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April 19, 2006

The creativity machine

  

Vernor Vinge is an emeritus professor of computer science at San Diego State University. His novel Rainbows End (2006) considers the Internet of 2025.

Abstract

What will emerge from using the Internet as a research tool? The answer, Vernor Vinge argues, will be limited only by our imaginations.

We humans have built a creativity machine. It's the sum of three things: a few hundred million computers, a communication system connecting those computers, and some millions of human beings using those computers and communications.

This creativity machine is the Internet. It has already changed the way we do science, most importantly by enhancing collaboration between researchers. The present-day Internet provides convenient connections between computerized labs, simulations and research databases. It also represents an enormous financial investment that is driven by the demands of hundreds of millions of consumers. As such, the total Internet software and infrastructure investment dwarfs the budgets of scientific research programmes and even of many government defence programmes. And more than any megaproject of the past, the essence of the Internet is to provide coordinated processing of information. For researchers seeking resources, these are facts worth considering.

For some disciplines, the Internet itself has become a research tool: grid computing has been used to exploit the power of millions of Internet-connected machines. Building on the popularity of SETI@home — an experiment that uses Internet-connected computers to search for extraterrestrial intelligence — and prime-number hunts, there are now physics, medical and proteomics projects enlisting the enthusiasm of people (and their computers) across the world. For linguists1 and sociologists, new questions can be investigated simply by observing what occurs on the publicly available Internet. Even experimental sociology is possible: in their study of social influence on music preference, Salganik et al.2 recruited more than 14,000 subjects through a popular website, ran online trials on these subjects, and then obtained results directly from their experiment website.

The possibilities do not end there. Even online games are attracting academic interest. Some games have millions of players. MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), such as World of Warcraft and EverQuest, feature vivid three-dimensional action involving both cooperation and combat. Another genre of MMORPGs lack a significant combat or quest element and are more often called 'virtual worlds'. For example, the virtual world Second Life has the visual realism of many MMORPGs, but it exists as a venue for the participants rather than as a pre-designed adventure. Second Life provides a range of software tools, including a programming language, that gives participants the power to create artefacts according to their own designs. Thus the game depends on the skill and creativity of its participants to generate content. Such virtual worlds have already been used for educational projects, and are worthy of psychological and social research.

People power

The notion of enlisting users to create content is widespread on the contemporary Internet. Companies such as Google provide users with tools to integrate search and mapping services into their own websites. Interested users are numerous and have their own resources. In the 1990s, we had an early glimpse of the power of this new creativity machine: computers plus networks plus interested people delivered free and open-source software (FOSS) products of the highest quality, including the GNU/Linux operating system. FOSS products provide low-cost and flexible alternatives to proprietary software. For example, there is at least one open-source virtual-world platform, Croquet3, which allows users to customize and extend its architecture at all levels. FOSS tools can be mixed and matched with proprietary software to deal with an enormous range of projects from quick, ad hoc combinations of data harvested from multiple locations4 to large, long-duration experiments.

 

© 2006, LINDEN RES.

Participants in Second Life use software and creativity to build their environment.

All this points to ways that science might exploit the Internet in the near future. Beyond that, we know that hardware will continue to improve. In 15 years, we are likely to have processing power that is 1,000 times greater than today, and an even larger increase in the number of network-connected devices (such as tiny sensors and effectors). Among other things, these improvements will add a layer of networking beneath what we have today, to create a world come alive with trillions of tiny devices that know what they are, where they are and how to communicate with their near neighbours, and thus, with anything in the world. Much of the planetary sensing that is part of the scientific enterprise will be implicit in this new digital Gaia. The Internet will have leaked out, to become coincident with Earth.

How can we prepare for such a future? Perhaps that is the most important research project for our creativity machine. We need to exploit the growing sensor/effector layer to make the world itself a real-time database. In the social, human layers of the Internet, we need to devise and experiment with large-scale architectures for collaboration. We need linguists and artificial-intelligence researchers to extend the capabilities of search engines and social networks to produce services that can bridge barriers created by technical jargon and forge links between unrelated specialties, bringing research groups with complementary problems and solutions together — even when those groups have not noticed the possibility of collaboration. In the end, computers plus networks plus people add up to something significantly greater than the parts. The ensemble eventually grows beyond human creativity. To become what? We can't know until we get there.

April 18, 2006

Towards 2020 Science

From my lockergnome dailies.. 

In the summer of 2005, an expert group was brought together to define a new vision and roadmap of the evolution, challenges, and potential of computer science and computing in scientific research in the next fifteen years. The resulting document, Towards 2020 Science, sets out the challenges and opportunities arising from the increasing synthesis of computing and the sciences. It seeks to build on computer intensive fields and advances that span genomics and proteomics, Earth sciences, and climatology, nanomaterials, chemistry and physics.

Even so, according to the Economist, the team’s case is a respectable one.

This week’s issue of Nature has devoted several pages to news and commentary about the report.

April 02, 2006

Bruce Sterling on the State of the World

Right. Okay! I have managed to turn my wi-fi off, so I will not actually blog during my own presentation. Yes, hello: I am Bruce Sterling. Thank you, thank you. Let’s cut to the immediate chase here, I am sure you are all anxious for the answer to this perennial South by Southwest question, is there a giant South by Southwest party, at my private home, with free beer, to which I will invite the entire audience?

…No.

No, this is the largest South by Southwest audience I have ever addressed in many years of doing this. Does not scale, Ladies and Gentlemen. We have reached a limit. Last year, I had a class of design students and corporate backing, and I managed to have, like, a sponsored theme party, this year I’m in a very literary mood, I’m working on a novel, I don’t have any gophers to go be my grad student slaves, and a corporate sponsorship thing kind of violates the groovy spirit of the enterprise, so, no. You are too big, this year. You are too professional, this year. Even the tech panels are no longer intimate and personal, this year. I have been to standing room only Web 2.0 tech panels at this gig; this is a huge gig.

I am in a dark, introspective literary mood, this year; I can’t be the design visionary and party animal all year, every year. I did just have a tech party in Belgrade, which is where I am staying now, during 2006, and about 20 Serbian web-geeks showed up for my party – they actually need a party, there. In 2006, you cats don’t actually need my party. This is the year of Web 2.0. This is the hottest innovative period on the web since the invention of the browser. There is blood in the water… Google’s buyin’. Oh, it does my heart good to see this crowd, you people, enjoying yourselves to this extent, even if it is in a rather muted fashion compared to the golden years of the “Al Gore Era.” Welcome to the Bubble Echo. Enjoy it while you got it. No, when there is a Web 2.0 Bust… you can come around to my house then. You’ll be welcome to gather ‘round the Shiner beer keg and moan on the Author’s shoulder.

It’s gratifying to see what is happening now, even if I’m not having a party, because I’m too distracted. Commons-based peer production as an industrial method is getting it’s legs under it. This is something I complained about for years. I used to complain that GNU had the wrong name, because the recursive name for GNU is “GNU’s not UNIX.” And I described that as “rather childish.” Because you should not name yourself in opposition to something else, you should have your own name. It’s like, if “GNU’s not UNIX”, what is it?

