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The Longest Now

Happy New Year!
Tuesday September 30th 2008, 11:07 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

May you and your kith embark upon a sweet and fortunate year, full of inspiration , cooperation , reflection , creative fertility , song , alignment , and foresight.

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Drown, crash, blog : links and noise
Tuesday September 30th 2008, 10:55 pm
Filed under: Blogroll,fly-by-wire,popular demand,Uncategorized

the bailout bill1 Drowning Street : differentiating market performance from the health of the economy.

Bringing down the House : People cared deeply about the inner workings of the House of Reps surrounding Monday’s failed bill… their website bowed under the attention.

My friend Seth (of zombie infocalypse infamy). who has been working on content and community media for our educational laptops, has just started a part-time internship with Yochai Benkler‘s new research group, and migrated his blog to this server.  Welcome, Seth!  We’re lucky to still have him at OLPC.

Infoseek: Finally, people visiting this blog are searching for some fascinating things:

– “things you never knew existed”
– “the desire to understand”
– The c’t Wikipedia comparison post (still popular even in other languages)

and my favorite,

how does a hair dryer electrocute you

Sustainability, ecology, future focus
Tuesday September 30th 2008, 6:05 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Here’s wishing an auspicious autumn to every one reading.  As the cycle of retting, drying, baling, disking, planting and growing renews itself, take a moment to consider the environment around you, and what you would like it to be like fifty years from now.

Appropedia are organizing an open sustainability camp out in California (where better?) in two weeks.  Take a look at their plans, tell your friends near SF; they need a few volunteers for the event.  And take a moment, in this post-harvest season, think about what you can do to improve the ecology around you, now and for the next few hundred years, in your neck of the world.  Appropedia also have a fantastic new logo and portals in a few languages — check out their site if you haven’t been.

Dorothea Lange
Tuesday September 30th 2008, 2:37 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Ahh, the great depression.  The Lincoln Brigade.  The Bonus March.  It’s always nice to have a reason to revisit our nation’s young history.  We don’t have so much of it that it overwhelms; one can march through the centuries in a few hours’ contemplation. Dorothea Lange documented the Depression years in beautiful, riveting light; her work is worth a look.

We aren’t heading down that road yet, but it’s worth revisiting the conditions and social norms that prevailed in the late 1920’s, to remind ourselves of what to avoid in addition to the obvious issues from our immediate past.

2008 bailout visual comparisons

Here’s a tidy visual of our proposed bailout spending, and comparisons of what else we could do with those funds.  There are arguments to be made that the bailout monies would be returned eventually — but there is no guarantee of this; it is more likely that some significant percentage would be lost.  One could likewise claim that we received major returns on investment from Apollo, the latest stimulus package, and the like.  The worst of all scenarios is one in which a bailout provides temporary but not medium-term relief, and simply shifts costs for a necessary correction to a different audience — individual citizens and our national debt.

I personally don’t much care about where costs are shifted, but think that if we don’t find a way to effectively assess the magnitude of overvaluation that has occurred, and find ways to avoid similar trust-backed delusions in the future, we risk much larger disasters.  Financial systems only hold together when one trusts the notion of currencies.  Nations only holds together when one trusts the idea of a social compact.

Palin comparison
Tuesday September 30th 2008, 2:14 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

A Sarah Palin presidency is terrifying, in that bad Disney-movie, Matt Damon-awing way, and not so unlikely — let’s say a 10% chance as of today, politics and actuarial tables considered.  A provincial new-Earth creationist as President won’t have many people sleeping well at night.  That said, her situation is largely the result of poor choices by others who should know better (and who are gambling with her future more than with their own).  LisaNova does a brilliant send-up of the situation which should put a smile on your face.

This week Palin has an uphill road to travel.  National interviews can hardly be put off any longer, though some still try.  On top of everything else, Palin faces the same big-pond effect that a small-town valedictorian and all-star finds on arriving at Rice University or Harvard or McGill.

Katie Couric has gotten the most face-time with Governor Palin, and has been courteous but firm.  For Palin under pressure, it is hard to think and speak at once; some called her first interview disastrous, speaking in tongues, as bad as could be.   The campaign regretted the interview (confusing the bailout goals, knowing only one Supreme Court case) enough that she and John returned for a second try (transcript).  Kathryn Lopez was reminded of visiting the principal’s office with her father.  More clips to come this week from CBS.

