Friday, February 23

Okay, okay, I'm sorry about the gratuitous name-dropping. But let's face it, no-one in my position would do any different, huh? Huh?

Seriously though, at a conference like TED where you don't even realise that Matt Groening is attending until you see him loitering around on his own has to be a good one. Especially when you have a short chat with him about space, giving presentations and the people he'd like to punch at the conference.

(It just popped out, OK? And if you get to talk to Matt Groening, you can't not tell people?)

That reminds me. I saw David Blaine yesterday - that stuff you see on TV is exactly the same as it is in reality. Incredible. Apparently he'll be doing some levitation on the stage tomorrow.

2:04 AM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, February 21

More updates and random notes for me to flesh out later:

Only five hours after the conference starts, and I get my first serious-sounding Internet start-up proposal - and from a someone who is the CEO of an established Internet company? How is this possible?

Overheard conversation: "...take a CAT scan of their brain while they're making a purchasing decision, and then you can see the way their blood flows as..."

Interest potential... 15 vs 60 minutes... era shapes outlook... (and other stuff which, damnably, I have forgotten).

11:47 PM | permalink | discuss

So there I was, beginning to think about getting some lunch, when the founders of Google invite me out to get a sandwich.

"Hmm," thinks I.

And then on the way we pick up the founder of eGroups.

"Hmmmm," thinks I, as Sergey Brin describes me to all the newcomers as 'The guy from Mars.'

Finally, we spot Jeff Bezos getting something to eat in the nearby Subway sandwich place.

"Okay, that's enough. This is absolutely crazy," and I die from shock.

(I'm writing this on a Powerbook G4 - those nice titanium things. Life is great.)

8:56 PM | permalink | discuss

And now, reporting from TED11...

After meeting a few speakers at the conference at the airport, we were whisked away to the Hotel Pacific which provided us with rooms that can be summed up in one way - extravagent. For example, what need do I have for a four-poster double bed, please? Still, I'm not too bothered about this.

Registration at the conference was a complete mess, picking up the badges took far too long. However, it did give me a bit of time to float around the attendees, picking up bits of conversations such as:

"Yeah, we're doing our third round of funding now..."
"...TIVO hack that lets you use 128MB of RAM."
"...I hate networking like this..."

I then went off to a very small seminar hosted by Megan Smith of Planetout.com along with three or four other people who I didn't know. Great conversation, most of which went over my head as it seemed I was the only person there who wasn't the CEO of a wildly successful Internet company. For the record, the other people there were the Director of Digital Operations at Discovery, the CEO of Event411.com and some guy from Digital.

But then came the most interesting part of the conference - picking up the freebies. As a speaker, I was entitled to extra-special goodies which are listed here:

A Palm VIIx - very nice, very expensive, unfortunately, it doesn't work in the UK (I'll either swap it or sell it)
An exclusive TED11 teddybear
A fashionable looking IBM bag
Some books, a DVD (nothing special) and some CDs of unknown provenance.

Of course, that's not all. Rumour has it that we will be receiving some very expensive scooters later on in the conference.

So, things are going well. I'm just off to find something to drink, but thanks for everyone who left messages here (Katie and Claire). I'll probably update again later today or tomorrow.


6:43 PM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, February 20

Well, I'm currently burning some time before my to Los Angeles in what is possibly the most ugly airport in the world - New York JFK. However, they do make up for this is some extent by having a set of computers offering free Internet access (subject to your giving them your spam-specific email address and watching a minute long video by Nortel).

After having roughly 3 hours sleep in nearly 36 hours, without a shave or shower, I'm feeling understandably a little rough.

Some thoughts: You know that in airplanes the humidity of the air is approximately zero (presumably to stop mould or stuff from growing) - and the air consequently manages to suck out all the water in your body in an unhumanly short period of time? Well, it appears that airports have taken up this practice so on my arrival at Heathrow I ended up buying a small fortune in water. Scumbags.

Bitesize reviews:

Meet the Parents: Surprisingly, not silly or annoying as I thought it might be (then again, my expectations of silliness in the movie were astronomically high). Anyway, I actually enjoyed it.

The River of Time: A collection of short stories by David Brin. As usual, some are good, others are not. The trademark Brin-optimism and relaxed writing style is visible in most, but not all of the stories. I've found the latter to be the most interesting.

Hi to: Mum and Dad, Claire Bickell (sorry, no postcard), Katie Harris (sorry, no email access) and the Culture list (exactly how much time do you think I have to read emails here, eh?)

6:46 PM | permalink | discuss

Monday, February 19

Amusing quotation (although I'm not certain of it's veracity): "Wherever wood floats, you will find the British" - Napolean.

