Monday, January 31, 2005

Make Sense Not War

Submerged amidst the stories of the day was this one: the Brazilian government says it will jettison "just trust us" proprietary software (like Windows) in favor of "you take control" open source software (like Linux).

The bottom line is: a bright future is both attainable and sustainable, but requires a high level of transparency, a plentiful supply of timely, usefully presented global data. That's been a political ideal earning lip service, but now it's also an engineering requirement.

Oft times, money talk tends to dumb down an otherwise coherent narrative and slow its advance by keeping our attention misdirected. Once it's all about money, expect plenty of fast talk and sleights of hand. Remember the dot com revolution and how quickly any real information about the technology was submerged in BS? Hey, we've had centuries to practice and fine tune the discourse (me like the next guy -- so pay close attention (now you see it, now you don't)).

is reporting $9 billion unaccounted for by the Coalition Provisional Authority. The chaos of war provides a convenient excuse many hope will serve as their cover indefinitely. Money pads private accounts, no work gets done, the infrastructure decays, soldiers and civilians get killed, and terrorism is to blame. Welcome to the United States of America, folks -- or were we discussing Iraq?

We geeks in our open source control rooms know to keep our eyes on the prize: good clear information, circuit diagrams, blueprints, flow charts, hard core scientific models. Like, where are those generators and what are their specs, and why aren't they working? Could a neighboring grid pick up the slack? Why all these rolling brownouts and fuel shortages month after month? Because of terrorism right? Nothing to do with willful obfuscation, aiming to make out like bandits behind the scenes, to capitalize on the suffering of others, right?

Fortunately, this is not an "us versus them" story about little guys versus giants. As uplifting and inspirational as David's story might be, the fact is that many goliaths are alert to the possibilities. We could actually make this work, so why not?

Plus we geeks have a lot of street smarts and savvy. We're holding a lot of cards. We really have the upper hand in so many ways. Like, we have the Internet, we have Google. We're Morlocks after all, not Eloi, as Neal Stephenson aptly puts it (see: In the Beginning Was the Command Line -- it's worth a read).

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Total Information Awareness

In this highly effective ACLU ad, some hapless netizen phones to order pizza and gets more than he bargained for: an encounter with big brother (or big sister in this case). And she's right of course: he should lay off the double meat, given that waist line and medical history -- although she'll allow the transgression if he signs a release from the HMO (expensive!).

Part of what makes this encounter seem so unfair is the pizza lady holds all the cards. Our would-be consumer knows nothing about his order-taker inquisitor. The violation of privacy is entirely one-sided. This suggests an important principle: to the extent that we are moving towards total information awareness (no one really knows the future), it shouldn't be about empowering Obnoxico (Fuller's term) at the expense of the average citizen. Here at Global Data, we don't just work for pointy-headed geeks named Poindexter. We work for you, the average pizza lover.

In my view, the average citizen is still sovereign. Like, go ahead and pig out on pizza if that's your karma, provided you allow for the rights of your neighbors (they don't have to watch, nor care if you kill yourself). Corporations on the other hand, being not human, don't have the same rights to privacy, especially the really big ones working closely with planetary infrastructure. The public has a right to know what these big name players are up to, given we'll all pay the consequences of bad decision making, and so increasing transparency is the name of the game.

I learned these values in the open source community, wherein I've taken an active role (like, why trust your life to source code they won't show you?) -- but also from Uncle Sam. The American commitment to freedom of information is not about providing exclusive and one-sided advantages to tiny elites, anonymous shareholders in their gated communities, or to military planners with fantasies of global domination. The commitment is to serve all of the people. That's why top management at Global Data has such love and respect for the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society -- and Google. And yes, we think the ACLU is pretty cool too.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Why Civilizations Fail

Portlanders packed First Congregational Church last night -- that's on the park blocks, near PSU. Dave, Darl and I sat together in the balcony. Our speaker was Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Gems and Steel, and now of another book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Note the word "choose" -- there's the notion of free will expressed in it, by author intent.

