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The Institute played host to SciBarCamp on Wednesday and Thursday. On my personal blog I've posted some thoughts about the event, and what makes for a successful camp.

Scientific databases, tacit knowledge, and the limits of federation

I was at the first day of SciBarCamp today, playing local host / fixer / keeping an eye on the furniture. Sean Mooney (a former professor at Indiana University, now relocated to the West Coast) gave a very interesting talk about current challenges in bioinformatics.

A fair amount of Sean's talk dealt with the technical challenges of creating federated databases, the differing demands of bench scientists and funders-- the former want tools for managing and analyzing data in today's problems, while the latter want to attack Big Questions-- and the issues involved in getting people to share their data. The issues aren't so much philosophical or competitive, but practical: people believe in sharing data, and once they're done with it are generally willing to share so long as it doesn't put a burden on them.

But as Sean was talking about how different labs used different procedures for similar experiments, and how those differences manifested themselves in the ways they produced and consumed data (at least, this is what I took away from his talk-- he might have meant something complete different), a thought came to me. Projects intended to let scientists assume that data can be converted into something like the reagents or instruments labs buy from suppliers-- a commodity that you don't have to think about, you just use. But what if data can't be black-boxed this way?

The architecture of the future

The New York Times has a piece (Future Vision Banished to the Past") about the likely destruction of Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, a "rare built example of Japanese Metabolism, a movement whose fantastic urban visions became emblems of the country’s postwar cultural resurgence." It's a piece that raises some interesting questions for futurists as well as architects and preservationists.

Nakagin Capsule Tower, from the New York Times

The building, built in 1972, is now in lousy shape (what a surprise for an architecturally distinctive building employing innovative construction technology), but the author argues that

the building’s demolition would be a bitter loss. The Capsule Tower is not only gorgeous architecture; like all great buildings, it is the crystallization of a far-reaching cultural ideal. Its existence also stands as a powerful reminder of paths not taken, of the possibility of worlds shaped by different sets of values.

Founded by a loose-knit group of architects at the end of the 1950s, the Metabolist movement sought to create flexible urban models for a rapidly changing society. Floating cities. Cities inspired by oil platforms. Buildings that resembled strands of DNA. Such proposals reflected Japan’s transformation from a rural to a modern society. But they also reflected more universal trends, like social dislocation and the fragmentation of the traditional family, influencing generations of architects from London to Moscow.

Like lots of twentieth-century architectural movements, the Metabolists were at least as influential for their ideas as their actual buildings. A lot of the more outlandish ideas from this period were never meant to be built-- drawings of walking cities were stimulating reflections on the nature of building in an impermanent world, but totally impractical-- but they made other, more prolific architects think differently about their work and the issues it raises. And they were arguably one of the most important advocates of a "lightweight infrastructure" approach to architecture, one that emphasized modularity, scalability, and standardization.

Nakagin Capsule Tower, photo by dod: via flickr

Space gaming takes a step closer to reality

In the recent Signtific games on the future of cubesats (described here), a number of people suggested using them for games. At the 2009 cubesat conference

As reports,

[Space entrepreneur Jeffrey] Manber announced plans for Nanoracks, a company developing games incorporating CubeSats. The idea is to take advantage of recent advances in nanotechnology and hand-held communication devices like the Apple iPhone to allow people on Earth to participate in games of skill or chance that, in one way or another, involve an on-orbit CubeSat. "The CubeSat is a standardized platform that has an emerging base of developers," Manber said. "We think it's analogous to 20-25 years ago in the personal computer industry. If we can get people interested in games in zero gravity, there is a proven business model for using entertainment as a way to develop a market."

The Kentucky Space Blog adds,

There is, as he points out, a proven business model for using entertainment to pioneer new markets. His presentation is short and to the point.

In response to a question about why not simulate gaming in a weightless environment, a young member of the audience blurts out "because space is fun!" and talks about how zero-gravity games could be held using real time space to ground communications.

The argument that cubesats are like the personal computer is one that's circulating in the cubesat community now. It highlights the long connections, both technical and imginative, between computers and space: recall that one of the first personal computers was the Altair.

