Saturday, January 19, 2008

Blog #20: monkey driven robots, in your facebook

Imagine if you will, the brain waves of a monkey at Duke University in Georgia directing the movements of a robot in Kyoto, Japan halfway around the globe. Sounds absurd doesn’t it? The stuff of science fiction. And yet according to a story in the New York Times published on January 15 that is exactly what happened. The article written by Sandra Blakeslee, tells of a 12 pound, 32 inch monkey named Idoya who was taught to walk a treadmill, and while doing this and using only her brain waves, she made a 200 pound, 5 foot robot walk on a treadmill thousands of miles away in Kyoto, Japan. At one point her handler had her stop her own treadmill walking, but had her keep on sending the signals of walking to the robot. Everybody held their breaths, but cheers went up in both Durham, N.C. and in Kyoto, when the robot kept on walking. You can read this remarkable story here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/15/science/15robo.html?ref=technology
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Michael Ottati's been a follower of the cult of Apple since 1991. So it's not suprising to see him among the faithful checking out the latest Apple gear. But what was unusual was that for the first time, Ottati, 52, brought his two sons, 9-year-old Anthony and 8-year-old Conner. This is not a case of father forcing his kids to follow their old man's pursuits. They're full on fans themselves. Anthony said he's got an iPod Nano, an iPod Shuffle and the family shares a Mac. He said he likes the designs of Apple, not only in its products but even its stores. On a recent trip to New York, he insisted they visit the Apple store. "They have a cool circular elevator and they have cool architecture," he said.

Father Ottati took advantage of free early registration for kids to bring them out. He said Apple's on to something with its melding of form and function, something even his kids can appreciate. And that's what brings the whole family out to Macworld. "Apple is one of the companies that is known for design. When you think of design, you think of BMW, Lexus and Apple," he said. It makes you think that if Apple can win converts at the age of 8 and 9 by emphasizing style and design, the company's future is pretty bright indeed.
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For any of you who were unfortunate enough to miss Steve Jobs’ opening address at MacWorld on Tuesday morning you can see it in its entirety at: http://events.apple.com.edgesuite.net/f27853y2/event/index.html?internal=fj2l3s9dm
And for a second take on Jobs’ presentation, catch Steve Wosniak, who co-founded Apple with Jobs from the Jobs’ family garage, give his take on the present state of the world of the Mac, who was interviewed as he stood on his Segue scooter outside the Moscone Center after the presentation: http://www.brightcove.tv/title.jsp?title=1379193696&channel=825291844
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And while Apple makes hardware and software to enrich our creativity and our experiences in this digital age, we certainly would not want to overlook Microsoft. However, seemingly as usual, Microsoft is taking an entirely different approach to that taken by Apple. From the UK's TImes Online comes word that the software behemoth from Redmond, Washington has applied for a patent capable of remotely monitoring a worker’s productivity, physical well being, and competence. The Times has seen a patent application filed by the company for a computer system that links workers to their computers via wireless sensors that measure their metabolism. The system would allow managers to monitor employees’ performance by measuring their heart rate, body temperature, movement, facial expression and blood pressure. Unions said they fear that employees could be dismissed on the basis of a computer’s assessment of their physiological state.

Technology allowing constant monitoring of workers was previously limited to pilots, firefighters and Nasa astronauts. This is believed to be the first time a company has proposed developing such software for mainstream workplaces. Microsoft submitted a patent application in the US for a “unique monitoring system” that could link workers to their computers. Wireless sensors could read “heart rate, galvanic skin response, EMG, brain signals, respiration rate, body temperature, movement facial movements, facial expressions and blood pressure,” the application states.

The system could also “automatically detect frustration or stress in the user” and “offer and provide assistance accordingly.” Physical changes to an employee would be matched to an individual psychological profile based on a worker’s weight, age and health. If the system picked up an increase in heart rate or facial expressions suggestive of stress or frustration, it would tell management that he needed help.

