Kevin Kelly: the first human/Martian hybrid?

Kevin Kelly enslaved
Interbreeding between humans and aliens is a recurrent theme of science fiction – and late night talk radio. But could an example we’ve unearthed from near San Francisco, California, prove to be the first living example?

Scientists have been able to identify human DNA for over 40 years. And here at The Register, we have access to our own stock of Martian DNA – courtesy, of course, of cult commentator and philosopher amanfromMars.

The startling discovery that DNA may have leaped across planetary boundaries comes courtesy of literary agent John Brockman.

Brockman runs an online groupthink “salon”, called, where his indentured science authors and a select band of ideologically-correct journalists are invited to congratulate each other on their insight. (Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of Edge before – it’s only ever mentioned by Blokes who are already in it, or Blokes who would sell their mothers to get in.)

But it’s here, at Edge, that Brockman may have unearthed the greatest scoop of his lifetime; for here at least, one Martian-human hybrid walks amongst us.

New Year’s Day found a curious declaration credited to one “Kevin Kelly” – editor in chief of WiReD magazine.

“The success of the Wikipedia (sic) keeps surpassing my expectations. Despite the flaws of human nature, it keeps getting better,” he writes.

Of course, that’s an easy mistake to make… if you’ve just arrived from another planet. Here’s a more accurate measure of success, from earth-bound observers SomethingAwful.

Wiki groaning

Yet the alien visitor must be impressed by the high ethical standards exhibited by the project, its fair-mindedness, tolerance and generosity, and of course, its uniquely bottom-up democratic nature, for he is mightily impressed. So much so, that he sees in it a new way of organising society:

“The reality of a working Wikipedia has made a type of communitarian socialism not only thinkable, but desirable… I hate to say it but there is a new type of communism or socialism loose in the world.”

Alarm bells really ought to be clanging by this point. The Martian-Martian hybrid is using terms he has apparently heard, but doesn’t really understand – and can’t relate to the world around him.

The next statement can be construed as a promise that the hybrid DNA is here to stay:

“It may take several decades for this shifting world perspective to show its full colours …

Finally, here’s the clincher:

“I am convinced that the full impact of the Wikipedia is still subterranean, and that its mind-changing power is working subconsciously on the global millennial generation, providing them with an existence proof of a beneficial hive mind, and an appreciation for believing in the impossible.”

Pure Martian.

"The Government wants to copyright my thoughts!"

They’re coming to take me away – ha haa!” – Napoleon XIV

The Patient

A student, Robert Soave writing in The Michigan, the student paper at the University of Michigan.

Clinical Symptoms

The patient is fearful:

“The idea that information can be owned is quite terrifying”

He also fears a loss of identity. Once something is digitally encoded, all rights vanish, according the patient.

“How can one possibly lay claim to information?”

Soave says that creator’s rights are a philosophical impossibility.

“Critics might argue that musicians should be able to own their music because they created it and you should own anything that you create by default.

“Only with the government’s random mandates could anyone actually lay claim to something as abstract as information that is sent over the Internet.”

Soave also displays paranoid fantasies common to the digital utopian:

“Today, the government defends companies that claim to own music. Tomorrow, it may defend people who claim to have invented new feelings and emotions.”

“Such abstract claims of ownership may seem ridiculous, but the government has already stretched copyright laws past any definable form by criminalizing file sharing over the Internet.”


Not good.

(Thanks to Dean Kay for the tip.)

Tales from the Google interview room

taste of bacon, either.)

However, as we discovered when we interviewed the creator of an “Artificial Intelligence Chat-bot”, programmers who develop algorithms tend to encode their own shortcomings into the systems they create. [see Do Artificial Intelligence Chatbots look like their programmers? ]

And the Times confirms that the job-bot’s selection criteria is based on surveys from existing staff. One of the indicators is ominously called “organizational citizenship”. No square pegs in those round holes, then.

In Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, the company’s monoculture is enforced by obedience to the cult of personality – top down. By contrast, Google appears to be developing its monoculture from the bottom-up. But it’s still a monoculture – and one only likely to be reinforced by algorithmic rejection of “unsuitable” candidates.

As we discussed here recently, an algorithmically-minded corporation is ill-equipped likely to miss problems that can’t be solved algorithmically. No robot can wish them away.

If you have an amusing experience of Google’s recruitment practices – successful or otherwise – share it with us here. We’ll set our own robot on the replies, and pick out the ones whose opinions most closely resemble our own.

(Just kidding).

The DIY encyclopedia

Albert Camus, DIY style

Who can fail to love the can-do spirit and have-a-go enthusiasm of Wikipedia? When the site found itself in need of copyright-free illustrations, one user simply generated his own.

We were alerted to this cockle-warming tale via a Something Awful forum, where member Stick_Fig, sets the scene like this:

A group of users has decided that because these promotional photos, which were previously allowed, are copyrighted, they need to be replaced with copyright-free images. Like, images taken by nerds for nerds. The argument is that, since the person is alive, by God, a photo can be taken, so we MUST remove the old, perfectly-fine-minus-a-little-copyright photo now.

Readers poured forth with heroic hand-crafted illustrations, such as the one above.

It was only when it was discovered that the site’s entry for “semen” was in need of copyright-free illustration that one member heroically rose to the challenge. Or rather the member’s member did. And what a splendid contribution it is.

So no more gags about Wiki-Fiddling, please. This is truly an example of “User Generated Content” at its most spontaneous.

As Tim Bray observed recently:

“There’s been a surge of recent editorial activity with super-energetic (and apparently well-informed) new contributors trimming and tweaking and growing the articles, often several times per day. In general, while I haven’t been convinced that 100 per cent of the changes are improvements, the quality of the articles as a whole is definitely trending up.”

Um, quite. How can Britannica possibly compete with that?

Now you know: Blogging is 'un-Christian'

Blathering on blogs is un-Christian, an Evangelical church has warned.

“Blogging has become a socially accepted practice – just as are dating seriously too young, underage drinking and general misbehaving,” notes the monthly of the Reformed Church of God, Ambassador Youth.

Blogging “often makes the blogger feel good or makes him feel as if his opinion counts – when it is mostly mindless blather!” notes Kevin D Denee.

“People will now do and say things that should only be done in private, or, frankly, should not be said or done at all,” rues Denee.

“Propriety, decorum and decency are not elements considered on blogs. People simply blurt things out, without considering the contents or consequences.”
Continue reading “Now you know: Blogging is 'un-Christian'”

Do Artificial Intelligence Chatbots look like their programmers?

George the AI chat bot

Do pets eventually resemble their owners? Or do owners get to look like their pets? It’s heck of a conundrum – but one we might now be a little closer to solving. For the past fortnight it’s been hard to escape the animated faces of “Joan”, or “George” the graphical representations of what we’re told is a new breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence. TV and newspapers, both highbrow and lowbrow, have flocked to report on the chatterbot. You can talk to Joan (or George) – the output of the British software project Jabberwacky – and think it’s human!

Er, almost.

Continue reading “Do Artificial Intelligence Chatbots look like their programmers?”

Addicted to antitrust, Microsoft outlines 12-Step Recovery

Antitrust addict Microsoft has outlined a 12-Step Recovery Program, which it says will help prevent it from lapsing back into anti-competitive practices in the future.

The declaration follows three major “interventions” in fifteen years. A 1991 investigation by the Federal Trade Commission resulted in a Consent Decree signed in 1995. A 1997 investigation by the Department of Justice, joined by a number of US states the following year, resulted in a conviction and settlement in 2002. And just last month, the EU rejected Microsoft’s claim that it was complying with a 2004 antitrust settlement.
Continue reading “Addicted to antitrust, Microsoft outlines 12-Step Recovery”

Meet the Jefferson of 'Web 2.0'

If Google’s PageRank reflects the “uniquely democratic nature of the web” – and if weblogs are the most empowering technology of our age – then how can we begin to fete a humble entrepreneur based in St Paul, MN?