Well, it’s commons-based peer production. Flikr is not a copy of anything else. It is not a hippie knockoff of a commercial product. Wikipedia is not like anything else. A Wiki is like nothing known to mankind. Collaborative web filters are very spooky things. They are without historical precedent. Websites that throw their API’s open, and turn themselves into platforms, rather than sites - it is a little hard to explain the significance of that to everyday people who are not techies and programmers, but that is a major development. The Net community is no longer hanging on the coattails of Gates. That monopolistic chokehold that did so much to reduce innovation, and to introduce global criminality to hapless Windows users… “Windows Live”… Windows Live, after ten years of trying to build the MSN brand?

You know, it amazes me to see this burst of healthy, popular creativity, considering how awful American industrial policy is, under the Bush Administration. If you’ve got a copy of this South by Southwest guidebook, you should look at this page, for the City of Austin… lists all these nice little non-governmental organizations. The Creative Director page, there. Now, it impresses me very much that Austin has like, a little “Creative Director’s” office where you can go out and get a little city sponsorship, that’s very Richard Florida, that’s very Web 2.0. But then, we’re looking at tiny little groups of people, who are trying to wire up the town, or unwire the town, on their own little lonesome selves. Now as an Austinite, that gives me a warm feeling: I would urge you, if you are an Austinite, to go help these little NGO’s, right away. But that is not a sign of creative vitality, that is a scary sign of complete incompetence on the Federal level! Why are towns having to do this? Only in the United States do dying phone companies lobby the Government as if they were Indian casinos.

As you may or may not know, I am spending a lot of my time in Europe this year, after spending a year in California. I get to see America from the outside now – I get to see America as 94% of the planet sees America. And I look at wireless spreading in London, and the spread of broadband in Korea. I’ve got broadband in Serbia, where the phone companies are literally run by criminals in exile … and my broadband in Serbia costs twenty dollars a month. And it works. Our people in Washington are drinking their own bathwater. They have forgotten how to build anything. They are busy monetizing stuff for their reelection campaigns. It is decadent. It is sclerotic. It looks like the Soviet Union.

These guys in power are so eager to monetize the Net, that they are turning the U. S. A. into a banana republic with rockets. Not just politically backward … technically backward. That’s the part that’s unforgivable. The Reality-Based community are fatally easy to push around, mostly because they’re so gentlemanly and ladylike.

But when you actually ignore reality, for years on end, THE PAYBACK IS A BITCH, BROTHER!

And I would know … because I’m a Science Fiction writer.

Now, normally, I would never plug a book during a South by Southwest speech, because when authors do that, it is hopelessly déclassé, and lame. This year, I’m very literary, I’ve gotta plug some books a little. A Science Fiction book, yes, I write them. Here’s one that just came out this month: “Visionary in Residence.” No, they’re not selling it here, you’ll have to Amazon it. Came out last week. This is some pretty seriously audacious and freaky stuff, I think. This is my fourth story collection. There is some very weird material in here. This is not a Harry Potter book. That’s not the kind of thing you recommend your aunt in Topeka. But that really does have some seriously visionary stuff in it. It has got stuff in it that is way out of left field. It has got 21st Century stuff.

The 21st Century definitely fertilizing my cyberpunk eccentricities. My writing, my living, have taken some very sharp turns in this century. I was always very interested in global political issues. I am an oil industry kid. I used to travel all over the world as a young man. Now I am living in Eastern Europe, because I am married to a Serbian feminist peacenik dissident. And we met because we have computers. She is an author and I am an author, authors are a volatile bunch. I always wanted to know exactly what went wrong in Yugoslavia. Now I know.

I am into the 21st century electronic version of an Eastern European literary café society. I read people like Danilo Kis, Dubravka Ugresic. I read Slavenka Draculic. That’s her name. Slavenka Draculic. Mostly goes by Slavenka Schwartz. She’s a Croatian writer named Draculic. One of my wife’s best pals. You can learn a lot by earnestly studying global trends. Especially trends in an enemy state to your own. Serbia has one of the most dysfunctional societies on the planet. It’s a kind of world capitol of the New World Disorder. They’re burying Milosevic this week. It’s a total circus. I’ve got a ringside seat. People ask me, have you moved to Belgrade now, is this permanent? No, it’s not permanent. It’s just that some of my shoes are there, in a closet.

I live out of my laptop, now. That’s how I live. And so do increasing numbers of my colleagues. I will be meeting Cory Doctorow, that Canadian-British-Los Angeles guy, Cory Doctorow? I’ll be meeting him on three different continents in five months, this year. It’s a world of diaspora and globalization, gypsies and jet-setters, refugees and tech pioneers, and the differences are that thin. Events just like this one, they send me spinning across this planet like a flung rock skipping on water. This year, I’m doing Serbia-Croatia-Sweden-Switzerland
-Australia-San Diego-Denmark-Minneapolis.. That’s part of it. Nobody notices that I have left Austin. This is my legal residence, Austin. I get email from the Austin American Statesman, every day. I’ve got the Austin Chronicle online. People write me email, they get what they want, they leave, they never ask where I am. I no longer need to be a resident of any particular city. I don’t make any money in any foreign state. Nothing enters or leaves Belgrade except for ones and zeroes, that’s all. I never stay there long enough to become permanent. I don’t even do permanent. National borders, they’re like speed-bumps.

And because I look over national borders, I can see that it’s depressing, here inside America. It’s like the last reels of Gone With the Wind, here. America is losing it’s cultural cachet. Nobody who isn’t American mistakes globalization for Americanization, any more. They see that as some kind of category error, now. It’s like an empire that lacks any sort of economic base, except for oil, real estate speculation, and blood. It’s a state at war, and it seems to be mostly at war with it’s own majority’s ideas of reality. Americans even look different physically, if you spend time in other countries, now. They’ve always been a very loud, expressive, boisterous lot, but now Americans are fat! By European and Asian standards, the American population is hugely and scarily fat. They literally look swollen up, as if they’d been poisoned, and were about to pop. The Dollar is low, compared to the Euro? The Euro ought to be in intensive care.

I think maybe it comes down to this, do you really believe, I mean really, really believe that Adam and Eve rode to church on Sundays on the backs of dinosaurs? Is that what you believe, do you really believe that about the world, do you consider that to be objective reality? Creationism, that’s your geopolitical realpolitik? That’s what your diplomatic corps is supposed to tell the other diplomats? Your generals in your armies, they’re supposed to tell that to the generals of other armies? Your filmmakers, they’re supposed to make films about that? And people in other countries are supposed to watch those films, and be entertained? It’s an intellectual calamity. Really, the shame is hard to bear. However, American society is in less denial than the society where I live now, Serbian society. It’s very useful to me, to be living in the midst of the true extreme case.

Because as I once told Zoran Gingic, the former Prime Minister of Serbia, before his enemies shot him dead in the streets in an ambush? I told him: you know, the Balkans have so much future that they have to export it to other people.

And they do.

It could be anybody, really. Slovenia? That’s like the part of Yugoslavia nobody ever heard of. It’s the piece that was farthest away from Milosevic. It’s a dull, conventional, harmless little place. It’s like Iowa. Because they’re way into “Serbian Truthiness” there. Not truth, just like, the “Serbian Truthiness.” And, you know, you’ve got to forgive them some of that. I mean, at least they didn’t blow themselves up.

