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What collapsing empire looks like by Glenn Greenwald: – The title speaks for itself. A list of bad news from all across the US – power blackouts, roads in disrepair, no streetlights, no schools, no libraries – reads like Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, only that the fall is yet to come here.

Special Operations’ Robocopter Spotted in Belize by Olivia Koski: – Super quiet rotors, synthetic-aperture radar capable of following slow moving people through dense foliage, and ability to fly autonomously through a programmed route. This article complements nicely the one above.

Open Source Tools Turn WikiLeaks Into Illustrated Afghan Meltdown by Noah Shachtman: – Meticulous graphical representation of the WikiLeaks Afghan log. The Hazara provinces in the center of the country, and the shia provinces next to the Iranian border seem strangely quiet.

Google Agonizes on Privacy as Ad World Vaults Ahead by Jessica E. Vascellaro: – A fascinating look at the inside of the Google machine. They seem to have reached a crossroad of their own making – they either start using the Aladdin’s cave of data they have gathered already, or they keep it at arm’s length and lay the foundations of their own demise. Key statement: ‘In short, Google is trying to establish itself as the clearinghouse for as many ad transactions as possible, even when those deals don’t actually involve consumer data that Google provides or sees.’

Towards a Taxonomy of Social Networking Data

Bruce Schneier has posted over at his blog the following draft of a social networking data taxonomy:

  • Service data is the data you give to a social networking site in order to use it. Such data might include your legal name, your age, and your credit-card number.
  • Disclosed data is what you post on your own pages: blog entries, photographs, messages, comments, and so on.
  • Entrusted data is what you post on other people’s pages. It’s basically the same stuff as disclosed data, but the difference is that you don’t have control over the data once you post it — another user does.
  • Incidental data is what other people post about you: a paragraph about you that someone else writes, a picture of you that someone else takes and posts. Again, it’s basically the same stuff as disclosed data, but the difference is that you don’t have control over it, and you didn’t create it in the first place.
  • Behavioral data is data the site collects about your habits by recording what you do and who you do it with. It might include games you play, topics you write about, news articles you access (and what that says about your political leanings), and so on.
  • Derived data is data about you that is derived from all the other data. For example, if 80 percent of your friends self-identify as gay, you’re likely gay yourself.

Why is this important? Because in order to develop ways to control the data we distribute in the cloud we need to first classify precisely the different types of data and their relational position within our digital footprint and the surrounding ecology. Disclosed data is of different value to Behavioral or Derived data, and most people will likely value their individual content such as pictures and posts much more than the aggregated patterns sucked out of their footprint by a social network site’s algorithms. Much to think about here.

The death of the middle class

22 statistics from the Business Insider illustrating the complete obliteration of the middle class in the US. Sobering data, considering that all countries pursuing US economic/monetary/taxation policies are in line for the same medicine. In essence this is a massive, unprecedented in its scale, hollowing up of individual wealth.

1. 83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.
2. 61 percent of Americans “always or usually” live paycheck to paycheck, which was up from 49 percent in 2008 and 43 percent in 2007.
3. 66% of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans.
4. 36 percent of Americans say that they don’t contribute anything to retirement savings.
5. 43 percent of Americans have less than $10,000 saved up for retirement.
6. 24% of American workers say that they have postponed their planned retirement age in the past year.
7. Over 1.4 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009, which represented a 32 percent increase over 2008.
8. Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.
9. For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together.
10. In 1950, the ratio of the average executive’s paycheck to the average worker’s paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 to 500 to one.
11. As of 2007, the bottom 80 percent of American households held about 7% of the liquid financial assets.
12. The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.
13. Average Wall Street bonuses for 2009 were up 17 percent when compared with 2008.
14. In the United States, the average federal worker now earns 60% MORE than the average worker in the private sector.
15. The top 1% of U.S. households own nearly twice as much of America’s corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago.
16. In America today, the average time needed to find a job has risen to a record 35.2 weeks.
17. More than 40% of Americans who actually are employed are now working in service jobs, which are often very low paying.
18. For the first time in U.S. history, more than 40 million Americans are on food stamps, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that number will go up to 43 million Americans in 2011.
19. This is what American workers now must compete against: in China a garment worker makes approximately 86 cents an hour and in Cambodia a garment worker makes approximately 22 cents an hour.
20. Despite the financial crisis, the number of millionaires in the United States rose a whopping 16 percent to 7.8 million in 2009.
21. Approximately 21 percent of all children in the United States are living below the poverty line in 2010 – the highest rate in 20 years.
22. The top 10% of Americans now earn around 50% of the national income.