Very probably as the Gutenberg of the digital age. And the Jefferson. All rolled into one.

Brian Adams of Blue Diamond Enterprises has announced the newest tool that leverages both weblogs and the “collective intelligence” of Google’s algorithms. His new software, Blog Mass Installer, claims it can create 100 Blogger weblogs on your website in just 24 minutes.

It’s like voting – but voting done properly: early and often.

The idea behind tools such as this is to create a network of sites to host contextual advertisements and also to boost the prominence of material in Google’s search index. It’s only the tip of a vast twilight industry that, by the calculation of SEOs (search engine optimizers) like Adams, results in one third of Google’s index being comprised of machine-generated sites. Blog Software Installer takes a lot of the drudgery out of creating the blog network you need to pimp your reputation, plug your wares, or simply earn yourself a little extra Adsense cash. Some manual intervention is needed, according to the press release –

“Creating the blogs is easy and fun. You will get a friendly chime when it is time to enter the ‘captcha’ word verification. The BMI [Blog Mass Installer] tool also gives you a status indicator to know how many of your blogs have been created.”

BMI also gives you those all-important RSS feeds.

Need some content? Just dial up some PLAs, or ‘Private Label Articles.’ Sites like GoArticles and Article City. Or if you’re in a hurry, scrape some Wikipedia content: the keyword-rich online “encyclopedia” is a favorite with SEOs.

It’s all very Web 2.0. The power of the “Long Tail” put into the hands of the little guy – who needs only $197 to join the digital revolution.

But it’s also in breach of Google’s own Adsense program, which states that no Adsense ad may appear on a page “published specifically for the purpose of showing ads, whether or not the page is relevant”.

Um, now didn’t this – we asked Adams – leave Google in the delicate position of throttling its own cash cow?

We only asked, because the Blogger-accelerator was being promoted by – of all things – Google News today. Google owns Blogger.

Adams, who says Google has done a good job weeding out spam sites over the last year. It employs more human operators to identify these, he says,

“Google’s search index is more relevant than a year ago. It’s getting better.”

But basically it’s a Machine vs Machine war. Machines like Adams’ BMI create the blogs, and Google’s algorithms try and delete them.

“It’s getting harder to tell if a website was made by a machine or a human,” he says. “There are some really grey areas.”

(We’d noticed.)

Adams says BMI is more “stable” than rival tools – “stable” means Google is less likely to find it and delete it from its index.

Didn’t he feel morally responsible for bespoiling the utopian meadow of the World Wide Web, we wondered?

Here Adams takes issue with the suggestion that machine-generated axiomatically means junk.

“I wouldn’t say that the tools are just polluting it. It’s the responsibility of the webmaster to put up content that’s actually useful. If they don’t do that, Google will delete them.”

So it’s like the argument that guns don’t kill people – people kill people?

“That’s a good comparison,” he agrees.

So Splogs don’t kill people. And are less harmful than blogs.


      “The blog might do more for the emancipation of women than the invention of the birth control pill almost 50 years ago,” – Sylvia Paull, who hosts the Berkeley Cybersalon.
  • Thanks to Namebase’s Daniel Brandt for spotting this – and for the coining the neologlism “Goobage”.

'Lightweight, high-velocity and very connected'

At ZDNet, it’s Microsoft’s “Pearl Harbor”! Forbes screams, “Google’s office invasion is on!”

Only it isn’t – and we have the founder’s word for it.

As we reported yesterday, Google has paid an undisclosed sum for a web-based document editor, Writely. It’s a product that seems as mature as the company which produced it, Upstartle.