We’re seeing just frantic collisions of fundamentalist delusion, with objective reality. Things like the Arab Port Scandal – of course they own the ports, where do you think all the oil money is going? Dubai has got the biggest skyscraper in the world. They’re buying America’s ports with America’s money. Where are they supposed to put it? It’s going offshore, it’s going to circle around the world and come back. The Danish Newspaper Cartoons. You know, I know cartoonists. I know people like Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman. They’re like, bright guys. Bright creative guys – you know, I feel sorry for them – Neil Gaiman once said, “We’re the sink that the gutter drains into, in comics.”

And all of the sudden cartoonists are so politically important they’re getting embassies set on fire? Where is that at? Why don’t they get the credit for that, as well as – the mayhem they’ve reached?

It’s like the Witching Hour – we’ve got a death cult, which is like, al Qaeda, like Om Shin Rikyo, or Jonestown, or the Heaven’s Gate cult, except they can, they can just get on Arab TV and just whisper aloud, and the world just sits right up in its chair, as if they were listening to voodoo priests – how many mosques have these guys bombed, now? These “defenders of the Islamic religion”? Nobody even keeps count.

Where are Mladic and Karodzic? This is like the big issue where I live now. These are the two war criminals from Srebrenica, who kind of, accidentally killed 8000 people. Recently, they found a videotape of 8 people being killed – the country pretty much came apart at the seams – the 8000 sort of vanished off camera, but they’ve got the 8 on camera and that seemed to make all the difference. Where are these two guys? Everybody knows. They’re in monasteries. They’ve got religious asylum. That’s why they’re not in the Hague. They’re in a church. Karodzic is writing plays – they’re being put onstage! He’s like Vaclav Havel with a submachine gun.

You know, now I finally get it, about the difference between actual war and global guerrilla war. Because what we’ve got now is not conventional shooting war, with military honor, military ranks, military activity. This is culture war. We’ve got The Troubles. We’ve got The Disorder. And now I really know how that works. No, when The Disorder is over, you don’t get to say: “I proudly served.” It doesn’t matter which side you were on. Because The Disorder is a war on the pride. It’s a war on people’s morale. You don’t get to confront the enemy as an equal. Everybody lives in shadow. It’s always covert, it’s always fake, it’s always trumped up. And no history can be written of it, because it’s all been compartmentalized. Suicide bombers, who are victims, oppressor, and evidence, all blown to pieces in the same neat beltpack. Official denials, star chambers, Abu Ghraibs and renditions, these aren’t accidents, this is the very stuff – of The Disorder. Espionage, black markets, privatization of the military. Secrecy, always and everywhere. No medals for your service, no ticker-tape parade. And no end to it! No formal end. When it finally burns out, even the victor is despised and distrusted.

We’re on a kind of slider bar, between the Unthinkable, and the Unimaginable, now. Between the grim meathook future, and the bright green future. And there are ways out of this situation: there are actual ways to move the slider from one side to the other. Except we haven’t invented the words for them yet. We’ve got smoke building in the crowded theater, but the exit sign is just a mysterious tangle of glowing red letters. I’ll quote Warren Ellis now: he’s this comics writer, whose blog is turning him into a public intellectual. It’s kind of an interesting thing to watch. Warrenellis.com. He says there’s a middle distance between the complete collapse of infrastructure and some weird geek dream of electronically knowing where all your stuff is. Between apocalyptic politics and Nerd-vana, is the human dimension. How this stuff is taken on board, by smart people, at street level. You all know Bill Gibson’s saw from his cyberpunk novels, that the street finds it’s own uses for things? That still holds, but right now I think there’s an urgency and a sense of envelope-pushing, in exactly what uses are found for these things. That’s where the story lies, Warren Ellis says: in this spread of possible futures, and the people, on the ground, facing them. The story has to be about people trying to steer, or condemn other people, toward one future or another, using everything in their power, that’s a big story.

Well, the Unthinkable, and the Unimaginable are hooked together in some ways. Unimaginable does not mean catastrophic. Neither does unthinkable. China and India right now? Kind of the healthiest success stories of the modern global epic? They’re unimaginable by the standards of Mao and Gandhi. If you took Mao or Gandhi, and put them in the streets of Shanghai or Bombay now, they would have no idea what to make of what has happened to their societies. And those are grim little societies too, in their own ways, I mean, there’s a lot of environmental decline in those two societies. China and India, if you go there, look around, they’re basically barren, strip-mined, polluted messes, in a lot of ways? I mean, basically everything that desperately poor people could do to survive has been done to the environment, in China and India. And yet, they’re booming. And I think the answer is, it’s the people. It’s the people who are doing it. They’ve got lots of people, in China and India.

Ok, now I need to move to a word I have, oddly enough, never mentioned in public in Austin. This is something that’s been a big deal for me, over the past 2 years. It’s a word I made up, it’s a word called “spime.” I want to explain to you what this means because, you know, you’re a techie audience and you’ll kind of get this, this is of direct and immediate relevance to your demographic. Ok, in 2004 I did a speech at SIGGRAPH, ACM SIGGRAPH , the computer graphics thing, about a concept I called “spime.” And then I did a book, in 2005, while I was in residency at Art Center College of Design. Here it is, this really cute book, which is designed by Lorraine Wilde, it was the winner of the AIGA Medal for 2006, if you’re a graphic design maven. You can’t hang out at a design school without learning these things. Uh, it’s a weird and innovative book, with a really weird and innovative book design. It’s actually a visionary book, in a lot of ways, I would urge you to look at this, just for the graphic design in it, because it’s going to shock you and annoy you, and you need that done. Because you are a philistine, and you have no taste. So have a look at Lorraine’s really top notch packaging in this thing.

But, you know, a book is a book, and a speech is a speech. But the term, “spime”, is not a word. I only realized, two weeks ago, that it’s a tag. It’s a theory object. So, you know, what does the word, spime mean? Well, you know, basically, any word in a language means what the popular consensus says that it means. Like, say, the word cyberspace? Which I can remember seeing for the first time on a manually typed manuscript? Ok, well, if you actually read William Gibson, and you see the term, “cyberspace”, you see that he’s describing a consensual hallucination, ok? Gibsonian cyberspace takes place inside people’s heads. It’s like, an electronically triggered, interior mental experience, it’s like a brain experience. We don’t have any of that. We may never have any of that. But the term cyberspace, the word “cyberspace”, already has a period flavor to it. You know, it’s associated with the boom of the eighties and nineties, it’s sort of the idea that you’ve got something to talk about besides the wiring. Right?

