Archive for December, 2006

Dreams of São Paulo

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

The thing I will remember from the past summer’s Creative Commons-related ‘iSummit‘ in Rio de Janiero is the view of from above (I flew San Francisco->Houston->São Paulo->Rio and back). Tall buildings stretching into the horizon in all directions, even moreso than Tokyo (New York doesn’t hold a candle to either, although its tallest buildings are taller). I felt I had finally seen the maximum city and could hardly believe the expanse, as if I dreamt it. Now I have to go see it on the ground, eventually.

Paul Keller (who was at the iSummit but the following is from an earlier trip) provides this description and photos:

the view from the bar an the gallery is absolutely breathtaking. the São Paulo metropolitan extends to the horizon (and probably beyond) in all four direction. the city seen from above is a collection of high rises of all shades of gray all states of decay and pretty much any architectural style imaginable. extremely beautiful if you ask me.

São Paulo panorama by Paul Keller, licensed under CC Attribution.

Image found on Wikipedia, credit to

The title of this post references , a cheesy radio drama I listened to in college.

More economic neanderthals

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

Trade may have been one point on which modern humans outcompeted Neanderthals (the latter didn’t tade over long distances).

New research claiming that Neanderthals were economic numbskulls got some press earlier this month, e.g., NYT, and here’s a quote from the Economist ($, online see below):

The archaeological record, however, shows few signs of any specialisation among the Neanderthals from their appearance about 250,000 years ago to their disappearance 30,000 years ago. Instead, they did one thing almost to the exclusion of all else: they hunted big game.

No trade, no , what’s not the love for a modern economic protectionistneanderthal? Today’s big game? “” corporations.

The paper is What’s a Mother to Do? The Division of Labor among Neandertals and Modern Humans in Eurasia by Steven L. Kuhn and Mary C. Stiner ($; I don’t see a non-gated version online). John Hawks has a negative review of the article.

Via Peter Gordon, who provides full text of the Economist article, and who also calls protectionists Neanderthals, and also blogged the same economic neanderthal article I did last year.

Identity entrepreneurs

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

Kill them before they get you killed.

That is my trumped-up takeaway from Cass Sunstein’s post On Ethnification:

A key question here is whether the relevant social norms impose pressure to identify in ethnic terms, or not to do so. It may be “politically correct” to broadcast one’s ethnicity, or it may be politically correct to hide it. Sometimes the governing norms shift abruptly. When this is so, there can be intense pressure to self-identify in ethnic terms, sometimes to retain friends, sometimes to obtain material advantages, sometimes to save one’s life. “Identity entrepreneurs” of various kinds can increase the pressure to emphasize ethnicity. It follows that ethnic identifications may well be a product of contemporary pressure, and have little to do with anything ancient or primordial.

Alternatively, heed them at your peril.

Note that identity entrepreneurship is part of the shtick of many abominable people, especially the worst of them.

NSFW as liberal content rating

Friday, December 29th, 2006

An observation I’ve wanted to make for awhile, given the right occasion, is that the common practice of nothing that something is is the bottom-up, liberal, mature, and responsible analog of (e.g., MPAA ratings).

NSFW is a friend telling you that viewing a link may not be appropriate in some contexts, but use your judgement. Content rating is a bureacracy telling you that viewing of some content by certain people is prohibited and perhaps enforced legally or .

Of course content rating may be used to aid in making an informed choice and NSFW hints could in theory be enforced, but nevertheless I think each’s common use and source is illustrative of something.

The occasion for mentioning this is someone proposing machine-readable NSFW annotation. I don’t have an opinion of the utility of this yet, but it is fun to see a much improved (technically) proposal come just five hours after the first.

Via Tim Lee.

Las Vegas

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006

Driving around the south, west, and near east parts of Las Vegas, I see an incredible number of shopping centers. Mostly strip malls, but not rinky-dink strip malls, and not with empty parking lots. The only stores I entered were Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, both packed. How can Las Vegas support so much shopping?

, centered around a few mega-strip malls, is pretty impressive, spread along several (very long) blocks along Spring Mountain Road.

