MonthDecember 2010

Video: Kowloon Walled City Documentary

A German documentary on the Kowloon Walled City from 1989.

(via Theoretick)

For more on Kowloon, see Justin Bolland’s guest post on the subject.

Decentralizing Twitter – And the Rest of the Web, Too

CouchDB

I just interviewed J Chris Anderson, the CFO of CouchOne, for ReadWriteWeb. CouchOne is the corporate sponsor of an open source database and programming language called CouchDB. Anderson recently started hosting a demo/proof of concept app called Twebz – a decentralized Twitter Client – built with CouchDB and node.js. Anderson explains how CouchDB could be used to decentralize not only Twitter, but most other web applications as well. It’s pretty geeky but could have big ramifications: This tech could help build a more resilient Internet in the face of disasters, cyberwarfare and censorship.

The aim is to allow you to interact with Twitter when Twitter is up and you are online. But if Twitter is down for maintenance or you are in the middle of nowhere, you can still tweet. And when you can reach Twitter again, it will go through.

If lots of folks are using it, then they can see each other’s tweets come in even when Twitter is down.

Mostly the goal was to show the way on how to integrate CouchDB with web services and APIs.

So if you did release this, and people started using it, and then one day Twitter decided “We’re done. We’re going to go raise pigs in the Ozarks,” Twebz would actually still be up and running fine basically forever and everyone could keep reading each other’s Tweets.

Yep. And as a side effect you have a complete personal Twitter archive of the folks you follow.

There’s even a feature to pull in the complete history of a user, so you can get the back fill of your closest friends if you want. […]

Could CouchDB and Node be used in conjunction to create some sort of decentralized darknet? Something along the lines of Freenet?

Node is a good fit for CouchDB because Couch encourages asynchronous background processes, but people also use Ruby / Python / Java for the same purposes. But yes, eventually the plan is that CouchDB will make web applications a lot more robust because they will no longer depend on a centralized point of failure. E.g., even if Twitter goes out of business, people can continue to share messages.

The turnover of Web 2.0 startups is so fast that I think users get discouraged from signing up for services. Why bother with a new photo share if there’s a chance it won’t be around in a year? But when those are CouchApps, users can continue to use them even if no one is maintaining them, which makes it more rational to invest time in using them. Imagine if Pownce or Dodgeball were still being run by fans.

ReadWriteHack: CouchOne’s J Chris Anderson On Decentralizing Twitter – And the Rest Of the Web

I asked him about “darknets” but what this really seems useful for is mesh networks.

For another example of how CouchDB is useful in low-connectivity settings, check out this case study on how Better Health Outcomes through Mentoring and Assessments is using CouchDB in rural Zambia.

For another example of a decentralized social network built on CouchDB, check out CouchAppspora, a port of Diaspora to CouchDB.

Update: Trevor reminds me that I should mention FidoNet for some historical context. PODSnet (Pagan Occult Distribution System Network) may be of particular interest to Technoccult readers.

Just Thinking About Christianity Makes People More Racist

pure white

Yikes, according to a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science:

Participants subliminally primed with Christian words displayed more covert racial prejudice against African-Americans (Study 1) and more general negative affect toward African-Americans (Study 2) than did persons primed with neutral words. The effects of priming on racial prejudice remained even when statistically controlling for pre-existing levels of religiousness and spirituality. Possible mechanisms for the observed effect of Christian religion on racial prejudice are discussed.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Does thinking about Christianity make people more racist?

The link only has the abstract, so I’m not sure about the methodology, but that’s a kind of scary result considering all the religious propaganda in the States.

Update:

Trevor Blake provided a link to a PDF of the full study, and that sheds some light on the subject. Of particular note is the “Caveats” section (emphasis mine):

It should be noted that, in both experiments, the baseline level of covert racial prejudice was in the neutral range. Furthermore, the magnitude of effects in this study was small. Priming Christian concepts did not cause a large increase in racial prejudice, but it did lead to a small, significant increase. As such, we cannot conclude that priming Christian concepts causes racism per se; our data do not support this conclusion. However, we did find that priming Christian concepts causes a negative shift in existing racial attitudes and that the direction of the shift represents a slight but significant increase in racial prejudice.

The sample sizes of the two studies were quite small. Only 73 in the first experiment and 43 in the second. Participants were mostly white and Christian, but other ethnicities and religions were represented.

The second experiment replicated the results of the first, but further replications by other researchers are needed – preferably with larger sample sizes – before any conclusions can be drawn.

Also, the section “Christian Concepts, Racial Prejudice, and Possible Mediators Between the Two,” which covers the paradoxes of current religious priming research, is worth reading.

Are we starting a full-out war on the Internet?

WikiLeaks is the perfect storm for all past issues on the net, but I’m afraid it also will draw us into a future that I’ve believed was coming and didn’t want to talk about. We don’t like to think about how much our civilization depends on the proper running of computer networks, and how vulnerable they are. Whoever it is that attacking Mastercard and Paypal are anonymous. They could be teenagers (that’s what we hope) but they could also be professionals working for foreign governments, or even the US government.

I watch my friends root for the attackers and think this is the way wars always begin. The “fighting the good fight” spirit. Let’s go over there and show them who we are. Let’s make a symbolic statement. By the time the war is underway, we won’t remember any of that. We will wonder how we could have been so naive to think that war was something wonderful or glorious. People don’t necessarily think of wars being fought on the net and over the net, but new technology comes to war all the time, and one side often doesn’t understand.

