Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World by David Deutsch

This is a really interesting book to read, more as a phenomenon than the content. I can’t find a better way to describe the book than the feeling of listen to a drunken rant by a really brilliant person, and I mean that in a good way. It is like listening to a really upset person during a dinner who spins out of control. A lot does not really make sense, even more is just driven by anger and makes him lose focus. Particularly frustrating is that the anger makes him invent straw men of important issues like the precautionary principle (a very difficult and important issue) and then engage in emotional battles with them. But don’t let this scare you off.

You will have to suffer through the first two chapters and listen to an upset voice that is so frustrated with the religious fanatics in he US that he lost the ability to see nuances. At the same time it is easy to feel sympathy for David as he tries to fight the religious fanatics that arguably been the source of the most suffering though human history. At the same time I was hoping though the book that he should take a step back and say: “see how I now turned into the thing that I criticized, letting anger and frustration drive you will not create the open society we need. The fact that I don’t agree with someone is not a reason to simplify things.”.

After the two initial chapters discussing different kinds of ways of philosophy and ways to approach science (without much nuance as I said, but still important) he all of a sudden starts discussing Star trek. He almost lost me there as it felt bizarre to read someone, who was criticizing a lot of people in very important areas, all of a sudden take transporters in Star trek very serious. The funny thing is that it leads to the best description of quantum computing I have ever read. Only this part make the book worth reading.

It highlights that people who are not really capable of coherent thinking in many important areas can help move the knowledge in society forward. How can we allow these people to work, while at the same time keep an open and wise society where questions about education, environmental degradation, energy systems, democracy, etc can be discussed in an educated way?

After the chapter about quantum computing, where he demonstrate that he knows something really well and can describe it in a way that indicates many lectures and discussions in the filed, he falls back to the ranting again. This time however it is easier to read as it becomes that this is not a book that should be read as a contribution to any larger issues in society. This is a book that should be read to understand how really good scientists feel when their innovation and right to do what they want.

David is a smart guy, but not as smart as he thinks he is. He is like a more angry and less brilliant version of Richard Feynman, a person who also thought he was more clever than he was, but fun and while he could be arrogant he never came across as this angry to me. Beside the very good quantum computer description I think the book is best read as a call for a more humble approach for scientists. Scientists should take on the challenges in society, but I think it would help if those thought about the need for a dialogue and clearly state what their focus is.

Taking a step back I’m happy that David was published as so many of the books today are written by journalists/entertainers that don’t know the subject they write about (beyond google searches) and treat their audience as if they can’t read a sentence with more than ten words.

As he is so personal it would be interesting to know next time what he is doing to help reduce global poverty, develop solutions that 9-10 billion people can use, reduce natural resource consumption, increase dialogue between different cultures, address the threat of pandemics, demographic changes, etc. Is he a vegetarian, what car does he drive, what energy does he use? What are the choices he thinks are important?

Friday, 22 July 2011

Full letter from Greg Maxwell + some thoughts about access to knowledge and media

The 21st century connectivity and the opportunities we have, e.g. to create a global digital Alexandria with free access to all the important knowledge in the world, require us to discuss some very difficult questions. Unfortunately most of these discussions, that will define freedom/equity/knowledge in the 21st century, are happening without many policy makers or mainstream media seem to understand what’s going on…

Now the actions by Aaron Swartz (you can read more about the case at Demand Progress) and Greg Maxwell have triggered an interesting discussion that hopefully can spread outside the small group that discuss this issue on a regular basis.

I have discussed these issues before so I’ll just post the letter from “Greg” below and before that a few headings from different media. These are either interesting articles and/or interesting headlines.

Beside the more fundamental questions, I think some researchers should do is look into the language used by media and policy makers in cases such as Aaron Swartz/Greg Maxwell and their actions in relation to JSTOR. Do they simply call it a CRIME and say that old rules apply. Do they put words, like STOLE, between quotation marks to indicate that things are a bit complicated? Or do they just state things, like THOUSANDS OF SCIENTIFIC PAPERS UPLOADED TO THE PIRATE PAY, that are more neutral (but actually factual incorrect as it is a torrent file that is uploaded, something that is key when discussing P2P/file sharing). Do they provide links to people can find the documents (is this encouraging crime or basic service to the reader)? Do we refer to the people as criminals, activists or ethical students?

Interestingly a number of media do not seem to have a problem to download material and support the general idea that information should be free. The idea that an economic entity or a person can “own” information/knowledge will hopefully give way to a society where people/companies are compensated when they contribute to knowledge, but the basic principle is that knowledge is for everyone.