The Information Commissioner, civil liberties groups and privacy lawyers strongly criticised the potential of the system for “taking the idea of monitoring people at work to a new level.” Hugh Tomlinson, QC, an expert on data protection law at Matrix Chambers, told The Times: “This system involves intrusion into every single aspect of the lives of the employees. It raises very serious privacy issues.”

Peter Skyte, a national officer for the union Unite, said: “This system takes the idea of monitoring people at work to a new level with a new level of invasiveness but in a very old-fashioned way because it monitors what is going in rather than the results.” The Information Commissioner’s Office said: “Imposing this level of intrusion on employees could only be justified in exceptional circumstances.” The US Patent Office confirmed last night that the application was published last month, 18 months after being filed. Patent lawyers said that it could be granted within a year.

Microsoft last night refused to comment on the application, but said: “We have over 7,000 patents worldwide and we are proud of the quality of these patents and the innovations they represent. As a general practice, we do not typically comment on pending patent applications because claims made in the application may be modified through the approval process.”
Wouldn’t you know it? Microsoft is working night and day to align itself with your boss. Birds of a feather, etc.
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Are any of you out there feeling guilty about all that music you’ve been downloading for free thanks to p2p software like bit torrent? As we understand it the usual settlement to assuage guilt and avoid prosecution is $3,000, and if you have that amount to spare and want to purge yourself of all guilt the URL to go to and thereby avoid a court confrontation is this one: https://www.p2plawsuits.com/P2P_00_Home.aspx
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And speaking of the ever obnoxious RIAA, according to Eric Bangeman in ars technica, A US District Court judge in Oregon has reaffirmed a magistrate's award of attorneys' fees and the dismissal of exonerated RIAA defendant Tanya Andersen's counterclaims against the RIAA without prejudice so that her class-action lawsuit against the record labels can move ahead. Andersen, a disabled single mother who resides in Oregon, was sued by the RIAA in February 2005 for distributing gangster rap over KaZaA using the handle "gotenkito." She denied all of the RIAA's allegations and filed the now-dismissed counterclaims in October of that year. After over two years of contentious filings and allegations of misconduct by the RIAA's investigators, Atlantic v. Andersen was dismissed with prejudice after the record labels decided to drop the case.

Andersen was awarded attorneys' fees by the magistrate overseeing the case in September of last year, a decision that was quickly appealed by the RIAA. In a ruling noticed this morning by copyright attorney Ray Beckerman, Judge James A. Redden agreed with the magistrate's findings, writing that "the court's order dismissing Andersen's claims without prejudice provide a sufficient 'judicial imprimatur' on the 'alteration of the legal relationship of the parties' to justify conferring prevailing party status on Andersen."

Andersen's malicious prosecution lawsuit accuses the RIAA of invasion of privacy, deceptive business practices, libel, slander, and a host of other misdeeds, saying that the RIAA has "engaged in a coordinated enterprise to pursue a scheme of threatening and intimidating litigation in an attempt to maintain its music distribution monopoly." Her complaint contains some very disturbing allegations, including one that the labels attempted to contact her then eight-year-old daughter under false pretenses without Andersen's permission.

Andersen is seeking class-action status for her lawsuit, which would allow anyone who was "sued or were threatened with suit by Defendants for file-sharing, downloading or other similar activities, who have not actually engaged in actual copyright infringement" to join the lawsuit. The RIAA has denied any wrongdoing and has moved for dismissal of the lawsuit.

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There’s been a lot of online interest in FaceBook lately, especially after the 60 Minutes interview by Leslie Stahl with founder Mark Zuckerberg. However, according to Tom Hodgkinson writing in England’s The Guardian, “Although the project was initially conceived by media cover star Mark Zuckerberg, the real face behind Facebook is the 40-year-old Silicon Valley venture capitalist and futurist philosopher Peter Thiel. There are only three board members on Facebook, and they are Thiel, Zuckerberg and a third investor called Jim Breyer from a venture capital firm called Accel Partners.