All right, so I’ll give you the spime elevator pitch, although I do not think that this is the shape that the tag “spime” will eventually take, as it’s thrown out into the sort of chalm or the churn of internet commentary. Ok, well a spime is a sort of speculative, imaginary object, that is different from present day objects, stuff like this pen, here. It’s different, in basically 6 important ways, none of which existed, in the 20th century. First of all, it’s got an interactive chip on it, so it can be labeled with a unique identity. Electronic bar-coding, or RFID’s. It’s got a “tag.” It’s got a tag that you can mark, and sort, and rank, and shuffle. That’s a big advance. But it’s only one out of six differences. Number two is it’s got local, precise, positioning systems. It’s got a geo-locative system. So you can sort where things are, and where you are in relationship to them. It’s got Google Maps. Uh, and it’s got a powerful search engine. So you can find out things about it’s such and so, it’s an “auto-Googling object.” It’s got more sorting and shuffling of the data that’s associated with it. And it’s involved in cradle-to-cradle recycling. Because it’s more sustainable, because when you know where it is and what it is, it’s very easy to tear it apart, break it down, and just reuse the junk. It has transparent production. It has taggable, sortable garbage. And then there are two other brand-new factors in the mix. The first is 3-D virtual models of objects. It’s been virtually designed, it was not actually designed. It’s a product of CAD/CAM. It’s scanned. If you want to look at the schematics of it, they’re on the Net. Things are present as virtual objects, in the network, before they become physical objects. That’s how you shop for them. And then, last, it’s rapidly prototyped. It’s a fabject, it’s a blobject. If you saw the speech that Alex Steffen and I gave here last time, I was throwing little fabjects into the audience. If you happened to be there, you could see they were these frail little objects made of wax and plastic and starch; ok, they’re making them out of laser-centered metal now. You can cast your dreams out in these things and have it clang right on the ground.

And Alex Steffen, who is not here, unfortunately, of WorldChanging – his book will come out soon. I have read his book. The book, put together by the WorldChanging cadre. I wrote a preface for it; I just heard it’s now going to get a forward by Al Gore. This WorldChanging book is heavy-duty. It’s like an index of ways out of the smoke-filled room. But – you see, my idea is, that if objects, 21st century objects, had these six qualities I just described, then people would interact with objects in a truly unprecedented way. Just really different, a way that’s so strange, so different from today’s expectations, that it’s unimaginable, it’s really hard to describe. And we would think about this prospect better, if this class of object had its own name. So, I called it a “spime”, because it’s trackable in space and time. And then I had sort of various “wise sage on the stage” things to say about it, like: “A spime is an object that ate and internalized the previous industrial order.” Because, if you think about it, what it’s really doing is just sort of attaching all the things to itself that have always been attached to objects, except now it’s open and more participatory: you get to see the plans, you get to see the production, you get to see the garbage. Right? And I also said that “Spimes are manufactured objects whose informational support is so extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system.” In other words, you look at what’s on the web, and every once in a while, it exists as a physical object. Spimes begin and end as data, because they’re virtual objects first and actual objects second.

Now that’s a lot to swallow. I mean, why would we even want to do such a weird thing, I mean what problem are we solving, by doing this? Well, we want to do it, so we can build an Internet of Things. Not an Internet of data, an Internet of things, objects. So that we can engage with material objects much better, during their life-cycle, from that moment of their invention, to the moment of their decay. Now, that’s the technical reason, that’s the design reason. It’s the environmental reason. It’s a civilizational step forward. But the real reason we’ll do it, if we ever actually do it, is because of the way it will feel. The primary advantage of an internet of things, is that I no longer inventory my possessions inside my own head. They’re inventoried through an automagical inventory voodoo - which is done beneath my notice by a host of machines, so I no longer bother to remember where I put things. Or where I found them. Or how much they cost, or how to get more, and so forth. I just ask. And I am told, with instant, real-time accuracy. I have an internet of things, with a search engine of things. So I don’t hunt for my shoes in the morning, I just google them. And as long as machines are there to crunch the complexities, the interfaces make my relationship to objects feel much simpler, and more immediate. I am at ease in materiality in a way that people never were before.

Well, that was my job, when I was Visionary in Residence at the Art Center College of Design. They wanted me to write something visionary about design. I wrote something visionary about design. That’s designer-speak. But I’m not a permanent design professor, I was just a design professor for a year. And I wrote a little non-fiction book, where I rattle on about the concept, and kind of turn it upside down and knock on it to see what falls out, and it’s a small book, but it’s a really big topic. A lot of people are at work on the Internet of Things, it’s too big for any one thinker to work it through. What it really needs is distributed intelligence, because this concept will only work out in real life when and if the population, the people, buy into it, and find it of some use and benefit.

So, when I made up this word, and attached it to this grab-bag of concepts, I wanted that word to be googleable. So if you google the word spime now, which I’m sure about 30% of you are doing, you find a company called spime and there’s some mention of Frank Black of the Pixies, who used the term spime once, but most of the online commentary that you would find on the web about spimes necessarily centers around this set of ideas. Because it’s a new word, but it’s also a new tag. The Semantic Web is turning into the wetlands of language. Because a word placed in the semantic web is not just a word. It is a theory object. Which is a tagged idea. Which is not just a meme, or an intellectual conceit, or a literary neologism, it’s a whole cloud of associated commentary and data. Which can be passed around, from mouse to mouse, by people - and linked to, by people. A theory object is a word that’s a platform for development. And every time I go to an event like this, this word, this tag, “spime”: it grows as a theory object. And this is different in language. Just understanding that that is happening is making my own practice as a writer, a commentator, a blogger, a thinker, a public speaker – it’s changing it. It’s unprecedented. It’s really different. The 20th century literally could not think, write, speak, or comprehend, in this way. This term, theory object, is itself a kind of theory object. If you understand what a theory object is, you can create theory objects. Any real theory object has probably got links and trackback, pictures, maybe a powerpoint, a website, an f.a.q., maybe flash animation. It could have a database layer, user-centric graphic web-apps. It’s as if the coffee house chatter at the Surrealist café had been frozen into linkage and faq’s. It’s just a different method of social activism. And others, that do not buy into this, newspapers, for instance, ink-on-paper? A legacy medium. And more importantly, the people who read newspapers and television, and don’t engage in this other activity, and they believe that’s reality? Those are legacy people.

So, I’m trying to write a novel, this year, because … that’s part of my job description. You know - and what is a novel, under these circumstances? What am I doing, I have to wonder? I’m dropping lit matches into the wet bog of language. And the matches go out, because most of them deserve to go out. Most weird riffing is just weird riffing. And the ideas that catch fire become unrecognizable to me. Because of the distributed intelligence, because of the added features, because of all the trackback. These are words that turn on their creators like Frankenstein. And that’s a pretty good word, Frankenstein, because in the original novel, Frankenstein was the guy who created the monster. He’s not the monster – the Frankenstein is Frankenstein’s monster, Frankenstein is the guy who actually made it up, but he’s somehow lost. He’s been packed down by public reaction. It’s the creator who’s Frankenstein, but we don’t see that, any more than we see that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was a 19 year old, liberated, feminist intellectual who had just run off with a radical atheist poet.

It’s not enough to sort of virtually, verbally theorize about these issues. If we’re going to get anywhere we’re going to have to become the change we want to see. Become the change we want to see. And if I have learned something from hanging out with the Eastern European dissident crowd: “Make no decision out of fear.” That is their motto. Make no decision out of fear. No, the decline does not hold indefinitely. Because the people tire of the fraud. They tire of the evil. The people tire of the sheer, stupid pettiness of their unnecessary miseries. The people tire of being promised jam and fed ashes. You know, globalization needs to be understood culturally. Because the Great American Novel is over. What’s required at this point in literature is a Great Regional Novel about the planet Earth. A regional novel. And if the inspiration for that is found, it’s going to be found in human resilience, and in the depth of world history. It’s going to be found in the resilience of people.