On conversation and extremism

It's conventional wisdom that groups generate ideas and plans more moderate than those of individuals. Groups and discussion encourage compromise, smooth out extremes, and guarantee moderation. It is also one of the unspoken assumptions of facilitation and group-oriented scenario work. Facilitation and scenario-building, the thinking goes, builds a sense of collective spirit by helping groups develop a shared vision of the future.

Tinkering and the future

My latest article, on the nature and future of tinkering, appears today in issue 22 of Vodafone Receiver:

Almost forty years ago, the Whole Earth Catalog published its last issue. For the American counterculture, it was like the closing of a really great café: the Catalog had brought together the voices of contributors, readers and editors, all unified by a kind of tech-savvy, hands-on, thoughtful optimism. Don't reject technology, the Catalog urged: make it your own. Don't drop out of the world: change it, using the tools we and your fellow readers have found. Some technologies were environmentally destructive or made you stupid, others were empowering and trod softly on the earth; together we could learn which were which.

Millions found the Catalog's message inspirational. In promoting an attitude toward technology that emphasized experimentation, re-use and re-invention, seeing the deeper consequences of your choices, appreciating the power of learning to do it yourself and sharing your ideas, the Whole Earth Catalog helped create the modern tinkering movement. Today, tinkering is growing in importance as a social movement, as a way of relating to technology and as a source of innovation. Tinkering is about seizing the moment: it is about ad-hoc learning, getting things done, innovation and novelty, all in a highly social, networked environment.

What is interesting is that at its best, tinkering has an almost Zen-like sense of the present: its 'now' is timeless. It is neither heedless of the past or future, nor is it in headlong pursuit of immediate gratification. Tinkering offers a way of engaging with today's needs while also keeping an eye on the future consequences of our choices. And the same technological and social trends that have made tinkering appealing seem poised to make it even more pervasive and powerful in the future. Today we tinker with things; tomorrow, we will tinker with the world.

Pentagon investing in energy research

The Washington Post reports on new Pentagon-sponsored research on energy efficiency, and the hard realities that now make it a priority:

[A]bout half of the U.S. military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are related to attacks with improvised explosive devices on convoys, many of which are carrying fuel. As of March 20, 3,426 service members had been killed by hostile fire in Iraq, 1,823 of them victims of IEDs.

Richard Posner on preconceptions and anticipating disasters

Richard Posner writes in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education about the current financial crisis, and why experts didn't take early warnings about it seriously.

The financial crisis, when it finally struck the nation full-blown in September 2008, caught the government, the financial community, and the economics profession unawares.

We can get help in understanding the blindness of experts to warning signs from the literature on surprise attacks. Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there were many warnings that Japan planned to attack Western possessions in Southeast Asia, and an attack on the U.S. fleet in Hawaii, known to be within range of Japan's large carrier fleet, was a logical measure, on Japan's part, for protecting the eastern flank of its attack on the Dutch East Indies, Burma, and Malaya. The warnings were disregarded because of preconceptions (including the belief that Japan would not attack the United States because it was too weak to have a reasonable chance of prevailing), the cost and difficulty of taking effective defensive measures against an uncertain danger, and the absence of a mechanism for aggregating, sifting, and analyzing warning information flowing in from many sources and for pushing it up to the decision-making level of government.

Similar factors made it difficult to heed the warning signs of the 2008 financial crisis. Preconceptions played an especially large role. It is tempting, indeed irresistible under conditions of uncertainty, to base policy to a degree on theoretical preconceptions, on a worldview, an ideology. But shaped as they are by past experiences, preconceptions can impede reactions to novel challenges. Most economists, and the kind of officials who tend to be appointed by Republican presidents, are heavily invested in the ideology of free markets, which teaches that competitive markets are, on the whole, self-correcting. Those officials and the economists to whom they turn for advice don't like to think of the economy as a kind of epileptic, subject to unpredictable, strange seizures.

From the Signtific Blog: Heading to China

One of the most interesting parts of the Signtific project for me has been the opportunity to do interviews and workshops with scientists around the world. Last year was a particularly active year, with trips to Malaysia, South Africa, Hungary, Singapore, Canada, Austria, England, and several places in the U.S.

Interesting question

One of the things that can powerfully affect the future is the radical decline in price of a currently expensive good or service. The invention of the printing press made books (and later newspapers) exceptionally cheap; the Industrial Revolution did the same for a whole host of manufactured goods; and more recently the same thing happened with information technologies.

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