Are we starting a full-out war on the Internet?

This is as good a time as any to re-iterate my anti-vigilante stance.

However, that cyberwar is breaking out largely between non-state actors (in response to actions by state actors, but still).

Amusement Can Improve Creative Problem Solving

Puzzle

In a just completed study, researchers at Northwestern University found that people were more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused, having just seen a short comedy routine.

“What we think is happening,” said Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist who conducted the study with Karuna Subramaniam, a graduate student, “is that the humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain’s threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections” to solve puzzles.

This and other recent research suggest that the appeal of puzzles goes far deeper than the dopamine-reward rush of finding a solution. The very idea of doing a crossword or a Sudoku puzzle typically shifts the brain into an open, playful state that is itself a pleasing escape, captivating to people as different as Bill Clinton, a puzzle addict, and the famous amnesiac Henry Molaison, or H.M., whose damaged brain craved crosswords.

New York Times: Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving

(via Alex Pang)

Haruki Murakami on Fiction in the 21st Century

Murakami: reality a and reality b

We often wonder what it would have been like if 9/11had never happened — or at least if that plan had not succeeded so perfectly. Then the world would have been very different from what it is now. America might have had a different president (a major possibility), and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might never have happened (an even greater possibility).

Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put itin different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world. What can we possibly call this if not “chaos”?

What kind of meaning can fiction have in an age like this? What kind of purpose can it serve? In an age when reality is insufficiently real, how much reality can a fictional story possess?

New York Times: Reality A and Reality B

(via Theoretick)

See also: Network Realism

Arsenic-Based Life Possible, But Not Certain

Mono Lake

Boing Boing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker adds a quick dose of realism and clarity to this morning’s NASA announcement:

Not everybody agrees that this research proves the bacteria are capable of replacing phosphate with arsenic. You can read more about that debate in the really nicely done article at Nature News that I’m quoting above.

Also, even if this is proof that phosphate isn’t necessary for life, we still don’t know whether the bacteria in question actually replace their phosphate in the wild. Right now, this is something humans are convincing it to do in a petri dish. That’s why it’s not entirely fair to say that weird life has been discovered—all this paper does (if it stands up to the coming onslaught of scrutiny) is show that weird life is, in fact, possible.

But that’s still a pretty big deal. However you slice it, this is an extremely interesting little bacterium. It isn’t alien. It still has the same basic DNA structure we all know and love. It just might be able to use different chemicals to build that old, familiar structure. And that’s pretty cool on its own.

Also, Mono Lake sounds pretty cool:

A couple of years ago, scientists found bacteria in California’s Mono Lake that used arsenic compounds, rather than water, as an ingredient of photosynthesis. In fact, there’s been a lot of weird life research centered around Mono Lake. Hot, salty, low in oxygen, and high in lots of other useful chemicals, the Lake has been described as a here-and-now model of the old primordial soup.

Boing Boing: Weird life found on Earth—kind of, maybe

Photo by Chris Streeter

NASA Discovers New Life on Earth: Bacteria with Arsenic-Based DNA

Arsenic

Update: Please see this update on how, although this research is significant, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that there is arsenic-based bacteria in the wild.

Evidence that the toxic element arsenic can replace the essential nutrient phosphorus in biomolecules of a naturally occurring bacterium expands the scope of the search for life beyond Earth, according to Arizona State University scientists who are part of a NASA-funded research team reporting findings in the Dec. 2 online Science Express.

It is well established that all known life requires phosphorus, usually in the form of inorganic phosphate. In recent years, however, astrobiologists, including Arizona State University professors Ariel Anbar and Paul Davies, have stepped up conversations about alternative forms of life. […]

Davies has previously speculated that forms of life different from our own, dubbed “weird life,” might even exist side-by-side with known life on Earth, in a sort of “shadow biosphere.” The particular idea that arsenic, which lies directly below phosphorous on the periodic table, might substitute for phosphorus in life on Earth, was proposed by Wolfe-Simon and developed into a collaboration with Davies and Anbar. Their hypothesis was published in January 2009, in a paper titled “Did nature also choose arsenic?” in the International Journal of Astrobiology.

PhysOrg: Deadly arsenic breathes life into organisms

RIP Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson

Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson

Peter “Sleazey” Christopherson – of Throbbing Gristle, Coil and Soi Song, -died on November 24th:

The sad news has reached us that Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson has died in his sleep last night at the age of 55. Chris Carter twittered “Our dearest beautiful Sleazy left this mortal coil as he slept in peace last night. Words cannot express our grief.” and the TG site simply displays the message “Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson 1955 – 2010”.

Brainwashed: Coil

This live video of Throbbing Gristle from earlier this year is likely one of the last videos of him performing:

(Follow through to YouTube to view the rest)

Bubonic Plague Originated in China New Research Indicates

Doktor Schnabel von Rom

The first outbreak of plague occurred in China more than 2,600 years ago before reaching Europe via Central Asia’s “Silk Road” trade route, according to a study of the disease’s DNA signature.

The findings flesh out long-held suspicions about the Chinese origins of the plague, which killed an estimated third of Europe’s population in the Middle Ages.

An international team of scientists sequenced 17 strains of Y. pestis, building a genetic “family tree” of pathogens that mutated from a common ancestor.

PhysOrg: Plague came from China: scientists

(via Kyle)

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