Pro-tip : To download all images to your local machine as well, do Save Page As/Web Page Complete. It can take 5 - 30 minutes depending on your content.
Jul 27, 2010

How can I learn the basic principles of engineering on my own?

Salman Khan

Jul 27, 2010

What is the single largest industry in the world that could still be disrupted, and what is its size and breadth?


How big is this industry? Think how much money there is in the world.

Jul 27, 2010

How do you deal with the frustration of not being able to follow your inner calling?

Don't deal with the frustration. Just go and follow it?

Jul 27, 2010

What startups have been founded by ex-Apple employees?

NeXT? :-)

Jul 28, 2010

What are the best dubstep tracks?

This one, if you're looking for dubstep's tender, melancholic beauty.

Coki - Soundboy

And this one if you're looking for a major club rocking anthem

The Bug / Warrior Queen - Poison Dart

Jul 28, 2010

Why and how did grime originate in the UK?

Must have started with the synthesis of Jamaican ragga and london cockney in early jungle.

Grime is the natural descendent of extraordinary records like this :

Then evolving to people like Skibadee :

Jul 29, 2010

What is the role of contemporary artists, specifically in the visual arts, in society?

My take ... artists investigate problems from the material up.

This is as opposed to engineers who follow a top-down process starting with the problem and then analyse it into sub-problems and find the materials / structures to solve each of the parts.

Or philosophers who may try to ignore material altogether and try to consider only the abstract concepts.

Artists start by playing with a material and say "what can I make with this?" or "what are the implications of this?" / "what is the statue hiding in this block of marble?"

I think the role that contemporary artists *should* embrace is exactly to generalize this process. To understand that they don't have to work with traditional materials (ie. paint) but can also work with electronics or urban behaviour or bacteria. But still keep the material-oriented / playful, "what can I do with this?" approach.

Jul 29, 2010

What are some real world applications of philosophy?

All philosophy is done in the real world.

Aug 11, 2010

Why are most people in business schools good-looking while most people in engineering schools are not?

More importantly, engineers distrust good looks for the same reason that some people are prejudiced against blonde women : a good looking, well-dressed person who has achieved some status *might* have achieved this status *merely* by dint of gaming the system through his or her good looks. Whereas someone who has achieved status without caring for their appearance is visibly not faking it and must genuinely have talent.

In any field where talent matters (science and engineering obviously, but also in the arts : playwrights and poets, musicians and philosophers are notoriously scruffy, as are some painters) then caring about your appearance is a disadvantageous behaviour.

Aug 12, 2010

What are the main reasons why batteries have not improved at the same rate as semiconductors?

Batteries process energy and are constrained by the laws of physics.

Processors are basically patterns of information that are just arbitrarily instantiated in one material medium or another. They're constrained by our instantiation technology. We keep improving the method of instantiation (from vacuum tubes to transistors to, perhaps, quantum dots).

We can't find radical new ways of instantiating a coulomb of charge or a joule of energy. Physics already specifies the chemical, electro-magnetic, thermo-dynamic constraints on that.

Aug 12, 2010

What are the main reasons why game-to-film movies often do poorly at the box-office?

Because they aren't taken seriously. They start as a "brand" to be cross-commercialized, rather than as a story that a writer and actors love.

Aug 14, 2010

What are the best tecno brega tracks?

Start here, maybe : Gets interesting around 18 minutes in.

Aug 15, 2010

Will the iPhone be viewed as historically important, and if so, to what degree in comparison to other inventions of historical significance?

Not very important in the grand historical scheme of things. Utterly trivial compared to the invention of the telephone or the personal computer.

A lot less significant than either the Apple I or the first mobile phone.

Somewhat less significant than the rise of Amazon, Google, Facebook etc.

Marginally less significant than the Mac.

It will arguably be seen as one of the definitive consumer gadgets of the 2000s in that it :

- popularized multi-touch (the first significant new UI element since the mouse / windows system)

- popularized the app. store (thus creating a new software market distinct from the paradigms of the 80s (desktop) and 90s (web-service))

The second of these is likely to be a significant nail in Microsoft's coffin, as M$ seems unable to adapt to an app-store world ( ) And I'm happy to bet that in 5 years time, iOS and Android devices (as opposed to Windows / Mac derivatives) will be our normal way to access the internet and do personal computing work.

Aug 15, 2010

What is the future of personal transportation?

1) Bicycles

By "personal transportation," I assume we're talking about individual transport for short to medium distance (i.e., not intercontinental transport).

Think of all the advantages of bikes :

cheap to make

known technology

people know how to operate (ride) them

no pollution

cheap to run, no fuel required

get you fit

you look cool riding one

Many cities are getting short-term point-to-point bike rental schemes (eg. )

Bike use is increasing in European (and maybe North American) cities, partly because encouraging more bike use is a cheap way for cities to reduce congestion and pollution.

2) Micro-containers

One reason people drive so many short distances in cities is that they need to carry stuff around : shopping from the supermarket to home, spare clothes to change into after work or the gym, sports equipment, musical instruments etc.

All this is hard to take on public transport.

What's needed is the equivalent of "containerization" for urban transport. In particular a standard container which :

a) goes on a shopping trolley that you take around the super-market

b) can be put into a locked slot on public buses, trains and trams.

c) fits onto a standard trolley in bus and train stations and airports.

d) can be slotted into the boot (trunk) of a standardized taxi

e) can be towed on the back of a bike

Furthermore we need the technology to help people move the container from one vehicle to another. Think trolleys with arm / crane attachments that help a passenger extract the container from the train they arrived on, and then, when arriving at a taxi, lets them lift the container to be slotted into the boot.

Some design co-ordination between rail, bus and car makers could transform urban transport, allowing stuff to flow far more efficiently through the different transport networks of a city.

Aug 15, 2010

What are some out-of-the-box ideas that people should consider doing during a recession?

1) Learn and understand the different theories as to why recessions happen. Decide which you believe. Vote accordingly.

2) Talk to your neighbours. Figure out ways to help each other.

3) Watch heist movies. Figure out where the rich people who benefited from causing the recession live. Take back what's rightfully yours.

Aug 16, 2010

What is the future of television?

Rule number one : you can't be a technology / infrastructure company AND a content company at the same time. Too many tensions between the business models. Different skills, time-scales and attitudes needed to be a company which is great at both.

Everyone who thinks they can be an equal partnership of the two (Sony, AOLWarner etc.) fails at at least one.

So. You can either know that you're one kind of company that does a little bit of the other thing. (Good example, Nintendo is a content company that just happens to make innovative infrastructure when they need it to support their games.)

Or you can be a naive company that thinks you can do both and wastes a huge amount of money on doing one of the things expensively and / or badly.

Which brings us to ... GoogleTV ...

Google is an infrastructure company. It's got some interesting ideas about making a new kind of TV operating system / programme guide. WTF its doing messing about with social gaming companies etc. is beyond me. Google is not going to get good at the content business. It's not going to be a gaming company. (Nor are Apple or Facebook who are similarly infrastructure businesses.)

The bigger question is which content companies (apart from Nintendo) are technologically smart enough to innovate TV forward.

I'm sure, at some point, someone is going to finally manage to create a mutant cross-breed of "reality" TV, audience participation and social gaming that really works. (Think Zynga meets Simon Cowell). It will probably be from some kind of scrappy startup rather than an established media company; but will become horribly compelling and successful.

Of course ... this only lasts as long as the paraphernalia of western civilization holds up. At some point peak oil and climate change are going to trigger further financial shocks that kill off our TV obsessed culture, Right before the collapse of the food chain kills off half of humanity. So maybe it's better to spend our time concerned with other problems than TV's future. Long term, it doesn't have one.

Aug 16, 2010

What are some of the weaknesses of Marxian economics?

A lot of people seem to think the Labour Theory of Value is wrong.

Depends what you think it's for, of course, but modern economists won't have much to say to it.

Aug 16, 2010

Is it a good idea to be a JavaScript developer? Why or why not?

Yes. Because javascript is becoming one of the most widely used languages for developing software. It will be big for writing server-side and "slate-top" applications as well as in the traditional browser.

OTOH, people tend to conflate javascript with HTML and CSS. In the future, people will be excellent javascript programmers who never go near the browser and have no knowledge of CSS. But do know the libraries associated with the environment in which they work. What do we say about them?

Aug 17, 2010

Can we have an agreed-upon definition of 'reality'?

No, you can't.

Half the philosophers say that it's there but that's all you can say about it. (Kant on the nouminal) And the other half think one of the things you can't say about it, is that it's there (Hegel etc.) (My very rough interpretation)

Philosophy is the place where we actually do debate things like the nature of reality. Where all concepts are up for sceptical enquiry. It's a bit pointless to say "to make this forum work, lets start with an acceptably shared concept of X" ... if you want to make that simplifying move, go and do something other than philosophy.

Aug 19, 2010

Would you invest in Bebo as an angel investor or VC at a valuation of a few million dollars?

No. Because it's very hard to see any growth. And a VC or angel must be looking for some kind of growth, not merely milking it for ad-revenue.

Aug 20, 2010

What is the relationship between machine learning and the scientific method?

"Scientific method" is increasingly automated as a) robots do experiments (think robot arms moving petri-dishes around; chemical analysis labs on chips); and b) machine learning and reasoning algorithms do more of the conjecturing and deduction.

Many branches of modern sciences are already impossible without computers doing some of the calculations, curve-fitting, pattern matching.

Several things will follow from this :

- much of practical scientific research will be deskilled. Working in a DNA analysis factory will be no different from working in a car factory. (And for Western readers, yes, that does mean it will all get off-shored to China or somewhere else cheap)

- I think some of our philosophy of science will have to be rethought. In particular, some people still cling to certain assumptions about the kinds of reasoning that are required for something to *be* science. And what you'll start seeing is computers that just do some completely brute-force attempt to fit all potential models to the data and tell you the best one. When machines do science, a lot of the mystique will vanish.

Aug 20, 2010

What is the YouTube of audio?

The flippant answer is "YouTube" given how much music is on it. I usually use it when I just want to hear a popular song.

But there's nothing quite the same. (Think how the record industry would have reacted if there were.)

Personally, I think SoundCloud is pretty damned good. (But you have to pay to be able to upload more than a short amount of music, so it's not exactly comparable.)

Aug 20, 2010

Why does Facebook Places use Bing for maps, instead of Google Maps, even though Bing is a worse product?

I suspect because Microsoft are a Facebook investor.

Aug 23, 2010

Why don't governments fund the development of open source software very much?

a) Corruption. In many parts of the world, software companies pay kick-backs to the politicians who buy their software. Free-software projects don't pay enough bribes.

b) Microsoft (to pick one company at random) offer incredible discounts to governments and then persuade them that the software is cheaper than retraining all the staff to use unknown free alternatives. If you're a senior manager who only knows how to use Excel in Windows, then any free-software which *isn't* Excel in Windows looks so complicated that it gives you a headache even to think about it. It's much less painful to just sign-up and spend public money for another five years of Microsoft than to have to actually understand the subtleties of which is more powerful or better value.

c) A friend of mine is implementing a Sharepoint solution which is replacing free-software (Alfresco, I think) in a UK local authority. Sharepoint was basically sold on its superior integration with Microsoft Office. M$ are still able to leverage dependencies between their different products.

d) Update 2012 : Read this :

It's possible that governments value their links with private corporations who will collaborate with them in providing oppressive technology rather than wanting to support a community dedicated to expanding personal freedom.

Aug 23, 2010

What is life?

Stuart Kauffman defines it as "self reproducing and does a thermodynamic work cycle" which sounds like a good start.

Aug 23, 2010

Is free market capitalism bad at moderating the consumption of non-renewable resources such as helium?


Capitalism provides incentives to turn resources into products. It doesn't provide any balancing incentives to NOT turn resources into products now, on the grounds that the same resources might be better used in 100 years time.

Aug 27, 2010

What are the advantages of alternative currencies and timebanks?

Ultimately, I think the advantages of alternative currencies is that they can change how you understand money and economics :

a) they can make you see that these things are human-made institutions that can be engineered to our taste. They aren't *laws* of nature, as some people would have you believe.

b) they can remind you of the humans within the economy and in the community.

If you are reminded that an hour is an hour of someone's time; if you are obliged to seek locally for a supplier and to talk to them, because your money is limited to your community; then you get a different perception of what the market is. Not something abstract and impersonal where your only activity is to get the best deal for yourself regardless of how other people are affected, but a co-operative institution for dividing labour.

Aug 27, 2010

What are the best books that are indirectly about product design?

How Buildings Learn : Stewart Brand

This is the best book I ever read about the design of big, complex, persistent things. Most of what he says about architecture from his organic / ecological perspective holds true of other kinds of complex design too.

Aug 28, 2010

Why do some programming languages become popular while others die young?

This answers a lot of questions :

Aug 28, 2010

Why did the Smalltalk programming language fail to become a popular language?

It's definitely the incompatibility with the existing infrastructure of file system / editors / source-control etc.

One other thought ... this insane insistence on the three coloured mouse buttons. Even as recently as a couple of years ago you saw documentation written in terms of the colours, which expected me to remember which colour mapped to which button (or to paint my laptop). A bit of concession to the emerging Windows / Mac standards for mouse use (and icons on windows) might have done wonders.

Update : In another conversation I developed this meme a bit :

Aug 28, 2010

What questions can science not yet answer?

I disagree that science can answer all questions about the natural world.

Science is a special kind of research program that only sees certain kinds of facts. Specifically, science is the knowledge of things qua members of types about which you can make generalizations. It can ask about things qua bodies with mass. Qua electrons. Qua carnivores. Etc.

OTOH, it can't answer questions like : "is Phil in London?", "where was Napoleon born?" or "why is the lamp over there?". Not because these are weird spooky phenomena that violate the laws of physics, but because they're questions about specific individuals qua spatio-temporal *particulars* and their historical trajectories. The proper study of entities qua particulars is "history" not science. (Ie. observation or appeal to witnesses or tertiary sources etc.)

Science can not check whether Phil is in London by doing an independent experiment in California. Nothing but observation of Phil qua Phil will answer that. Similarly, the way to find out where Napoleon was born is to read a book (or wikipedia page) written by someone who read a book by someone who ... etc. Once again, the cleverest experiment won't improve on that.

And to find out why the lamp is over there, just ask the person who moved it.

Everyday life is full of questions that science can't answer. And it's not a problem.

Aug 28, 2010

How can we fix the Federal Government of the United States?

Start by admitting that government is the site of a power struggle.

We have to lose this myth that government is ineffective because it's merely inept at doing "the right thing". Instead, you have to see government as an expression of a society which is, itself, divided into different factions (blocks, classes, interest groups) who disagree on what "the right thing" actually is.

Once you recognise that, then other issues with government become clearer.

Any faction that disagrees with the ends of a particular program, will probably accuse it of being inefficient in execution. Don't like the idea that the government gives welfare to poor people? Attack the government's provision of welfare as ineffective. That's a way to get people to think negatively of welfare without explicitly attacking the principle. (From another political direction you can do the same about the war in Afghanistan, or the oil industry etc.)

Once you recognise this, what do you do about it?

Do you try to help one faction *win* decisively? A truly dominant faction will execute more effectively on its vision than a see-saw between opposing factions pulling backwards and forwards.

Do you try to invent more objective metrics of government effectiveness so that you can distinguish the real performance from the politically inspired FUD?

Do you try to find further ways to decentralize powers to individual states and get people move to where they're most happy?

Don't think I have any good answers here .. just saying that you won't make any progress by fiddling with the processes without understanding that it's not a technocratic / managerial problem we have here. It's a fight.

Aug 28, 2010

Is there life in space?


But who cares because we're never going to meet it.

(ie. of course there are enough planets capable of supporting life, and of course there's enough time for it to evolve. But the distances, time, energy requirements for interstellar travel are so vast that it's highly implausible that any life-form that evolved to live on a planet, would be able to survive a trip to another star system.)

Aug 28, 2010

Why is there not more innovation in the webmail space?

a) Because people keep assuming mail will go away

b) Because people keep *wanting* mail to go away

c) Because it's very hard to get people to change their email address. So many other things are locked into that address (eg. accounts on other systems)

d) Because the younger generation don't use email anyway. (They just write on Facebook walls, tweet, use IM)

e) Because email is so old, there's a certain conservatism in the mass population of email users in their expectations. Look how hard it is to get people to switch to Gmail. Which is clearly "better" than other webmail interfaces.

Aug 28, 2010

Why don't governments sell advertising on banknotes?

It would make them look cheap and tawdry. Governments and their money must project the appearance of being above selling out to the highest bidder.

Aug 28, 2010

What are some solutions for the Creator's Creator Dilemma?

I think you just have to infer (by contradiction) that Aquinas's 4th rule is a heuristic which works in our local corner of the universe, but isn't actually a universal.

Aug 28, 2010

What is the mode of existence of this world?

How could it not? :-P

Aug 28, 2010

What is "Web 3.0"? Has anyone even been using "Web 3.0" to describe anything?

Web 3.0 for me is what I sometimes call the "device swarm".

It's the web taken out of the screen of your traditional computer, and

- fed into an array of unusual hardware forms (Chumbies, Nabaztags, iPads, Rovios ) ...

- driven by new kinds of input devices (accelerometers, multi-touch, anything plugged into an Arduino) ...

- flowing new kinds of data streams (Tweets, obviously, but also the type stuff, Open Sound Control etc.) ...

- and worked on by a whole new generation of circuit-benders, "makers", electronics geeks ...

- who hang out in newly opened hackspaces and on

It's about fabbing and RepRap, Ponoko and Open Source Hardware ...

companies that make stuff on demand, in your local area ...

RFIDs and the "network of things".

Aug 28, 2010

What do you think are the best three web applications, and why?

Hard to answer because there are so many great web-apps. And have been so many important and influential ones. But three that have recently delighted me as a user (through their combination of functionality, UI design, and community) :

GitHub - Absolutely rocks! Almost perfect in its synthesis of online source-code hosting with a social network. If they could just integrate a great bug-tracker they'd become essential.

StackOverflow - truly wonderful. So much useful information, so easy to find, so intelligently thought through. (Sorry Quora, I like your community, the twitter integration, and the freedom to discuss anything, but I love the SO site (design and usability) more).

SoundCloud - the nicest site I've found for hosting my music. Clean, functional, elegant. Some room for improvement, of course, particularly I wish I had more time with my account.

Aug 28, 2010

Why did the counterculture "revolution" of the sixties run out of steam?

I recommend this as a fascinating account of one part of it :

And this is another :

Aug 29, 2010

What is the best way to decide whether to go into theoretical physics or biological engineering?

Do the one that interests you most.

Aug 30, 2010

How is it possible for members of a society to spend less money, yet get more services?

Make friends, do stuff for each other.

Aug 31, 2010

What are some examples of openly accessible, hyperlinked personal "outboard brains"?

Sep 1, 2010

What are the best song covers in a completely different genre? Why?

Laibach - Life is Life

Compare the original :

Sep 2, 2010

What are the top 10 things coming generations will pay for that the previous ones never did?

People will pay more for *filtering* ... both of information streams and communities. They'll pay for exclusive access to filtered communities and information streams, and they'll pay for customization of their personal filters.

Sep 2, 2010

What are the top 10 things coming generations will never pay for that previous ones did?


Sep 3, 2010

Has Moore's Law remained valid between 2012 and 2016?

This suggests something has changed : ... arguably it's just a change in demand from the market rather than hitting the physical limits (though people tend to assume we're close to the physical limits)

Sep 24, 2010

What social movements or tribes do you think hold the most promise to help society adapt to an uncertain future?

Vinay has some of the most radical pragmatic thinking and projects I've seem for a while :

Marcelo from Bambu Integral ( ) has created a truly inspiring, pleasurable community.

The Hub (disclosure, I've worked for them) has assembled a huge network of positive thinkers and social entrepreneurs.

Sep 24, 2010

Why did Google make a 10 minute ad that consists entirely of a man saying Pizza over and over again?

Because it's so unusual people will ask questions about it on Quora?

Sep 24, 2010

Do any open source projects have a strong "internal tools team"?

Linus Torvalds wrote Git to help manage Linux. That must count as an interesting data-point.

Other examples ...

Richard Stallman wrote Emacs and gcc as tools for his operating system

Mozilla released Bugzilla for Netscape

Sep 24, 2010

Web 2.0: Where are the most interesting uncharted waters in social software design?

How and when do light-weight, easy to assemble, online "talking shops" become committed, responsible, real-world institutions capable of actually doing things?

Sep 26, 2010

If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?

First, as Vijayendra says, we know nothing about what things are or aren't evolving into. So can't say that they're not. Evolution only appears in retrospect.

We might have a hunch that monkeys aren't evolving into humans, and this comes from the fact that we don't see an unoccupied "human-shaped" niche available for monkeys to fill.

Apes didn't evolve into humans because of some unfolding of ape destiny. They evolved because external constraints pushed them in that direction. If events conspired to push today's monkeys towards human-like things tomorrow, then they may very well be evolving towards human-likeness.

Oct 2, 2010

Yahoo in 2010: Which company would derive the most benefit from acquiring Yahoo? Why?

Sadly, the person who would gain most by buying Yahoo (if the price is right) is Rupert Murdoch.

It's a good fit. He's an expert in buying up existing dominant media brands, and continuing to run them profitably within a larger stable. He doesn't really "get" the whole web 2.0 thing (witness how MySpace has languished) but he could use Yahoo to experiment with different kinds of paywalls for different types of content. He could do a lot of cross promotion between Yahoo, Fox and Sky He might even find a clever underling to discover the synergies between Yahoo and MySpace.

Oct 3, 2010

What are the best arguments against the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection?

The best (in the sense of not stupid, and not relying on spurious claims) arguments are the family of arguments you can call "irreducible complexity".

Darwinian evolution requires that all biological traits, however complex, evolved by a series of mutations (or co-incidental combinations of mutations) which each confer some extra fitness on the ancestor.

If it were possible to demonstrate that a particular biological trait could not have been put together by a series of these mutations, then that would be a good argument against evolution.