Former fans of hers think she should excuse herself from her nomination.  A few think putting Palin in this role so early in her career is an act of cruelty on the part of McCain, sacrificing a future star of the party.  Others complain of ‘overpreparation’ and want Palin to stop parroting someone else’s lines and just be herself [I cannot disagree –Ed.]  on occasion going so far as to take up cries of “Free Sarah”.


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Free textbooks, shared knowledge, summers of content
Monday September 29th 2008, 10:20 am
Filed under: chain-gang,Uncategorized

Textbookrevolution is being revamped, and has launched a new site deisgn and navigation.  Check out, for instance, the list of free books by subject.

And if you want to discuss open issues surrounding the future of free textbooks, come join us on IRC in #okfn on today at 1300 EST / 1000 PST .

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Workplace wikis and how Wiki works
Monday September 29th 2008, 5:23 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Now that How Wikipedia Works has come out, it is becoming easier to promote wikis at work as a model for better version control of shared knowledge.  At OLPC this isn’t a terribly hard problem, but it is still a concern : people with no experience with History or universal talk pages have a hard time mapping their ideas of a quick and simple conversation space onto this sort or more structured knowledge center.  Conversations about how to foster better sharing of documents and ideas often stumble on very different understandings of what Wikipedia itself is, and how it is used, since the project’s fame make it a proxy for the very concept of Wikis.

An assortment of wiki-way authors should update a canonical “How Wiki Works” book, and publish it under a free license — taking people back to the foundational philosophies and rules of thumb that gave us this vastly valuable cultural shift.  Wikis remain one of the simplest, and most effective, solutions to a large set of problems – what makes them successful is a philosophy of use and the realization of a new set of norms.  Trying to design a set of tools to accomodate the steps in collaboration has been done many times before and since, never with such impact.

I’d love to see that text developed now, to supplement the online version of HWW.  I bet Ward and Bo and friends have some good textual material (hat tip to Mark Dilley) on their cutting room floors to seed such a project.  Or perhaps there is a already new book in the works 🙂  At any rate, people need to be reminded that the yeast of massively parallel peer production is behavioral change, not tool invention.

UPDATE: Perhaps the AboutUs wiki is a good place to have some of these discussions, considering the depth of reflection on this school of thought there…

[PS – hey, Addison-Wesley, how come The Wiki Way is classified simply under ‘Books’?]

One novice step : a bailout compromise without vision
Sunday September 28th 2008, 6:19 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The Times and others have an early look at the bailout compromise hashed out late Saturday.  The situation is still being treated like a leaky dike rather than a long-term infrastructure-building program, as is visible from the management structure and architecture (an oversight committee and a focused financial group; amelioration of current ills, without specific 1, 5, or 20 year plans, and with no timeline for designing same).

If one is not careful, one can spend far more than the cost of a better design on patching a faulty one.  Indeed, there is no patching of a truly misconceived design, which it is entirely possible we now have.

Of course there have been hundreds of similar visionless compromises just over the course of my lifetime, in different regions of the world.  I am at once fascinated and horrified that I don’t know who should be responsible for learning from those mistakes, or who thinks they have done so.

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Friday September 26th 2008, 6:11 pm
Filed under: Glory, glory, glory,international

Daniel goes to EthiopiaElana is digitizing some of her reels of footage this weekend, so expect some fantastic video from Mongolia and elsewhere soon.

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On sleeping the good sleep
Thursday September 25th 2008, 6:50 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Yesterday morning, after an unsatisfying nap in the wee hours and doing some chores (unpacking a 6-month supply of paper, plastic, cloth, wood, stone, and metal goods), I enjoyed the first really good sleep I have had in over a year.  New pillow, pressed sheets, comforter, proper bed (firm mat, no tress).  All organics, no plastics or foam (it’s amazing how persistent those smells are).  I slept for 4 hours without moving and woke thinking it had been a whole day.  (Notes for the unwary : pony up the extra 10% on organic bedding materials.  This goes for your children’s beds and cribs as well.)