Explaining why she decided to sell the company, whose only product has been in a limited, closed beta for just six months, co-founder Claudia Carpenter wrote –

“We like lava lamps and they’re pretty much standard decor at Google.”

Moving onto the vision thing, Carpenter explained –

“Writely is like a caterpillar that we hope to make into a beautiful butterfly at Google!”

(No blonde jokes, please.)

A measure of how mature the software is can also be gleaned from this blog post. Writely gained the feature “delete from trash” five weeks ago, a lower priority for the team than “new toolbar”. When the ability to remove your own work from a hosted web service is considered less important than cosmetics, you have a fair idea of the software designers’ values.

So far, so very “Web 2.0”.

That’s because of the kind of work people are doing now, which co-founder Sam Schillace explained to NPR recently, is –

“Lightweight, high-velocity and very connected.”

Or did he mean the people behind it are lightweight, high-velocity and very connected?

To be fair, Schillace is an experienced developer who created what later became Claris Home Page, before going on to lead teams at Intuit and Macromedia. And Schillace correctly denies what the headlines writers want to believe today – that Writely is a replacement for ‘fat client’ word processors.

But these are bubble days, and it’s discordant to hear a rational explanation – but one comes from Joe Wilcox at Jupiter Research. The Writely feature set is so poor, he points out, that Google bought the software solely to beef up its editing facilities in Gmail and Blogger.

Read more at El Reg.

'Take out a subscription to The Register. Then cancel it, and sign it Disgusted Wikipedian'

An early taxonomy of excuses. Mostly variations of “It’s the user’s fault.”

“He who feels punctured must have been a bubble – Lao Tsu

A funny thing happened last week. Author and broadcaster – and veteran OpenOffice user – Andrew Brown wrote a piece in The Guardian a fortnight ago demolishing some of the more absurd myths around open source software projects. Frustrating bugs went unfixed for years, he noted, giving lie to the myth that simply because anyone could, in theory, make improvements, then improvements that users care most about would actually be made. Brown has written two books using OpenOffice, and performed his duty as a diligent user. If this was commercial software, he’d be a MVC, or “Most Valuable Customer”, and if OpenOffice was an airline, he’d be bumped up to First Class every time he showed up at the airport.

But what was particularly interesting was the range of responses to this critique, because they mirrored the responses received by The Register from Wikipedians. I have a theory about why these are similar, but first let’s see what people said about Brown’s piece. He published them on his blog here and here.

Here’s the typical response:


As we observed with Wikipedia, passing off the responsibility onto the user for dealing with the inadequacies of the software, or information, is a trait open projects seem to share.

Then there’s the age-old response that a deficiency is a FeatureNotABug.

‘spaces typed at the end of a line won’t show’ How is this a bug? It’s just a different way of displaying text. Is a printer in error because it doesn’t visually show you there is a space at the end of each line? No. There’s no reason why it should have to show a space at the end of the line. That’s you being very pernickety, not a bug.

Noel Slevin

Silly Mr. Brown, for not spotting that. More accurately, this response is classified as “Blaming The User For Being Stupid”. Again, that’s a Wikipedian trait too, and there were plenty more in the same vein.

“May your carear rest in peace Mr Orlowski.”

Note the subtle variations. There’s the “Hypothetical Utopia” defense, which ignores the present for an imaginary future in which the FOSS processes work as they ideally should:

So, yes, there is a problem with the open-source model. But I wonder whether things will change if OO is adopted by cities that have skilled IT departments that can be directed to fix THOSE PARTICULAR bugs, or to make THOSE PARTICULAR enhancements, that are of importance to THAT PARTICULAR city? I can imagine city council directing the IT representative to get the bug fixed and to report back at the next meeting. Within a couple of meetings, either the bug will be fixed or the city will drop OO. This is a tight feedback loop that involves skilled workers.

Then there’s the “Never Mind the Quality, Feel The Price”.

[paraphrased] Any bugs in OpenOffice are counter balanced by the fact that it is free!