So far, no one has been able to show a trait that could not have been put together by such a series of mutations, though many people will try to drive your intuitions in that direction, by showing how complex something is and saying "surely that's too complex to have evolved". However, such arguments often trade on the listener's inability to grasp the time-scales involved or inability to imagine the possible benefits of part-way mutation.

Evolutionists will often point out that some traits may have arisen initially for one purpose and then been repurposed later. A good example are feathers, which may have initially been used to keep proto-birds warm, and only later adapted to help fly. Hence, the lack of a single, direct path towards the trait is not sufficient to show that there isn't a longer, more twisted one.

Oct 3, 2010

What are the best arguments against drug decriminalisation?

I had friend who once told me that cigarettes couldn't be harmful, because if they were, they'd be illegal.

Oct 3, 2010

When do we consider socializing through social software as an alternative to real life socializing and when do we consider it to be an extension of it?

When it really *is* an alternative. When we decide that we'll mail someone rather than phone them up. Or look at their facebook page instead of invite them out to the pub.

Oct 3, 2010

What's your favorite band?

It's complicated! And how much time do you have?

Here are some people I call my favourite bands :

Momus (the criminally underrated genius lyricist / tune-smith / pervert-intellectual)



Current 93 (Apocalyptic (ex?)-Satanist, heretical Christian mystic who basically invented neo-folk by cross-breeding dark electronica, pretty acoustic guitar and heavy metal.)

Tom Waits (Who everyone knows)

. (

In practice, I've hardly listened to any of them in the last year or two. Probably it's 5 years since I sat down and listened to Tom Waits. I've had one session of listening to a lot of Momus this year. And although I bought the new Current 93 album I haven't listened to it all the way through in one sitting yet.

(Having said that, listening to them again now, they're fantastic!)

Update : LastFM ( ) tells me that these days, it's all vapourwave, all the time. My new favourite artist is Vektroid. Who is also Macintosh Plus and a bunch of other aliases.

Oct 4, 2010

Why have most personalized news startups failed?

Perhaps a confused notion of "personalized news"? Facebook and Twitter (and my RSS aggregator) give me personalized news. And they haven't failed.

Beyond news by and of people I care about, there's a contradiction. The main value that a commercial news company provides is editorial filtering of the "unknown unknowns", things I don't know about but should. Yet "personalized" means that I'm meant to take over filtering responsibility myself. So what value does the news provider still provide?

Of course, my filtering tools include everything from my RSS aggregator to Google to Digg / Hacker News to Twitter search engines to my twitter community etc. I'm sure a clever startup could be successful improving on any of these parts, or in finding new ways integrating them together.

A couple of pitfalls though.

1) Some things that work for an engaged community of geeks may not work for another constituency. StackOverflow works brilliantly for programmers. Could the same thing work for lawyers? In theory, there's a huge body of knowledge that lawyers would benefit from sharing. In practice, I don't see that the culture would let it. Similarly, I don't know if a "Farmer News" would work as well as a "Hacker News" (though I'd love to see it tried.)

2) Most people's idiosyncratic tastes don't create large enough data-sets for statistically interesting analysis. It's one thing to sample what everyone says on twitter to extract some kind of idea of what's globally "interesting". But you can't prioritize what's interesting to me by applying the same algorithm to the 100 people I follow.

Oct 4, 2010

What are some simple descriptions that contrast the political right and left?

For me, left-wing vs. right-wing hinge on two crucial questions :

a) methodological holist or individualist? ie. do you put responsibility / explanation for a person's success or failure, goodness or badness on the context or on the person's innate qualities?

b) egalitarianism ie. do you feel that everyone's lives are of equal worth?

If you are a methodological holist and an egalitarian, then you are left-wing, regardless of whether you believe in government intervention in the economy or are a true anarchist who rejects government altogether.

If you are only one of these things, or neither, you are some kind of right-wing.

Oct 4, 2010

What are the biggest myths about global warming / climate change?

That climate scientists are lying, out of some kind of self-interest.

Oct 4, 2010

What are the biggest myths about feminism?

That men and women are competing in a zero-sum game.

Oct 4, 2010

What are the biggest myths about Java?

Back in the day : that it was the only suitable language for writing serious web-applications. ;-)

Oct 4, 2010

What are the most important logical fallacies to be aware of?

Don't fail the

Oct 6, 2010

What software projects started out really, really bad, but became good later on?

Can't think of any really good examples. The only thing that springs to mind is that the first open-source version of Netscape wasn't as good as IE, but later evolved into the superior Firefox.

I guess that was due to time, smart developers and commitment from the Mozilla foundation.

The other thought is Perl. Which was hardly a great programming language initially but at least had the virtue of being very very useful for the kind of thing it was good at.

I don't see that this is going to save Diaspora though.

Oct 8, 2010

What software projects started out really, really good but became awful later on?

Round about the early 1990s, Visual Basic (version 3, maybe) was great for light-weight scripting, simple app. development and quick prototyping in Windows. It was perfect for its niche : quick to start-up and work with, produced acceptable results. I remember knocking together impressive demos that tied together AutoCAD drawings and Excel spreadsheets via OLE.

Last time I looked at VB "express" (sic) it was so heavy I could hardly start it on my laptop of the time. Simple programs that I had converted from VB6 via its own built-in conversion program threw dozens of incomprehensible error messages, and links to documentation to explain them were broken. The whole thing was such a dog that I simply gave up on the idea of developing with it and went back to Python.

Oct 11, 2010

What is the next billion dollar business traditional printer companies (e.g., HP, Lexmark, Brother, etc) should pursue to significantly grow their company revenues?

I agree with Ning Zhang.

Here are a couple more.

1) Printing flesh :

2) On demand printing. HP *ought* to be buying a print-on-demand outfit like or for the same reason that Apple got into retail. To turn it into a showcase for their products; to learn more about the customer; to grow the brand into an amazing "experience". (Moo is a wonderful experience company. I love them.) Not to mention, this hedges against the possibility that people start to move away from owning their own printer to using POD.

3) What do businesses *use* print for these days? Reports? Charts? Business letters? It's a good bet that at least some reports and charts and presentations are going to move to dashboards on the iPad and similar tablets. Perhaps a printer company should think of itself as a report / charting company, providing software to support this etc.

Oct 13, 2010

Why does everyone think that no one will know the "next big thing" until it's too late?

Too late for what?
Most people don't hear about the next big thing until it's big. By definition of the word "most".

Oct 17, 2010

Why aren't DC power outlets built into the wall, so electronic devices wouldn't require an AC/DC converter?

You should also note that different countries have different shaped plugs and different spec. power in the walls. This is one reason to have an *external* power-brick (and not build it into the device itself). It means the same device can be used in different countries, while the transformer specs and plugs differ.

Oct 17, 2010

Time Travel: If you were suddenly snapped back to the year A.D. 2000, what modern technology would you miss the most?

Meetup, YouTube and Wikipedia.

Most of the other things I value on the web already existed in 2000 : blogs, search engines, interesting people, email, wiki, Slashdot, laptops running Debian. But Meetup, YouTube and Wikipedia would be hard to find a substitute for.

OTOH, I don't think I'd miss Twitter and Facebook for a moment if I didn't have them. Nor Quora, LastFM, StackOverflow etc. much as I love them.

Oct 17, 2010

What was the argument against gay people serving openly in the US military?

A lot of people are homophobic. Especially in the military (which tends to attract conservatives). They'd be unhappy (and paranoid) to feel themselves surrounded by gay men and women.

An idealist might well say "well, who cares whether a bunch conservative homophobes are happy, anyway?" But a pragmatist will probably note that if these people leave the army, it's unlikely that all the well-rounded, liberal sophisticates are going to take up the resulting vacancies.

So, basically, the argument is that, whatever the rights of the matter, the army would lose too many people it can't afford.

Oct 17, 2010

Why is scientific software generally so poorly designed?

It's not used by idiots. So doesn't need to be idiot proof. 8P

Oct 18, 2010

What are some taboos in science, or topics not taken seriously by mainstream scientists?

Don't doubt the laws of Thermodynamics. People who suggest breaking them get side-lined pretty quickly.

Oct 19, 2010

Did China just declare war on foreign cleantech companies?

I guess the question is ''does anyone else have a right to China's minerals?'' If not, it's hardly ''declaring war'' to decide not to sell them to you. Is America declaring war on all the countries it refuses to sell things to?


Dec 3, 2010

What are some good examples of non-profit groups successfully introducing disruptive technologies or innovation into a marketplace?

Wikileaks If Assange's vision really comes off and he disrupts every government and corporation's tendency towards secrecy and forces them to act more openly and honestly.

Feb 9, 2011

If I go to Reykjavík for 6 days over the New Year, what chance do I have of seeing the Aurora?

This is the OP.

I went to Reykjavik. I didn't see the Aurora.

You need the right combination of atmospheric conditions and no cloud. There was cloud most of the time.

The tour people will only take you out looking for it if they think there's a chance, but with partial cloud cover and a couple of hours going from one relatively dark spot to another it didn't seem there was much chance. And it was hard to tell if the guides' optimism was real or just part of the act when they knew it was basically hopeless.

Reykjavik is a great city. Well worth visiting. Particularly over the New Year when they have the most insanely over the top firework party I've ever seen. But my feeling is, don't get your hopes too high on the aurora.

Feb 19, 2011

Which mythological creatures could plausibly exist, according to our knowledge of biology and evolution?

Now that we know that birds evolved from dinosaurs, some kind of soaring / gliding reptile is pretty plausible. Think pterosaurs. Fire breathing is pretty dangerous though.

Feb 19, 2011

How and why did the practice of monogamy evolve in humans (and other creatures)?

Normally when offspring are too immature to fend for themselves when born.

This makes it useful to keep two parents around. One to protect the offspring while the other forages for food.

In birds it presumably happens because almost no bird is capable of flying, straight out of the egg. (Contrast quadrupeds, which can often walk within minutes of being born and have very clear dominance hierarchies.)

In humans the infant is born "immature" (compared to other apes) presumably to allow the environment to affect development (more flexible learning).

Mar 7, 2011

What does it look like when there are no schools?

I can imagine a world where kids between about 4 and 14 go to a number of "clubs" (eg. hackers club, sports club, writers club, (maths and) chess club, art club, dance club etc.) each of which is run by a completely different organization (ie. no need for a single umbrella institution called a "school" which administrates them all.)

At the clubs, children would be encouraged and helped to explore their own interests. There'd be both collaborative projects and competitions against clubs from other regions.

At 14, people would start dividing their time between the clubs and apprenticeships with local crafters, and entrepreneurs. They'd start to be considered "adults" and learn to fit in with the world of adulthood and of work. (Rather than being kept in a limbo of non-adulthood until 18)

At the same time, no-one would ever leave the clubs altogether - adults would continue to visit them to learn new things, to teach or to join certain collaborative projects. Lifelong learning (and play) would be interwoven with work responsibilities.

At retirement (whenever it occurred) the third age would perhaps drift back to spending more time in the clubs. Teaching, organising, mentoring, and continuing to learn etc.

Related :

Phil Jones (He / Him)'s answer to Why does the UK Labour Party want to write off student debt? Would it not be a better (and more in line with their philosophy) to use those funds to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and give benefits to those unable to work?

Mar 14, 2011

Is it better to give money directly to the homeless, or donate to a homeless-focused charity?

Personally, I give money to the guy on the street, 'cos at least, then,
you know, I gave money to the homeless guy on the street!

If I held off because that was "inefficient" compared to giving to the charity, chances are I'd probably never get round to searching out and making a donation to the charity anyway, and then I'd just be a sanctimonious hypocrite.

Mar 15, 2011

When will Asus U33Jc series actually be available in the UK?

I finally got one late January. Very nice it is too. :-)

Mar 26, 2011

What are the best arguments against libertarianism?

I like to consider the case of a hypothetical "libertarian road traffic planner" (assuming a libertarian could be persuaded to take up such a job, but let's assume that she's working for a private city and the money's too good to resist)

The planner is faced with the problem that every morning and evening there's a major traffic-jam which means that the average drive-time to and from work is about two hours, when it should really be about 40 minutes. How can she reduce it?

Because the libertarian doesn't believe that phenomena have collective (or emergent) causes, she assumes the problem must stem from individual failure. She notices that certain drivers, who are perhaps a bit more skilful at driving, more aggressive in challenging other cars at junctions, are more decisive and less risk-averse under pressure, more willing to drive fast or cut corners etc, are able to beat the average and get home in about an hour and a half.

She therefore thinks she could cut 25% off the average drive-time if *everyone* could be persuaded to improve their driving. How to do that though? Obviously, people need to take more driving lessons and practice harder. But as a libertarian, she doesn't want to force people to do anything, so she'd better provide incentives to encourage them. Better yet, incentives in the form of removing unfair restrictions.

The obvious thing to do, therefore, is to eliminate speed restrictions. Allow everyone to drive as fast as they like. That means that the real experts won't be held back, there'll be a greater reward for their investment in their skill. And that, in turn, will create a greater incentive for everyone else to learn better driving skills too.

That, then, is our well-intentioned libertarian's response to road congestion.

Now suppose we need to argue against the libertarian? How would we do it?

a) We'd point out that traffic congestion is not a simplistic scaling up of individual failure. There are emergent, non-linear, turbulent effects when a lot of people try to access the same resources.

b) We'd point out that some of the interactions in driving, such as the challenges for priority at road junctions, are zero-sum games. Hence, one driver can't win the junction (and get home quicker) without the other driver losing it (and NOT getting home quicker)

c) we'd point out that not everyone can ever aspire to being as good as the fastest drivers. The elderly, those with certain physical disabilities. Those driving children who they love and want to protect will remain more risk averse.

d) we'd point out that the increased number of accidents caused by the increasingly risky behaviour of the "elite" will block roads and slow everyone's journey down.

e) we'd point out that this solution misses many other options that could improve the transport situation in the city far more dramatically (everything from, on the one hand, building more roads, to, on the other, providing more buses).

f) In short, we'd point out that IT WON'T WORK to reduce travel time except for an infinitesimal minority of super-drivers and will cause more trouble for everyone else.

Of course, the libertarian might simply be too ideologically fixated to accept any of these arguments. She may not accept that there are non linear effects in many-car-interactions. She may have heard that in real life there are no such things as zero sum games. She may have read some garbled account about somewhere in Holland where they took away all the road signs and people drove safer. She may think that any top-down scheme (such as road building or bus-providing) must of necessity be less efficient than her bottom-up scheme.

She may, in the last resort, fall back on saying that ultimately, average speed doesn't matter. The most important principle is to remove the restrictions unfairly holding back the best drivers. (Although this is weird in my contrived example as that's her job.)

So, basically any argument against the libertarian bifurcates on one of two trajectories.

1) A libertarian who doesn't care about the welfare of society as a whole, just the freedoms of those powerful enough to enjoy themselves, regardless of the consequences for everyone else.

This kind of libertarian is just special pleading for a particular interest group and there's no reason to take her more seriously than someone who claims to be the true heir to the Tsar of Russia and wants your help getting their empire back.

What's in it for you?

2) A second kind of libertarian who insists that the freedom she wants is going to benefit society as a whole (or at least, the majority of it).

In this case you can get down to details about *how* everyone is expected to benefit.

Does their argument make naive assumptions about how individual self-improvements scale up to general social welfare?

Does it assume that everyone can get the benefit of things that are actually zero-sum competitions for scarce resources. (Eg. "wealth" in the most vague and hand-wavey sense isn't scarce, but concrete opportunities for wealth such as "money" or "market share at this moment" or "jobs in this town during my lifetime" etc. often are)

Does it ignore or dismiss opportunities for "collective" solutions? Or if it accepts that some benefits are possible from collective actions, does it plausibly demarcate good from bad?

Etc. etc ..

Mar 27, 2011

Are desktop computers becoming obsolete? Does it make sense to only own laptops and touch devices?


I spent a year doing my day job : developing a Django application, running Ubuntu, Python, Django, Postgresql, Redis and Solr on an Asus netbook.

It was fine.

Couple of times a bigger screen or faster machine would have helped, but not enough to make the pain unbearable.

The only thing that a people really still think they need a desktop for is a big monitor. If a laptop / pad can support an external monitor that resolves that issue.

Mar 27, 2011

What are some good economics blogs? What makes them good?

Here's another good one :

Mar 28, 2011

Is creativity important in engineering?

There's no such thing as engineering without creativity.

Apr 2, 2011

Why is there such a stunningly short supply of good developers in Silicon Valley right now?

Isn't there a stunningly short supply of good developers anywhere, anywhen?

Apr 2, 2011

Why are "piece workers" undesired in Silicon Valley?

Vibing off Allen Cheung's answer here. Software is already made using a lot of libraries. Because software is reusable, anyone who's a specialist in writing a particular kind of thing is probably better off selling their "piece" as a library than being hired to re-write it every time. (Different from being hired to hem 2000 skirts)

As to the original question. There's also an issue about that contributor who "didn't deliver anything". Perhaps he was someone that a lot of other people in the team bounced ideas off during lunch. Perhaps he was the "give me a sanity check, what am I doing wrong?" spare pair of eyes that found other coders' bugs.

Software teams need fluidity and informal sharing of information. Perhaps the big reason we don't value piecework is the mindset that comes with it : that everyone is only paid for (and therefore ruthlessly restricts themselves to) their own little piece. So it discourages anyone from taking an interest or responsibility outside of that. Maybe a few free floating, "inefficient" people is a price worth paying for an environment which is generally collegiate and cooperative.

Apr 13, 2011

What does it feel like to be lost and adrift in your career? Increasingly, I meet smart people these days in their 30s or even early 40s who haven't really figured out what they want to do with their lives. What happens to such people eventually?

Presumably it happens because they don't encounter the right job or project that engages their range of interests and takes advantage of their particular skills.

In some cases this may be because they have some fairly hard to match interests and skills. It may be that there are almost no sustainable careers that really want their particular combination.

In other cases it could be because there's a genuine dearth of the right kind of jobs in their area. Someone might have a vocation to work on ships but if they grow up in a small inland town perhaps they never discover it. Great engineers might be wasting away in towns with nothing but retail economies.

A third case is that they haven't learned or been taught to identify what would make them happy. Perhaps they are natural performers but have never been exposed to the theatre and so don't even know that they'd make a good career in drama therapy.

What I guess it feels like from the inside is that life is a long series of disappointments. You may start new jobs and projects with energy and enthusiasm but soon find that what's expected of you is boring, or unpleasant, or difficult to get your head around. Soon you realise it's not working out. You may blame yourself for being no good. Or blame the pointy haired boss for being ignorant and overbearing. Either way, it's just another example of "work" being nothing but a necessary chore rather than a source of self-actualisation and something to take pleasure in.

My advice to anyone in that situation would be to try to take a course in something. Doesn't have to be a big or complicated one (like going to college.) It's not about the qualifications. Just take an evening class or a private tutor once a week. Just try out more and different things that you haven't done before and that might interest you. If you can't afford a course, find a meetup (eg. Remember that the world contains tens of millions of things to do (careers, projects to be involved in, places to visit, ideas to consider). However jaded you feel, you haven't even begun to scratch the surface. And if nothing around you grabs you yet, then go and look at some other options.

Apr 13, 2011

Is Peter Thiel right that US higher education is a bubble?

You always have to keep your eye on the incentives.

Thiel is a global capitalist who lives in America. So for him, it would be advantageous if the US government stopped taxing him to support education and he just hired engineers who'd been educated by the governments of, say, India, China and Europe.

Whether that is also in America's interest, or your interest, is another matter.

Apr 14, 2011

Is operator overloading a good thing or a bad thing?

It's a good thing. When you don't have it you end up with a verbose monstrosity like Java. :-P

Apr 28, 2011

Is a species that is still evolving superior to a species that is not evolving?

First, the idea of one species being "superior to" another is fairly problematic. What do you mean by this? Morally superior? More worthy of our respect and care? More "fit"? Better at maths?

Second, all species are still evolving. Some show signs of having made dramatic changes recently and others don't seem to have changed for millions of years. You could say that the unchanged species have a pretty good "design" that's well adapted to a wide range of circumstances and so haven't needed to change. If that's what you want to label "superior", then the answer is "no, fast evolving animals are not superior". Personally, I don't think that's a very good criteria for superiority, but I don't really think there's any criteria that makes much sense.

Apr 29, 2011

What is the biggest threat to traditional universities?

Depending on what you consider a traditional university, then the biggest threat is the breakdown in consensus about what is true and what is valid knowledge. This is slipping away all the time (eg. creationists vs. evolutionists, climate scientists vs. climate change deniers, post-modernists vs. literary traditionalists).

As we move to a society where different networks of people firmly believe fundamentally different and incompatible things, they seek institutions that will roughly reinforce their beliefs.

That, in turn, changes university from a place where ideas are debated and truth is sought into a place of ideological indoctrination (or at best, training in the rhetoric of beating your opponents)

Apr 29, 2011

The Technological Singularity: What's the word for the terrible realization that we might not be living in special times after all?

They're the only times you've got. So you better make damn sure they're special for you!

Apr 29, 2011

What could go REALLY wrong with the Singularity?

You upload your brain to the computer. You find it *is* you. Has all your memories, skills, creativity. Feels the way you do. It even has your Facebook password and hangs out with your friends.

And yet ... and yet ... your *perspective*. Your "view from somewhere". The unity that makes you, you, is still stuck in your existing, now redundant, still mortal and soon to die body.

Bet that's going to suck.

Apr 29, 2011

What would be the social and economic consequences of people living to be 1000 years old?

Everyone will be encouraged not to have children. Generations would be in direct competition with each other.

It depends a lot on how fit and healthy you stay for the hundreds of years. Will you retain the body of a 20 year old? Or be increasingly decrepit and fragile?

In the former case, I can see humans just giving up on reproducing much. (As many in the comfortable, urban middle-classes already have.) In the latter, there'll still be a continuous requirement to produce new children, but the new generations are likely to rebel against their allotted role of caring for the elderly. In which case, I don't think we will expect people to live so long, even if the medicine technically makes it possible.

The other question is how this longevity is distributed in society. Is it something which is expensive and only available to a few billionaires? (In which case, it's unlikely to have much social effect at all.) Or is it a cheap nano-machine filled pill to block cellular aging? Something that the majority of the world's population can be expected to have access to? (In which case, see the answer in the first sentence.)