The changes to my room required to set this up were minor and inexpensive; I don’t know what took me so long.  Now I lack only a few things for my window seat, a proper desk, and someone to share it with…

Reinventing Mehran Nasseri
Thursday September 25th 2008, 6:24 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Mehran Nasseri, the man famous for being unable to leave Charles de Gaulle airport, and later refusing to leave once the opportunity arose, has produced and published his own haunting memoirs.   And he has been subjected to many reconstructions of his life, but few of them balanced, or providing current context.

Questions that remain unanswered : is he mentally ill or not?  If so, how?  Who in particular does he correspond with?  Now that he is living outside the airport: does he try to return?  Does he have any money from the productions in which he has been involved — the Dreamworks/Tom Hanks fim “The Terminal“, the sales of his memoirs?  Does his lawyer, who both fought for his rights in court before his fame grew and helped sell his life story to DreamWorks, sit pretty on resources he himself will never enjoy?  And if so, is it because he is unable or unwilling to enjoy them?  Is the French government paying to put him up in his current halfway house?

Rather than putting details below the fold, I’ve put up a short essay about Nasseri.  If you have any answers to these questions, or more questions, please leave them there.

‫‬‭‮‪‫‬‭‮ .:| + ҉ ‬‭‮‪‫‬‭‮ ` + ҉ ` + ҉ ` + ҉ ` + ҉ ` + |:.
Thursday September 25th 2008, 6:21 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

This afternoon : in Sanders Theater at 4pm : a talk by the collective economic genius of Harvard University, on the thread suspending the hammer of financial armageddon.

Dear Emily Post : What does one wear to a party themed around the End of Days?  Is black oil pastel on distressed wool a substitute for charcoal and tar on burlap?

Bull dies of exhaustion near Times Square
Friday September 19th 2008, 7:04 pm
Filed under: poetic justice,Too weird for fiction

OK, it was in Queens.  And it was a young schizophrenic bull, not an old one with degenerative troubles.  But you can’t make this stuff up.

How Wikipedia Works : the book
Friday September 19th 2008, 2:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

If you just want an immediate glimpse into how Wikipedia works (and you know you do), visit New Pages, Recent Changes, Articles for Deletion, and the News, and browse the Stats.

If you want a more detailed look, a handy book, and want to start contributing yourself, pick up a copy of How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part Of It.  This is a charming and helpful book by my dear friend and longtime collaborator Phoebe Ayers, in collaboration with Charles Matthews (Chris Ball’s old Go mentor) and the ever-popular Ben Yates (of Wikimania logo fame :).  Phoebe and I stayed up many nights going over the outline and deciding what should go into a book like this, and I’m thrilled to see it on the shelves.

How Wikipedia Works is the first edition of what will hopefully become a lasting tradition.  A popular, non-technical book available under a free license – that alone is unusual.   And what I look forward to more than giving it to my newbie friends (I’m looking at you, Ed) is seeing collaboration around it over time.  How Wikipedia Works will hopefully find its commentable and editable online home soon.

Production notes: Bill Pollock (who first took a chance on the idea) and Tyler Ortman at No Starch Press did a beautiful job with the final book; our office now has a copy if you want to see it.  Every year I am more impressed with their press : now that HWW is hitting the shelves, I can’t wait to see The Manga Guide to Statistics (being a long-time fan of Who is Fourier? and What is Quantum Mechanics?).

UPDATE: Amazon has copies of How Wikipedia Works for under $20.  Amazingly, someone from Livrenor already has a used copy on sale for $40 — an instant classic?! they specialize in rare and out-of-print titles; presumably this is the former: a how-to book that makes you smile!

Saving the world from destruction, 5E-44 sec at a time
Thursday September 18th 2008, 6:44 pm
Filed under: %a la mod,chain-gang,Glory, glory, glory,indescribable,international,Uncategorized

I hope you’ve all seen this by now.  Thank goodness for perpetually-compounded world-saving.