You know, I’m not one of the sentimentalists who says, “Oh, the people had bad leaders”, when a nation misbehaves. Because the people are not always blameless. Milosevic was a very bad leader. There was horror all over the Balkans because of this guy. Nine out of ten of the baldest and most polarizing atrocities, and there are plenty of people who do them, came out from him, and his own inner circle. He was the kind of guy who would kidnap and disappear the best man at his own wedding. And have this guy disappeared from the street, shot and secretly buried in a lime pit in the forest. And having done that, he would walk around for years, with Lady Macbeth on his arm, saying, “Oh, gosh, I wonder what could have happened to that guy, great friend of mine, my political mentor. Yeah, people said we had a little falling out, but you know, I miss him every day…”

That was him, that was Milosevic. The guy was a serpent. But the people loved him. And a lot of them still love him. A whole lot of them. The best-organized political party in Serbia are the people who believe this guy was a hero and a martyr. And if he did some bad things, he was doing them for us. For us. For us and our “us-ness.” And they’ve got posters in the street for this guy, a mass murderer, a war criminal, he looks like an injured muppet. He didn’t come there as an invader from Mars. He was a product of that society. Because it was a society that preferred to live in a locked closet and feed on it’s own delusions. And the followers of this guy are still full of passionate intensity. Because they’re wild and they’re proud of their wildness. They are the kind of zealots who will cut off their own feet in order to bleed on the doorstep of more peaceable, more rational peoples. And they’re holy too. They didn’t used to be holy, but this is kind of the upward trend: they’re real holy, now. Because there are churches, Serbian Orthodox churches, going up all over Serbia. Kind of giant turnips of nationalist resentment.

Evil has a face in the world today. It’s the person who resents you because you don’t buy into the insane, parochial crap of his ethnic group. “You are oppressing me beyond all reason, watch me die now.” Kaboom. That’s it. And it puts people into a panic stampede, that activity. It’s a thing with legs. That could stalk us for decades if we didn’t get a handle on it. But, you know, the cure for the panic stampede of the moment is historical perspective. That’s how you stop stampeding. Because time passes, you know? You come to yourself, you say, wait a minute, this voodoo curse you put on me, that I feared so drastically, it’s a patchwork of faith-based bullshit. This supernatural scheme you hot-wired together? It’s coming apart in public like a cheap, paper piñata. You imagined you were hammering the world into your own shape, but you weren’t really. You were hammering the electoral districts of Texas into shape.

But, as the American poet said: “…the old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.” I kind of hate to quote poetry in public, especially at a tech gig, because it’s so soppy and author-ly, and déclassé. But you know, Serbia has a very small language, so they still actually have poets. Poets can be pretty famous guys, under some circumstances. They’re almost like right-wing pundit bloggers, in their famousness. When you can comprehend poetry, it means that your heart is not broken. You know, poetry is a big deal in societies like Russia. Because you have poets like say, Anna Akhmatova, who could be standing by the door of the prison house with the rest of the women, bemoaning their lost men, freezing and oppressed. And a woman will go up to Anna Akhmatova, and say, “Could you possibly bear witness to what has just happened to us?”

And she would say, “Yes.”

And it was true.

So in societies like that, they read poetry in public, and people listen to the poetry, and they weep aloud. You know, they’re not Europe, that society, because frankly they don’t deserve to be Europe. But they’re not dead. They haven’t given up. Their hearts are not in the right place, but they’ve got a whole lot of heart. The music clubs are packed, in Belgrade. There are construction cranes, all over the place. The goods in the stores look much better than they did, even a year ago. The gang graffiti is getting scrubbed off the streets. The new restaurants are full of customers – the food is good. Even the pirates, who I thought were going to take over that society, with their forged goods, pirated video, pirated music, and sanctions breaking, are in retreat. They are, as a society, as a nation, a political, moral, legal, and international basket case. And they are about to break up even more than they’ve broken up over the last 12 years. Because now Montenegro wants to leave. And they’ve got every reason. North Belgrade wants to leave South Belgrade.

There are people in the Balkans today who are so thoroughly Balkanized that they don’t know what to do with the warring halves of their own personalities.

But they are a people of resilience, and when a comeback comes, they know how to go with that.

All right, now, I’m going to sew this up, by quoting a poet, now. Then I’m going to go sign some books in the hallway, later. You know, drop by, if you need a word. Allright, historical perspective – 1937. That was a long time ago. The era of Depression. Fascism rising in Europe. World War II at the door. Dot-com busts. People couldn’t get venture capital, back then. Google wasn’t buyin’… All right, Carl Sandburg – somebody you’ve never heard of – poet, some guy from Chicago. I’m going to quote a little from one of his epics, here:

The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can't laugh off their capacity to take it.
The mammoth rests between his cyclonic dramas.

The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
"I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time."

The people is a tragic and comic two-face: hero and hoodlum:
phantom and gorilla twisting to moan with a gargoyle mouth:
"They buy me and sell me...it's a game...sometime I'll
break loose..."

This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can't be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise,
You can't hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?

In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
march:
"Where to? what next?"

March 21, 2006

NASA CLIMATOLOGIST SPEAKS OUT

SCIENCE -- NASA CLIMATOLOGIST SPEAKS OUT ABOUT ADMINISTRATION'S ATTEMPTS TO SILENCE HIM: James Hansen, the head of NASA's top institute studying the climate and arguably the world's leading researcher on global warming, told CBS's 60 Minutes last night that the Bush administration is censoring what he can say to the public. As proof, Hansen displayed a 2004 email he received that read, "The White House [is] now reviewing all climate related press releases." Hansen believes global warming is accelerating, pointing to the melting Arctic and to Antarctica, where new data show massive loss of ice to the sea. "In my more than three decades in the government I've never witnessed such restrictions on the ability of scientists to communicate with the public," said Hansen. The White House disputes the science behind global warming. While Bush ignores the counsel of the world's leading scientists who warn of pending environmental disaster, he solicits the opinions of fiction author Michael Crichton who tells him the science on warming is underwhelming. The White House has also relied on the advice of oil industry lobbyist Philip Cooney who, while he worked on the Council on Environmental Quality, edited government climate reports to play down links between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Hansen explains the danger of the White House's ignorance: "If the ice sheets begin to disintegrate, what can you do about it? You can’t tie a rope around the ice sheet. You can’t build a wall around the ice sheets. It will be a situation that is out of our control."

March 20, 2006

Earth Bugs Keen on Space Travel


For the first time, millions of bacterial spores have been purposely exposed to space, to see how solar radiation affects them and the results supported the idea that no only could life have arrived on Earth on meteorites, but that considerable material has flowed between planets.

Gerda Horneck of the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne and her colleagues used the Russian Foton satellite for an experient.

They exposed 50 million unprotected spores of the bacterium Bacillus Subtilis outside the satellite. UV radiation from the Sun killed nearly all of the spores,and did so even when the spores were confined under quartz.

To test if meteorites might protect bacteria on their journey through space, Horneck and her colleagues mixed samples of 50 million spores with particles of clay, red sandstone, Martian meteorite or simulated Martian soil and made small lumps a centimetre across.