Some examples of headings:

> “More knowledge 'stolen' for the good of science” - Nidhi Subbaraman
> “Huge Trove of Academic Docs Posted Online in Response to Activist Arrest” Wired News (blog) - Ryan Singel
> “Swartz supporter dumps 18592 JSTOR docs on the Pirate Bay” Ars Technica - Timothy B. Lee
> “Thousands of scientific papers uploaded to The Pirate Bay” GigaOm - Janko Roettgers

Below is the full letter from Greg Maxwell

Hash: SHA1

This archive contains 18,592 scientific publications totaling
33GiB, all from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
and which should be available to everyone at no cost, but most
have previously only been made available at high prices through
paywall gatekeepers like JSTOR.

Limited access to the documents here is typically sold for $19
USD per article, though some of the older ones are available as
cheaply as $8. Purchasing access to this collection one article
at a time would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Also included is the basic factual metadata allowing you to
locate works by title, author, or publication date, and a
checksum file to allow you to check for corruption.

ef8c02959e947d7f4e4699f399ade838431692d972661f145b782c2fa3ebcc6a sha256sum.txt

I've had these files for a long time, but I've been afraid that if I
published them I would be subject to unjust legal harassment by those who
profit from controlling access to these works.

I now feel that I've been making the wrong decision.

On July 19th 2011, Aaron Swartz was criminally charged by the US Attorney
General's office for, effectively, downloading too many academic papers
from JSTOR.

Academic publishing is an odd systemΓΓé¼ΓÇ¥the authors are not paid for their
writing, nor are the peer reviewers (they're just more unpaid academics),
and in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid. Sometimes the
authors must even pay the publishers.

And yet scientific publications are some of the most outrageously
expensive pieces of literature you can buy. In the past, the high access
fees supported the costly mechanical reproduction of niche paper journals,
but online distribution has mostly made this function obsolete.

As far as I can tell, the money paid for access today serves little
significant purpose except to perpetuate dead business models. The
"publish or perish" pressure in academia gives the authors an impossibly
weak negotiating position, and the existing system has enormous inertia.

Those with the most power to change the system--the long-tenured luminary
scholars whose works give legitimacy and prestige to the journals, rather
than the other way around--are the least impacted by its failures. They
are supported by institutions who invisibly provide access to all of the
resources they need. And as the journals depend on them, they may ask
for alterations to the standard contract without risking their career on
the loss of a publication offer. Many don't even realize the extent to
which academic work is inaccessible to the general public, nor do they
realize what sort of work is being done outside universities that would
benefit by it.

Large publishers are now able to purchase the political clout needed
to abuse the narrow commercial scope of copyright protection, extending
it to completely inapplicable areas: slavish reproductions of historic
documents and art, for example, and exploiting the labors of unpaid
scientists. They're even able to make the taxpayers pay for their
attacks on free society by pursuing criminal prosecution (copyright has
classically been a civil matter) and by burdening public institutions
with outrageous subscription fees.

Copyright is a legal fiction representing a narrow compromise: we give
up some of our natural right to exchange information in exchange for
creating an economic incentive to author, so that we may all enjoy more
works. When publishers abuse the system to prop up their existence,
when they misrepresent the extent of copyright coverage, when they use
threats of frivolous litigation to suppress the dissemination of publicly
owned works, they are stealing from everyone else.

Several years ago I came into possession, through rather boring and
lawful means, of a large collection of JSTOR documents.

These particular documents are the historic back archives of the
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal SocietyΓΓé¼ΓÇ¥a prestigious scientific
journal with a history extending back to the 1600s.

The portion of the collection included in this archive, ones published
prior to 1923 and therefore obviously in the public domain, total some
18,592 papers and 33 gigabytes of data.

The documents are part of the shared heritage of all mankind,
and are rightfully in the public domain, but they are not available
freely. Instead the articles are available at $19 each--for one month's
viewing, by one person, on one computer. It's a steal. From you.

When I received these documents I had grand plans of uploading them to
Wikipedia's sister site for reference works, WikisourceΓΓé¼ΓÇ¥ where they
could be tightly interlinked with Wikipedia, providing interesting
historical context to the encyclopedia articles. For example, Uranus
was discovered in 1781 by William Herschel; why not take a look at
the paper where he originally disclosed his discovery? (Or one of the
several follow on publications about its satellites, or the dozens of
other papers he authored?)

But I soon found the reality of the situation to be less than appealing:
publishing the documents freely was likely to bring frivolous litigation
from the publishers.