Intentionally strange entries in the Cambridge University Little Green Safety Book:

Fridge: Besides being a night-spot in South London and an American football star, refrigerators are a common feature in Departments. Fridges for food and drink storage must not be used for anything else and fridges for flammable chemical storage must be suitably spark-proofed. Good housekeeping is essential for their safe and efficient use whatever the contents. Don't forget to clean behind the fridge regularly.

Genetic Modification is strictly regulated, and the Unversity exercises control through the Departmental Biological Sagety Officer and the Sub-committee for Biological Hazards.

Juice: There are some very good pubs in Cambridge, but remember it is not wise to mix your drinks and certainly not with work.

Lasers: As there is a University Code of Practice, please contact your Departmental Laser Safety Officer (DLSO) if you intend to buy or use one for your work.

Strangely enough, I find the funniest part is the fact that an acronym such as DLSO actually exists.

I'll be away from Cambridge from the early hours of Tuesday until late on Sunday at the TED11 conference (a significant proportion of which is going to be taken up with transport alone). If there is internet access at the conference then I'll try to make one or two updates in between rampant networking, schmoozing and freebie-grabbing, and of course I'll be taking my camera along with me.

10:32 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, February 18

Usually the predictions that futurologists make fall in to one of two categories:

1) Handwaving
2) Really obvious stuff

Sometimes, though, they come up with real gems. BT's resident futurologist, Ian Pearson, recently came up with an idea that I've found extremely interesting in a column about direct action. While, as usual, most of it is the usual bollocks about 'cyber communities' and decentralisation, he did write this:

"Imagine an e-mail from a future world chief environmentalist being sent to everyone using the net. In the right climate, this could happen within minutes. The e-mail tells users that the USA has been damaging the environment through a reckless energy policy, and refuses to agree to reductions of C02 emission. It recommends imposing economic sanctions to persuade them. At the bottom of the mail are two buttons. By pressing the 'I agree' button, the user's e-commerce preferences are automatically set to exclude products and services from the USA. The result could be a billion or more of the richest people on the planet excluding the USA from business, within a few minutes. No geographically based power structure or country can impose such a penalty so quickly."
This, to my mind, is quite a clever idea (although I don't imagine it would work on the same level as Pearson envisages. It takes the ubitiquous (and completely useless) email chain letter and extracts its only saving grace - the speed at which it can propagate across the Internet. Armed with that, it is coupled with a simple and easy method in which you can perform direct action. Granted, it would take a hell of a lot of work and progress to make it functional as well as a significant shift in the way people think (is that all?) but it's possible.

A US government report on the state of Reusable Launch Vehicle technology [PDF], as of one month ago. It's uncharacteristically well written as well as well researched and also covers the smaller RLV efforts going on worldwide, with mention to the X-Prize. Definitely worth a read if you're even remotely interested in space or science.

7:37 PM | permalink | discuss

There's been a fairly interesting question about the nature of consciousness and whether it can be replicated and/or downloaded onto computers on the Culture mailing list I'm subscribed to. By chance, I also happened to get into a conversation with some computer scientists and biologists over dinner about pretty much the same thing, and I have to admit that there was a marked difference in the attitudes held.

You'd expect the computer scientists to come out with interesting comments on the nature of artificial intelligence, different inputs and stimuli and also the modelling of biochemical behaviour in the brain. You wouldn't expect them to say, 'Oh, that's easy stuff. The brain's a neural net which means that we can simulate it on an artificial intelligence.'

I was taken aback by this - you can't just throw a few fancy words at an argument to make it go away. Saying that something is a 'neural net' doesn't actually mean much or tell you about it. So I decided to make a few remarks on signaller proteins, transcription factors and the digital signal processing/computing nature of each individual synapse. Still, I got the same response, 'Yeah, but all a synapse really does is take its inputs, perform a function on them and spit out an output.'

What? I suppose you could say that everything in the universe can be said to take an input, perform a function and then produce an output - but that doesn't explain anything or bring us any closer to a solution or simulating it.

I suppose what I'm railing against here is the way in which many scientists - and people in general - are remarkably blasť about the problems in other fields. To pretend that the operations of the brain and consciousness can be solved by throwing together a neural net and feeding in some inputs is beyond the heights of hubris. Put simply, if a problem were simple, then it wouldn't be a problem.

Greg Egan, the veritable grandmaster of quantum/AI/consciousness-based SF, recently made a short story of his, Oracle, available on the web [found by my brother]. It's quite interesting and it certainly passed the time, but I had the uncomfortable feeling that a large chunk of the story was simply a data-dump. To SF novices, that means a long section of exposition that reads as if it were a lecture or essay - it doesn't flow with the story.

Public announcement: If Alex J Brady is reading this, could you please email me again? I can't send email to your Hotmail account.

3:18 PM | permalink | discuss