Between 10,000 and 100,000 spores of the original 50 million survived and when mixed with red sandstone, nearly all survived, suggesting that even meteorites a centimetre in diameter can carry life from one planet to another, if they completed the journey within a few years.

Had the rocks been a meter across, bacteria could survive a long trip indeed.

Another team team ran computer models of giant impacts like Chicxulub. In the simulations, millions of large boulders were ejected from the earth.   About 30 boulders from each Earth impact even reached Titan, and they entered Titan's atmosphere  slower than most meteors hit Earth's atmosphere. "Those reaching Titan can aerobrake and drop their fragments onto the surface," says Gladman. Big Rocks from Earth have no doubt reached Enceladus as well.

"That kind of entry should be no problem" agreed Allan Treiman of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston,quoted in New Scientist. Bacteria were found in weckage of the shuttle Columbia when it re-entered Earth's atmosphere in 2003. And Earthly lichen survived when exposed to the harsh environment of space.

"Early in the history of Mars and Earth, there could have been exchange of biological material between the two planets," agrees Benton Clark, a specialist at Lockheed Martin in Colorado.

Its starting to look like the Planets, when they were young, swapped a lot of spit and that rocks from the Earth, kicked out of the solar system by Jupiters gravity are carrying earth bacteria to other solar systems.

 

New Scientist, 11 January 2002

February 21, 2006

Oceans may soon be as corrosive as when the dinosaurs died

  

Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology will present research today at the AGU/ASLO Ocean Sciences meeting in Honolulu that not only is carbon dioxide emissions making the world’s oceans more acidic, but that, if unabated this acidity could cause a mass extinction of marine life similar to one that occurred 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs disappeared.

Caldeira’s models predict that the oceans will become far more acidic because, with fifty times more atmospheric carbon dioxide than normal, the natural buffering mechanism will be overwhelmed. In less than 100 years, the pH of the oceans could drop by as much as half a unit from 8.2 to about 7.7. The drop in ocean pH would be especially damaging to corals. (abstract)

The last time the oceans saw a change of this magnitude was 65 million years ago and it is presumed that the acidification was due to carbon dioxide emitted by limestone vaporised by the impact of the asteroid. The pattern of extinction was consistent with acidification because it was species with calcium carbonate shells that died off while animals with shells made from silicate minerals survived.

February 13, 2006

Bird Flu definition changed.

 

The World Health Organization said it would change its definition of what constituted a bird flu infection.

WHO says there have been 55 confirmed cases of bird flu; recently, researchers examined two young children - a brother and sister - who lived with their parents in Vietnam. They were admitted suffering from gastro-enteritis and acute encephalitis. Neither displayed respiratory problems, which are considered typical in cases of avian flu. But analysis revealed the four-year-old boy had traces of the virus indicating that the virus can attack all parts of the body, not just the lungs.

It is suspected his nine-year-old sister, who died two weeks earlier in February last year, was also suffering from the virus. Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust's Vietnam unit, said: "This latest work underlines the possibility that avian influenza can present itself in different ways. The main focus has been on patients with respiratory illnesses but clearly that's not the only thing we should be looking for. "Therefore the number of cases of H5N1 may have been underestimated."

Meanwhile, analysis of the spanish flu that killed millions in 1918 suggests the flu virus descended directly from a bird virus and moved into human hosts after slowly accumulating the necessary mutations.

He said: "It means the range of illnesses we have been looking for when considering a diagnosis of avian flu will now be expanded.

"We will have to change the way we conduct our investigations, the management of hospital patients and even the way we deal with their bodily secretions."

With reports of Avian Flu in Nigeria, Italy, Greece and Slovenia Italian health authorities imposed strict controls on the movement of poultry at the weekend after the lethal H5N1 bird flu virus was detected in five dead wild swans in southern Italy.

You can download a Google Earth Map of Bird Flu outbreaks to date below.

Download file

February 09, 2006

Masters of Science Fiction

In 1976, Bruce Sterling sold his first science fiction story, "Man-Made Self". Sterling advocated a streetwise revamp of SF, what would later be called "Cyberpunk". Few science fiction writers speak with such passion and clarity about today's world. Here is his speech to the Library Information Technology Association in San Francisco on June 1992, a speech that anticipates many of the issues internet users face today.

"What's important --*increasingly important* -- is the process by which you figure out what to look at. This is the beginning of the real and true economics of information."....That's why the spin-doctor is the creature who increasingly rules the information universe.  Spin doctors rule our attention. I can make a candidate disappear. Watch me pull a President out of a hat. Look!.. Nothing up my sleeve. Presto!". "Spin-doctors are like evil anti-librarians; they're the Dark Side of the Force"... which I guess makes "The Librarian's Spin" kinda ironic, dunit.

His essay on bacteria, which asks readers to imagine that they are thirty feet long, makes you appreciate why giving antibiotics in low doses to livestock is madness.

Other essays, which he describes as "literary freeware," are all highly recommended.

My favourite diamond hard SF writer is Greg Egan, who hails from Perth in Western Australia has a great site with some far out java applets and some cool short stories.

Evangelicals Urge Action on Global Warming

By Alan Elsner, Reuters

WASHINGTON (Feb. 9) - A group of 85 evangelical Christian leaders on Wednesday backed legislation opposed by the White House to cut carbon dioxide emissions, kicking off a campaign to mobilize religious conservatives to combat global warming.

The group which included mega-church pastors, Christian college presidents, religious broadcasters and writers, also unveiled a full-page advertisement to run in Thursday's New York Times and a television ad it hopes to screen nationally. "With God's help, we can stop global warming for our kids, our world and our Lord," the television spot declared.

The campaign by evangelicals coincided with a call on Wednesday by a leading U.S. think tank for the United States to take immediate steps to fight global warming, including working with other nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Pew Center for Global Climate Change said in a report that America has waited too long to seriously tackle the climate change problem and spelled out 15 steps the United States could take to reduce emissions it spews as the world's biggest energy consumer and producer of greenhouse gases."This transition will not be easy, but it is crucial to begin now," the Pew Center said. "Further delay will only make the challenge before us more daunting and more costly."

The campaign by the evangelical leaders represented a possible split in President George W. Bush's political base, in which Christian evangelical voters are heavily represented.However, the names of most of the president's most influential Christian political backers were notably absent from the list of signatories joining the campaign. Possibly the best-known signer was Rick Warren, author of the best-selling book, "The Purpose Driven Life."

TRADING SYSTEM

Specifically, and mirroring a proposal by the Pew Foundation, the leaders called on Congress to pass laws to create a trading system that would spur companies to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, which scientists say is a major cause of global warming.

One such bill, The Climate Stewardship Act, first introduced in 2003 by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Connecticut Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman, would require that U.S. emissions return to their 2000 levels by 2010.The United States, with around 5 percent of the world's population, accounts for a quarter of its greenhouse gases and U.S. emissions rose by 2 percentage points in 2004 alone, according to government figures.