“Facebook is a well-funded project,” Tomlinson points out, “
and the people behind the funding, a group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, have a clearly thought out ideology that they are hoping to spread around the world. Facebook is one manifestation of this ideology. Like PayPal before it, it is a social experiment, an expression of a particular kind of neoconservative libertarianism. On Facebook, you can be free to be who you want to be, as long as you don't mind being bombarded by adverts for the world's biggest brands. As with PayPal, national boundaries are a thing of the past.”

Hodgkinson goes on the say, “I despise Facebook. This enormously successful American business describes itself as "a social utility that connects you with the people around you.” But hang on. Why on God's earth would I need a computer to connect with the people around me? Why should my relationships be mediated through the imagination of a bunch of supergeeks in California? What was wrong with the pub?

“And does Facebook really connect people? Doesn't it rather disconnect us, since instead of doing something enjoyable such as talking and eating and dancing and drinking with my friends, I am merely sending them little ungrammatical notes and amusing photos in cyberspace, while chained to my desk? A friend of mine recently told me that he had spent a Saturday night at home alone on Facebook, drinking at his desk. What a gloomy image. Far from connecting us, Facebook actually isolates us at our workstations.

“Facebook appeals to a kind of vanity and self-importance in us, too. If I put up a flattering picture of myself with a list of my favourite things, I can construct an artificial representation of who I am in order to get sex or approval. ("I like Facebook," said another friend. "I got a shag out of it.") It also encourages a disturbing competitivness around friendship: it seems that with friends today, quality counts for nothing and quantity is king. The more friends you have, the better you are. You are "popular,” in the sense much loved in American high schools. Witness the cover line on Dennis Publishing's new Facebook magazine: "How To Double Your Friends List."

“It seems, though, that I am very much alone in my hostility. At the time of writing Facebook claims 59 million active users, including 7 million in the UK, Facebook's third-biggest customer after the US and Canada. That's 59 million suckers, all of whom have volunteered their ID card information and consumer preferences to an American business they know nothing about. Right now, 2 million new people join each week. At the present rate of growth, Facebook will have more than 200 million active users by this time next year. And I would predict that, if anything, its rate of growth will accelerate over the coming months. As its spokesman Chris Hughes says: "It's embedded itself to an extent where it's hard to get rid of."

“Thiel invested $500,000 in Facebook when Harvard students Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes and Dustin Moskowitz went to meet him in San Francisco in June 2004, soon after they had launched the site. Thiel now reportedly owns 7% of Facebook, which, at Facebook's current valuation of $15bn, would be worth more than $1bn. There is much debate on who exactly were the original co-founders of Facebook, but whoever they were, Zuckerberg is the only one left on the board, although Hughes and Moskowitz still work for the company.

“Thiel is widely regarded in Silicon Valley and in the US venture capital scene as a libertarian genius. He is the co-founder and CEO of the virtual banking system PayPal, which he sold to Ebay for $1.5bn, taking $55m for himself. He also runs a £3bn hedge fund called Clarium Capital Management and a venture capital fund called Founders Fund. Bloomberg Markets magazine recently called him "one of the most successful hedge fund managers in the country.” He has made money by betting on rising oil prices and by correctly predicting that the dollar would weaken. He and his absurdly wealthy Silicon Valley mates have recently been labelled "The PayPal Mafia" by Fortune magazine, whose reporter also observed that Thiel has a uniformed butler and a $500,000 McLaren supercar. Thiel is also a chess master and intensely competitive. He has been known to sweep the chessmen off the table in a fury when losing. And he does not apologise for this hyper-competitveness, saying: "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser."