Back to reality

The World Cup is over, and so is semester 1 marking. But what a World Cup it was! Spain won what was rightfully theirs, Holland betrayed everything they stood for, Germany were fantastic, Maradona entertaining, Chile a pleasure to watch – all in all the best Cup I have seen so far (watched all since 1986). Back to reality. Unfortunately though, semester two is about to start soon while the next World Cup is in four years .

Who owns you (and your genes)?

This is a trailer for an upcoming documentary on gene patenting everyone should watch.

‘Over the last 20 years, the United States Patent and Trademark Office has been issuing patents to universities and private companies on raw human genes. One company or university is given a legal monopoly over a molecule that is inside every human being and many other animals. This documentary explores the legal, ethical, and clinical ramifications of human gene patenting.’

The principal author is Dr David Koepsell who takes a libertarian approach against the notion of intellectual property. Below is a video of his argument against IP from an ethical perspective.

De Revolutionibus

I am currently reading Paolo Rossi’s The Birth of Modern Science [available here]. The chapter on Copernicus discusses his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium from 1543, which is today seen as the revolutionary work that established the heliocentric system and forever removed the earth from the center of the universe. Rossi however demonstrates how un-revolutionary Copernicus’ work in fact was, not only in terms of style and format – which were based entirely on Ptolemy’s Almagest from 1400 years earlier, but also in terms of argumentation. Virtually all of Copernicus’s arguments existed in one form or another before him, and some of them were in fact Ptolemy’s – most important of all being the argument on the uniform and regular circular motion of heavenly bodies. Fascinatingly, Copernicus argued that his work is important because it explains Ptolemean astronomy better than its author did – and the concept of circular motion across heavenly spheres was crucial for that. Apparently Johannes Kepler commented that Copernicus had interpreted Ptolemy rather than nature when he wrote his treatise (deducing from authority was a very Medieval approach to science, and the fact that the greatest scientific achievement of the Renaissance was achieved in that way is a damning comment on the notion of the Renaissance as a negation of scholasticism).

Copernicus never went as far as Giordano Bruno and suggest an infinite universe, populated by bodies in irregular motion. Rather, the revolutionary aspect of Copernicus’s work was in using the very same facts as everyone else, to propose a previously unsought direction disguised as an improvement on the dogma. It’s hard to get more unintentionally subversive than that. From the perspective of scientific advancement, the fascinating observation here is that a revolutionary jump was achieved thanks to a proposal asking many more questions than it could answer, rather than delivering a coherent theory to substitute the previous one. For example, Copernicus’s position on the earth’s rotation led directly to the need to explain gravity (now that the earth was not the center of a spherical universe), which in turn led to Newton.

This realization is interesting, because it questions, as so many other examples, the image of science as a monolithic coherent discipline engaged in an ever-forward progress. The move, if there is any move at all, is never forward, but more sideways-backwards-sideways until a new way to question the obvious emerges somewhere on the periphery.

Of course, it never hurts to ruffle a few feathers in the process – apparently Martin Luther fumed against ‘that fool astronomer who claims that the earth moves’.