The McCain-Lieberman bill has failed to win passage twice in the Senate, although a majority there did adopt a non-binding resolution to cap emissions. The issue has not come up for a vote in the House of Representatives. The Bush administration opposes imposing mandatory limits and backs voluntary efforts by companies. It has also refused to join the Kyoto Protocol, an international accord signed by the European Union, Japan and most other industrialized nations that sets hard targets for cutting emissions.

The Christian leaders said they were impelled by their faith to launch the campaign out of a growing realization that the threat of global warming was real and that the world's poor would suffer the most. Paul de Vries, president of New York Divinity School, said: "However we treat the world, that's how we are treating Jesus because He is the cosmic glue." The leaders said a poll they commissioned of 1,000 evangelical Protestants showed that two thirds were convinced global warming was taking place. Additionally, 63 percent said the United States must start to address the issue immediately and half said it must act even if there was a high economic cost.

The Pew Foundation also recommended boosting renewable fuel output and providing financial incentives to farmers to spur absorption of greenhouse gas emissions on farm lands. U.S. government weather forecasters reported on Tuesday that the nation's January temperatures were the warmest on record, beating the average for the month by 8.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Two weeks ago NASA scientists confirmed that 2005 was the hottest year ever recorded worldwide.

February 04, 2006

Sympathy for the devils..

The puzzle regarding the source of the mysterious cancer killing Australia's Tasmanian devils has been solved, it is a cell line without sex chromosomes and the cancer cells are transferred between devils when they fight. A big shame, devils fight for fun, fight for food and males must fight and defeat their prospective mates, who will then allow themselves to be dragged off for mating. They sound absolutely terrifying. The world's largest carnivorous marsupial is the size of a small dog and can weigh up to 12 kg. On the island state of Tasmania they are the dominant predator, but over the past three years the facial cancers have cut some population groups by 85%.

The population of the Tasmanian devil, Sarcophilus harrisii, peaked at 200,000 in 1996; the cancer may kill two thirds of the carnivorous inhabitants by 2006.The disease spread throughout the eastern and central parts of Tasmania over the last two years; the tumours  grow so large they block the animals' eyesight, hearing or mouth and unable to feed, they starve to death.

Australians are isolating healthy animals, but only a vaccine can save the vast majority of the devils.

January 27, 2006

Russia plans Helium 3 mine on the moon by 2020

Russia is planning to mine Helium 3 on the moon by 2020 with a permanent base and a heavy-cargo transport link, a Russian space official said Wednesday.

"We are planning to build a permanent base on the moon by 2015 and by 2020 we can begin the industrial-scale delivery... of the rare isotope Helium-3," Nikolai Sevastyanov, head of the Energia space corporation, was quoted by ITAR-TASS news agency as saying at an academic conference.

The International Space Station (ISS) would play a key role in the project and a regular transport relay to the moon would be established with the help of the planned Clipper spaceship and the Parom, a space capsule intended to tug heavy cargo containers around space, Sevastyanov said.

Helium-3 is a non-radioactive isotope of helium that can be used in nuclear fusion.

Rare on earth but plentiful on the moon, it is seen by some experts as an ideal fuel because it is powerful, non-polluting and generates almost no radioactive by-product.

January 25, 2006

2005 warmest year in "several thousand years"

The year 2005 may have been the warmest year in a century, according to NASA scientists studying temperature data from around the world. In descending order, the years with the highest global average annual temperatures were 2005, 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2004, NASA said in a statement. "It's fair to say that it probably is the warmest since we have modern meteorological records," said Drew Shindell of the NASA institute in New York City."Using indirect measurements that go back farther, I think it's even fair to say that it's the warmest in the last several thousand years.

January 21, 2006

Management bent on worst practice


Dennis Tourish
18 January 2006

I CAME to Australia in 1999 to work at a sandstone university. But within three months of my arrival I started applying for jobs back in Britain and left within a year. My recent visits tell me that many of the problems that existed then have intensified. At the bottom, these can be summed up in one word: managerialism. This is the wholly unreasonable conviction that those at the top always know better than those they manage, who must bow in all matters to the wisdom of their betters.

Thus, university management in Australia increasingly seeks to casualise labour by reducing the proportion of tenured faculty; undermine collegiality and involvement in decision-making by centralising power; reduce real academic salaries; and preside over a widening status gap between managers and the managed.
These approaches contradict research into what the most effective organisations actually do. Studies looking for what distinguishes the best performers from the worst suggest the following lessons for Australian higher education today.
First, improve employment security. Higher education increasingly relies on vast numbers of people who have no permanent relationship with universities. However, research evidence suggests that productivity improvements, staff loyalty, high quality and innovations in work practices are hard to sustain when people become terrified of losing their jobs, or feel semi-detached from a business.
A more positive example is that of the US retail chain Men's Wearhouse. It recently achieved a five-year compounded annual growth rate of 26 per cent in revenues and 29 per cent in net income, in a market where men have been spending less on tailored clothing. A leading reason for its success has been reliance on a permanent, full-time work force. Only 12 per cent of its staff are part time, a much lower figure than the industry norm.
A contingent work force is less loyal (as its employer is less loyal to it), understands less about the core business, has little incentive to deliver superior customer satisfaction, is more preoccupied by its own unmet needs and has a lower skills base than its more secure counterpart.
Yet university managers increasingly talk of having a much larger periphery of semi-experts who can be hired or fired at will. This supposedly new and "virtual" approach is more like a method known in the late 1700s as "putting out", where workers owned their own looms and spinning wheels and provided finished product to a merchant putter outer. The system failed because of poor quality.
Second, decentralise decision-making. Workers with greater autonomy and discretion have higher job satisfaction and therefore outperform those in tightly supervised groups. For example, a manufacturing plant that introduced self-managing teams found defect rates were reduced by 38 per cent and productivity rose by 20 per cent.
In contrast, the Queensland University of Technology's vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake has publicly endorsed the view that academics "had better get used to new impositions of accountability and performance as quickly as possible". The suggestion is that it is the job of managers to think and that of others to do, and do what they are told.
Compare his tone with that of Lawrence Bossidy, former chief executive of the multibillion-dollar company Allied Signal: "The day when you could yell and scream and beat people into good performance is over." Many businesses are embracing forms of collegiality found in traditional universities, while universities in Australia are emulating a managerialism now largely disdained in the corporate world where it originated.
Third, improve pay and encourage trade union organisation. Higher pay attracts the brightest and the best, and is a characteristic of businesses that manage to sustain top performance over an extended period. Individual contracts tend to reduce the median level of pay while undermining the team spirit central to organisational success. Research has also found that higher rates of unionisation are connected to higher productivity and profits.
One study looked at 600 manufacturing companies in the US. It found that unionised firms had productivity levels 16 per cent above the norm. There are exceptions, but I am drawing attention to general trends. Productivity in non-unionised firms was 11 per cent lower. Southwest Airlines has been dubbed the best company to work for in the US by Fortune magazine, is the safest of the world's 85 major airlines and is the only US airline to have been profitable for more than 26 years. It is also the country's most highly unionised, with membership levels of 84 per cent.
The two are connected. Unions tend to want higher pay, which means the better qualified candidates are more likely to seek jobs with the organisation concerned. In turn, higher productivity from a motivated and loyal work force more than compensates for above-average pay levels.
By any reasonable standard, academic productivity and performance have soared. Pay has not (vice-chancellors aside). Trade unions have also been demonised as an enemy within, rather than viewed as potential partners. Of late the Howard Government has made extra money available for universities but it is contingent on staff being offered individual contracts.
The hope is that trade unions, a lingering remnant of the staff voice, will be further marginalised. Clearly, this is more likely to generate internal conflict than world-beating performance. An organisation at war with itself rather than the competition rarely sustains a pre-eminent position.
What next? I have highlighted only some of what effective organisations in the real world do. The Australian Government champions none of them. Its approach embodies the folk wisdom of an untrained supervisor in a mid-19th-century textile factory. Given that none of its policies are remotely original, the most that can be said in the Government's favour is that it at least has the courage of other people's destructive convictions.
It is time for higher education to start afresh. The prospect of a career in Australian academe grows steadily less alluring. Can demoralisation and disempowerment really produce a clever country? The Howard Government seems to think so.
My novel suggestion is that, for a change, management in universities should be modelled on best practice and the theory that summarises it, instead of the worst.
Dennis Tourish is professor of management and leadership at Aberdeen Business School in Scotland.