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frightmotif: deleveraging and the veil of illusion
Thursday September 18th 2008, 3:50 am
Filed under: chain-gang,fly-by-wire,international,metrics,poetic justice,Uncategorized

Our interconnected global economy is built on the illusion of trust.  Gautama himself would be impressed by how far we have advanced the texture of societal illusion.  While there are certainly many non-illusory sources of trust, the trust most modern men have in our financial instruments and currencies is based on a blind association of “interest rates”, “inflation”, “market valuation” and similar concepts with a hazy set of economic laws, as though they were fundamental laws in the sense that one discoveres Mathematical or Physical Laws.   Not social norms that could change on short notice; not starting rules of nomic games of risk and manipulation; not Massively Multilayered Online Resource-Permuting Guidelines, hundreds of indirections removed from the original social norm of personal credit and unenforcable on any large scale.  They are perceived instead as Laws, discoverable and immutableNot quite.

For better or worse, we live in fascinating times.  Thanks to this motif of fright, many once-in-a-lifetime financial decisions are being made every day.  A few recent moves by the US Federal Reserve Bank, striving to maintain order:

  • Sunday: an unprecedented 4-hour Sunday afternoon org-to-org trading session, part of “last-ditch efforts to prevent toxic assets from ailing Lehman Brothers spilling into global markets and rupturing investor faith in the international financial system”.   The result: only $1B in trades, slightly less panic the following day, and a loosening of the shared global trust in unwavering financial regulation.
  • Sunday night?: Banks are told they may use deposits to fund their investment bank subsidiaries, flaunting Federal Reserve Act Section 23A. potentially stabilizing failing banks at the cost of risk to individual investors.
  • Monday: a ‘dramatic loosening’ of the standard for federal loans to banks, potentially stabilizing them at the cost of dramatically increased risk of government losses.  Meanwhile, the US Treasury’s S&P AAA rating is vulnerable. Shared global trust in regulation dips.
  • Tuesday: The Fed lends $85B to AIG, after refusing them $20B over the weekend.  True, AIG isn’t a bank, but see FRA Section 13(3).  AIG uses ‘all of its assets’ as collateral, giving the Fed an 80% stake.
  • Tuesday: the FDIC feels the crunch, says it’s ok for a while, but makes a medium-term request for a $500B line of credit.  Why?  Well, while there are over $6,000B in bank deposits in the US, more than half of them FDIC insured, banks report less than $300B cash on hand. And the FDIC reserve is down to $45B, only enough to cover ~15% of the difference in case of a widespread bank run.
  • Wednesday: Banks may count goodwill as capital when meeting regulatory requirements for capital onhand.  This allows a deepening of the leveraging of assets of troubled banks, which only caused trouble during the S&L crisis; what’s different now?
  • Thursday: After three Reserve Fund money market accounts drop below $1 a share, Putnam‘s Prime Money Market Fund shuts down to avoid losses.  It’s been a while.
  • Friday: The Treasury pulls out a few more stops and assigns the $50B in the Exchange Stabilization Fund to current money market funds.

Updates as the week progresses.  The large market swings are reminiscent of the month before Black Monday… so stay tuned, relax, stick to insured banks, and (remind your loved ones to) stay out of the stock market.

Liquidity pyramid diagrams, fractional reserves, and other comments below the fold. (more…)

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Ike strike
Saturday September 13th 2008, 11:52 am
Filed under: Glory, glory, glory,indescribable,SJ

Ike hit Texas hard this morning, straight over central Galveston.  They say 3m will be out of power for two weeks… including our house in Houston.

UPDATE:  Our street was lucky.  Our house is good as ever, having no enormous trees nearby.  My mother reports the only noise it made was a loud humming from the gutters at a certain windspeed (I could hear it over the phone!).

UPDATE 2: A house across the street had its roof aerated by falling trees from both adjacent properties, and the ancient oak in the open lot next to us (vacated and cleared after the last big flood) was ripped down.  Flooding wasn’t bad; only 2 ft of water in the street.  The local bayou is far from the main channel, and was a good 3 feet from flowing over when high tide passed at 4pm.  10 blocks away things were worse…  Now everyone just has to make do without power for the next fortnight.

UPDATE 3: Only 1m are still without power; we expect to do without for another week.

And this is why we went into space 40 years ago: an image of Ike from the International Space Station… with a little ‘station finger’ over the lens.  Great buildings such as the Pyramids and the Wall are, despite what they say, hard to see from space.  But massive atmospherics?  You can see those from Saturn.

Ike ... In... SPAAAACE

More below the fold.


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