Commercial Center, a cluster of old and presumably low-rent strip malls, appears to be the place for off-strip dining (I didn’t actually try anyplace in Chinatown, though I would have made an opportunity to try Satay had I seen a just-published review). The last time in Las Vegas (2002) I had a very good meal at Lotus of Siam, one of the few places I’ve encountered that sort of listens to requests for very hot food. I forgot the name and returned to Komol instead (across the parking lot), which was passable. Nearby India Palace provided a passable Dosa (their ad said “We Have Dosa!”)

I didn’t notice solar panels on any buildings despite the ideal climate for solar power. I conjecture that solar power is still not economical anywhere and perhaps Nevada offers fewer subsidies and Nevada residents are less interested in appearing green than California and Californians. Did I look in the wrong places?

Why does anyone play slots? What could be more boring? The people playing don’t look like they’re having fun (many of the people playing games with cards look like they are).

I think I read somewhere that the Cirque du Soleil is the Starbucks of performance. Seems apt. Five permanent shows running in Las Vegas, not counting imitators.

The Las Vegas Art Museum looks worth visiting, or will be by the next time I visit the area (which could be years). It appears they decided to be a contemporary museum last year. The current location shared with the Sahara West Library is nice. Unfortunately I only noticed on the way out of town and didn’t have time to look in.

is really neat and not at all crowded. If I look funny in the picture below I assure you it is only due to the extra 86 meters of atmosphere on top of me.

I immediately recognized as the armpit of California. Turns out it’s the armpit of America. Marvel at the sight and especially the smell. Well worth a pitstop on the way out of Death Valley.

Sanhattanize North Beach!

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006

Earlier today I wrote about a new hope for Sanhattanization, now I read of another, complete with a reactionary city supervisor invoking the horror (horrors!) of Manhattanization:

Decades ago, as downtown was expanding northward, gobbling up thriving, diverse communities and destroying dozens of historic buildings, community activists won a monumental zoning battle by drawing a bright line down Washington Street. On one side is the massive Downtown Business District, where the Transamerica Pyramid sits. On the other side are the human-scale neighborhoods of Chinatown, North Beach, and Jackson Square, San Francisco’s first historic district.

We have fought hard to maintain this barrier against the Manhattanization of our neighborhoods. In the late 1990s I joined with neighbors to successfully prevent the destruction of the landmark Colombo Building at the gateway from downtown into these historic neighborhoods.

Thanks to such retrogrades these neighborhoods have for decades lingered on as the embarrassingly cheesy tourist traps that they are rather than as integral parts of a world class city. Sad, very sad.

So when more than 200 neighbors showed up at a recent public meeting to protest the threat of yet another high-rise encroachment, I certainly took notice. Who was it this time? Not a private developer but our very own City College is now proposing a 17-story, 238-foot glass monstrosity at the corner of Kearny and Washington streets. And the college is arguing that, as a state agency, it can ignore San Francisco planning and zoning codes.

I have no opinion regarding the interplay of government entities here, but to call a mere 17 story building a monstrosity in the densest city in the U.S. outside New York is reveals a preference for Monterey by the (SF) Bay.

Via SF Curbed.

Addendum: Mark Pritchard writing at Metroblogging San Francisco:

Hey, you been to Manhattan lately? Works for me!

Sanhattan threatens former Bitzi offices

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006

Two 1,200 foot towers are planned for the northwest corner of 1st and Mission Streets in San Francisco, site of a few run down buildings, one of which Bitzi had offices in for most of 2001 (spruced up some since then). Will San Francisco planners allow rapacious developers to destroy history? I hope so. Onward to Sanhattan!

Via SF Cityscape.

You against abominable people

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

On Time magazine’s person of the year, Chris F. Masse writes:

TIME is right on target, but their thematic articles are banal and not engaging. Complete crap.

Agreed on both points.

I am happy to see that in praising dispersed contributors to the net Time took the opportunity to bash “great men” (emphasis added):

The “Great Man” theory of history is usually attributed to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” He believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species. That theory took a serious beating this year.

To be sure, there are individuals we could blame for the many painful and disturbing things that happened in 2006.

Yes, because it is only possible to be “great” through doing great harm. Time:

But look at 2006 through a different lens and you’ll see another story, one that isn’t about conflict or great men. It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.

Yes, it is the anti-authoritarian age. Time:

But 2006 gave us some ideas. This is an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person.

Even more of a stretch, I’ll take opportunity to link in another of my pet peeves.