Apr 29, 2011

Why is Pacman so much more popular in the west than Pengo?

Pacman has cuter bad-guys. With names.

Apr 29, 2011

Assuming the singularity is going to happen, what would be the best investments over the next 10 years?

A company with a patent on the idea of selling TO artificial intelligences.

Apr 30, 2011

Which science-fiction books of the past most closely describe the world we live in today?

Pohl and Kornbluth's "The Space Merchants" is so accurately predictive of our consumer economy that it's depressing.

Apr 30, 2011

What are the best books on the life and work of Karl Popper?

I recommend his autobiography Unended Quest. That gave me a couple of insights that helped me frame his thinking and come to a better understanding.

Also, I love the extracts about the pre-Socratics in the David Miller edited selections book. I think the original is called The World of Parmenides or something, though I haven't read that.

Apr 30, 2011

What are the biggest tech disruptions to have occurred in the world in the last 50 years?

The microcomputer (personal computer with a microprocessor at its heart).

Initially considered an underpowered toy compared to the mainframe or office mini computers of the 70s, the microcomputer totally disrupted the computer industry, destroying almost every incumbent (apart from IBM; and that, itself was a close thing), created new giants like Microsoft and Apple (and the idea of a software industry as opposed to a computer industry).

The micro :

- indirectly spawned Visicalc which transformed accountancy and how businesses are managed,

- enabled desktop publishing technology (and transformed the magazine publishing business)

- enabled personal access to public networks (bulletin boards, then AOL etc., then the real internet and web)

- enabled Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, YouTube, EBay, Craiglist, Quora, Wikipedia, Khan Academy, TED and millions more sites.

- enabled computer based music production (transforming our entire musical culture - very little of today's music could be made without computers; very few of our artists are not literate in sampling, promoting themselves via the web etc; file sharing and iTunes have seriously undermined the old retail model of music distribution )

- enabled blogging, which has challenged and fact-checked mainstream media, and brought about a transformation in how newspapers are organized. (Craiglist is playing its part here too, of course)

etc. etc.

May 2, 2011

Is status zero-sum?

I suspect the term "status" is vague and needs to be drilled down into further.

We clearly see animal species that seem to compete for status or position in "dominance hierarchies". And for them, position in the hierarchy guarantees access to scarce resources such as food and mates. Hence, to the extent that the kind of status we're talking about is like this biological notion, then yes, it certainly is zero sum because the rewards are, themselves, scarce.

The most depressing thing I read recently is this story ( , hope it doesn't go behind a firewall) which documents some experimental psychologists who found that people were more likely to co-operate in non zero-sum social games with those who appeared to be higher status (were wearing expensive clothes).

That's a horrific discovery if it's a) true, and b) we can't somehow change ourselves to overcome this tendency. It means that even when we construct non-zero-sum situations, our brains still think of status as a zero-sum competition.

May 6, 2011

What are the arguments for and against a global democratic government?

In the worst case scenario, if you hate your government (or your government hates you) you can flee to another country and claim asylum. If there was a single world government, however democratic, that option would no longer be available.

May 7, 2011

If one could only watch a single music video, which video would be most profound?

Momus - Gibbous Moon :

Helps that it's stolen from an awesome film, of course ...

May 7, 2011

Are there any useful recursive functions that do not contain a base case?

When doing parallel programming in Erlang people will often set off a little server process running in an infinite loop. Because Erlang uses tail-recursion for infinite loops they look something like this :

loop() ->

receive {message1} ->



receive{message2} ->



Other ->



The recursion will only end when the process dies.

May 8, 2011

Which programming language should I start learning: JavaScript or Python?


I speak as someone who loves Python and uses it at every opportunity. But, frankly, if you don't know Javascript, it's time to get to know. Because it's the most important software development language / platform of at least the next 5 years.

(And read )

Update :

Today you don't really have to choose. Instead you can learn CoffeeScript which has most of the virtues of both Javascript and Python. Like Javascript it's a light-weight, powerful scripting language that runs in the browser and talks to libraries like jQuery and three.js. Like Python it has a clean, elegant syntax, useful shorthands like comprehensions and generators (this latter because javascript has acquired them). And it can now run on the server / command-line with node.js. (Also via javascript).

May 9, 2011

Where can I find some early films of mechanical art?

Actually, it may be Ralph Steiner's Mechanical Principles I was thinking about :

But more examples would be welcome

May 18, 2011

What innovations and improvements could increase and revive the usefulness of email in the age of social media?


May 21, 2011

Could we engineer mosquitoes to die from (or have a strong aversion to) biting humans?

There's a big difference between engineering ONE mosquito to do this and engineering all of them. Unless the alternative behaviour is actually fitter than the behaviour we're trying to replace it's just going to die out.

May 23, 2011

What would we do if all jobs were automated?

The ultra-wealthy, who *own* all the robotic means of production, having no use for a huge unemployed and unemployable underclass consuming world resources, will try to cull the rest of us. Either passively (leaving us to starve) or actively.

May 24, 2011

In a future where we can farm organs from clones of ourselves, are ''you'' still ''you'' given that your brain or heart is replaced?

I'm going to go for a controversial answer here. I think this is NOT a philosophical question. It's an empirical question.

The first time we see a successful brain transplant we'll find out.

May 24, 2011

Why does the right wing seem so much more focused, organized and funded than the left? On Quora, I've had a Republican trying to work me onto the party line, and any question with a hint of criticism of the right gets a pile of defenders.

The right-wing is better funded because it supports the interests of the rich.

May 24, 2011

Is it fair to say that, in general, the "left" is more sympathetic to WikiLeaks than the "right"? What evidence supports this view?

I think Assange is quite an interesting and unusual figure. He's a libertarian without being particularly right or left wing.

He's against governments, believes in markets and individuals following their consciences. He's nuanced enough that he knows that corporates can be abusive but he advocates an individual freedom oriented solution : namely whistleblowing. He does accept that the result of whistleblowing might be to bring down government censure, but hopes this will help the morally "good" entrepreneurs beat the bad ones.

May 24, 2011

How can I become creative?

Absolutely! Creativity can definitely be practiced.

Start doing stuff : drawing, writing, painting, making, whatever excites you.

The more you do, the more you'll understand the material you work with. The more familiar with the material, the more ideas you'll have about new things to do with it.

May 25, 2011

How might the restaurant industry be disrupted?

Arguably, it has been. By fast-food joints and take-aways.

To disrupt again (assuming Clayton Christensen's notion of disruption) you'd need something which was inferior, but at a price / granularity / convenience that was preferable to a larger customer base than that of traditional restaurants.

A couple of ideas :

Some combination of vending machine with built-in microwave that could dispense hot snacks. Eg. I confess that I find some of pretty tasty. How hard would it be for a machine to microwave and dispense pots of this?

A completely different thing that's taking off in London are "pop-up" restaurants like which come to a particular venue for a single meal. They're classy and fun and have good food (ie. "experiences" like you want from a real restaurant) but because they're temporary, they don't pay the overhead of a permanent restaurant venue. Perhaps the same principle could be expanded and aimed at a wider audience. Itinerant cooks willing to take over church halls or school sports halls or any semi-public space to affordably bring a restaurant-quality meal to some corner of suburbia.

May 25, 2011

Which sites have succeeded by serving occasional users?


May 25, 2011

What makes you return again and again to a site for great content? I know many great sites but I seem to only return to a few regularly.

Basically frequent updates. Something that gives you the sense that it's worth checking back again (even though you only checked 15 minutes ago) because there might be something new already.

Eg. your email client, Twitter, Facebook, Quora ...

May 26, 2011

Which technologies succeeded without first having a single "killer app" but rather many attractive use cases?

I'd guess the internal combustion engine was pretty immediately used for both business and leisure. (Delivery trucks, rich people going on motor tours).

May 26, 2011

Why doesn't PayPal have any real competition?

May 26, 2011

What is the most exciting new technology you see coming to mainstream use by 2016?

Depends what you mean by "mainstream". Everybody having direct experience of it? Or it merely becoming a significant part in how things work?

I'd say 3D printing / desktop fabrication is going to hit the point where it's a significant part of how all products are designed and made, and may be a considerable influence on *where* products are made (which can have other economic / political implications).

OTOH, we won't all have a 3D printer at home within 5 years. But I think there may be enough in our town to make a difference.

May 27, 2011

What would happen if everywhere in the world, everyone forgave each others debt?

All the "debt money" in the world would disappear. There would probably be very little money left. It would be worth a LOT. And everything would look very cheap (nb: not expensive) relative to it.

( Note that this isn't an argument not to forgive debt of some developing countries where huge loans were made to dictators. )

NB : I just realised I originally wrote "expensive" in the above when I meant "cheap". Sorry for the confusion, mental aberation.

May 31, 2011

What seems to be the role of personal responsibility in global warming?

If we won't take personal responsibility there's no hope for us. In a democracy only the sum of our personal responsibility can shift politicians' behaviour.

May 31, 2011

Which functional programming languages, if any, use C-like syntax?


Jun 15, 2011

If you were to create an expert advisory board for the revision of a Uni's industrial design/engineering curriculum, who would you include, why?

Bill Gaver, (sorry, can't seem to find a more interesting link.)

I saw him talk yesterday and was impressed by some very creative work coming from his lab and by his approach to engaging with potential users.

Jun 17, 2011

What makes Facebook so incredibly good at design? This includes regularly adapting. To what extent has design implemented by Facebook led to measurably better results?

The snarky answer is that Facebook's design gets better every time it evolves to look more like <strike>Twitter</strike>Pinterest.

The core of truth, I believe, is that FB has the insight to steal good ideas from other people, and the courage to change even when it upsets the existing users.

That combination, ability and will to adapt good ideas from elsewhere is what keeps its design "pretty much ok" during its turbulent evolution. Yes, stuff moves around and gets lost. But at least the UI isn't bogged down with yesterday's model of what the site should be like.

Of course, FB can get away with this because it's so compelling and still growing so fast. Once that growth slows and stops it will be far more hostage to what the members are used to.

Jun 19, 2011

What is the best way to complete the question, "You know the world is about to end when..."?

all the smart people have given up fighting to save it.

Jun 19, 2011

Newbies: After what average number of logins does a typical Quora user finally realize what the up and down arrows next to answers are for?

I understood it immediately, but I was already used to StackOverflow which had the same convention.

Jun 19, 2011

Could there be something better than up/down vote mechanisms as a way for users to control content?

Make the blocks draggable? Have ordering by different criteria (newness, number of answers)? This : ?

Jun 20, 2011

I want Prolog-style symbolic inference in Flash (as3), what is the easiest way?

What about + ? That would get Prolog into your browser.

Jun 23, 2011

Why does not the UN and the developed countries initiate a "new new-world" to solve refugee and illegal immigration problems?

You mean like "Charter Cities"?

Jun 24, 2011

What will come after Microsoft Windows?

At some point, surely, Microsoft have to wake up and realise that "Windows" is stupid name / branding for an operating system whose features, no matter what they are, are not, actually GUI "windows" any more. I mean, when Windows 8 gets people used to apps. in tiles. Should they just rename it to "Tiles"?

Jun 24, 2011

What was so special with the year 1988 so that people mention it so much in songs?

Based on the examples you're giving, I'd say that several things were happening.

Hip hop was becoming a serious music. Before 87, 88 we'd heard the odd tune : Grandmaster Flash, Planet Rock, Rapture. But mostly hip-hop was still seen as a kind of party / novelty music. Think Doug. E. Fresh etc.

But now there were real bands appearing. Making real albums. Evolving the music in a way that it was obviously a full-on musical and cultural phenomenon. Public Enemy, Run DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J and not long after De La Soul, NWA ... etc.

So 88 is at the cusp of hip-hop's adulthood. It's still not quite adult. It's still young, and fun, and about fighting for your right to party. But it's definitely found an identity.

Coupled with that, and maybe because of that, Hip-hop was going mainstream; or at least becoming popular among suburban and white kids. And visible to everyone.

At least in the UK, 88 was also the "second summer of love". When house (and particularly acid house) arrived. That's a revolution; from 88 to, say, 92 was the Cambrian explosion of electronic dance music and rave culture.

Almost all the species of electronic dance and most of the sonic ideas appeared then. So anyone working in that tradition has to look back and recognise that that's where it all came from.

Jun 26, 2011

Is a good name/domain for a cloud LMS? Why or why not?

Ultimately, what matters is the product / service. Not the name.

However, that's a name you can expect people to ask you questions about in the future. (Assuming you get any success.) So if you have some good stories prepared, it may help. If you can't think of any, that may be a bad sign.

Jun 26, 2011

What are some of the most misused words or expressions in conversational English?

"Yes" by people who really want to or should say "No".

Jun 28, 2011

What are the cultural dependencies of a functioning credit card system?

Any exchange economy has a large number of cultural dependencies :

- a fairly strong consensus on what things count as property,

- an idea of what "ownership" is,

- an idea of what a valid transference of ownership is.

To get to a credit card system :

- You need acceptance that money is a store of value suitable for exchanging.

- Then you need an acceptance that lending money at interest is not immoral.

- You need a widespread willingness of people to temporarily go into debt using the cards (and not feel ashamed).

- After that you need the various skills of vendors to accept card payments and users to make them.

Jun 28, 2011

Would a social network centered locally be successful? Why or why not?

I'm going to take the contrarian side here.

I'll bet local social networking is over-rated and will basically "flop" compared to more general social networking utilities like Facebook, Twitter and Linked in.

The problem is that while I'd love to have lots of up-to-date detailed information about by near locality and my neighbours :

a) I don't necessarily want my neighbours to have that much up-to-date and detailed information about me.


b) the kind of information I might want appeals to too narrow an audience to make it worthwhile anyone collecting and managing it.

Have you ever read a local newspaper? They're some of the most boring reads on earth, filled with adverts for real estate and wedding photography, trivia about school fetes and petty crimes and desperate attempts to find something interesting going on in the locality. Local news has to be bland enough not to alienate any of the inevitably small readership, so no controversial op-eds, no difficult thinking, no aspirations beyond the mundane.

But if I'm looking to buy real-estate, I'm better off with a dedicated real-estate site. Similarly if I want crime statistics, there are better specialist systems. If I want to browse or place a classified, I prefer a catchment area at least as big as a city to find buyers and sellers (ie. Craiglist scale). Out of the city, or to get a better price, I may prefer the national or international scale of eBay.

My friends and followers on Facebook and Quora and Twitter are connected to me by shared interest or shared experience of institutions. Some of those institutions *may* be local but once I'm an adult out of school, then college friends and work colleagues (and ex-work colleagues) are already distributed way beyond my post-code. And while I'm happy to loudly spout opinions on Quora dressed in a carnival suit I walk around my neighbourhood dressed soberly and trying not to attract too much attention.

Some things may work at a very local scale. I think FreeCycle does. Because it's such a low barrier to entry to participate in, its value is real and immediate. And often it's exactly someone down your road who you want to come and take your old wardrobe because that's the fastest way to get rid of it.

Tool-sharing may be another win.

And what I'd love to have is up-to-date information about when the chemist is open this morning and whether they have certain medicines in stock. And live information about how the buses are running. But I don't believe that there's a business model to make that work. The web is full of terrible sites listing "shops in your area" with incomplete and untimely information. If there's an opportunity, it's for something like which seeds local businesses and services with automated sensors rather than relying on "user generated content".

Update : Another way of looking at this : "locality" is really just a search-filter. It's a feature, not a product in its own right.

Update 2 : Everyblock is yet another proof point that no one understands hyperlocal, if it means anything at all

Jun 28, 2011

Is there such a thing as an open repository of blueprints for local businesses?

Wonder if these people have a pattern-language?

here? :

Jun 29, 2011

In layman’s terms, what caused the 2008 financial crisis?

Naive Economics: People thought that with less Government Regulation the financial system would become more stable. Instead it became less stable.

Perverse Incentives (economics): many players were encouraged to seek higher risks because they got bonuses for gambles that paid off, but didn't get equivalent punishments / fines for making losses.

The size of the financial industry was simply too big for other forces in the economy: industry, government etc. to absorb the shock.

Some genuine dishonesty and a lot of misleading semi-truths, e.g., banks lending money as mortgages but dressing the loan up as something else (to avoid scrutiny), etc.

Jun 29, 2011

Is Austrian economics falsifiable?

I don't think Austrians consider their economics to be a science at all. Consider this

"Mises insisted that economic theory itself was an a priori discipline. What he meant is that economists shouldn't ape the methods of physicists by coming up with hypotheses and subjecting them to empirical tests. On the contrary, Mises thought that the core body of economic theory could be logically deduced from the axiom of "human action," i.e., the insight or viewpoint that there are other conscious beings using their reason to achieve subjective goals."


Jul 1, 2011

In a world where rhinoceros were domesticated as pets, who wins the second World War?

Other answers miss the point. In a world where Rhinos are domesticated mounts, Europe is a fertile but subdued backwater paying tribute to huge African empires. The most important cities in the world are Cairo and Carthage. (The Balkans and Eastern Europe falling under control of the former, Italy and Iberia remaining provinces of the latter. Northern Europe remains a patchwork of small independent kingdoms of little global consequence.)

Magellan, Vasco de Gama, Columbus, all working directly or indirectly for Carthagian princes, have discovered the New World; and Inca and Aztec looted gold is flowing into Carthage's coffers. Egypt, in response, wants to expand by conquering India, building a huge fleet along the East African coast to attack it across the Indian Ocean.

The Second World War starts when the Indian navy and airforce, alerted by Carthagian spies, makes a sudden pre-emptive attack on Egyptian naval bases along the south coast of Yemen. Outraged (but secretly pleased) Egypt calls its Persian allies to support it against this unprovoked aggression. India calls on both China and Carthage to support it. The former has a non-intervention policy which restricts it to muttering a few mild diplomatic complaints in the UN and Carthage is reluctant to get involved in an open war against its main rival.

However, after Egypt launches a full scale attack on India, Carthage finds itself unable to deny its ally and reluctantly declares war on Cairo.

After 10 years bloody fighting, throughout all parts of the Egyptian and Carthagian Empires (including Sub Saharan Africa, Southern Europe, parts of the American continents and Central Asia), an Egyptian led axis including Persia and Russia is eventually defeated by an alliance of Carthage, India and a late entering, China.

Jul 1, 2011

Is Stack Exchange going to fail?

I was an early adopter of Stack Overflow. And I still love the site and the people behind it. But I'm concerned that I see myself spending more time on Quora now. Particularly *answering* questions on Quora. I go to Stack Overflow to ask for specialist help, but I don't hang around enough to answer other people's questions.

The main reason and main risk to Stack Exchange is the balkanisation into different communities. Often I don't know whether to post a question on the original Stack Overflow, the Unix site or the Ubuntu site. And there's no one obvious place to "hang out" any more. Plus I've had genuine questions rejected as off-topic (and however much I can understand the reasons, it never *feels* nice to spend 15 minutes composing a question to which I want an answer, and hope will trigger a discussion, and then be told that it's not allowed).

I know Stack Exchange is work-in-progress, but I think they should be worried about anecdotes like mine. Are they sacrificing a sense of community and informality in ruthlessly pursuing a more efficient information machine?

I much prefer the look of Stack Overflow to Quora, but I think Quora have demonstrated that you don't need to give up openness to have a navigable and useful site. I'd like to see Stack Exchange give me back some kind of unified home page where I'd see an aggregate of the sites or tags I'm following, and for my reputation and badges to be common across these worlds. That would give me a place to spend time. Because now Stack Exchange is becoming completely functional. A collection of different places I go to ask questions and leave again as soon as I have answers.

Jul 1, 2011

Will Google+ (partially) cannibalize Blogger?

It would be much more sensible to provide some of the Google+ CIrcles control within blogger. I already use blogger heavily. I don't want to be pushed somewhere else. Why shouldn't I just be able to tag my posts "for the attention of" a Circle? Or even "private to" a Circle?

Jul 1, 2011

What are the odds that Google will dramatically redesign Blogger?

Not a lot now they're trying to push people onto Google+.

Google have a history of abandoning products when they get bored with them.

Jul 1, 2011

What would be a good use of Apple's $110.2+ billion in cash?

If they're really looking to the future, Aldebaran Robotics :

Domestic robots are an idea who's time, if it hasn't come yet, is close. But no company has figured out how to make them useful and usable. Apple might be the people to do it.

Plus, Aldebaran's bots look way more stylish than, say Willow Garage's. A Nao descendant could be the next revolutionary product Jobs announces in around 2015

Jul 2, 2011

What causes food demand to increase besides population growth?

This tells you everything you need to know :

Jul 2, 2011

Why did (Mark Pincus) not work out?

Great question. I LOVED Tribe! It was the best social network for actually having interesting discussions and finding cool people online that I've ever been a part of. I'm also gutted that it failed. Really hard to know what went wrong, but I'll hazard a guess :

Tribe became filled by genuinely cool and interesting but fairly alternative people (geeks / burners / bsdm / lgbt / new age). They were a very loyal community, but they weren't generating very much money for the company (not clicking enough adverts, not attractive to mainstream advertisers), which was running at a loss.

Without making money, the company couldn't really improve the site and add new features.

Then one day, the company thought "all these FREAKS are scaring off middle America, we must do something" so they came in with a whole new set of restrictions, designed to make Tribe "family friendly". Of course, it failed dismally in attracting a bigger audience, but it did succeed in alienating the loyal members.

With mounting complaints from the community, no income, and seeing no way to escape from being a minority, Mark Pincus lost interest. He sold the back-end software (to Cisco?) and went on to discover that he could make a lot more money providing cute games to the mainstream.

Ultimately, I guess the problem was that Tribe couldn't think of a way to make money from the community they had, and couldn't turn the community into one they knew how to make money from. Note though, that this is just speculation from a user, I have no inside knowledge.

One further thought. I'd guess that enough people fondly remember Tribe that the brand still has some value. If I were to receive an email tomorrow saying that Tribe had been taken over and revamped by someone who cared about the community, and the site looked good and there was some activity, I'd be willing to hang out there again.

Update : Just remembered I also had some thoughts here :

Jul 2, 2011

What were the greatest intellectual achievements of the 20th century in science and mathematics?