January 16, 2006

Lovelock says we are past the point on no return

We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords. Most of all, we should remember that we are a part of it, and it is indeed our home.

Global warming to speed up as carbon levels show sharp rise

Through most of the past half-century, levels of the gas rose by an average of 1.3 parts per million a year; in the late 1990s, this figure rose to 1.6 ppm, and again to 2ppm in 2002 and 2003. But unpublished figures for the first 10 months of this year show a rise of 2.2ppm.

Beware the fossil fools

The dismissal of climate change by journalistic nincompoops is a danger to us all.

Picture a situation in which most of the media, despite the overwhelming weight of medical opinion, refused to accept that there was a connection between smoking and lung cancer. Imagine that every time new evidence emerged, they asked someone with no medical qualifications to write a piece dismissing the evidence and claiming that there was no consensus on the issue.

Imagine that the BBC, in the interests of "debate", wheeled out one of the tiny number of scientists who says that smoking and cancer aren't linked, or that giving up isn't worth the trouble, every time the issue of cancer was raised.

Imagine that, as a result, next to nothing was done about the problem, to the delight of the tobacco industry and the detriment of millions of smokers. We would surely describe the newspapers and the BBC as grossly irresponsible.

Now stop imagining it, and take a look at what's happening. The issue is not smoking, but climate change. The scientific consensus is just as robust, the misreporting just as widespread, the consequences even graver.

If it is true, as the government's new report suggested last week, that it is now too late to prevent hundreds of thousands of British people from being flooded out of their homes, then the journalists who have consistently and deliberately downplayed the threat carry much of the responsibility for the problem. It is time we stopped treating them as bystanders. It is time we started holding them to account.

"The scientific community has reached a consensus," the government's chief scientific adviser, Professor David King, told the House of Lords last month. "I do not believe that amongst the scientists there is a discussion as to whether global warming is due to anthropogenic effects.

It is man-made and it is essentially [caused by] fossil fuel burning, increased methane production... and so on." Sir David chose his words carefully. There is a discussion about whether global warming is due to anthropogenic (man-made) effects. But it is not - or is only seldom - taking place among scientists. It is taking place in the media, and it seems to consist of a competition to establish the outer reaches of imbecility.

During the heatwave last year, the Spectator made the case that because there was widespread concern in the 1970s about the possibility of a new ice age, we can safely dismiss concerns about global warming today.

This is rather like saying that because Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's hypothesis on evolution once commanded scientific support and was later shown to be incorrect, then Charles Darwin's must also be wrong.

Science differs from the leader writers of the Spectator in that it learns from its mistakes. A hypothesis is advanced and tested. If the evidence suggests it is wrong, it is discarded. If the evidence appears to support it, it is refined and subjected to further testing. That some climatologists predicted an ice age in the 1970s, and that the idea was dropped when others found that their predictions were flawed, is a cause for confidence in climatology.

But the Spectator looks like the Journal of Atmospheric Physics compared to the Mail on Sunday and its Nobel laureate-in-waiting, Peter Hitchens. "The greenhouse effect probably doesn't exist," he wrote in 2001. "There is as yet no evidence for it." Perhaps Hitchens would care to explain why our climate differs from that of Mars.

That some of the heat from the sun is trapped in the Earth's atmosphere by gases (the greenhouse effect) has been established since the mid-19th century. But, like most of these nincompoops, Hitchens claims to be defending science from its opponents. "The only reason these facts are so little known", he tells us, is (apart from the reason that he has just made them up), "that a self-righteous love of 'the environment' has now replaced religion as the new orthodoxy".

Hitchens, in turn, is an Einstein beside that famous climate scientist Melanie Phillips. Writing in the Daily Mail in January, she dismissed the entire canon of climatology as "a global fraud" perpetrated by the "leftwing, anti-American, anti-west ideology which goes hand in hand with anti-globalisation and the belief that everything done by the industrialised world is wicked".

This belief must be shared by the Pentagon, whose recent report pictures climate change as the foremost threat to global security. In an earlier article, she claimed that "most independent climate specialists, far from supporting [global warming], are deeply sceptical". She managed to name only one, however, and he receives his funding from the fossil fuel industry.

Having blasted the world's climatologists for "scientific illiteracy", she then trumpeted her own. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which collates the findings of climatologists) is, she complained, "studded with weasel words" such as "very likely" and "best estimate". These weasel words are, of course, what make it a scientific report, rather than a column by Melanie Phillips.

If ever you meet one of these people, I suggest you ask them the following questions: 1. Does the atmosphere contain carbon dioxide? 2. Does atmospheric carbon dioxide influence global temperatures? 3. Will that influence be enhanced by the addition of more carbon dioxide? 4. Have human activities led to a net emission of carbon dioxide? It would be interesting to discover at which point they answer no - at which point, in other words, they choose to part company with basic physics.

But these dolts are rather less danger ous than the BBC, and its insistence on "balancing" its coverage of climate change. It appears to be incapable of running an item on the subject without inviting a sceptic to comment on it.

Usually this is either someone from a corporate-funded thinktank (who is, of course, never introduced as such) or the professional anti-environmentalist Philip Stott. Professor Stott is a retired biogeographer. Like almost all the prominent sceptics he has never published a peer-reviewed paper on climate change. But he has made himself available to dismiss climatologists' peer-reviewed work as the "lies" of ecofundamentalists.

This wouldn't be so objectionable if the BBC made it clear that these people are not climatologists, and the overwhelming majority of qualified scientific opinion is against them. Instead, it leaves us with the impression that professional opinion is split down the middle. It's a bit like continually bringing people on to the programme to suggest that there is no link between HIV and Aids.

What makes all this so dangerous is that it plays into the hands of corporate lobbyists. A recently leaked memo written by Frank Luntz, the US Republican and corporate strategist, warned that "The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general - and President Bush in particular - are most vulnerable... Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need... to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue."

We can expect Professors Hitchens and Phillips to do what they're told. But isn't it time that the BBC stopped behaving like the public relations arm of the fossil fuel lobby?

January 10, 2006

The Matrix lives

Interesting set of papers on the question of if we are living in a sim.