The short person of the year article also references directly or indirectly Wikipedia, blogs, open source, peer production, and free culture.

I occasionally wonder what it would feel like to read a mass media article and more or less think “right on!” Now that I have encountered such an article, should I enjoy it, reconsider what makes me agree, considering the source, or reconsider my assumption that Time and similar are emotionalized diarrhea magazines rather than news magazines, just like TV?

Free software and social revolution

Sunday, December 10th, 2006

‘s talk Software and Community in the Early 21st Century expresses an aspiration and belief that as nonrivalrous components of the economy become more important peer production can produce radical equality where previous movements with the same ostensible aims have used violence, killed many people, and failed. An excerpt (transcript), emphasis added:

Ownership of software as a way of producing software for general consumption is going out, for economic reasons. But as I said, the economic insight that we can get from watching the transition from steel to software is far less important than the moral analysis of the situation. The moral analysis of the situation presents where we are now as, if I may borrow a phrase, a singularity in human affairs.

One of the grave problems of human inequality for everyone who has attempted to ameliorate the problem of human inequality – which is most thinkers about the morality of social life – the greatest problem of human inequality is the extraordinary difficulty in prising wealth away from the rich to give it to the poor, without employing levels of coercion or violence which are themselves utterly corrosive to social progress. And repeatedly in the course of the history of our human societies, well-intentioned, enormously determined and courageous people willing to sacrifice their lives for an improvement in the equality of human life have had to face that problem. We cannot make meaningful redistribution fast enough to maintain momentum politically without applying levels of coercion or violence which will destroy what we are attempting. And again and again, as Isaiah Berlin and other late 20th century political theorists pointed out, through hubris, through arrogance, through romanticism, through self-deception, parties seeking permanent human benefit and an increase in the equality of human beings have failed that test and watched as their movements of liberation spiraled downward from the poison of excess coercion.

We do not have to do that anymore.

The gate that has held the movements for equalization of human beings strictly in a dilemma between ineffectiveness and violence has now been opened. The reason is that we have shifted to a zero marginal cost world. As steel is replaced by software, more and more of the value in society becomes non-rivalrous: it can be held by many without costing anybody more than if it is held by a few.

This reminds of a 1992 Richard Stallman quote:

If we don’t want to live in a jungle, we must change our attitudes. We must start sending the message that a good citizen is one who cooperates when appropriate, not one who is successful at taking from others.

There’s much to debate concerning the speed, scope, and desirability of political and social change led by peer production. However, I find observations like the above rather satisfying and I believe deeply underappreciated. Peer production will not lead to absolute equality, but it does increase the scope for equality, freedom, autonomy, and decrease the need for violence or threats thereof. In other words, liberal ends achieved through liberal means, for a very broad range of meanings of “liberal.”

This I find more compelling than discussion of liberal/libertarian fusionism embedded deeply in the context of current U.S. jurisdiction politics. But perhaps my thought is too embedded in the free software context, and too cynical about power politics.

Moglen talk via Slashdot, also blogged at Creative Commons. Stallman quote via Dan Connolly.

Most important software project

Sunday, December 10th, 2006

I don’t have a whole lot more to say about Semantic MediaWiki than I said over a year ago. The summary is to turn the universal encyclopedia into the universal database while simultaneously improving the quality of the encyclopedia.

Flip through Denny Vrandecic’s recent presentations on Semantic MediaWiki (a smaller pdf version not directly linked in that post). There’s some technical content, but flip past that and you should still get the idea and be very excited.

I predict that Semantic MediaWiki also will be the killer application for the Semantic Web that so many have been skeptical of.

Yaron Koren also says that Semantic MediaWiki is “the technology that will revolutionize the web” and has built DiscourseDB using the software. DiscourseDB catalogs political opinion pieces. Koren’s post on aggregating analysis using DiscouseDB. Unsurprisingly this analysis shows the political experts making bad calls.

Koren also has created Betocracy, another play money prediction market where users create claims. It looks like Betocracy is going for a blog-like interface, but I can’t say more as registration obtains a database error.

One prediction market and Semantic MediaWiki connection is that making data more accessible makes prediction markets more feasible. Obtaining data necessary to create and judge prediction market contracts is expensive.

On that note Swivel also looks interesting. Some have called it data porn. Speaking of porn, see Strange Maps.