Turing and Von Neuman's theoretical and practical insights that led to computers.

Jul 4, 2011

What are the top influences responsible for degrading the quality of human life in the last few decades?

Television - undoubtedly the worst thing to hit humanity in the last 60 years.

It destroyed the possibility of serious political debate or effective government. (Only telegenic celebrities can get elected, only candidates who've sold their souls to lobbyists can afford to advertise sufficiently, debates are timetabled and shaped to fit the TV schedule.)

It destroyed our understanding of the world. 24 hour TV news endlessly repeats disconnected factoids interspersed with incomprehensible but emotional footage of disasters, wars and celebrities.

TV advertising created an unprecedented culture of mass consumption at a huge environmental cost (accelerated consumption of raw materials and energy, increased pollution)

It pulled people away from sociable outdoor activities, locking them indoors with consequent degrading effects on everything from health (the obesity epidemic) to community (fewer people on "the porch" or out on the streets)

It wasted billions of hours of human time. People lived vicariously through other people's love affairs, sporting triumphs, heroism, rather than going out and living these things for themselves.

It rehabilitated and popularised some of the worst kinds of reactionary, fundamentalist religions, giving demagogues bigger pulpits to spread fear and prejudice.

Jul 4, 2011

What are the top influencing factors responsible for having upgraded the quality of human life in the last few decades?

The Green Revolution : Not an unproblematic good, but increasing crop yields and reducing the risks of starvation in many parts of the world undoubtedly upgraded the lives of many.

The Information Revolution : from the transistor, to integrated circuit, microprocessor, personal computer, spreadsheet, to internet (and Quora). Has undoubtedly improved efficiency in uncounted ways, and created opportunities for more interesting work and ways to communicate.

Jul 12, 2011

Python Web Frameworks: Is Pinax for Django any good?

More or less agree with Derek Gulbranson You might start with Pinax but you'll probably end up wanting to throw it away and write your own Django components the moment you start wanting to do anything even slightly different.

I'm not sure this is Pinax's fault exactly. I think it's the nature of "applications" in web frameworks like Django. Unlike normal code frameworks which you extend by creating subclasses, there's no good mechanism for "reuse with variations" at the level of something which consists of a dozen different .py and template files in different subdirectories.

Jul 12, 2011

How do I know what is right or wrong?

You can't. All you can do is try to be honest with yourself and try to compare what you think with what other people think.

But there's no guarantee.

Jul 13, 2011

Is Murdoch's huge media empire a threat to democracy?

Depends what you mean by threat to democracy.

If you mean something like "politicians worry that the opinions of media owners bias their chances of getting elected and so they (the politicians) try to do what media proprietors want" then, yes, definitely.

Update : this seems to be a relevant story. Direct threats made against politicians if they didn't support NI :

Jul 13, 2011

Is Java a good language for web development? Why or why not?

I voted up Anon's critique because it shouldn't have been downvoted / hidden.

In my experience Java has been a pain in the proverbial for web development. The combination of static typing, explicit compilation stage, XML config. files and, yes, verbosity all count against it.

But ... the truth about Java is that it's all about the tools and environment. I've written Python / Django in Emacs on an Asus netbook and it was OK. There's no way I could write a Java web-app under similar circumstances.

If you like Eclipse, have a machine capable of running it fast enough, the right plugins and the rest of your environment set up right (don't ask me how), then you can probably make Java work as well as anything else.

But why do you WANT to use Java over the one of Ruby / Python / Perl / PHP / Javascript / Erlang / Smalltalk? The only reason is if you already have a Java system you need your back-end to connect with. Or there's a special library that's only available in Java that's not available elsewhere.

Jul 15, 2011

Life is not fair. There is no justice in life. The moment we recognise this, can we relax? Enjoy life for what it is, rather than fantasize?

Life used to be a lot less fair than it is now. It got fairer because people were willing to fight to make it fairer.

Jul 15, 2011

Is David Cameron's Big Society just BS?

Yes. Because it's an appeal to an ideal of communitarian activism that never existed and couldn't exist given the demands on citizens to a) work for their employers, b) consume to keep the economy growing.

*Some* notion of a more decentralised communitarian British society might work. But it would require a) an acceptance that we work fewer paid hours a week, to make time for all the other activities we need to get involved in, and b) that we earn less money, and spend less money buying stuff ie. the economy shrinks.

I don't see Cameron being willing to preside over that, so he's either stupid, or more likely it's a smokescreen for cutting government services without any realistic plan as to what will replace them.

Update : Over a year into the Cameron government, I can't think of single aspect of community life / service that has improved due to a "Big Society" project, but I can see many government services that have been cut (or will be cut) and services diminishing as a result. I think there's sufficient evidence now in that it was nothing but a feel-good advertising slogan without substance.

Jul 24, 2011

Is David Cameron one of Britain's worst Prime Ministers?

Agree with Matthew. It's *way* too early to tell.

I suspect that it's early enough to tell that he's not going to be a *great* prime-minister. He clearly doesn't have any real vision or courage.

But whether he turns out to be a non-entity or ends up doing something particularly bad / stupid remains to be seen.

Jul 24, 2011

Which is best: living in a country with a high standard of living that is going downhill, or the opposite?

Depends what you mean by best. For most people stability is likely to be better than a tiny probability of making a huge fortune. So, if you have a choice, choose the country with the smoothest gradient (whether it's of ascent or descent).

Personally, I live between the UK (descending) and Brazil (ascending). Both are great places to live if you can afford to live in zones of middle-class stability. Both would be awful if you were excluded from these zones and lived in poverty and precarity.

Jul 24, 2011

How much damage will the phone hacking scandal of 2011 do to David Cameron's political career?

This is interesting :

If it was shown that Cameron deliberately protected Coulson from high-level security vetting because he knew (or suspected) that there were some skeletons in the cupboard, that would seem to be pretty damning.

Jul 25, 2011

Political Economy: Does Capitalism entail concentration of wealth into the hands of few? Are there any capitalist countries where the gap between rich and poor is not widening?

Think about it this way.

Suppose John and Jane both have businesses making and selling widgets. However John is more efficient at making widgets than Jane and can therefore profitably sell his widgets for $9 to Jane's $10.

Over time, John's share of the market increases and Jane's withers. Eventually Jane goes bust and John has 100% of the market.

What just happened? It wasn't that Jane was incapable of making widgets. Or even much less efficient at it. John only had to be a bit more efficient than Jane for our simplified market to result in John supplying all the widgets and Jane none of them.

Now this is exactly what we WANT from markets. We want them to AMPLIFY the faint signals that one technique or company is more effective than another, so that everyone gets the idea and starts copying John's way of doing things and forgets Jane's. That's part of the attraction.

But it also shows that markets distribute rewards NON-LINEARLY. And yes, that does entail concentration of wealth into the hands of the few. A capitalism that didn't concentrate wealth into the hands of the few, that left John and Jane with similar profits and incomes after 10 years, wouldn't be doing the information processing that we expect of it.

Jul 25, 2011

If there is continuing widening of the rich/poor divide, high unemployment, and a collapse of the major developed economies, will Marxism make a comeback?

Personally, ten years ago I used to think Marxism was outdated and irrelevant to our post-industrial information age. Today I think it's fairly essential to understanding what the hell's actually going on in the world.

Jul 28, 2011

What is the next big innovation in programming languages after Java?

"After Java" is a bit contentious. Java is basically C++ with a built-in garbage collector.

So let's take the question in that spirit. Garbage collection takes a huge problematic responsibility (memory management) away from the programmer and puts it in the virtual machine.

What's the next common programmer problem that we'd like to have the language take over responsibility for? The obvious one is management of multiple processes / threads / asynchronous communication. Erlang builds this into the language and virtual machine, but for various reasons probably won't be the next big thing.

What seems to be building traction for reactive server type applications is node.js. But that doesn't really add any helpful syntax to the language to handle multi-tasking. Instead, syntactic innovation on top of javascript is going on in, say, coffescript.

My prediction, therefore, is that someone will come up with something not unlike coffeescript, extended with Erlang-like special syntax for handling multiple light processes, and which compiles down to multiple node.js nodes.

Update : 2013. I'm very interested in Elm and its way of doing Functional Reactive Programming. Previously my experiences of FRP were a bit clunky, but Elm makes it look quite elegant and I can see how it subsumes the interprocess communication I was talking about in this answer. Not saying Elm will be that language, but I think an Erlang / CoffeeScript synthesis would well benefit from looking at it for inspiration.

Jul 30, 2011

Could Bitcoin's mining be combined with actually useful work?

Based on this : perhaps heating?

Aug 4, 2011

What do existential nihilists do with their lives?

Whatever they want.

Aug 5, 2011

What is "hauntological music"?

An electronic music from the UK, made largely by musicians who were children in the 1970s or 80s, influenced by library music, analogue electronics, children's television (particularly stories revolving around the supernatural), some folk-rock, public service information films, modernist architecture, hip-hop, rave and electronica and occasionally older steam-punk tropes.

Check out Belbury Poly, Moon Wiring Club, Advisory Circle, and here for a recent survey (July 2011) :

In some ways analogous to US musics such as witch house and vapourwave with similar themes of nostalgia and missed / misunderstood futures but with a distinctly different sound.

Aug 5, 2011

Why has there been an outcry against real names on Google+ but not on Quora?

a) Quora gives you a way to ask and answer questions anonymously.

b) I'm not sure if Quora has algorithms automatically chucking you out without some kind of process when it thinks you've violated the real name policy.

c) Quora explicitly specialises in sharing a certain *type* of information : questions and answers which are often fairly impersonal. Whereas G+ aspires to rival Facebook, which is a place where a lot more personal / intimate information is shared.

d) Quora is still perceived as a minority interest site where the community is serious and well meaning. Not many trolls and griefers here. That MIGHT be because the mechanics are good at keeping them out. Or we might just be lucky that they haven't found us yet.

Aug 5, 2011

What is your iTunes (or #1 most played song - and are you embarrassed/proud of what it is?

Fernanda Takai - Diz Que Fui Por Ai
Gayngs - The Gaudy Side of Town
James Blake - CMYK
The Threshold Houseboys Choir - So Free It Knows No End

Aug 6, 2011

If the U.S. federal government loses its AAA credit rating, what would happen to the federal budget and the U.S. economy?

This, maybe?

Aug 9, 2011

What are some of the funniest jokes about the London riots?!/silentypewriter/status/100975511035056129


Aug 9, 2011

Why are London Police reluctant to use powerful riot control equipment such as water cannons?

It's not "appeasing" the rioters to believe that policing should be "by consent".

It's exactly what it says on the tin. The assumption that the state machinery is there by will of the public and that the police serve the public by dealing with threats to it. If the police start bringing in military style weapons against protests (or even riots or any large group of people) then they start to look like they are imposing order on, and against the will of, the public.

Also, I'm sure there are a lot of people who think rubber bullets are great because they'd HURT the rioters. But the police's job is not to PUNISH criminals. It's to apprehend them while protecting the public.

Aug 10, 2011

What is the best way to turn a Marxist into a supporter of a mixed economy?

Protect the "mixed" part of the mixed economy.

Most economies are sliding today from mixed to full-on capitalist as governments are caving-in to right-wing demands to cut welfare and social protection for the poor and disadvantaged.

I wasn't a Marxist when I believed that mixed economies had consigned 19th century capitalism to the dustbin of history. I'm much more sympathetic now I see that social democratic governments are subservient to giant financial institutions and that real power is wielded by billionaire oligarchs.

Aug 11, 2011

What are the best songs about never growing up?

Los Cucas : Me Gustaria Ser Bebe

Aug 11, 2011

What are some good questions to evaluate the core values of an individual?

I believe that (almost) everyone in the world believes the same thing : that people should be free to do whatever they like as long as they don't harm anyone else.

The differences can all be understood in terms of what things they believe harm other people.

A social conservative might believe that the freedom to express gay affection in public harms others because it encourages people to disobey God, with potentially catastrophic results for their immortal souls. An environmentalist might believe that freedom to drive a car harms others because it contributes to global warming that will kill millions. A libertarian might believe that freedom to carry goods out of a shop without paying harms others because appropriating the product of another's labour is tantamount to enslaving them. Etc.

So my fundamental question : what freedoms need to be curtailed to protect other people from harm?

Aug 11, 2011

Are there any new musical instruments that might be as overpowering in the future of popular music as the electric guitar is and has been for 60 years?

Every decade has had its characteristic technologies and sounds. Since the 90s with the ubiquity of computer based virtual studios we should understand that the instrument is not a piece of hardware so much as an effect or style.

50s-60s Electric Guitar, Electric Organ, Flanger, Echo
70s Analogue Synth,
80s Drum Machine, Sampler, Record Scratch
90s Timestretching, Decomposed Amen Break.
00s AutoTune, Dubstep "wobble" bass, cassette texture

If there's one instrument / sound that might rival the electric guitar for ubiquity and longevity in popular music then I'd say it has to be the drum machine. With the 808 providing the prototypical example.

What's this decade's characteristic sound? I haven't heard a good candidate yet.

Kuochun Lo might be right that it may not be a sound so much as a change in how we control / interact with music. Perhaps "sound toys" on mobile devices will become widespread enough to be called the musical hallmark of our age. It will be interesting to see, though, if they'll be audibly distinct from music made previously.

Update :

Or perhaps, the big new instrument of our times is the looping pedal :

Aug 11, 2011

Are equality and freedom diametrically opposed to each other?


The world doesn't fit on a single spectrum or two dimensional grid. Instead, the world is composed of many intertwined threads which twist together and form knots. At these knots, multiple desires for freedom come up against multiple desires for equality.

At each knot you can decide where to make a trade-off regardless of the trade-offs you make elsewhere.

For example, you can believe that all citizens deserve equal treatment under the law (trumping the freedom of judges to inflict their prejudices on the defendant) while at the same time believing that people should have the freedom to eat what they want (trumping any desire that the government may have to prevent obesity by banning hot-dogs).

Furthermore, sometimes rival freedoms are in conflict with each other. My freedom to swing my arm must be weighed against your freedom to go about your business without being assaulted. Similarly, different desires for equality must be traded against each other. We might desire that everyone receives an equal amount of healthcare. Or that everyone lives an equally long life. But we can't have both at the same time. (Some people will need more care to achieve the same amount of life.)

Finally, not only can freedoms be incompatible with each other and equalities be incompatible with each other but some freedoms line up with some equalities. When women gained equality with men in property rights it gave them the freedom to participate in the market.

Aug 11, 2011

Before Asana, had any startup ever written a new in-house programming language after receiving funding but before launching a product?

I believe has been developing in Lisp with maybe some DSLs.

Aug 16, 2011

Why is wanting to make money stigmatized?

In a market economy money == power. (Power to decide how other people will work, who will produce and what).

Anyone who tells you that they want more money than you is indirectly telling you they want power over you.

Aug 17, 2011

Are there any good pop songs that break free from the twelve-tone equal temperament system?

Probably not.

I did wonder about the classic rave sound where a chord is sampled and then the sample is pitched up and down leading to some jarring changes of harmonic ratios (eg. the beginning of


But actually, the most popular rave tunes tend to intersperse sections like this with more traditional synth melodies.

Aug 21, 2011

What are the best hooks in pop songs?

A good one is to start with a big interval, going up or down.

Aug 22, 2011

What are some good books on the evolution of human morality? Why?

You probably didn't mean But you should read it (or a good commentary) as a useful comparison.

Aug 22, 2011

What are some high-level art programming environments?

Supercollider (a language alternative to Max/MSP or PD) :

Chuck (similar. interesting but not maintained that I can see) :

Aug 23, 2011

Why hasn't the Windows-based GUI, its usual control elements, and PC UX overall seen any major changes or improvements since the invention of GUI?

User interfaces get locked-in. Once people learn how to use a particular set of tropes they don't want to have to learn a new one, even if it promises to be better.

I'd go so far as to say that there's almost NO degree of "better" which will force people to change. Dramatic interface changes only come when the perceived underlying application changes.

There has, in fact, been one significant improvement since the standard GUI patterns were established in the 1980s : the humble webpage hyperlink.

In the classic GUI pattern of the 80s, navigation is by menu item and button, icon and window. The pattern of mixing ad hoc links into text only became widespread in web-browsers in the 90s. And that's because the web itself was such a different kind of application.

The major 00s revolution is, of course, multi-touch. But that could only establish itself on another new class of application : smart-phones. (You could argue that this disproves my point, in that there were earlier UIs for smart phones and PDAs, but I'd respond that these were genuinely inadequate for the application in a way that the 80s GUI for the PC wasn't)

tl;dr : Once a UX paradigm is OK, only a new underlying application can shift it.

Aug 24, 2011

What is the right unemployment rate for a healthy job market?

No. There's no theory which could set the limit.

It's purely politics (ie. a power-struggle between those who value different things.)

Those who want to work and value stability in their economic lives will want 0%. Those who want "liquidity" (whatever that is and whoever that is meant to benefit) perhaps want it higher.

There's no "right" just fight.

Aug 24, 2011

What does the Matrix digital rain effect represent?

Computer stuff.

Aug 25, 2011

What is the least exploitative way to get rich? Given that American society sees exploitation negatively and hard work positively, what route to enrichment has the lowest ratio of exploitation to hard work?

Getting rich, by definition, means extracting from your economic activities a rent which is higher than everyone around you is getting. There's no completely nice way to do that.

Undoubtedly the *least* exploitative way is to create some kind of digital product by yourself, allow people who like it to download it, and voluntarily pay you what they would like. If you can persuade enough people to do that you can enjoy your wealth with a relatively clean conscience.

Aug 28, 2011

There is significant emerging evidence that large segments of the middle class in the developed world will basically become unemployable soon, leading to growing income inequality. What tools and services could turn this class into entrepreneurs?

I recently wrote in a discussion forum that I could foresee two possible outcomes of the current automation revolution. One in which incredibly powerful fabrication machines all belonged to the wealthy, most people were unemployable, and those who were in work were receiving a minimal salary for tending the machines.

An alternative would be a world of "owner-operator" small businesses. In this world, "economies of scale" would be trumped by "economies of flexibility" from local and ecologically sustainable on-demand manufacture. Your local main-street / high-street would be revitalised. When you shopped for a pair of shoes, you'd visit a family owned shop, getting personalised service - the shopkeeper, who was also the owner, would help customise the shoe design for your feet and taste and would then go into the back of the store and fabricate the shoe on the printer. These owner-operators would be responsible for maintenance of the machines (at least calling the guy who fixes them); for understanding enough to download and install software upgrades, etc; and even collecting old shoes to recycle material back into the feed for the next round of fabrication.

Now, how could we get to this second scenario? I don't believe that naive techno-determinism gets us there. Technologies get invented to solve the problems people WANT to solve. It won't just come from the existence of the 3D sintering machines. I also don't believe that saying "leave it to the market" or the "leave it to the entrepreneurs" sorts it out. Ambitious entrepreneurs are always going to want to build huge companies that make a lot of money. VCs will be prejudiced in that direction too. But this vision is of a "mittelstand" of small and medium sized businesses that employ a lot of people but don't make big, short-term returns for investors.

So we have to WANT this future. And deliberately try to create it. Here are some areas where I think we should act


I don't buy the story that entrepreneurship can't be taught. It's part of the myth of the entrepreneur as some kind of superman. To me, it's shocking that Western capitalist countries idealise business and entrepreneurship so much but do so LITTLE to teach it in our educational institutions.

So, here's the start. By age 8, every school would have scheduled lesson-time where pupils played "play-money" games like Monopoly and similar. They'd also have gambling card games like poker (played with real casino chips) and strategy games like chess and Go. On the curriculum! In lesson time. Not as some special after-school club that only nerds go to.

Then, by age 10, there'd be classes that were about setting up the proverbial "lemonade stall". Three times a year, all schools would run markets whose stalls were operated by the pupils, selling whatever they managed to make and figured there was a demand for. Pupils would keep the money they made.

From 10, children would also have a specific "political economy" class, teaching basic economic principles, how banks work, how the insurance industry works, how stock markets work. And the history of economic ideas.

By age 14, pupils should start leaving the ghetto of school to engage with the adult world. So by 14, the school week should drop to 4 days of taught lessons, with Fridays being reserved for self-directed projects with supervision from teachers. A self-directed project may be academic - a pupil may still choose to study maths; may arrange with the physics teacher to use the school's facilities to do their own experiment; or may choose to write a mini-dissertation on a period of history they are particularly interested by. On the other hand, the school may arrange that the day is spent on an apprenticeship with a local business. Those who seem sufficiently motivated and competent may spend the day working on their own startup.

From age 15, school attendance should be voluntary and pupils free to choose the courses that interest them. Schools should offer courses at night. And short, applied courses (in computer literacy, fabrication technology, accountancy etc.) Classes should be open for adults in the community to attend.

Finally, schools should be given money to act as investment funds in their pupils' enterprises. Not a large amount, but schools should be able to make small grants to help their pupils set up their enterprises.


Many in the middle-classes have an incredible, unused resource in the form of their homes and gardens, but are often prevented from exploiting it commercially by zoning regulations or by private contracts with their neighbourhoods.

Apart from the case where outflow byproducts are genuinely harmful, local laws that prevent people from growing vegetables in their gardens, turning their residential home into a cafe, or running a commercial laser-cutter in their garage, should be scrapped.

Eminent domain should be used to break similar restrictions due to private contracts.
The separation between residential and commercial needs to be broken down to bring jobs and work closer to where people live in the suburbs and to turn that land and architecture from mere consumption good back into productive capital.

Aug 30, 2011

Why do highly educated people commonly believe and argue that no fixed criteria of good and bad exist?

Highly educated people tend to put more emphasis on the need for justifications for their beliefs. It's hard to give justifications for moral opinions. So they find it easier to say that there's no absolute right or wrong than to say that there is an absolute but that they can't justify how they know that there is.

Aug 31, 2011

Who are some musical artists whose work became better with age?

I'll suggest Tom Waits and Scott Walker as two examples of artists who became far more experimental and interesting as they got older.

Some people may not like the newer stuff, but there's a strong case that they achieved their true artistic greatness later in their careers.

Sep 4, 2011

Creative Cities: What are some famous artistic neighborhoods worldwide?