As in many other cases, I could expect them to claim that their slavish
reproductionΓΓé¼ΓÇ¥scanning the documentsΓΓé¼ΓÇ¥ created a new copyright
interest. Or that distributing the documents complete with the trivial
watermarks they added constituted unlawful copying of that mark. They
might even pursue strawman criminal charges claiming that whoever obtained
the files must have violated some kind of anti-hacking laws.

In my discreet inquiry, I was unable to find anyone willing to cover
the potentially unbounded legal costs I risked, even though the only
unlawful action here is the fraudulent misuse of copyright by JSTOR and
the Royal Society to withhold access from the public to that which is
legally and morally everyone's property.

In the meantime, and to great fanfare as part of their 350th anniversary,
the RSOL opened up "free" access to their historic archivesΓΓé¼ΓÇ¥but "free"
only meant "with many odious terms", and access was limited to about
100 articles.

All too often journals, galleries, and museums are becoming not
disseminators of knowledgeΓΓé¼ΓÇ¥as their lofty mission statements
suggestΓΓé¼ΓÇ¥but censors of knowledge, because censoring is the one thing
they do better than the Internet does. Stewardship and curation are
valuable functions, but their value is negative when there is only one
steward and one curator, whose judgment reigns supreme as the final word
on what everyone else sees and knows. If their recommendations have value
they can be heeded without the coercive abuse of copyright to silence

The liberal dissemination of knowledge is essential to scientific
inquiry. More than in any other area, the application of restrictive
copyright is inappropriate for academic works: there is no sticky question
of how to pay authors or reviewers, as the publishers are already not
paying them. And unlike 'mere' works of entertainment, liberal access
to scientific work impacts the well-being of all mankind. Our continued
survival may even depend on it.

If I can remove even one dollar of ill-gained income from a poisonous
industry which acts to suppress scientific and historic understanding,
then whatever personal cost I suffer will be justifiedΓΓé¼ΓÇ¥it will be one
less dollar spent in the war against knowledge. One less dollar spent
lobbying for laws that make downloading too many scientific papers
a crime.

I had considered releasing this collection anonymously, but others pointed
out that the obviously overzealous prosecutors of Aaron Swartz would
probably accuse him of it and add it to their growing list of ridiculous
charges. This didn't sit well with my conscience, and I generally believe
that anything worth doing is worth attaching your name to.

I'm interested in hearing about any enjoyable discoveries or even useful
applications which come of this archive.

- ----
Greg Maxwell - July 20th 2011 Bitcoin: 14csFEJHk3SYbkBmajyJ3ktpsd2TmwDEBb

Version: GnuPG v1.4.11 (GNU/Linux)


Sunday, 17 July 2011

Top-ten mobile apps that can make the world a better place Q2 2011

Top-ten mobile apps that can make the world a better place Q2 2011

Visit and get a glimpse of a better future

Embargo: 2011-06-18

Today present the top-ten list for the second quarter 2011. Each quarter ten transformative applications that address some of the most pressing challenges in our society, and five initiatives that support the development and uptake of such applications are presented.

In the second assessment the following applications are included (in alphabetical order):
  • Biblion
  • EveryTrail
  • Health Enhancement Assist Service
  • iKiva
  • Leafsnap
  • Plugshare
  • Realtimecongress
  • RedPhone
  • Runkeeper (Health Graph update)
  • Seasonal Harvest Lite

Areas such as health (where we through leading mobile applications can see a move from central institutions addressing symptoms once people are already sick to a decentralized system with focus on a healthy life) are developing fast. EveryTrail, Health Enhancement Assist Service and Runkeepers update with an “health graph” are all interesting examples.

Direct and open connections are also getting a lot of attention among entrepreneurial developers with iKiva, RedPhone and Sesonal Harvest Light covering different aspects, from free communication to the ability to connect to those that produce things we use.

- The response has been fantastic and we want to make sure that the page highlight a diverse set of applications and supportive initiatives that address, or have the potential to address, today's and tomorrow's most important challenges, said Dennis Pamlin, who is coordinating the initiative. It is very interesting to see that it is mainly independent entrepreneurs that are moving the transformative agenda forward.

The five supporting initiatives Q2 2011 are:
  • Access
  • Apps for Development
  • Investigative Dashboard (ID)
  • Prix Pictet
  • Zilok
- Very few of the major stakeholders today are doing anything transformative. They seem to see mobile application and the increased connectivity more as a threat than an opportunity. If they do anything at all they just transfer existing data and ways of operating into apps. We will now send out a questionnaire to leading stakeholders and ask how they support transformative applications.

For more information and the list of transformative applications please visit:

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Eco-innovation in Europe: Not very innovative, or are the "experts" looking in the wrong direction?