“But Thiel is more than just a clever and avaricious capitalist. He is a futurist philosopher and neocon activist. A philosophy graduate from Stanford, in 1998 he co-wrote a book called The Diversity Myth, which is a detailed attack on liberalism and the multiculturalist ideology that dominated Stanford. He claimed that the "multiculture" led to a lessening of individual freedoms. While a student at Stanford, Thiel founded a rightwing journal, still up and running, called The Stanford Review - motto: Fiat Lux ("Let there be light"). Thiel is a member of TheVanguard.Org, an internet-based neoconservative pressure group that was set up to attack MoveOn.org, a liberal pressure group that works on the web. Thiel calls himself "way libertarian.”

“TheVanguard is run by one Rod D Martin, a philosopher-capitalist whom Thiel greatly admires. On the site, Thiel says: "Rod is one of our nation's leading minds in the creation of new and needed ideas for public policy. He possesses a more complete understanding of America than most executives have of their own businesses."

This little taster from their website will give you an idea of their vision for the world: "TheVanguard.Org is an online community of Americans who believe in conservative values, the free market and limited government as the best means to bring hope and ever-increasing opportunity to everyone, especially the poorest among us." Their aim is to promote policies that will "reshape America and the globe.” TheVanguard describes its politics as "Reaganite/Thatcherite.” The chairman's message says: "Today we'll teach MoveOn [the liberal website], Hillary and the leftwing media some lessons they never imagined."

So, Thiel's politics are not in doubt. What about his philosophy? I listened to a podcast of an address Thiel gave about his ideas for the future. His philosophy, briefly, is this: since the 17th century, certain enlightened thinkers have been taking the world away from the old-fashioned nature-bound life, and here he quotes Thomas Hobbes' famous characterisation of life as "nasty, brutish and short,” and towards a new virtual world where we have conquered nature. Value now exists in imaginary things. Thiel says that PayPal was motivated by this belief: that you can find value not in real manufactured objects, but in the relations between human beings. PayPal was a way of moving money around the world with no restriction. Bloomberg Markets puts it like this: "For Thiel, PayPal was all about freedom: it would enable people to skirt currency controls and move money around the globe."

“Clearly, Facebook is another uber-capitalist experiment: can you make money out of friendship? Can you create communities free of national boundaries - and then sell Coca-Cola to them? Facebook is profoundly uncreative. It makes nothing at all. It simply mediates in relationships that were happening anyway.

“Thiel's philosophical mentor is one René Girard of Stanford University, proponent of a theory of human behaviour called mimetic desire. Girard reckons that people are essentially sheep-like and will copy one another without much reflection. The theory would also seem to be proved correct in the case of Thiel's virtual worlds: the desired object is irrelevant; all you need to know is that human beings will tend to move in flocks. Hence financial bubbles. Hence the enormous popularity of Facebook. Girard is a regular at Thiel's intellectual soirees. What you don't hear about in Thiel's philosophy, by the way, are old-fashioned real-world concepts such as art, beauty, love, pleasure and truth.

“The internet is immensely appealing to neocons such as Thiel because it promises a certain sort of freedom in human relations and in business, freedom from pesky national laws, national boundaries and suchlike. The internet opens up a world of free trade and laissez-faire expansion. Thiel also seems to approve of offshore tax havens, and claims that 40% of the world's wealth resides in places such as Vanuatu, the Cayman Islands, Monaco and Barbados. I think it's fair to say that Thiel, like Rupert Murdoch, is against tax. He also likes the globalisation of digital culture because it makes the banking overlords hard to attack: "You can't have a workers' revolution to take over a bank if the bank is in Vanuatu," he says.

“If life in the past was nasty, brutish and short, then in the future Thiel wants to make it much longer, and to this end he has also invested in a firm that is exploring life-extension technologies. He has pledged £3.5m to a Cambridge-based gerontologist called Aubrey de Grey, who is searching for the key to immortality. Thiel is also on the board of advisers of something called the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. From its fantastical website, the following: "The Singularity is the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence. There are several technologies ... heading in this direction ... Artificial Intelligence ... direct brain-computer interfaces ... genetic engineering ... different technologies which, if they reached a threshold level of sophistication, would enable the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence."