Hackney Wick!

Sep 7, 2011

Imagine a new form of Earth civilization is being created right here at Quora. What shape should it take?

I feel that Quora's civilisation comes from the rules rather than being innate in the community.

I've seen many different types of people here : hardcore atheists and fervent theists, libertarians and communists, professionals and amateurs. There's some snarking, but I think the rules play an important part in keeping it under control.

1) The restriction to one answer per question prevents people getting into backwards and forwards arguments and stops Quora becoming a pointless fight.

It's also a kind of egalitarianism. However smart you think you are or others think you are, however much time you have to spend, you only get one shot to answer a question, just like everyone else.

2) The vicious sanction of being downvoted. It's easy to get downvoted / hidden and hard to get this rescinded. That certainly makes people careful of offending others or being flippant. Even jokes are frowned on.

Finally, I think the design helps. Quora is slightly dull, slightly ugly. It screams elegant but conservative. It's not a place that looks like you can do or say what you like. It's not a place to get excited. Or be outrageous or utopian. Windows are very much unbroken.

So, if Quora were a country, I'd say it would be Singapore. A fairly mixed and excitable population, kept in check by both heavy rules and a heavy culture. But nevertheless, industrious and forward looking.

Sep 22, 2011

Why don’t those with high intelligence or those at the top of society end up making the world significantly better?

There are two kinds of problems in the world. The first type can be roughly understood as conflicts between man and nature. The second as conflicts between man and man.

The first kind of problem is relatively straightforward to solve. Those with power and genius can gain yet more power and acclaim by solving them. And so they do. it's relatively uncontroversial to go to the moon, or cure polio or create a new strain of wheat. Curing cancer is harder, but we keep making steady progress and no-one is really trying to stop us.

The second kind of problem is much more difficult. You can't resolve poverty without accepting that there are zero-sum games over control of scarce resources, and for the poor to have more control, the rich have to have less. You can't resolve climate change without inconveniencing the oil companies who want to sell oil, and the motorists who want to keep driving.

People sometimes call this second kind of problem "wicked" but I believe the term is more obscurantist than illuminating. It's better to call them what they are : "political problems" ie. disagreements between men about what outcome we actually want. However you define "making the world significantly better", whenever you see smart people FAILING to do it, you can bet it's because there's a conflict of interest and there are smart people on both sides working against each other.

Sep 28, 2011

What is it like to experience an event that has no rational explanation?

NB: this question has changed from something like "Have you had an experience which is incompatible with your belief system?" This is my original answer to that question.


I have a pretty powerful belief system that's never been stumped by my experiences.

Oct 1, 2011

What would the curriculum for a school seeking to teach students about technology, design, and entrepreneurship look like?

Oct 1, 2011

Does teaching intelligent design in schools really damage science?

I think it largely depends HOW it is taught. If I was a school biology teacher, I'd LOVE to teach intelligent design. I think there are lots of things you can do with it : talk about how theories are constructed, talk about what criteria we use to compare rival theories, get the kids thinking how an ID scientist might try to explain particular natural phenomena, get the kids thinking about what science is and the role it plays in our society.

OTOH, you can imagine a teacher who goes into the classroom, mandated to teach ID and starts by saying "hey kids, today we learn how 'the scientists' don't always get things right". That's pretty much likely to damage science education in so many ways.

Oct 10, 2011

If one could radically change one major aspect of how a city operates, what should it be?

Really Narrow Streets!

Nathan Lewis has being doing a great job of documenting this, so just go and read his stuff : and

(and follow a few more links)

Oct 12, 2011

Is it lonely to be radical because there are a potential infinitude of things to be radical about?


But also partly because most people aren't radical. Most people, most of the time want security and predictability so that they can make plans for the things they want to do with their lives. Being radical (which I take to mean being willing to drill down to question the root of things) threatens to create instability, and in instability, most people can't make their personal / individual plans.

Oct 12, 2011

Is there a formula for success? If so, what would it be?

1) Know what you want.

2) Be willing to ask others for it. when appropriate.

3) Be willing to take it when necessary.

4) Don't make unnecessary enemies.

Oct 12, 2011

Why did Google become so successful?Why was it better than Yahoo, MSN, etc.?

Google focussed on giving good search when all the other search engines basically wanted to become "portals" and "media companies". For everyone else, "search" was just an excuse to try to lure you in and stick your eyeball to their site or sell you on for money. Google actually provided a service to help you find what you wanted on the web.

Oct 16, 2011

What is the most beautiful word in the English language and why?

I'm a big fan of "thirsty".

Not because of its literal meaning, though I have childhood memories of my grandmother asking me if I was thirsty before giving me a drink. But there's something absolutely right about the balance, sibilance and rhythm of it and the way it seems to perfectly encapsulate its feeling.

I guess it's also optimistic. Thirsty is a solvable pain, it's a kind of open invitation to be quenched. (Not like "thirst" which could be a terrible unending condition.)

Oct 16, 2011

Are the major UK political parties using social media effectively?

Not that I've seen, no. Not one of them makes me want to read its blog, follow it on Twitter or engage with it directly in some way.

Oct 16, 2011

The Soviets allowed the Berlin Wall to be destroyed and communism with it, will the capitalists allow Wall Street to be destroyed along with capitalism?

In the 20th Century, leftists had to learn a hard and bitter lesson. That those who claimed to be champions of equality and social justice were often self-interested tyrants, trying to hold on to power at all costs. And worse, any attempt to centralise power to rationally manage the economy almost inevitably deteriorated into such a dictatorship.

I believe that, now, the idealistic capitalists are having to learn equally hard lessons. That their champions of economic freedom are, in reality, cosy corporate states where governments have long since become tools of corporate interest.

The smarter libertarians have now grasped that. What they probably still haven't grasped is that, just as centralised economies almost inevitably deteriorate into dictatorships, so "free markets" almost inevitably deteriorate into monopolies and plutocracies, and that this has nothing to do with the government and everything to do with the fact that concentrations of wealth experience positive feedback effects that grow them yet larger.

In the sense that the Soviet Union was a fake Communism when the Berlin Wall fell, perhaps the US is a fake Capitalism today. But my personal feeling is that Gorbachev let the Soviet Union collapse when he sensed that it had lost all popular legitimacy. I don't think we are even close to the point where today's oligarchs believe that the US system has lost its legitimacy.

Quite the contrary, they think that with their think-tanks and Tea Party and Fox News and other mechanisms of propaganda and persuasion they can keep the population, if not passive, at least chasing after the wrong enemies.

And finally, Gorbachev was a decent man who preferred to set people free than redouble repression or burn the Soviet Union in a vicious attempt to hold onto power. Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers and the heads of Goldman Sachs etc. don't share his character.

Oct 16, 2011

Why does President Obama divide Americans into "Wealthy People" and "Working People"?

Because no one gets rich by working. You only get rich by having other people work for you.

Oct 19, 2011

If knowledge is power, why aren't knowledgeable folks all that powerful?

They are. But they don't know it.

Oct 25, 2011

Is there a sustainable substitute for money?

It depends largely on what you mean by "the money system". And by "overthrow"

If by money, you mean any kind of token exchanged for goods and services, then the answer is almost certainly not. If you mean "our current money system" then there are plenty of alternatives which may be equally sustainable.

What I personal believe is that economies are just going to get a lot more complex.

The real world economy is already a mix of multiple national currencies; some large scale barter between corporations; various corporate-backed loyalty cards and points schemes (Air Miles etc.); some idealistic experiments with local currencies (the Ithaca Hour, the Brixton Pound, LETS); virtual game currencies; reputation, voting and badging on web-sites; gift economies; "free software" and derivative cultures like open-hardware, open industrial design, creative commons etc.

Next year, the mix will already be different. The internet is kind of a laboratory for people who want to invent and test out new kinds of economy. So you may get something like CouchSurfing which is either loosely accounted barter or reciprocal gift-giving depending on how you think of it.

I sometimes call this "TCP/IP vs. the Dollar". All of this experimentation in our networked society means that, over time, many of these alternatives will grow to occupy more of people's economic lives and the importance of the national currencies will diminish. In 20 years time, it will be obvious to even the casual observer, that the truly "wealthy" (ie. those with freedom, influence, ability to access resources when they need) will be those who hold and understand many different economic "currencies" rather than those who simply have a hoard of dollars or gold.

Someone with a hoard of gold, but no online reputation, or reciprocal gifting relationships, and not embedded in the right social networks or communities etc. will still be able to buy a lot of stuff, but will find buying the kinds of things she wants to be extremely expensive. The money will flow out very quickly, particularly on paid simulacra of the kinds of things which are more cheaply developed in other types of economy.

Oct 26, 2011

Who are the most influential geeks on Quora?

How could you be influential on Quora and NOT be a geek? :-)

Oct 26, 2011

What old nursery rhymes and fairy tales would we find inappropriate for children if they were written today?

Surely the fact that very lurid, violent themes occur in traditional stories beloved of children (witches who lock children in cages to fatten them up for eating!), is good evidence that the idea of "inappropriate for children" is nonsense.

There may be an argument about what children should be allowed to see represented graphically on the screen, but the idea that they shouldn't hear of or have to think about bad things is absurd. Children are bloodthirsty. They love gore and twisted villainy.

Nov 1, 2011

Will emerging economies become more important financial hubs than developed economies over the next 30 years?

Fingers crossed, yeah?

With luck the governments of Western European and North American countries will wake up and realise what a lousy deal an engorged financial sector is (pays very little tax, demands huge bailouts) and will kick them out.

Nov 4, 2011

For a semi-technical founder, would it be better to go the technical or non-technical route for building a site of similar complexity as Quora?

What are your other skills?

I would say that if you're "technical enough" (2 years programming, + engineering background) then you might well be able to just hire and manage more specialist technical employees. Your experience *should* have given you sufficient cultural intuition about the life, rhythms, requirements of engineers to work with them well.

Just keep reminding yourself that they know a hell of a lot more than you and don't try to micromanage them based on your half-remembered C++.

In which case, if you have no experience in the sales side of things, you might be better looking for a partner from there. Especially if you've spent the last 10 years as a manager of technical people.

Of course, if you've spent the last 10 years in sales, then finding a genius technical co-founder is obviously a much better strategy.

Nov 9, 2011

Should musicians sell their music? Why or why not?

Sure. If they can. I (try to) sell some of mine. I sometimes buy music from artists I like.

What I think they should NOT do, is join in with attempts to punish those who share copies of the music. Music isn't a scarce resource and it's an absurdity to have the law pretend that it is.

Nov 15, 2011

Which songs would the devil have on his playlist?

All the best tunes ...

Nov 16, 2011

Criminal Justice: Should non-violent crimes be punished with long prison sentences? And if so when is it ok and when isn't it?

It's definitely not OK for Aaron Swartz who's clearly motivated by high ideals and shouldn't be considered a criminal at all.

For Bernie Madoff, who's basically a fraudster who's caused some real harm, then a longish sentence might be a good deterrent. I'd say that confiscation and hard, restorative community service would be even better.

Nov 16, 2011

Should we consider reducing our prison population by instituting corporal punishment as an alternative?

It would seem to me that different people have different tolerances to pain. Those with a high tolerance would choose it, and so it would turn out to have little deterrent value. While those with low tolerance would end up choosing prison anyway.

Essentially, it may just turn out to be a quick-release scheme for the toughest thugs.

Nov 17, 2011

Could it ever be right to do wrong?


But I'm willing to view wrong actions done for a good cause as cases of diminished responsibility.

For example, it wasn't right to shoot the crazed guy with the knife who was attacking my family, but circumstances left me with few alternatives to save them. Hence, a wrong still occurred, but circumstance takes much of the responsibility for committing the wrong away from me.

I think this is a better solution than to say that circumstance changed the moral value of the act itself.

Nov 17, 2011

What does "misogyny" mean? Is this an emotion or is it an observable action?

Update : This question has been radically reworded, so many answers here are likely to sound a bit odd.

The original asked something like "Why do only attractive, young women talk about misogyny? You never hear men admitting to it."

In light of that, here's my original answer.

OK. So I'm going to make a genuine attempt to answer this.

1) I'm none of attractive, young or a woman, and I talk about misogyny. Hence, that falsifies one assumption of your question.

2) Why might women think about misogyny more than men?

Because they're the ones who suffer from it. Compare "why do gays worry more about homophobia than straights?", "why are African Americans more concerned about blacks being lynched than Klan members?", etc.

3) Why might *young* women talk about it more?

Well, young people tend to a) have more time and energy to get engaged with political activism. And b) are not yet jaded / disappointed enough to just accept the crap in the world.

4) Why is it that *attractive* young women talk about it more?

Actually, the causality might go the other way. Women who are smart enough to know when they're being dissed, and self-confident enough to speak up about it, just ARE more attractive than those who feel that they can or should ingratiate themselves with men by denying it or playing along.

Also, beautiful girls get hit on a lot, and have to do a lot more turning men down and dealing with their disappointment. Personally, I think a guy always has the right to ask a girl if she's interested, but the flip-side of that is, if she isn't, he should accept it graciously. A lot of guys can't do that and, if they're rejected, get angry at the woman. If you were dealing with people (often total strangers) getting angry and frustrated at you the whole time, you'd start to suspect that there was a systematic problem too.

Nov 18, 2011

Do people doubt evolution because too much of its evidence is not all that convincing?

No. Pretty much everyone who doubts evolution doubts it because it conflicts with their preferred creation myth.

I would, frankly, be very surprised indeed to meet someone who was disposed to believe in evolution (ie. they had no contrary beliefs) and then rejected it, purely based on the evidence.

Nov 18, 2011

Can we use kinetic energy of cosmic rays as energy resource?

Well, we might be able to use the "solar wind" to drive sail-driven space craft around the solar-system.

Nov 18, 2011

Have I discovered a new way to generate electricity with an infinite resource?

Thanks for posting this question. As Jarom Jackson points out, you can't beat the laws of thermodynamics. But it's a beautiful and stimulating idea.

So here's one thought I just had. If you could find a source of gas below the level of water, you could maybe run a turbine off the bubbles rising past it. (Like an upside-down water wheel.)

Perhaps there are pockets of gas underground which aren't themselves exploitable in other ways but which could be used for that.

Nov 18, 2011

How could I generate electricity from my sink water?

Turbine in the out-pipe. Probably not enough energy to make it worthwhile though.

You might be able to SAVE energy by re-using your waste-water though. Eg. syphoning it into your garden instead of pumping fresh water for that.

Another possible thing you might do is pipe it through somewhere you need cooled to take away excess heat.

Nov 18, 2011

What is the best, most commonly used evidence to support the theory of evolution?

I like whales.

I mean, if you were going to design a big animal that spent all its time in the sea and had a bit part in the Jonah story, wouldn't you have just given it gills instead of having it be an air-breather that has to hold its breath for a long time?

Nov 19, 2011

What does it feel like to have the gift/curse of a visionary?

Who cares? You'll never know whether you were a visionary or merely crazy. Only posterity can judge that.

Just focus on what you KNOW has to be done. And let history worry about the labels.

Nov 21, 2011

What is currently lacking in social networks?

A one click "escrow" account (like Kickstarter) to let a group of friends raise money for a shared project.

Nov 21, 2011

Which London networking events are good hunting ground for a technical guy to find a co-founder?

London OpenCoffee is pretty well established.

Nov 22, 2011

There's an emerging school of thought that a significant portion of CEOs, particularly those of large public companies, are psychopaths. Should we start testing them to weed them out, considering the damage they do to the economy? Is this possible?

I don't see that it's going to be possible. As other commentators have, said you can't start punishing people because of things they might do as opposed to things they have done.

Far better, I think, to just limit the size and power that corporations can have so that even when a psychopath gets to the top of one, he / she still can't do much damage.

I'd suggest that we have far stronger anti-trust / anti-monopoly laws. Let's say that we prohibit any corporation that does more than 1 billion dollars worth of business per year from having more than 30% of the market. If a corporation earning a billion a year gets above 30% of the market, we immediately break it into two.

Would decreasing the power of corporations risk sending the psychopaths into politics? Maybe, but here I think we can exercise more selectivity. Certainly anyone who wants to hold public office at the senior level (Minister, senator, president etc.) could be required to undertake psychological tests, and those test results should be public.

If the populace still want to elect a psychopath, that's their prerogative, it's what democracy means.

Nov 27, 2011

What is the best way to scientifically describe "what appears to be a soul/consciousness"?

There is no scientific way. The problem is that science has been set-up to fail in this area.

Science, by definition, is a collection of knowledge about universals that can be corroborated intersubjectively. But all soul / consciousness stuff is only known subjectively.

This is why I think that the mind-body problem is epistemological rather than metaphysical. It's not that there's no place for mind in our material universe. It's that we don't have the theoretical tools to talk about it.

Nov 27, 2011

Why does TIME Magazine choose such watered down cover stories in the United States vs the rest of the world?

Looking at those covers, maybe it's just that Americans are so insular they won't read a magazine they perceive as being about "abroad". They'd rather read a trivial story that looks like it's about something in America (and relevant to them) than something about foreigners.

Nov 27, 2011

Were Christopher Alexander's "Pattern Language" books more influential in the field of software architecture than building architecture and, if so, why?

As Nick's link notes, Alexander doesn't really appeal to architects who want to be grand artists. Perhaps more charitably you could say that it doesn't really give architects any space be what they want to be ie. designers. The Timeless Way just expects them to channel the patterns.

Furthermore, the patterns are fairly idealistic, based on strong interdependencies between the microscopic and macroscopic scales over which the architect has no control. They ignore real-world constraints such as a fixed size lot to build on, the obligation to provide access for fire engines, car-parking etc. etc. And the architect has to bring it in within a particular budget which may require using non-traditional materials and designs.

Why has this been less of a problem in software? I'd guess that in architecture we've had 6000 years to establish a strong caste system which separates architects as "visionary" / "brain worker" form mere structural engineers and builders.

In software development, attempts to create such caste distinctions ("systems analysts", "software engineers") have tended to founder given that everyone knows that small teams of agile coders outperform management heavy bureaucracies.

For this reason, design and coding are best done by the same people. Good software developers are closer to craftsmen than designers. And, as such, value practical tools like the patterns to help polish their craft.

Finally, given that programming is such a new area, the patterns themselves are all new. (Or evolving quickly.) So there's less of a sense that the good patterns are somehow out of step with the exigencies of modern practice.

Dec 3, 2011

How did Linus Torvalds manage the complexity of building the Linux operating system?

Agree with the other answers, start small.

Then, as things get more complex, you write tools to help you manage the complexity :

Dec 3, 2011

Why can't the Linux community get together and build an OS for mobile phones?

1) Most people who, in the early days, went through the pain of installing Linux on their PCs did it because they wanted to use a Linux computer. In particular they wanted all the Unix goodness (command line, standard tools etc.) that they couldn't have any other way. That's quite a sizeable community of software development professionals.

The use-case for mobile phones is different. No one has a particularly clear idea of what unique functionality a Linux phone would provide. The main reasons to have a Linux mobile are ideology and control (to be able to encrypt stuff and to stop the phone company snooping). The desire for these isn't (today) strong enough for many people to go through the effort of rooting their phone and putting a new OS on it.

2) Phones are not stand-alone devices but terminals to a central service (phone company, app. store etc.) For any open / community developed phone OS to go mainstream it needs the service providers to co-operate. Something existing providers have no rational interest in doing at all. They want to be able to snoop. And to have control over the app. store etc.

Dec 3, 2011

How did Brunel build bridges & steamships without the benefit of modern communication technology and project management practices?

I'm always amazed how fast the postal service used to be in London. It seems to have been the case that you could send a letter in the morning and have it received a few hours later. Today a letter even within London takes around 3 days.

Dec 3, 2011

In a world where IBM had restricted MS-DOS to their machines only, which OS is most likely to be dominant today?

Great question. All the answers here are plausible.
Here's my thought. Without DOS being available to other manufacturers, the idea of a PC "clone" doesn't really mean anything. IBM would have locked in the "business" PC market and software writers would have had to focus on that.

There would be far fewer PCs in general. They'd be far more expensive.

Most likely CP/M would have kept going as a standard for business computers. But would be seen as very much a second-rate option.

Companies like Lotus would have to split development across two differing platforms, losing momentum.

Basically, business computing would have been *dull*. However, there would have been much MORE excitement in the "home computer" market.

Apple Macintosh would have dominated here and quite possibly stayed more focussed on the home, starting Apple's evolution towards a consumer platform earlier. In this world a younger Steve Jobs is never thrown out of Apple, and focusses the Mac as THE device for home entertainment / art / music making / games. Perhaps giving Nintendo and Sega serious competition as a plug-and-play games console.

But other home-computer players would benefit even more without the rivalry of cheap PC clones. The Amiga would thrive in the 90s as a serious rival to Apple. In the UK, Acorn's Archimedes would remain dominant in schools and relevant in homes. Not to mention as an ARM development environment. Perhaps Atari, or a couple of Japanese contender would still be with us too.

Dec 3, 2011

Why do some people say they don't like or listen to mainstream music?

Most music is made by people who love it and want to hear it. Whether it's one guy whining along (not entirely in tune) to an acoustic guitar. Or a dingy loft where a girl is tweaking an Ataripunk 555 oscillator to blast you with amplified noise for half an hour. You know they (and you) are there because you're both into it. It's consensual.

The suspicion with "mainstream" music is that it's not made for (or with) love but by committee, pulling in all the signifiers and tropes that the committee think will hook in the audience. So the pop is full of good stuff (earworms, great sounds, sexy dancers) but feels calculated and soulless. The performers are entrepreneur / employees going through the motions because that's what pays.

Dec 3, 2011

Why do some people hate Paul Krugman? From my perspective, he's a smart guy with strong opinions who's an energetic advocate for what he believes.

Because he's a liberal, and the right-wing orchestrates hate against any prominent liberal or left-wing figure as a matter of policy.

Dec 4, 2011

Which contemporary conservative ideas do liberals and progressives think have at least a grain of truth to them?

At the heart of conservatism is a valid idea. That we shouldn't rush into things blindly. A new proposal may sound good in theory, but the status quo has a legitimacy in that it demonstrably "kind of" works.