And that’s one of the commonest defenses of Wikipedia, which imagines a world in which the population is so starved of information (books and libraries don’t exist here, for example, nor do wise teachers), that every globbet of information that drips from a computer network must be applauded as an “information revolution”. In this world, the speed or price of information trumps all considerations of its quality. But as is so often pointed out, we’re hardly living in a world starved of information. We’re drowning under vast quantities of ropey information, and none the wiser for the experience.

Back to the onslaught on The Open Office User Who Dared Complain.

There’s the parry called “Flood The Area with Improbably Large Numbers”, in which downloads (or in Wikipedia’s case, the number of articles) are quoted. We shall spare you this.

But a significant proportion of responses take the counterattack, and question the critic’s motives, knowledge and quite possibly, moral inadequacies too.

Darryl LeCount’s lofty ticking off is typical:

I found Andrew Brown’s vitriolic attack on to be ill-informed, heavily biased against open source software and extremely inconsistent. He claims to “like” OpenOffice, initially using it out of “a mixture of perversity, stinginess, and vague anti-Microsoft sentiment”, before launching into a tirade about how buggy it is and how flawed the open source model is. The author has clearly neither had extensive experience of using Mozilla Firefox, Blender, or Linux, and it is also clear that he has had little involvement with the development of these products despite his vague claims.

So Mr. Brown’s critique of one product is invalidated because he hasn’t used enough of them. A snobbish variation on “user is stupid”.

Finally, there’s the kind of response which supposes that the only reason a critique was made was to drive up page traffic.

I think the author of the article has achieved exactly what he intended to do and that is generate traffic to his blog and article. If you were a good objective writer you would not need to resort to this tactic. It’s a bit pathetic that you feel the need to be so negative at the expense of something you get for free. Let’s face it, this article could just as easily have been positive but that just would not have generated the traffic right 🙁

We hate to see a sad face, at this time of year. But we also get the feeling that advocates of this, the Page View Whore counterattack, rarely meet advocates of the Flood The Area With Improbably Large Numbers counterattack, because if the project was as popular as the latter insist, then publishers would write only write nice things about open projects, to drive up their traffic. We’ll spare you the rest, but the entire defense is summed up at the end of a tedious “Fisking” delivered by one Dave Lister, who sums up Brown’s arguments bafflingly, so:

“I like OpenOffice.” translation: I really want Open Source to get better 🙂

Silly Andrew, for harboring such hopes. So what are we dealing with, here?

Well, in his Guardian piece, Andrew Brown pointed out that successful open source projects keep their users happy, and if the users share the same background, common goals, and level of technical knowledge as the authors, then the users can indeed contribute to a virtuous circle. bind and Apache spring to mind.

But when the skills and experience are, to steal a Rumsfeld-ism, “asymmetric”, there’s friction. Many of Andrew Brown’s OpenOffice critics have no idea of what a user really wants to do with the software, and can only cognize he’s rejecting their gift of free software. Many Wikipedia defenders have no sympathy for readers who complain about unreliable, or badly written information, and can only cognize a world mocking their careful handiwork, what one critic calls a “defective data device” with “-pedia” in the name.

(One Australian doctor wrote to describe how he’d made just one Wikipedia edit in his life, to correct an entry about a medical procedure, which if carried out, would result in death. Heck, this is an information revolution, and every revolution is going to have casualties!)

My suspicion of the Wikipediac, Web 2.0, herd mind, etc crowd is composed of nitwits who have forgotten that it is all about the machines. They conveniently forget about the machines because they don’t have any mechanical ability to speak of. When was the last time any of them actually fixed something and didn’t “have their guy” fix it? – “It’s the Hive Mind wot dunnit. Not me”

So perhaps it isn’t such a mystery. Open projects are by nature idealistic, a little gift to the world. When this gift is spurned, the rejection must feel terrible.

Why would an ungrateful world reject this gift?

Let’s find out.

Read more at El Reg.