“So by his own admission, Thiel is trying to destroy the real world, which he also calls "nature,” and install a virtual world in its place, and it is in this context that we must view the rise of Facebook. Facebook is a deliberate experiment in global manipulation, and Thiel is a bright young thing in the neoconservative pantheon, with a penchant for far-out techno-utopian fantasies. Not someone I want to help get any richer.

“Futhermore, have you Facebook users ever actually read the privacy policy? It tells you that you don't have much privacy. Facebook pretends to be about freedom, but isn't it really more like an ideologically motivated virtual totalitarian regime with a population that will very soon exceed the UK's? Thiel and the rest have created their own country, a country of consumers.

“Now, you may, like Thiel and the other new masters of the cyberverse, find this social experiment tremendously exciting. Here at last is the Enlightenment state longed for since the Puritans of the 17th century sailed away to North America, a world where everyone is free to express themselves as they please, according to who is watching. National boundaries are a thing of the past and everyone cavorts together in freewheeling virtual space. Nature has been conquered through man's boundless ingenuity. Yes, and you may decide to send genius investor Thiel all your money, and certainly you'll be waiting impatiently for the public flotation of the unstoppable Facebook.

“Or you might reflect that you don't really want to be part of this heavily-funded programme to create an arid global virtual republic, where your own self and your relationships with your friends are converted into commodites on sale to giant global brands. You may decide that you don't want to be part of this takeover bid for the world.

“For my own part, I am going to retreat from the whole thing, remain as unplugged as possible, and spend the time I save by not going on Facebook doing something useful, such as reading books. Why would I want to waste my time on Facebook when I still haven't read Keats' Endymion? And when there are seeds to be sown in my own back yard? I don't want to retreat from nature, I want to reconnect with it. Damn air-conditioning! And if I want to connect with the people around me, I will revert to an old piece of technology. It's free, it's easy and it delivers a uniquely individual experience in sharing information: it's called talking.”

Hodginson’s article answered the question as to why Republican and Libertarian Presidential candidate Ron Paul, scores 37% among Facebook members while polling only 6% in national polls. For Kara Swisher’s video interview with Thiel go: http://kara.allthingsd.com/20071101/kara-visits-founders-funds-peter-thiel/
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I intended to follow the previous piece with my take on why you should support candidates for the presidency and congress who believe in the government helping its own citizens first, last and foremost, however I have been hit by a midweek bug which has left me pretty much out of things. I had my flu shot this year, and so if it is this year’s edition of the flu I should be over it soon. But it is difficult to make much of a case for any point of view when you rack with chest pains every time you cough, and all you really want to do it sit in your comfy chair with the foot rest up, and nod out. And if this week’s post seems a bit shorter than usual, well there you have the reason.
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If you go down my posts and come across blank areas, these are the video embeds which have since disappeared. When YouTube began listing the code for embedding its videos onto your blogs or Myspace pages, I began copying and pasting them in because there’s nothing I like better than including a short video or two in these pages. However, suddenly they have disappeared, leaving only a blank space where they had been. When I discovered that last week’s embed didn’t make it on the page, I went back and pasted in the URL which will take you to the page if you copy and paste it in your browser. This video was a mydamnchannel video, and I thought maybe that because it wasn’t YouTube, maybe that was why it disappeared. But when I went further down my blogs past I discovered that all of my other videos which were YouTube had also disappeared. A day or two later they were all back, but not for long. As I checked them this morning, 1-18-08, they are again missing in action. I suppose I could go to a Google blogging support forum to find out what’s going on, but I feel too sick to bother at this point. If anybody out there knows what is going on please leave me a comment below. Meanwhile, bye for now. See you next week.

The Real Little Eddy