So don't fuck up the current system in a fit of hare-brained revolutionary enthusiasm. Make changes slowly and pay attention to their effects.

Dec 7, 2011

Does marketing create materialism, or is wealth its own advertisement?

If advertising didn't persuade people to buy stuff, no one would bother spending money to create adverts.

That's not to say that in a world without marketing and advertising people wouldn't still see things and want them or be avaricious. But the quantity we wanted, the "norms" of how much we think is necessary and acceptable to consume, are very much set by the entire complex (advertising, marketing, retail, media) and would be much lower without that system.

Dec 7, 2011

If Steve Jobs had beaten cancer, and stayed on at Apple, what product would the company announce in 2021?

Domestic robots are a technology crying out for Apple's "productising" magic. They're incredibly cute, can now do amazing things, but they're too expensive, too "geeky" and no-one has seen a "killer app".

Apple have the money, supply-chain, design skills and product intuition to make a cheaper, actually useful (for something) home robot and sell it into the consumer market. I think Steve might have been able to apply his talents to that by 2021.

Dec 7, 2011

What is the main reason for Second Life's failure to meet industry and media expectations made during its 2006-2007 hype era?

Basically 3D graphics are a bit rubbish. No-one has ever found a use for interactive 3D graphics except a) CAD models of things to be manufactured, and b) games.

Everything else, from Virtual Reality, to VRML to Second Life tends to be a flop.

Bear with me for a minute ... :-)

The reason is that, fundamentally, 3D is all about *occlusion*. (Remember that one of its earliest, most fundamental techniques is "hidden line removal").

Yes, it always looks cool. But for most applications, you want graphics to help you SEE things, not to help you hide them. Visualisation is meant to make ideas clearer. Maps and plans of a room show you more than a photo of it does; measurements and comparisons are easier when you can ignore perspective.

Games are the exception because with games, it's all about the excitement of the monster jumping out from the shadows. And with CAD you sometimes need to see how the final object will look.

But for no other application does a 3D rendering convey more useful information, more efficiently than a 2D one.

Want a meeting in cyberspace? It's way easier to search for someone and click a link to get a video feed than to trudge around a virtual model of an office block in order to see an avatar.

Want distance learning? Well, the traditional class-room and lecture theatre are getting disrupted by students messaging each other and cross-referencing on Wikipedia while expecting to tweet to your back-channel. In other words, the physical space is dissolving into text streams. In this situation why would anyone want to recreate the rejected architecture of the school-room and "audience watching a teacher" pattern?

I agree with most of what Venkatesh Rao says in his answer, but disagree that there could be a useful or compelling 3DVW. There is nothing that 3D does better than 2D except games.

And if Second Life is a game company it has to accept the laws of games. Games go out of date and need to be continuously refreshed : with new generations of graphics, new controllers (I guess Kinect integration could potentially help SL here), new challenges etc.

Dec 7, 2011

Is there any procedurally generated-music that actually sounds good?

OK. To blow my own trumpet for a second ... have a listen to Gbloink! (

Here the music is made by an automaton steered by a human. It's fairly hands-off though, as a lot of the time structure and rhythm emerges spontaneously out of the interaction of the balls with their environment.

Obviously YMMV. I listen to recordings I made with it as music, but I'm clearly somewhat prejudiced :-)

Update : Actually, you can now listen to them too :

Gbloink!Tunes Highlights, a playlist by interstar on Spotify

Dec 8, 2011

Given 3 years to immerse yourself in one technical skill, that you consider the skill of the future, what would it be and why?

Mastering the Global Village Construction Set ( )

It's a hedge. If civilization collapses, you can at least keep some of it going in your corner of the world. And if society doesn't collapse, you still have an extremely good understanding of how peer and open-source design and development projects work, a global community of potential collaborators for your other projects, and plenty of mechanical and internet skills.

Dec 11, 2011

Is Nirvana the greatest band ever?

You probably had to have been in a very narrow age group, from a vary small corner of the world, with very little exposure to the history of music to think that Nirvana were the greatest band ever.

Dec 11, 2011

Which songs or videos have you played over and over continuously?

I once went through a period where I watched the video of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats every morning for about a month.

Dec 11, 2011

What are some ways world population can be controlled humanely?

Give people economic security, right up to and including old age. Let women work and participate fully in public life, without oppression from their husbands and other men. Give women access to contraception. Don't have explicit policies to pay them to have children.

End result, fertility rate drops to about replacement level. Some couples have one or two kids, some don't. Works every time (look at fertility rates in the urban middle-classes of comfortable societies.)

Dec 11, 2011

Why is it that people abroad can sing along to American music, but Americans aren't able to sing along to popular non-English (e.g., Chinese) music?

Historically, lots of people in the world have thought that British and US bands were "cool" and tried to learn English in order TO understand. That's because music came as part of a cultural matrix including "Western values", standards of living, political ideals (both hippie and conservative)

Anglophones are particularly bad at learning other languages, and the *idea* of learning other languages just seems weirder to us than to most people. Most people in the world learn a smattering of English partly because it's genuinely useful, but partly because it doesn't seem a strange thing to want to do.

Arguably, as China becomes economically more important, it already IS useful to know some Chinese. But anglophones feel rather outraged by the whole idea. "What? Me? Learn THEIR language?"

If Chinese bands suddenly starting being "cool" and attractive to Western kids, while using a lot of Chinese language lyrics, then you might see some shift. But it would probably need a lot of marketing behind it. And the music would have to be really *good* (as in radically different AND appealing) to make much inroads.

Dec 12, 2011

What are the most influential music blogs for rock, alternative, and electronic music?

This is the most influential on me :

Dec 13, 2011

What is the point of living if you are an atheist?

It's fun.

Dec 14, 2011

Have we reached Peak Oil?

The peak of the kind of oil we're used to getting, yes.

We may not have hit the peak of all the tar-sands, deep water, low quality, hard-and-dirty-to-get oil. Or the natural gas and coal.

But we certainly will hit the peak of those too.

Dec 14, 2011

Can peak oil collapse be averted?

I believe that societal collapse due to peak oil can in principle be avoided. But it involves us (politicians and citizens) getting serious and not living in denial.

Dec 17, 2011

Do atheists object to the terms BC/AD?

I don't.

Same as I don't worry about days of the week being named after Norse gods or months being tied in to Roman mythology. It's all part of our colourful heritage.

Dec 17, 2011

Was Tony Blair a good Prime Minister?

Pretty disastrous. Both for Britain and for the Labour Party he nominally represented:

Three particularly egregious cases :

1) His capitulation to the US's "War on Terror" agenda. Unnecessarily costing the UK blood, treasure and moral authority.

2) His strong authoritarian tendency. Using the "War on Terror" to attack civil liberties. Attempts to impose ID cards.

3) His abdication of the responsibility of the Labour Party to represent the working and middle class interests (the groups we now know of as "the 99%") in a class-war against the super-rich.

Mandelson was famously "relaxed" about people attaining great wealth and fawned over billionaires. Brown allowed the City to do whatever it like without oversight while idiotically boasting he'd abolished economic dynamics. In retrospect, Blair's government was culpably negligent in setting up the world economy for the crash of 2008 and for allowing inequality to soar.

Beyond these three great issues, he was ultimately useless on the most important challenge of all : climate change (and did nothing to prepare the UK for it, or for the end of cheap oil).

He fumbled freedom of information, and curtailed freedom of speech with new blasphemy laws. Did nothing to give the UK a saner drugs policy. Failed to reform the House of Lords and was, instead, first in line to doff his cap to a resurgent monarchy.

The only things that can be said for him are that he didn't actively go around kicking people in the teeth (the way the current prime-minister does) and kept the school system and health service more or less ticking over.

Update : Seems he also isn't paying his taxes :

Dec 17, 2011

Should I take my girlfriend to a party if I know some of my friends don't like her?

Ask your girl-friend if she wants to go to the party. If she wants to make an effort with these people (even if some of them have issues with her) then don't let a few negative comments stop her. (YOU aren't ashamed of her, are you?) Anyway, your friends will all be evolving their opinion of your GF the more they meet her. First impressions may soon be forgotten.

Of course, if your GF doesn't want to go to a party with these people, see how she feels about you going alone. If she's cool "Ugh horrible people. Go if you want but count me out!" that's great. If she's not, then you'll have to make a more profound assessment. Is this woman selfishly trying to control you and separate you from your friends? (Though remember, a little bit of selfishness has to be humoured in any relationship.) Or has she successfully diagnosed that they are, basically, jerks?

Dec 17, 2011

What are some interesting examples of convergent evolution?

Some termites and ants are pretty similar.

Dec 17, 2011

What are the most badass classical music compositions?

Dec 17, 2011

What instruments and key are best for composing a "Wild West"-type theme?

The great thing about Enio Morricone is it seems like he'd use anything and make it work.

I'd suggest the important thing you want to capture is a sense of a small human lost in a big landscape. And a sense of being away from civilization.

So, a small, portable instrument. The kind of thing a lone man could carry with him on the frontier : a harmonica, a trumpet, a guitar, a jaw harp, a fiddle. Probably not a grand piano or a cello.

Then set it against a very nebulous sort of background .. big, sunlit, warm, indistinct.

Dec 18, 2011

Why do so many people choose C++ as a first language?

Beginners hear it's a) fast and b) powerful. But don't realise it's c) hell to actually write in.

Dec 18, 2011

Can you become a good programmer if you only do it as a hobby?

In principle, yes.

Being a good programmer is largely a matter of how long you spend doing it. As long as you have the time to practice, it doesn't matter if you're doing it in the context of paid employment in a company or as self-taught amateur.

Obviously being in industry will introduce you to important concepts and restrictions - for example writing a secure application is something you won't necessarily think about doing when you're writing for and by yourself. OTOH it may equally waste your time with a lot of bureaucratic nonsense like UML diagrams and PRINCE2 which have nothing to do with being a good programmer.

Dec 18, 2011

Why do people fail as programmers?

Not quite sure what kind of question this is. Is it

1) Why is it that some people aren't very good programmers (despite years of study, and perhaps qualifications or even copying and modifying code from examples)?

Answer : not everyone really *gets* programming. See : for some good insight.


2) Why is it that some programmers don't get good jobs?

Answer : Compare "this guy is a great painter, why doesn't he have a high paid job in an advertising agency?". Not everyone who's great at an art is also great as an employee. Either they aren't willing to make some necessary compromises or they might be too specialised (or not specialised enough) for the actual roles available.

Dec 18, 2011

Why do most professional programmers prefer Macs?

1) Historically, Macs were the preferred machines of desktop publishing and graphic designers, then web designers. As the web became an increasingly important platform (relative to "client-server" on Windows et al) individuals and companies who had started in web-design area became more prominent - think of the rise of 37 Signals and Ruby on Rails - and brought their Mac-ness with them.

2) When Apple shifted to OSX they made it a real Unix. In the late 90s, one of the attractions of Linux was that it was the only way to get your hands on a proper command line and Unix tools, and to run the server-side software like databases that you needed. When MacOS became Unix, the Mac could do all that too.

3) At the same time, Microsoft basically fell over. Believing that their birthright was to control every computer platform ever, rather than that their job was to make good tools, they spent the noughties trying to copy first Java (.NET), then Google (Bing), then Apple's iPod and iTunes (Zune), then Flash (Silverlight), then Sony's Playstation (XBox) etc. etc. The result was 5 years wasted on the appalling Vista, and a lacklustre successor Windows 7 (whose main virtue is that isn't quite as bad as Vista). (M$ clearly haven't learned the lesson, so it seems that Windows 8 will just be an inept attempt to copy the iPad while leverageing the rapidly evaporating "lock-in" they think they have in the desktop OS market.)

4) Worse, the commodity PC market that Microsoft (and Linux) rely upon went through some rapid consolidation and price cutting. By my reckoning we expect to pay about a third of the price today for a PC compared to our expectations of the early - mid 1990s. But this didn't just happen in the nice "Moore's Law" sense. Commodity PCs got cheaper and nastier too. Sure they have faster processors, but the cheap bits often don't work together all that well.

5) Despite Linux's maturity, the PC manufacturers have totally failed to get behind it.

Personally, I'm writing this in Chromium under Ubuntu on a beautiful Asus Bamboo laptop. And I'll resist the cult of Apple for as long as humanly possible. But the trend is obvious. Even in 2011, PC manufacturers refuse to support Linux (they won't sell a computer with Linux pre-installed, they won't help to make Linux run well on their machines and ensure that drivers are available for graphics cards etc.) Asus added a whole bunch of power management software for the pre-installed Windows 7 on this machine when I bought it. They offer no equivalent for Linux, so my machine runs unnecessarily hot (I have shorter battery-life and probably the machine will die sooner.)

The combined result of the Microsoft debacle, changes to the PC industry and the refusal of PC manufacturers to support Linux is that Apple is the only company which now seems competent enough to make a decent personal computer that you can actually use for software development.

Seriously! Think about going out and buying a computer and you think either it will be a substandard Windows 7 machine (packed with slow, buggy "extras" that the manufacturer was bribed to put there, and without the command-line tools that all professional developers need and use) or you contemplate getting the same PC and having to install Linux on it yourself and, if it's new, having to deal with driver compatibility issues etc. etc. etc. Or you go out and pay twice the price but get a machine which is of high build quality, you can trust will do everything you need out of the box, and where the hardware / operating system just work together.

6) Oh, and one more thing. You can't develop for iPhones and iPads on a PC or Linux machine.

Dec 18, 2011

What problem(s) does Apple's App Store solve?

I once joked ( that people hated reading manuals to find the command or deeply buried menu option for how to do things. But they love shopping. So if you could make your collection of functionality look more like a market they'd be happier exploring it.

Little did I realise ...

Dec 19, 2011

How do you survive with less than a dollar a day?

Don't drive SUVs. Don't live in suburbs. Don't shower every day or water your lawn from a hose. Be kinder to each other. Grow more food locally. Don't watch too much TV or it will make you miserable to see all those things you can't have. Buy less stuff. Eat less meat. Never fly. Have more children so they can work for you. Share things rather than insist on having your own. Barter. Give gifts of whatever you have surplus to give. Make your own entertainment rather than pay someone else to have fun for you.

Dec 20, 2011

Who is the most influential, and yet least known person, in the United Kingdom?

It's going to be some kind of senior civil servant, probably connected with defence or security, who basically tells the prime-minister what things can't be done because the military wouldn't accept it.

Dec 20, 2011

Where should I go in South America and why?

Bolivia and Peru.

If you want to go somewhere really interestingly different, go to Bolivia : La Paz (witches market, other freaky stuff). Lake Titicaca is beautiful. Do the floating islands over the border in Peru. The salt flats in the high deserts in the south.

In Peru you have the Nazca desert, Machu Pichu and Cusco, you can go into Amazon.

Jan 1, 2012

What does one do if they realize they're in the wrong industry?

I'm trying to get into a new industry at the moment in that I'm a programmer but getting excited about the possibilities of "desktop" manufacturing technologies (laser-cutters and 3D printers) and I want to move into working in this area.

I've been doing the following :

1) I got interested in this via an art project I was working on. Having even a toy project with a concrete outcome was a good way learn some basics about how to use the technologies and how to work with others in the area.

2) Actually "art" is a good cover for learning about almost anything. People can understand and sympathise with your questioning them or naive attempts to do things when you tell them it's an artistic project. Perhaps, they'd be less approachable if you just came to them and said "I want to learn what you do from scratch but have no experience."

3) Meetups. I try to go to any meet-up which is related to this area. I've even started one, which has got me a couple of interesting conversations and contacts.

4) I'm starting from my existing skills and experience and extending them into the new area. In my case, I'm writing software to generate the designs for objects that can be fabricated. I'm not a skilled craftsman or an engineer. So I can't hope to be good at designing and making objects right away. If I thought I could just become a great carpenter or extend the state of the art of 3D printing technologies overnight then I'd be fooling myself. But I'm a good enough programmer that I believe that I can contribute to software in the area.

I believe all 3 of these approaches - do small, even if unpaid, projects in the target area; meetup with the community in the area; try to build bridges from your existing skills into the area - are sensible, and can probably be adapted whatever your current skillset and the industry you want to get into.

Jan 3, 2012

Why do so many people who want to appear "different" not realize the irony that they are actually doing the opposite?

I suspect they aren't more homogenous than other groups. It's just that you're not subtle enough to tell the different subspecies apart.

Jan 3, 2012

Why do the masses, as Hitler said, “more easily fall victim to a big lie than a small one”?

I think I once saw Penn and Teller explaining that people couldn't guess how a certain trick was done because they couldn't believe anyone would have gone to such elaborate lengths.

The main reason that people (me included) don't believe that 9/11 was an inside job is not because I can't believe that that nice Mr. Bush would do such a thing. And not because I don't find some of the inconsistencies in the official version puzzling. Or that I have any real technical insight. But mainly because it seems a huge amount of effort for the US government to have gone to. My natural instinct is to think, "no way would they have bothered."

Jan 12, 2012

What is 'real' music (and/or what are 'real' musicians)?

Real music is when you share the joy of the musician's naivity.

Fake music is where you get to share the misery of the musician's cynicism.

Jan 19, 2012

What are "middle-class values"?


The working class may also prefer stability, but for many (in casual, precarious employment) it's not an option. And for some, a revolutionary change may promise an improvement.

At the other end of the scale, the wealthy can find change exciting and take advantage of the opportunities.

The middle-classes are those who can have high quality life only as long as it is possible to plan and manage their careers. They can borrow money over 30 years to buy a house. They can plan for their kids to go to college and get good jobs etc.

Anything that threatens economic or social stability is all downside for the middle-class and they will reject it as hard as possible.

Note that the current destruction of the middle-class in the West goes hand-in-hand with increasing instability in the economy.

Jan 19, 2012

Why isn't Quora going black on January 18 to protest SOPA/PIPA?

It had a banner.

I'd guess for Quora, with it's generally smart and aware readership, it was important to signal their opposition to SOPA, but not necessary to shock people into understanding what it meant.

Jan 26, 2012

Should Quora launch a "discussion" or "conversation" feature? If so, what should it be like?

I recommend something I played with a bit a few years ago called "Typed Threaded Discussion". details and terminology there are a bit out of date but the basic idea is a threaded discussion forum where you get people tag or classify their replies to other posts, not with metadata about the content, but with metadata about the logical relationship to the thing they're responding to. For example, "this is a counter argument" or "this is supporting evidence", "this is a humorous aside that disagrees" etc.

Have just a few basic types or people won't be able to decide. Eg. "counter-argument", "counter evidence", "supporting argument", "supporting evidence", "witty aside", "off-topic ramble".

Mere agreement / disagreement can be done with votes.

Give readers tools to filter / sort the answers by the type they're most interested in.

Allow moderators or other readers to change misclassified posts.

Jan 26, 2012

A man randomly chooses you and a stranger off the street and hands you $100. He tells you to offer the stranger any amount of money. If they accept your offer, you keep what you have left of the $100 and they keep what you offered. If they decline, neither of you keeps any. How much money do you offer?

I'd give $50.

The world is so much better when people actually try to build up the social norms of justice and fairness; not just follow them because someone else is doing the hard job of policing them.

Jan 26, 2012

What's your philosophy on accepting friends on Facebook?

I try to keep it to people I've met in real life. There are a couple of exceptions - people I've been talking to online in other contexts for several years. But I prefer to keep the "I've met you and made an intuitive assessment of the kind of person you are" filter up.

Update : I just deleted my Facebook account. So now the policy is "no".

Jan 26, 2012

What's your reaction to the advertisements on the Facebook ? are they annoying or okay for you?

By judicious use of the "Hide / uninteresting" button, I've pretty much trained Facebook so that I only see pictures of beautiful women wearing glasses who are all "learning Python". Usually the hard way, with Zed Shaw.

Jan 28, 2012

What are some good dubstep remix versions of popular songs?

Well, I'm really enjoying this today :

Jan 29, 2012

Besides love, what one trait have you noticed in couples that have maintained a successful relationship for many years?

You have to complement each other. One partner's strengths (either emotional or practical) have to match the others' weaknesses. And vice versa.

You don't want to be competing to play the same role or make decisions about the same things.

Jan 31, 2012

Is there a term for the social psychology phenomenon of the desire to "like something before it is cool" or "know about something before it is popular"?

Following on from Seb Paquet

Hipsterism == Netocractic Bling

Under Feudalism, gold and ostentatious treasures are an essential advert for your capacity to get and hold resources.

In Netocracy ( ) wealth is about being adept at discovering new ideas before other people, and cultivating a portfolio of useful social relationships that helps you exploit those ideas.

Cultural hipsterism is basically the ostentatious display of that ability.

When I say I was into a band before you and the rest of the world had heard of it, I'm not just playing a rather tedious game. I'm signalling that I'm the kind of person who can gain access to new things, and recognise their value, long before other people have accessed or recognised them. (And if I can do that with music, perhaps I can do it with technologies, or markets or business models too.)

When I say that a band is boring because they've gone mainstream what I really mean is that they are so well known that my knowledge of them indicates no special capacity of discovery. Worse, if I'm too enthusiastic, it may indicate that I've come to the party only recently (ie. late) and therefore am badly connected or a slow judge of value.

tl;dr It's not (merely) a psychological phenomenon, it's an economic signalling behaviour.

Feb 2, 2012

How and when will Quadrocopters be weaponized and put to military use?

Maybe the implied answer is here via

Feb 2, 2012

Who were's competitors?

SeeedStudio Wishes ( seems to be the beginning of one.

Feb 3, 2012

Is there a word in any language that describes a person who does evil or wrong unknowingly?


Feb 3, 2012

Do sentences like "We don't need no education" make sense?

One of my favourite jokes is the one about the teacher who says :

''In some languages a double negative makes a positive, in others a double negative makes a negative. But in no language do two positives make a negative''

To which the student cynically replies : ''Yeah, right''

Feb 5, 2012

When is it not okay to borrow a design element or feature of another product and implement it into your own product?

It's always OK. Borrowing, sharing, improving ideas is how humanity progresses.

Feb 5, 2012

Are there any services or business models in which one can trade paperback or hardcover books for digital books, without having to pay full price again?

Feb 6, 2012

Why CSS divs instead of frames?

