal. I am a really far-out thinker. But these singularity guys are just too UTTERLY similar to the wild-eyed transcendentalists who were around in every era.


What if the world’s population was reshuffled so that citizens of the most populous country (China) would spread out across the country with the largest land area (Russia). Members of the world’s 2nd largest population (India) would move to Canada. Third in population, Americans would stay in the United States! Fourth in population, Indonesians would move to China. Why should Australians get so much empty land? Now they would move to Spain, and poor, overcrowded Pakistanis would take over Australia. It’s like a game of Risk gone wild.

63 million video game consoles in U.S. homes consume as much energy in a year as the city of San Diego. Can’t we hook those thumbs up to a generator? Seriously, part of the problem is games left idling. Gamers lose their progress when they shut down. My son is always saying, I can’t stop now Dad….

A wonderful resource: everything you ever wanted to know about primate skeletons (developed by the University of Texas at Austin). You can also look at specific bones: i.e. compare the scapula of a gibbon to that of an orangutan.

Oriental hornets harvest solar radiation for energy. Chitin structures in abdomen trap light, bouncing it between layers. A pigment, xanthopterin transforms light into electrical energy.

Lots of interesting stuff! Stay tuned…

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As The Naughty Oughts end – where goest Media and the Internet?

I believe I was the first, back in 1999, to forecast that the first decade of the 21st Century – the “Naughty Oughts” – would feature plummeting confidence and a Y2K curse far worse than some niggling little computer glitch. Would this be what author Robert Heinlein called “The Crazy Years?” More important… will the next decade see more sanity, maturity, ambition and -above all – courage?

Many people have written asking me what “Mr. Transparency” thinks of the whole WikiLeaks affair. I’ve created a long, detailed analysis (querying magazines to publish it.)

Meanwhile, let’s fill in the holiday doldrums with some interestingthoughts and snippets abou the future of media and the Internet.

Gen-Xers, TRON, and “teen paradise.”

The new TRON movie reminds me of something – that GenXers had the best teen years.  Sure, us boomers had better music. And no on

e ever matched our self-righteous sanctimony! (e.g. today’s ruinous “culture war” in which boasting rights go to the Left for being “less insane.” What an honor.)

But 80s kids had teen-hangout paradise! The video arcade. Every neighborhood’s Las Vegas Casino. Noise, flash, excitement; all the teens were there. No generation had anything like it before or since. Pity.
(Or might the arcade revive? I know how to do it!)

= Whither Goest Media and The Internet? =

Netflix is gobbling internet bandwidth. During peak usage (8-10 pm), Netflix movie downloads took up 20% of America’s broadband traffic. That’s an amazing statistic, especially since it is due to usage by only 2% of Netflix subscribers. And demand is only going to grow, as more companies strive to compete. Netflix downloads already outpace Youtube and BitTorrent peer to peer sharing (which consumes 8% of bandwidth).

America’s internet connection speed lags behind that of other countries. The U.S. ranks behind Romania; our rate is less than a third that of South Korea. Consumers must demand better — or we’ll be on the slow road to the future…

From the Wall Street Journal: “In the Grip of the New Monopolists” Tim Wu writes: “The Internet has long been held up as a model for what the free market is supposed to look like–competition in its purest form. So why does it look increasingly like a Monopoly board? Most of the major sectors today are controlled by one dominant company or an oligopoly. Google owns search; Facebook, social networking; eBay rules auctions; Apple dominates online content delivery; Amazon, retail; and so on.”   One must wonder… why did Rupert let the WSJ publish this article.

Internet hijackings are a continuing threat, either intentional or accidental. In April 15% of internet traffic was diverted through China — when a Chinese internet provider updated its routing information. A similar incident occurred with Pakistan.

How is the government monitoring and using social media: View the PDF paper: U.S. Department of Homeland Security “Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative”

Wall Street Journal’series “What They Know” documents interrnet tracking technology by marketers on commonly visited sites.

Obama will appoint watchdog for online privacy.

An interesting history of the linguistic background of  “Word Wide Web” and all its descendants.

Infomous, a visual way to navigate online. Hover over a word to visit original sources. Press X to remove content.

I just realized, Marshal McLuhan died in 1980.  Jeepers! Just before the spread of Usenet and the recognizable early glimmers of Internet-based two-way media.  Was that irony, or what?

= More on (moron?) Media =

Has our global village exposed us to risk of systemic failure? In our ever-more complex, networked and interconnected world, the actions or failure of a few can have widespread consequences, potentially spiraling out of control. This mode is called systemic risk — the downfall of an entire system, rather than a few individuals. Global integration has resulted in markets, trade, transportation and communication systems which are intricately interlinked — this can, in theory, lead either to robustness or fragility. Some say that the financial crisis was the first sign of such widespread failure. The rapid transmission of a pandemic, or biological warfare loom as people live in densely populated areas and travel globally. “If past decades are any guide, new problems will be thrown at old and outdated institutions,” writes Ian Golden.

The English language has doubled in size in the last century, adding 8,500 new words a year.

Google estimates that they have scanned 10% of the books ever published. Now you too can mine this extensive database: Google has introduced the Books Ngram Viewer – which allows you to track the frequency of words & phrases in scanned literature through time. Try it out: The word apocalypse peaks about 1996; star wars peaks about 1990, then trails off. A research team at Harvard is calling this field “culturomics,” suggesting that this tool enables culture to be quantitatively decoded like a genome.

The Suicide of Print Journalism, by David Doody Has the internet killed print journalism? It’s accepted wisdom that the consumer has simply chosen free news over paid subscriptions. An alternate viewpoint is that print newspapers had become relatively staid and unchanging. An appropriate parallel might be with American automobile companies — who rolled out cosmetic design changes to great fanfare each year, with little true innovation — until Japanese companies jumped into the competition, offering a fresh alternative. The internet has succeeded in offering a broad range of up-to-the-minute news tailored to individual interests. The question remains — what are people willing to pay?

The Internet of  hype: Economist Magazine on the “Internet of Things” or the internet of everything.

Jason Silva in Big Think: Connecting all the dots. “Within our current social media architecture, we are all ‘agents of pattern-recognition’: by “posting”, “tweeting” or “liking” things, we end up working for one another, organizing the sea of data info meaningful streams and enriching our minds like never before.”


The patent system is currently unable to keep up with the constant innovation of technology: “Though patents were created to encourage innovation…the patent system actually stifles it. In the fast-moving software market, where online applications are constantly changing, investors say software patents are often targets for lawsuits rather than protection from them.”

Space-time cloak could conceal events: new meta-materials with the ability to bend light around them could be used to hide things in space and time.

The new field of location analytics: businesses are buying GPS data from mobile phones in order to track consumers’ location and movements. How much time did a customer spend in a store; where did they go when they left; what path did they take to their next location? Companies previously relied upon surveys; now they will be better able to profile their customers to precisely market their product. This is the future.

Ray Kurzweil on technology: “Our intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential.” He continues, “My cell phone’s probably updating itself as we speak, but I’m walking around with 1,000-year-old software that was for a different era.”
Video clips of six Innovative Robot Hands — ready to lend us a hand.
Concerns about cell phones and radiation.

See a glimpse of the future (?) in the augmented reality “iLens” (I doubt this is a real Apple Inc promo.) In fact, old hat to Vernor Vinge and me.

… best of the season to all of you… and here’s to a return to ambitious, mature, calm-but-assertive confidence, in a bold civilization that is worthy of the name…

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