Right now I’m looking for data in the project "transformative low-carbon leadership" for GeSI. A friend sent a report about Eco-innovation, “The Eco-Innovation Challenge; Pathways to a resource efficient Europe”, and was surprised about the lack of innovation in it. It is not the first time and the report is not particular bad (actually a bit better than a lot of other report that talk about innovation), but this time I decided to look a bit closer.

I think there are three main reasons for these kinds of studies being so bad when it come to what I call innovation (substantial change or difference versus more incremental changes):
  • First, they look at changes (and often incremental changes) in existing systems, not new ways of providing services. This result in a situation where they are seldom looking at anything really innovative.
  • Second, they have a problem perspective where the final emissions/pollution/waste is the focus. Many seem to be experts in waste/pollution and are probably threatened by actual solutions, as these will make their knowledge redundant.
  • Third, they are funded by/targeting current polluters, not tomorrow’s solution providers. Or else it is just tragic that they keep ignoring tomorrow’s solution providers.

A simple Google search shows that there are reasons to be optimistic. New areas are not far after other areas when searched for together with “eco-innovation”, maybe this is because people outside Europe are more open to tomorrow’s solutions, or maybe there are better experts in Eco-innovation than the people who put the study above together (see above for the result/focus of that report).

Solar are already on the level of the older/traditional areas, and ICT will probably move into mainstream soon. Nanotech and Robots are two areas I think will grow very fast over the next five years and biotech is already a priority. It is amazing that a study that claim to talk about innovation manage to ignore solar, ICT, biotech, nanotech and robots...

One of the challenges is to ensure that academia move the focus from incremental eco-innovation to transformative eco-innovation. On the web people like to link transformative with eco-innovation, but that is not what is happening when we look at scholarly articles (see below).

This is one of the images in the EU study that (as most studies in the field) almost totally ignored innovative solutions used a problem approach. Beside the fact that solution sectors are not included the graph show little more than the fact that the use of the term "eco-innovation" is becoming increasingly popular.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

This is the first Sci-fi I have read that take on the decline on the US though the “entertainment”/connectivity development we see now. It is also a good example on how people see China as the "threat" that are beyond the control of anything the US can do, as US is not really bringing anything of value anymore. The part where US wants to impress the visiting person (the head of China's Central Bank and "probably the most powerful person on the planet") by showing that the US can still innovate is brilliant.

In many ways this is for me the Bukowski version of Daemon (the brilliant book by Daniel Suarez that everyone interesting in technology should read). The need to stay connected and the focus on instant gratification is not very sophisticated but therefore also very effective. Letting all (almost) key characters be outside the main events in society is and efficient way to create the feeling of lost control that seem to drive many today into situations where they work without much reflection or thought about any broader consequences of their actions. His main character is such a sad person that it is hard not to see him as the perfect caricature of a US "intellectual" today.

Sometimes it feels a little to much focus on sex/nudity, but then you relies that this is where we are heading if media/PR/TV continue on the path we are on today and have been since mass marketing begun. I hope people doing advertising, developing apps and are innovative in the use of new media read this and think a little about where things are heading… Maybe even take the time to read Simmel, The Philosophy of Money.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Education for sustainability in the 21st century

What is smart and sustainable education in the 21st century? This is one of the key challenges today. Instead of asking how ICT can be used in schools, the salary level of teachers and similar marginal questions we should ask what education is in the 21st century. The two key questions are:
1. What do we need to learn?
2. How can we learn? (using new technology and solutions)

The first question is very interesting as we are moving into a society where changes are happening so fast and where science is no longer even close to intuitive (quantum mechanics, nanotechnology, data processing, genetic manipulation, etc) that it will be challenging to guide the development with current democratic institutions (or non democratic institutions in some cases). It is also important as access to data and connectivity make interpretation of data rather than memorizing data more important in many cases. A geopolitical shift make cultural understanding of countries like China and India more important in the western curriculum.

The second question is equally interesting and related. When we can get access to information and explanations by the world’s best teachers though mobile devices what is the role of the “industrial school” (presented in an entertaining way here by Ken Robinson) and how can we focus on education/learning rather than an institution with limited relevance in the 21st century. Distant education has a great potential to lead the discussion, but so far they have often used traditional education as the benchmark instead of developing new innovative approaches to education. Will this change?

A first step could be to develop a ranking/rating system of current education. What are the best approaches/contributions to sustainable development and how can it be measured.

Realize that I’ve over the three last weeks discussed the issue of education and innovation three times in three different processes. At EDEN (Annual ConferenceLearning and Sustainability: The New Ecosystem of Innovation and Knowledge) and at a pan EU university project and today I could not avoid it during a (video) discussion about ICT and sustainability during an event in Almedalen.