The main problem people had with frames was that they "break the back button". Ie. if you navigate to different framed subpage with a nav-bar in a separate frame you can't hit back to go back to the previous page.

You also can't bookmark them.

Feb 8, 2012

What are some must-know tricks of your trade that most people are oblivious to? Are there any pieces of knowledge from your industry or experience that could help everyone if they knew it?

Today, I was trying to fix something on my wife's computer and told her some variant of "don't count your chickens before they're hatched". At which she accused me of not thinking positively.

I was forced to explain to her that the computer would do what it does regardless of whether we take a positive attitude or not.

As we are increasingly faced with a world eaten by software, the skill that everyone is going to have to learn from programmers is to recognise what machines are: implacably logical, impervious to emotional appeal. They will not be brow-beaten. They will not sympathize with your suffering. They are indifferent as to whether you are happy or sad, optimist or pessimist.

In the useful terminology of the philosopher Daniel Dennett, we will all need to take more of a "design stance" and less of an "intentional stance" towards many of the institutions we deal with. Hence, "knowing how to remain calm and move forward in the face of the mechanical" is the skill I suggest that people need to learn from my trade of software developer.

Feb 24, 2012

Does every social situation have a pecking order?

The concept of pecking order only makes sense when there's a scarce resource which conspecifics are competing for. And I guess where there's a sense in which priority of access is something which can be established by the behaviour of group members.

For example, lottery prizes are scarce but there's no pecking order among participants in (fair) lotteries because there's no dominance challenge between members of the group that can affect the outcome.

Feb 24, 2012

What's the greatest enemy of creativity?

Stillborn ideas.

What I mean is this. If you have an idea that you can't bring to its full potential. It often hangs around, getting in the way of having further ideas. It's too good to ignore but unactionable. It sits; it festers.

To unleash creativity you have to learn the art of killing your old ideas. Or at least putting them into deep hibernation. So that you can remain open to all the new ones.

Mar 2, 2012

Is there such thing as absolute truth?

The usual one is Descartes' : that you exist. (For some value of "you")

You couldn't be wondering about this question (Do I exist?) unless you do indeed exist. It's therefore indubitable.

Mar 5, 2012

What role do economists play in society?

Like most intellectuals, economists fall into roughly two types. Those whose models support the existing power-structures and defend incumbent elites and those whose models and theories implicitly or explicitly critique the existing power structure.

In this, their role isn't much different from that played by historians, poets, mapmakers or biologists over the years.

But politicians have recently handed huge amounts of power over to financial elites. And so we have been persuaded that economics is a more important reason for politicians to act than, say, history. As such, the stakes for economists are higher and they are one of the most looked to intellectual professions, both as critics of and defenders of this system.

Mar 10, 2012

Manufacturing: Can new innovations in 3D printing enable for mass production of a bicycle frame?

Here :

Mar 13, 2012

Must a Christian be educated and intelligent to consider becoming an atheist?

Whatever beliefs you have, the smarter you are, the more likely you are to question them and feel insecure holding onto them too tightly.

Socrates was considered the wisest person in Athens because he really *knew* he knew nothing.

Mar 14, 2012

Is there a hierarchy of talent/prestige at Microsoft across Office products?

My understanding is that the team who writes Excel actually use it for stuff like project management. Does the team who writes Powerpoint use it to make presentations? Are these presentations actually an essential part of their work of writing PowerPoint?

Excel feels like the best Office product to me, but it's hard to tell if that's because it really is or just because Spreadsheets are generally more useful than Word Processors (especially in an age where people increasingly write email and tweets rather than letters and articles)

Mar 14, 2012

What notable software projects came out of other projects?

Here are some I believe, but a sanity check would be good.

gtk came out of the Gimp but is used in far more GUI apps these days.

Java came from a Sun project to build settop boxes

Javascript appeared as a scripting language for browsers but is now conquering the server world as node.js

Ruby on Rails was spun out of Basecamp

Mar 17, 2012

What are the most important years of your life? And why? In other words, during what age are the most important life decisions made for the future?

This one, because it's the only one you have any control over.

Mar 22, 2012

What are the most useful applications built using Node.js?

Smallest Federated Wiki ( has a Node.js server (as an alternative to the current reference server in Ruby). The client is written in CoffeeScript too and it's possible that Node.js will become the reference server at some point.

Mar 27, 2012

What are the top 10 emerging technologies in the next 5-10 years (2020–2025)?

Flying drones.

Most people are not at all psychologically ready for this. But we are going to see cheap (sub $50) flying cameras in the hands of EVERYONE (from nosey teenagers to controlling parents, from cops to robbers.) Get ready to live in the panopticon.

Mar 27, 2012

What technology in the next ten years will be pocket-sized and handheld?

You should probably distinguish "pocket sized" from "handheld".

A lot of technologies are going to shrink to pocket sized or less. But won't necessarily be handheld in everyday use.

1) your home server (whether that's where you keep your music and film collection or your important documents.) Could be a pocket-sized box but permanently plugged into the wall.

2) the biggest problem with iPads and other handheld mobile devices is how easy it is to lose them or for someone to steal them. I'm pretty sure the *brains* of mobile computing will be moving to wearable formats that are more tightly attached to the body : lanyards, watches etc. while tablets revert to being an I/O peripheral.

3) medical analysis devices including "chemistry lab on a chip" could be common in a few years.

4) pocket(able) drone. Drones will be cheap and ubiquitous. But that doesn't mean they'll fly along with you everywhere you go. However, many people will keep some kind of flying drone in their pocket, to launch as an emergency beacon, to scan for parking spaces, to guard something, to investigate a route you are about to take ...

Mar 28, 2012

What are some pieces of modern music that sample famous classical music as part of their beat/rhythm/melody?

Susumo Yokoto's "Symbol" album is almost entirely based on this principle.

I'm really liking this at the moment; he uses a bunch of really corny classical samples (the sort that everyone uses) and you're thinking "come on, how cheesy to use that".

But then he keeps layering up more and more classical samples from completely contrasting eras and styles and you end up impressed by the chutzpah of the whole thing. And how well it actually works, especially as he's happy not to squash the samples into the rhythmic grid and to let them float over the top, adding their own counter-rhythms.

It's kind of beautiful and hilariously extreme at the same time.

Apr 2, 2012

My name is Isabelle but I'm looking for a new nickname. What should it be?

Frankly, I don't think you get to choose your own nickname, your friends tend to choose it for you.

Apr 6, 2012

Can a bank lend more money than it has?

Try watching some of these :

Apr 6, 2012

Is peace natural?

No. It's a product of civilization. Like, say, hot water.

Apr 6, 2012

What's the best way of providing coffee in my new coworking space?

Kettles are absolutely NOT old fashioned. They can be funky, retro, cool, cheap, whatever. And they're very easy to use.

Or you could try something like this :

Apr 11, 2012

Why is native 3D support in the browser only happening now?

Here's my guess.

1) Back in the 90s there was VRML which was (perhaps unfairly) thought to be a disaster. (Not sure if that was a fair assessment of the technology or not, but 3D content was pretty bad. In fact 3D content is usually pretty bad as it's incredibly expensive to do well and useless for everything except games and CAD)

2) By the turn of the Millennium IE had beaten the other browsers and Microsoft stopped worrying about innovating in the browser space. Even the rise of Mozilla wasn't fast enough to get anyone to adopt web standards that Microsoft weren't pushing.

3) It was really only the rise in popularity of the iPhone / iPad, Google getting into the browser game with Chrome, and the Whatwg group that broke the IE monopoly.

4) Processors and GPUs had got fast enough that even portable devices like tablets and netbooks (which is what people were browsing the web on) could do 3D graphics acceptably.

Apr 17, 2012

How concerned should we really be about the possibility of the Singularity occurring?

The singularity is fairly ambiguous.

I'm not particularly impressed by claims about computers becoming " more intelligent" than people. Firstly, computers have been more intelligent than people in many domains for decades (eg. faster at doing maths) and it means nothing. The smartest people are often not the most powerful people, so "intelligence" doesn't imply power the way some Singularitarians assume.

You might think that the important line to cross is computers having greater "General (human level) Intelligence". I'm equally unconvinced that there is such a thing as general intelligence. Even humans show a variety of different intelligences in different fields and situations. Do you want your AI with the strategic planning genius of Napoleon or the artistic genius of Picasso? Right now you can get a computer that can strategise or paint better than most of humanity. Once again, it means very little.

So maybe the real issue is, autonomous robots with self-preservation algorithms. Sure, I'm fucking scared of autonomous robots with self-preservation algorithms. But not because they'll be a new species of superior being pondering what it should do with us humans, but because they'll be armed thugs designed and built for military and oppressive policing operations and sent out by corrupt / untouchable politicians and billionaires to enforce their will.

In five years time, every police-force in the world will have armed drones patrolling the streets. What should we do about that?


Stop worrying about vague, and rather ideallistic scenarios where computers become a kind of God substitute; and start worrying about computers and robots used as powerful weapons by bad humans oppressing the rest of us. Because that's going to come much sooner, and be much uglier.

Apr 21, 2012

I am relatively wealthy; should I consume just what I need to, or much more than I need, in order to stimulate employment?

Consume services not stuff. That way you create employment but don't waste the world's scarce resources.

Apr 26, 2012

What's your favorite rendition of your favorite song?

No way could I ever commit to ONE favorite song. But if we're into "who does a damned fine version of a great song by someone else" then I think Marisa Monte's "Rosa" is awesome.

May 1, 2012

If we didn't have the profit motive, would we still continue to innovate, disrupt and create value?

The big issue isn't whether creative individuals wouldn't invent stuff : artists and geeks will invent stuff for free until the proverbial cows come home. You don't have to spend a nanosecond worrying about that.

The big question is whether you could get investment to do the next stage ...
the "development" part of R&D. That's the bit that's very expensive (eg. tooling up a factory, running clinical trials) and yet is a risk because the desire for or value of the innovation is unproven. And it isn't nearly as fun or self-actualising as the blue-sky dreaming.

There's even an argument to be made that without some people being allowed to make enormous profits on a successful venture, there'll be no-one with the capacity to gamble on funding the development of the next one.

This is the part we have to tackle if we want a post-profit-oriented society. What is the alternative to profits to reward the "amplifiers" and refiners of an idea?

We do have some intriguing ideas about how to get round this ...

We can (and undoubtedly will) move from long-term "perfect and release" cycles to more agile, more tightly iterated, "release and filter" cycles where we throw earlier prototypes into the world and let early adopters debug them in public.

We'll get our 3D printers and cheap fabbing capacity that will let us produce our prototypes at a fraction of today's costs. And often on-demand, only when "pulled" by those early adopters.

We have Kickstarter-like crowdfunding models that let you pre-sell an idea to raise funds to make it. (Most people on KS are not trying to make a big profit, they're trying to make their dream happen.)

And we can follow Bruce Sterling's "spime" model, filtering the data-streams produced by our products to get better data on what happens to them and how
"wranglers" are taking them in new directions.

But actually this is the area where we most need innovation : in the organisation of those processes that come after the initial excitement of the new idea and first prototype. How do we lower the costs of these processes so they can be tackled with fewer resources and so require a less profit-oriented approach?

May 1, 2012

What is the most underrated song from the 1980s?

I can't believe more people don't appreciate the awesome genius of this :

Great tune and arrangement. Not bad lyrics. Video which totally captures the 80s and has a very high "guilty pleasure" quotient.

BTW : Ethan Hein Yello's "Oh Yeah" is, indeed, a great song by any era's standards. But I'm not sure it's under-rated enough to win this one.

May 1, 2012

If all humans simultaneously and permanently went blind, what might happen to our species, both short- and long-term?

We'd go extinct extremely rapidly.

Our brains are largely composed of visual cortex which suggests that our mental capabilities are predicated on seeing. We have very little capacity to find and identify food by smell, even less capacity to catch prey. Almost anyone not lucky enough to be living next to a large food store wouldn't even be able FIND such a food store and would therefore starve within the first couple of weeks. (Try blindfolding yourself and finding your way to a target one km away to get a sense of this.)

If you happened to get lucky and go blind while visiting the local supermarket, you have, what, maybe two to three months of living off packet foods and bottled drinks. Clean water will become a problem within the first couple of days. Electricity will last 24 hours at most. Freezers will thaw within 3 days. Within 2 weeks your supermarket will be over-run by rats, mice, birds and insects competing with you for the food.

Disposing of the bodies of the dead and dealing with disease will be an almost insurmountable challenge.

And then you'll realize you have no way at all of finding or producing enough food to survive once the stocks run out.

May 1, 2012

What are some truly great 80's pop songs?

No one mentioned this yet?

May 1, 2012

What are the most underrated Synth Pop songs from the 80's?

Some obscurities that should be better known :

How seriously are we meant to take this again?

OK. I'm going to cheat with this last one. Not exactly "synth-pop" but it's 80s, it's pop, it's made with synths, and as far as I remember, it's the first record to bring together the exploding acid / house sound with psychedelic indie songwriting.

May 2, 2012

Does President Obama deserve a second term as President as of May 2012?

Absolutely not. He's a disgrace to liberalism.

Consider : the NDAA; putting the country under the effective rule of Goldman Sachs; the treatment of Bradley Manning; escalating police violence against the Occupy movement; fudging healthcare reforms; failure to close Guantanamo Bay or leave Afghanistan; killing Osama Bin Laden when the really awesome thing to do would have been to capture and put him on trial ...

May 6, 2012

Are there any worthwhile songs that have not been released digitally?

Something I've never been able to find online, and perhaps has never been released digitally, is the gorgeous film music for the Japanese film Circus Boys ( ) The main theme is one of those completely melancholy emotional heart-grabbing things. Lovely.

Would be great to be proved wrong on this one. But I certainly can't find it.

May 7, 2012

What makes proficiency at a musical instrument more valuable or socially useful to some than proficiency at video games?

Ethan Hein and Christopher Wood are right. It's because music is something which seems to have a more general capacity to enrich the lives of other people than spectator sports (of which Video Gaming is one)

Having said that, plenty of people feel an exciting togetherness in the crowd at a football match, and equally, people find it tedious to watch a skilled jazz musician demonstrating his muso chops. So it's not a hard distinction, just a fuzzy tendency.

I'd suggest that one difference is that video games and other spectator sports require visual concentration, and so are generally *about* the thing they're about. If I watch them, I can't pretend they're about something more general, pertaining to my life.

Music, being abstract and auditory permeates and resonates with my moods. It can reinforce my excitement, my melancholy, my feelings of love or passion. Or even just quietly accompany when I'm feeling irie. It talks more directly to me.

May 8, 2012

Is there a word for a person who knows a lot of words?

I vote for "Vocabulous".

May 18, 2012

What are the top 10 technology and management trends all CXOs need to be aware of?

Things that are going to be significant in the world in the next 10 years :

1) Desktop manufacturing. Not just the 3D printers which are the sexy part, but also the entire ecosystem of laser-cutters, CNC machines, MEMS, startups focussing on creating fablabs and hackspaces, tool libraries, online sharing of 3D models and designs. Open source design. "Design piracy." etc.

With this new generation of manufacturing technologies we are roughly where microcomputers were in the late 1970s. We should now see an explosion of small-scale, local, on-demand manufacturing capacity equivalent to the explosion in small-scale and personal computing capacity in the 1980s.

2) Retailers become Fabricators One thing I kind of expect, as a consequence of these new technologies is that the more forward looking online retailers (eg. Amazon) will start offering fabrication on-demand. Essentially these retailers will start competing with and squeezing out their own suppliers by cutting deals directly with industrial designers for new products that they can make at their warehouse, shortly before shipping to the customer. This is already apparent in Amazon's shifting relationship with publishers and authors. Amazon offer both print on demand books and "publishing" of Kindle eBooks. There's no reason the same can't be true next year for jewellery designers. And in five years time ... who knows what else?

From another angle, high street / main street shops may also find it makes sense to revert to making more things on the premises.

3) Unemployment There's a standard assumption that any technology destroys one lot of jobs and creates new ones. But this new manufacturing technology, is part of an accelerating tsunami of automation (including advances in robotics and practical applications of AI) which is outstripping our capacity to discover new jobs for people who are displaced by it. People in employment (including CxOs) are going to continue losing their jobs as companies continue to fragment and automate. This is also true in places like China where those hoping to climb the ladder from rural poverty to a factory job and the beginnings of a middle-class lifestyle will find their way increasingly blocked by cheaper, faster, tireless robots.

Unemployment will be an increasingly big social and economic problem. The question is whether the politicians are up to the challenge of finding a way forward.

4) Drones This may seem an esoteric issue. It isn't. Don't underestimate the significance of drones in the near future. In the next 5 years we'll be able to make sophisticated, autonomous flying machines for the same price as a smart-phone. (In fact, much of the technology will be the same.)

Thinking of the next generation of drones as flying iPhones puts things into perspective : high resolutions cameras? Check. GPS? Check. Speech recognition? Check. 4G connection to the internet - including access to maps and other off-board intelligence? Check. A market of thousands of developers writing "apps" which teach them new tricks? Most likely.

That has a lot of implications. Of course there's the Big Brother question of the government watching us. But there's also the question of "sousveillance" : of the rest of us watching each other. And there are potentially huge industrial espionage issues for the CxO. Most security planning is based on the idea of keeping human sized and shaped things off your premises. Not something with the size, shape and behaviour of a small bird that might be flying into your office carrying a camera, a pendrive or a bomb.

5) Crowdfunding Unquestionably, Kickstarter is a success. Both in terms of enabling people to raise money and enabling projects that couldn't have happened in other ways. And people continue to be keen to support projects. They might well get the taste for directly investing their money in other kinds of enterprise via such distributed mechanism rather than on the stock market or through funds. Already VC Fred Wilson has been discussing whether, say, the VC industry is particularly good at allocating money or good value for investors.

We may well find ourselves moving into a world where product making becomes more like the music business. "Hit products" are designed by individuals or small groups at home and prototyped in the local fab-lab. The first generation gets funded by a Kickstarter-like campaign and, if popular, the product gets "signed to a major label" ie. picked-up by Amazon or Walmart who manufacture it individually, or in small batches, as and when customers demand.

How does the traditional investment community engage with this world? What kind of businesses get built?

6) Co-working Small-scale personal technologies like PCs and laptops already allow the workforce to fragment into swarms of startups and freelance professionals. This technological trend will only continue. Smaller and more fluid organisations can't and won't get locked into long-term expensive office rental agreements with landlords, and so we'll see the continuation of the rise of co-working spaces ranging from work-friendly coffee-shops to desk-rentals to fab-labs and other shared workshops for technical freelancers.

I expect even established companies to start divesting themselves of their long-term contracts for office-space and exploring the use of dedicated co-working facilities. (And also home-working)

7) The War Against General Purpose Computing Cory Doctorow coined this term, and it's a good general umbrella for a number of related trends we'll see exacerbated in the next few years.

The poster-child here is Apple, which has successfully convinced people to swap their computers (over which they theoretically have full control) for iPads, ie. tethered devices, rented from the phone company, over which Apple has the final say as to what software you put on it. Seeing how successful this strategy has been for Apple, all the other major players want to be in on the game. Cloud computing is another example of this : computing increasingly sold not as an product but as a metered and (quality-) controlled service.

So while it seems that the technology is allowing us increasing freedom, we're also, individuals and companies, becoming increasingly dependent on and locked-in to a few network behemoths : Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, possibly Microsoft, possibly Samsung. These companies are going to have a hell of a lot of power. And I guess the CxO's strategy depends largely on where she or he is located with respect to them.

8) Climate Change and Peak Oil The propaganda campaign to persuade people to ignore global warming has been phenomenally and horrifyingly successful, to the extent that many people seem to have given up worrying. But, as Randall might put it, "Gaia don't care, she don't give a shit". (About what the Koch brothers want you to think.) The bad weather is already happening and it will continue getting worse. Expect more droughts, floods, migration, food price instability, and losses and price-rises in the insurance market.

We're not running in out of oil in the next 10 years. But, once again, expect increasing volatility of prices and more random acts of geopolitical aggression around the world as countries try to lock in their access to the remaining oil (and other resources that are running scarce). The US will likely try to exploit its native, difficult-to-get oil and gas. How the economics of that work out is a race between the high cost per barrel of the increasingly hard to access fuels vs. technological innovation in the machinery for extracting it. Advances and massive deployment of automation may keep the price of this oil down. But the environmental cost will still be high. (Hence more insurance claims.)

Actually, I think that's a general principle for the next decade : improvements in automation will compensate for the increasing energy costs. (Which is one more reason unemployment will stay high. Energy will be the constraint that stops the economy growing fast enough to absorb all those unemployed people. ) If, and only if, we're *lucky* will we make breakthroughs in solar / wind generation that can make them commercially viable within the context of extremely chaotic markets for energy. So the story of the next decade isn't a major makeover in terms of energy generation and transmission.

CxOs need to consider how their organisation can continue to survive and thrive in this world of climate instability and energy price volatility. They might look into the growing "Resilience" movements and ask both how their own operations can be made resilient and how they can contribute to the resilience and welfare of the communities they are located in.

9 and 10) When I think of them ... internet of things / ubicomp might be there.

May 19, 2012

Why are humanoid robots physically slow moving compared to industrial robots? Is it a computation/sensing bottleneck or a hardware bottleneck?

If you mean, why is research progress slow, remember that there are 7 billion people on the planet and they're cheap. There's not a huge demand for a direct human replacement.

If you mean why do the robots themselves operate slowly, I'd suggest that it's largely that they need to fit in with the human "world". They have to operate in an environment that's full of (unpredictable) humans without killing them. They have to handle delicate human artefacts like glass and china without breaking them. They have to read the visual cues that humans (with our dedicated visual cortices, refined by millions of years of evolution) use.

Fast robots operate in highly constrained environments where they don't have to worry about hurting people who get in the way or damaging objects that shouldn't be there.

Moving slowly is part precautionary principle. Part price (speed and accuracy cost). And part, yes, because the tasks require more open ended "thinking".

Jun 1, 2012

What is Meteor going to use the $9M raised in their Series A for?