I've heard Jared a couple of times before, and I'm always blown away by his thick American accent, which I'm not enough of a philologist to pinpoint. Typical of Oregonians, of the Portland variety anyway, we tittered almost inaudably (so as not to be rude) when he said Oregon. People who live here (and new immigrants from out of state quickly learn this), say Oregun, with emphasis on the O.

They fail, civilizations, for a variety of reasons, including when the elite manages to isolate itself from the living conditions experienced by the rank and file. He described gated communities around LA, unaffected by failures of the surrounding infrastructure (including school systems) and therefore less likely to become worked up enough to take appropriate measures. Sometimes the wake up call comes too late in such cases.

Another bad omen is when a society fails to adjust its beliefs. He gives the example of Norse who settled in Greenland awhile back. These were staunch Christians who looked down on the rival Inuit as too outside God's fold to be worthy of respect. This was fine until the supply ships stopped coming, owing to troubles in the homeland. Although self-sufficiency was in principle still attainable, witness the Inuit, these Norse in Jared's view were too proud to sit at the feet of pagans and learn some new ways. And so they all died of starvation.

When he talked about USA military interventions overseas, as in Iraq, he did so minus the tone of moral outrage liberal Portlanders expect. The resulting discomfort was expressed in the Q&A. Jared seized the bull by the horns, and replied that any number of countries were queued up to collapse or implode, and whereas it was in the national self-interest to keep this from happening, because devastation abroad means terrorism and disease back home, tackling these challenges militarily would be unsustainably inefficient and impractical. We'd see these gargantuan price tags over and over, whereas a mere $25 billion would could fuel a globally effective anti-malaria campaign, a cost that would not be borne alone because intelligent policies attract investors. Portlanders were comfortable with this answer and applauded generously.

In Jared's view, Easter Island is a kind of parable. This place was remote, insulated by vast expanses of ocean from other societies, just like humans aboard Spaceship Earth. In the case of Easter Island, the humans failed to plan and deforested their ecosystem, made a number of other blunders. Before long, they were at war with themselves, knocking over enemy head sculptures and resorting to cannibalism -- not pretty. What's different in the case of Spaceship Earth, Jared reassured us, is our access to the historical record and to real time global data. When it comes to ecosystem management, we can learn from the Japanese, who invented sustainable forestry even before the Europeans did, and from oil companies like Chevron, which takes better care of its drilling zones in Papua New Guinea than do many national park systems. Sustainability is profitable, after all.

Of course the Chevron example was again disturbing to Portlanders, but Jared's response was consistent: it's up to us, the consumers, to do our homework and not villify giant corporations simply for being giant. Villify those committing specific crimes, including crimes committed legally. Not all businesses are equally culpable. As consumers, we should reward those that we appreciate, and withhold our business from those we do not. The same goes for politicians: don't write them off as a species; the devil is in the details. Vote with your dollars and vote with your votes. Participate. Make a difference. It's up to you and I to make humanity a success, not some nebulous "them." Again, the applause was sincere.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Blog Launch

The viewpoint here will be more like from mission control (alluding to NASA's historic base of operations in Houston, Texas), although the blog's title is also an allusion to TV-style newsroom control rooms, specifically that one in Control Room, the movie/documentary about Al Jazeera at the time of the ill-conceived and badly managed neocon attack on Iraq (a situation we're still working to salvage even as I write this).

You also find this control room motif in other genres, such as "the war room" in various military channel movies. Civilians have their "situation rooms" and in a world game context, such as here, control rooms have everything to do with monitoring ecosystems and associated field operations, especially those undertaken by technology and knowledge workers tasked with keeping systems humming aboard Spaceship Earth -- reducing entropy, solving problems.

Such control rooms show up on geek channels a lot, with the distinction between geek and military channels sometimes blurred, other times in sharp contrast owing to differences in training and outlook.