Cloud computing and secret gardens

Charlie Stross has a great piece on his site commenting Apple’s strategy with the iPad and Steve Jobs’s vicious antipathy towards any cross-platform apps not originating from Apple. Plenty of material to discuss there, but for me the interesting part is [1] the notion that cloud computing is going to displace the PC in a controlled walled-garden way. By walled-garden I mean a total-control platform like iTunes – or anything else from that nightmarish company for that matter. I suspect that Stross is right, at least when it comes to Apple – their strategy after all is easy to deduce, but I just don’t see how walled-garden platform is going to dominate the cloud-space when you consider the relentless pressure for interoperability applied by a constantly emerging market. One could argue that Microsoft’s success with the PC platform has been solely due to their complete openness to hardware and third-party soft. Google seem to go down a similar path and if anything it is their already developing cloud platform that would probably dominate the early decade of cloud computing. Stross sums it up nicely:

‘Because you won’t have a “computer” in the current sense of the word. You’ll just be surrounded by a swarm of devices that give you access to your data whenever and however you need it.’

Apple’s and their ilk ‘success’ would be to maintain the cult by porting to a cloud platform, but the sheer necessity of total interoperability related to broad market penetration will prevent them from dominating the cloud. Finally, the comparison between Apple and BMW/Mercedes ‘high-end’ cars doesn’t work for me – I see Jobs’s cult as a Saab.

The horror, the horror

Haven’t been able to post for a while due to plenty of boring work – the worst combination. The flaneur spirit crumbles when faced with repetitive and intellectually unchallenging tasks. However, meanwhile in the real world the Greece fiasco turned into farce, and The Economist captured that just brilliantly in their May 1 issue, with Angela Merkel appearing as a natural in the Colonel Kurtz role on the cover below.

While the Greeks were burning banks, and keeping in line with the Apocalyptic theme, the Euro almost collapsed with the beginning of this week:

May the 6th was an interesting day in that context, because while the euro was heading for the Acropolis gold broke above 1200:

And, what a curious coincidence, something even stranger happened on that same day:


The financial markets had a 20 minute period of complete collapse, which the media immediately explained as a human error (haha). Other, less imbecile explanations are to be found here and here. I find it fascinating how in a highly leveraged complex system a relatively small event (sorry Greece) can cause tremendous and unpredictable repercussions which apart from forming a somewhat black swan, cause system-wide readjustments. This again comes to show that [1] in a complex networked environment the notion of periphery is meaningless, [2] connectivity acts as a magnifying glass for network events, [3] the longer structural instabilities are ignored/covered up, the bigger the eventual ripple-effects of the collapse.

Interesting weeks ahead.

The battle for the future of publishing

With the iPad openly poised to attack the Kindle in the e-books business, the clash is not only between two major players, but between two astonishingly diverse philosophies. Apple is all about total control, Amazon is all about the long tail. More than that, Apple is all about inserting itself in and enlarging the margin between its customers and their desires – with the omnipresent ‘i’ in front of your pod, pad, computer, mouse, earphones, keyboard, screen, operating system, etc. You shall desire only the iThing. The paradigm for Apple is the top-down guru-led religious cult. Amazon on the other hand is about extending the channel of distribution as far as the customer’s most insignificant desires – they have built that into their core company DNA. You read as a kid a long-forgotten pirate book by Sabatini and suddenly feel the urge to re-read it? Yes, it’s out of print, but not only are we going sell you that book, we can offer you these 5 other books which people like you recently bought. The paradigm here is the Damascus souk. You want a jade necklace? I don’t have them but my cousin’s brother in law knows someone who has, and I will sell it to you for a discount, together with this rose-wood box (you need to keep them somewhere).

So, back to the iPad and Kindle, a recent article in the New Yorker by Ken Auletta describes nicely the situation the publishing business will have to face in the near future. E-books are the future – judging by the massive sales Amazon is doing through the Kindle – but are publishers part of this future? Apple wants to lock in customers and publishers into the cult – no doubt practicing iReading. Publishers would still get their cut, which sure beats not getting anything. Amazon wants to eliminate the publishers altogether and deal directly with authors and readers. One obvious result will be that the barrier to author publishing will fall drastically.

Needless to say, publishers are not too warm for the Amazon future. The best summation of the issue – publisher control over authors, content, and readers – comes from Tim O’Reilly: “They think their customer is the bookstore,” he says. “Publishers never built the infrastructure to respond to customers.”