Without any insider knowledge at all, I'll guess they want to be a cloud-hosting provider in competition with Amazon AWS, RackSpace, Google App. Engine etc. They already let you host applications on their servers, and if Meteor takes off with any momentum (which is plausible given what I've seen of it) then being the default hosting company for Meteor powered startups could be a good business.

Jun 4, 2012

Why do some people hate the concept of money? What makes these people different from everyone else?

I don't know any people who hate money per se.

Those people I know who are against it entirely, are against the notion of "private property" and would be equally unhappy if property were circulated by barter or automatically belonged to the king. (The rights and wrongs of private property in general are probably better left for another thread.)

I know far more people, and am happy to include myself among them, who are extremely dissatisfied with the particular kind of money we have at the moment : ie. debt-money created by a few private banks who've been given the monopoly right to do that by the government. We see this as a particularly bad way to have money created as, most egregiously, it leads to the sector of society that needs to use money (ie. everyone else) being permanently in debt to the private banks who create it. Money created as *loans* also tends to be funnelled towards things that can be repossessed if the borrower defaults (ie. banks create money to help people buy houses or to help other banks buy collateralized assets). In other words, new money is mainly used to inflate the price of existing expensive things (making the rich richer) rather than, for example, increasing social welfare or even backing risk-taking entrepreneurs.

An interesting hypocrisy is that when governments try to create money themselves, for doing useful things, they are accused of causing inflation and stealing from the rich. But when private banks create money which directly inflates the prices of real-estate and other assets belonging to the rich (therefore essentially stealing from the poor) no-one bats an eyelid.

Jun 4, 2012

Why do technology companies tend to spend less on outside strategy consulting firms than companies in other industries?

1) The tech. industry has a far more open culture. As a technical company, if you want to know what your competitors are planning, a lot of the time you can read it on their blogs. In pharmaceuticals, consultants often provide the back-channel where the necessary information percolation from one company to another takes place.

2) Technology is the main thing that is changing fast and can rapidly upset your strategy. If technology isn't your core competence as a company - ie. it isn't the thing you are hiring people to be passionate about - then you need some help to keep track of it. If you are a tech. company, you expect your employees to be fascinated enough about technology to keep up with what's happening in the tech. world.

Jun 4, 2012

What facts about the United States do foreigners not believe until they come to America?

Convenience is rather pleasant.

Everything one knows about American convenience culture : 24 hour shops, fast food, "have a nice day" etc. appears tawdry and degraded when you only know it exported elsewhere in the world. At best it looks sad and desperate to be copying the US, and at worst, like a bad case of cultural imperialism as US companies come in and try to impose their models on your society.

But actually *in* the US, there's something rather charming about it. A McDonalds in a mall in Beijing or Brasilia is a horror. But go to one for breakfast in Los Angeles and it all kind of works : the design and appearance, the food, the behaviour of the staff. Not a wooden formula but a living culture.

Americana travels badly but is surprising comfortable in its native environment.

Jun 4, 2012

What's wrong with class warfare?

What's wrong is that it shouldn't be necessary.

Jun 6, 2012

If money were abolished, would we all be equal?

Just removing money wouldn't eliminate inequality.


reforming the parts of the money system which tend to exacerbate inequality could remove those amplifying effects.

Let's take a random example. Comparison of earnings for nurses around the world :

Now NOBODY believes that the reason that Norwegian nurses are paid 15 times what Philippine nurses are paid (in terms of dollars) or 3 times if you consider PPP is because they are 15 times harder working or 15 times more skilful or even 3 times more productive through their own effort. Everyone accepts that the difference is better explained by *contextual* reasons : that some have access to higher-tech. machinery. That the Norwegian Krone is higher because Norway has oil. Because the political system in Norway is less corrupt than that in the Philippines. That Norway is geographically closer to and has traditional trading arrangements with other wealthy countries etc.

Some of those contextual reasons are inevitable, accidents of geography or history. But some are quirks of the money system. What would happen if everyone in the world used the Krone as their currency? It would depend a lot on how that came to pass. Maybe the Philippine nurse would earn more to be closer to the Norwegian. Or maybe the Norwegian would earn less. Or maybe the attempt to unify currencies would be as disastrous for the Philippines as the European currency seems to have been for Greece and the nurse would be out of a job. Frankly, we don't know.

What we do know is that the world financial system is extremely complex and non-linear and that the idea that inequality of financial outcome is mainly due to inequality of personal capacity or effort rather than these contextual factors is laughably naive.

Jun 6, 2012

Why do some programmers hate Java?

It was oversold.

Whereas most languages in the 90s were made by hobbyists and communities to get their work done, Java was the only language which was a corporate product with a strategic intention behind it : to get people using it and therefore Sun products.

Hence, there was a huge amount of deliberately orchestrated hype behind Java. Furthermore, Sun deliberately promoted it as the "best practice" for things it wasn't particularly suitable for. (Such as web work.)

In my own experience, I was happy working on web-sites in Perl and TCL in the 90s and early 00s. I soon realised that Python was an even more pleasurable language. Other people were creating languages like PHP, especially for the web. And Ruby on Rails was around the corner.

But like so many people I was obliged to work with Java simply because the Sun propaganda machine was telling us that this was the professional, "grown up" way to do things. In retrospect, it's obvious that Sun didn't have a clue, as Java span through multiple frameworks and ways of doing things : Enterprise Java, Entity Beans, POJO and various web frameworks each of which being a more or less random guess as to how things should be done.

So I'd suggest that people hate Java, not just because of the language (which can be quite civilized if you take it for what it is: a cleaner C++ with garbage collection) but for representing everything that's wrong about the way that programming tools should be designed and promoted.

Jun 10, 2012

What is the smartest way to get from an idea for a computer program to the first draft of its code?

Iterative, "test driven", development.

Break your idea down into a number of simple "stories", each of which describes a single chunk of activity which goes all the way through from the beginning to the end of a user's experience with the software. Importantly a story is not a traditional "component" (in Vivek Nagarajan's sense) but represents a complete, working but minimal slice through the functionality.

For example, a story could be "the user goes to our site at a URL and sees a page describing our idea" or, for a drawing program, "the user can create and save a jpg file" (even though that jpg file is just a blank canvas).

Once you have some stories, order them by importance. If you could only get one story working, what would be the most valuable? If you could only get two stories, which would those be?

Start on the most important story. As any particular story shouldn't be too complicated, you can probably figure out fairly intuitively the components you need in order to make it happen. (If you can't, you're trying to fit too much into a single story.) Those components might be functions, they might be objects which have several methods (if so, ONLY worry about the methods of the object which satisfy the current story, ignore any others), they might be HTML forms or templates.

Now write AUTOMATED TESTS for the components you need for this story. Unit tests for the functions and objects. Ideally something like Selenium for the web forms.

Write code to pass the tests in a test-driven style ... ie. write test, write code to pass test, refactor your code to eliminate redundancy, write next test etc. When one story is finished, start figuring out how to do the next most important and work on that.

Somewhere down your list of stories you have your minimum viable product: that is, the minimal thing which is worth releasing to your customers in order for them to give you feedback on whether this is useful to them. That is not necessarily just one story, it might be after the first three. Or the first ten. Whatever it is, once you hit it, release your product to the customers and start getting their reaction.

From now on you are in maintenance / iterative growth mode. You'll be taking the feedback from the customer to rewrite and reorder the stories. While continuing to implement them according to your best, most up-to-date, sense of priorities. You'll want to release new development to the customer as fast as reasonably possible so you can collect the feedback on your improvements too.

Don't assume that one story has to equal one release, because you'll be tempted to inflate your individual story to contain more than it should. But try to keep releases down to as few stories as possible so they can happen frequently : which maximizes both your information, and the customer's sense of progress.

Jun 12, 2012

Can a society function with only self-employed people? If so, how?

It's theoretically possible. To make it practical you have to replace what companies do : co-ordinate and direct the actions of lots of people.

While the market can do this, negotiating a price for every bit of co-ordination is time-consuming and costly. So you need a solution to make that cheaper.

As Anon suggests, computers can help with that. (That's the line of reasoning that descends from Ronald Coase. And it's what oDesk and The Mechanical Turk may be evolving into)

Another is to have groups of freelance-workers hire managers to tell them what to do (an unlikely eventuality).

A third option that might make it tractable is to shift a lot of what we do out of the paid economy and into a loosely accounted "gift" or "favour" economy.

The dirty secret of corporations is that they are basically a foam of capitalism enclosing (and benefiting from) huge bubbles of "gift economy". In your department you co-ordinate with and help out your colleagues not because you negotiate individually with them for every collaboration. Or even because the company pays you per task. Or because your boss micromanages your every action. (At least not in good companies.) You do it because you join a little society where the expected behaviour is to take initiative and co-operate. There's a pay-check each month, but that pay-check is just to keep you within broad parameters : coming in each day, not sabotaging the employer, not letting personal feuds become toxic.

The day-to-day co-ordination in most people's work is neither market based nor hierarchical control but spontaneous mutual support. That is what is really important (and perhaps most difficult) to continue to enable in an economy without corporations.

Jun 13, 2012

What are some widely used trust heuristics (NOT trust metrics)?

Probably the most widely used heuristic on Earth is "is this person like me?" in terms of race, gender, age, nationality, accent, social class, interests etc.

The positive spin you can put on that is that with all these complications out of the way you think you're able to pick up on the subtleties of how the person thinks and acts whereas the more differences there are, the harder it is to get a read on the person and the more cautious you have to be.

Jun 13, 2012

What do recruiters think about someone graduated from engineering school in 6 years instead of 5 years?

So what?

Jun 13, 2012

How should Microsoft respond to Apple's iPad, both in the short-term and the long-term?

Here's a perspective I wrote when Microsoft bought Skype :

Jun 14, 2012

Is there a musician that mixes dubstep and jazz?

Jun 17, 2012

What brands or corporations do you boycott? Why?

Anything owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Amazon because of them throwing Wikileaks off their servers.

I wouldn't say I "boycott" Apple, but I have never bought anything by them and
have a strong resistance to it. (Due to their controlling nature.)

Not a brand, but I stopped eating pork, bacon, ham etc. after pigs were shown to pass the "mirror test" indicating they may have a sense of self.

Update : I've now closed my Facebook account. Partly because of their support for Keystone, and partly because I believe the whole format of Facebook is bad for internet discourse and openness.

Jun 29, 2012

How much would eliminating the idea of ownership simplify modern society?

If you get rid of the idea of ownership you'd have to replace it with something else to manage the use of scarce resources.

That could be some kind of service ethic or desire to contribute to society. It could be that you simply do without the scarce things that are currently owned. It could be that you retain a sense of ownership but change the rules for how ownership comes about ... eg. a rule which says the owner of something is the person who makes the best case to a jury of their peers that they should own it.

The most plausible non-ownership society would probably have a mix of alternative conventions for different *types* of property. The rules for managing pencils would be different from the rules for managing gold-mining rights.

Whether such a set of rules would be simpler or not is an open question but I'd guess probably not : it's a virtue of our notion of property that it's a consistent rule applied across many things, and that ownership is "fungible" - everything can be traded for everything else and you can part-own things via the institution of the company.

In fact, that simplicity might be one of the biggest problems with our current economic system. We might be better off with a more nuanced concept of property where certain kinds of ownership came tied to other obligations that restricted the use that could be made of them. For example, what if our notion of land-ownership came with a stewardship ethic so that it was neither socially acceptable nor legal to destroy the ecosystem on a piece of land merely because you "owned" it.

Jun 30, 2012

What measures can elites take to mitigate their personal downside in case of revolution?

The best defence, of course, is to invest early in forestalling the revolution.

There are plenty of think-tanks, lobbyists, astro-turfing organisations etc. which, for a price, can ensure enough confusion in the minds of the general public, that a concerted will to overthrow you never arises.

Jul 1, 2012

Why is it so hard for so many of us to accept that we don't know what we don't know?

According to the philosopher Karl Popper, all knowledge is "conjecture" ie. knowledge and guesses are basically the same stuff as far as the brain is concerned.

Most of the time when we don't know something, it doesn't actually *feel* like we don't know it subjectively. It feels like we know it because we just extrapolate from some model in our heads to cover that situation too.

If, in practice, we are wrong to assume that the model holds, we can't know that until the evidence starts to stack up and tell us.

Jul 9, 2012

Have you ever stopped to think how we might affect the future when we decide to get up 5 minutes later?

Sure, but history will be waaaaay more dramatically different if Bob Smith of 45 Acacia Avenue, Surbiton wakes up 5 minutes later next Thursday. My own meagre butterfly flappings are trivial compared to that.

So I reckon it's his responsibility.

Jul 9, 2012

What are some things that started as jokes but turned into serious things?

Cow Clicker :

Jul 10, 2012

If judging someone on their looks is considered shallow, why isn't judging someone on basis of their intelligence considered the same?

It's not wrong to be attracted to someone because of their looks. That's inevitable.

The problem is to be so focussed on looks that you ignore the rest of their personality, moral character, tastes, interests, intellectual capacity etc.

These things matter because if you plan to live with someone or even spend much quality time with them, they all have a far larger influence on whether you're going to be happy together than whether the person makes an initial "wow!" through their appearance.

Jul 17, 2012

Why do most poor people remain poor?

It's asking the question the wrong way around. The right question is : why do the rich remain rich? As long as the rich manage that trick, then the poor have no option but to remain poor, simply because wealth is a relative rather than absolute property. (We can all have TVs but when everyone has a TV, a TV no longer makes you rich.)

Investigating why the rich remain rich is an easier task, and the answer can be boiled down to one simple principle : positive feedback loops in the economic and social system.

These range from, the rich are better able to educate their children to become rich (including the academic and professional skills needed to get good jobs, the intangible social skills needed to fit in, and the know-how of how to work the system to their benefit.). The rich are better connected with each other and so have more opportunities to strike up mutually beneficial relationships with already rich and powerful people. The rich have more information about how the system works. The rich are not distracted from pursuing their goals by secondary problems that lack of money exacerbates. Eg. if they get ill they can pay for medicine and hospital treatment without this disrupting their other plans. If they lose their job they are not so desperate as to be forced to take the first that comes along, however disadvantageous the terms.

The questioner rightly points out that in some exceptional cases, some very poor people *have* managed to become rich. But these are statistical exceptions. (If they weren't exceptions, the questioner wouldn't be asking the question, as the poor would habitually be becoming rich and vice versa.) As these are exceptions, the important fact that needs explanation is the low rate of social mobility.

And this is best explained by those feedback loops.

Note, that the higher instances of social mobility in the West in the mid 20th century were the result of a) a growing technocratic culture, b) government constraints on the economy and c) unions.

In the first case, the rapid technological development meant that professional skills that could be learned in formal educational environment, were relatively more important than the social / "insider knowledge" skills that the rich teach their children. As a result, poor but clever kids coming through state schools could get better paying jobs.

However, as the economies of the West have undergone increasing financialization and shifted to service businesses while offshoring their manufacturing and engineering jobs, social skills and system know-how that aren't taught in schools have started to reassert their importance. And social mobility has correspondingly declined.

Jul 17, 2012

Are humans still cognitively evolving (or even more so) due to the internet?

If the internet is affecting human evolution, it's most likely to be doing it via online dating sites which are most closely connected to human reproduction.

It seems that the invention of the bicycle (and then the car) had a detectable effect on genetic miscegenation as people could suddenly travel further to find mates. I'd guess we may now be starting to have an affect from online dating sites, and perhaps selecting for people who are good at using them to find partners.

Jul 17, 2012

Why hasn't an optical lens been implemented into a solar power system?

If I understand your caveat correctly, you aren't interested in concentrated solar on PV, just on (presumably) water boilers for steam engines?

If so, the I'd suggest that the main issue is the size of lens you'd need. CSP works at a large scale and uses arrays of mirrors. To replace that, I'd guess you'd need a lens that's hundreds of meters in diameter. Which would be enormously expensive and impractical.

Jul 21, 2012

Has there been a society which has successfully abolished marriage?

The US has been fairly successful in abolishing polygamous marriage ( ) and is struggling to abolish gay marriage.

Jul 21, 2012

Historically, have there been any societies in which women were the predominant breadwinners?

I'm sure there are plenty of poor communities in the US and Europe where you'll find that women are more likely to work than men, and where they bring in the majority of the income to the household.

Jul 25, 2012

Why do computer programmers write emails in all lowercase?

most of my emails are about doing stuff. very few of them are about new kinds of Thing ;-)

Jul 28, 2012

What is some interesting, unusual, possibly catchy music to try?

OK. I like Cardiacs and Mika. Infer what you can from that. I say every one of these is an earworm.

Axel Krygier - Silbad El Calipso

Maria Tănase - Lume, lume

Eddie - Metropolitano

Pascal Comelade and P.J. Harvey - Green Eyes

Getatchew Mekuria and The Ex - Musicawi Silt

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs - Garden

Current 93 - (Tilburg, "Birth Canal Blues" 2)

Belbury Poly - The Willows

Jul 29, 2012

What are some subtle details of the 2012 London opening ceremony that we may not have caught?

Noel Fielding, briefly glimpsed performing, and hardly mentioned.

The Tardis sound at the end of Bohemian Rhapsody. Apparently there was meant to be more Dr. Who but it was cut for lack of time.

Someone pointed out that fantastic as it was that they had Tim Berners-Lee, they failed to mention Turing, in Turing's centenary year.

Jul 29, 2012

Why was "Hey Jude" chosen to be the song sung by Paul McCartney at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics?

My wife was asking this question. We then sat down to try to think of a more appropriate Beatles song and couldn't really.

Basically it needs to be :

1) A McCartney song (he's not going to sing a Lennon one)

2) One of the big ten Beatles songs that *everyone* knows (and loves).

3) It can't be too miserable, so Yesterday is out. Eleanor Rigby too.

4) It can't be a too blatant love song. Which would be kind of icky and out of place.

5) It can't be too random. So not Penny Lane or Fool on the Hill

6) I guarantee, however much you hated Hey Jude, you'd have hated Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da more.

So, in fact, options are fairly limited. It pretty much HAD to be Hey Jude, which is, after all, a pretty good, generic, optimistic song which tells us that however hard life seems, embracing it will pull us through.

Jul 30, 2012

What are some ideas for making jazz more popular?

Jazz is now, what, a 100 year old tradition? That's not a bad innings for any musical genre. And it seems to me that jazz's problem is that it grew so big it inevitably fragmented / diffused into everything else.

Think of how much of jazz has influenced and shaped today's music :

The drum-kit basically developed in jazz, before eloping with the electric guitar to give birth to rock (and roll). Arguably "rock music" is as much a subspecies of jazz as bebop is.

Jazz singers pioneered many of the kinds of electrically amplified singing (from scat to crooning) that have been heard in other kinds of popular music since the 1940s.

"Jazz chords" and harmonies are regularly found everywhere from funk to R'n'B to house to drum'n'bass to downtempo lounge and electronica.

Jazz musicians have been involved in the evolution of all of the above musics, and particularly hip-hop which sampled 50s-70s jazz extensively during the 90s.

There are some odd little genres popping up now, like electro-swing, which look back to 1930s New Orleans, big-band and particularly hot club of Paris / gypsy-jazz scenes. This seems to be getting pretty popular and has musicians learning to play those tunes.

There's a strong continuity of musicians who've moved from jazz to soul / funk / jazz-funk / hip-hop and electro. Many famous hip-hop musicians are the sons or grandsons of jazz musicians.

I'm pretty sure that from the perspective of the 22nd century everyone from Frank Sinatra to George Clinton to The Bomb Squad to Beyonce is going to be considered "jazz". (Much as we lump anyone in the 18th century into "classical music")

So the question is, jazz *is* popular. What restricted subset of jazz is it that you would like to get people back into? Is it about the free improvisation? The modal compositions? The standards?

Jul 30, 2012

What is a good blogging system for blogging programmers and developers?

My hosting company (webfaction) has a fairly easy automated installer for WordPress. Once installed I find it works fine for my needs.

Jul 30, 2012

If some men don't talk about their feelings, what do they talk about?

Actually I find sport WAY less interesting than my feelings. I'd a million times rather talk about feelings than sport.

BUT I confess, I'm not a person who talks much about my feelings. The problem is that they aren't particularly "actionable". Most of what I find interesting to talk about is how things work and how to solve problems. And the problem with "feeling" type problems is most of the time, the best solution to a "feeling" problem is to lose the feeling.

Seriously. Are you angry with someone? Best thing to do is to forget about it and stop being angry. Forgive them and move on.

Are you jealous? Best not to be.

Are you so worried you can't sleep? Ditto.

Are you happy? Well, that's great. But "happy" isn't a problem. And it doesn't benefit much from analysis. I know some people like to try to optimise their happiness but I haven't seen much evidence of that working out. Partly because what makes you happy is novelty, not just a repeat of what made you happy yesterday.

Worse, talking about the various kinds of *unhappiness* doesn't make those go away. Talking about why I'm angry with someone just helps to make me feel justified and prolongs my anger. Talking about why I'm worried? Similar. Most of my worries are fairly rational. The only thing that you can say is my fears aren't particularly likely. And I already know that.

Can you talk yourself out of jealousy? Not in my experience.


Talking about good feelings just gets in the way of enjoying them. Talking about bad feelings just keeps them in the front of your mind and prolongs them. Let's talk about something interesting instead.

Jul 31, 2012

What do guys hate buying clothes?

Clothes are largely about pleasing other people rather than yourself. Women are socialised to worry more about what other people think of them than men are.

Jul 31, 2012

What are some good ways to respond to a kid who asks "How do the other kids know so much stuff that I don't know?"

"Here ... check this out : "

Jul 31, 2012

What 3-5 actionable lessons could a government agency learn from well-run Silicon Valley companies?

Jul 31, 2012

We all have faith. Faith in almost anything. At least most of us do. Is it really necessary? Or are we just made to believe in it from people around us?

Depends how you define "Faith". We all have to trust that a bunch of stuff we're told is true without investigating it from first principles. We just don't have the time or resources to sceptically attack everything all the time. And we wouldn't have a platform to do it from. If you want to call that "faith", then yes we all have faith. And it's a practical necessity.

If by "faith" you mean something which is more tied to an explicit religious or spiritual teaching. Or something we couldn't imagine changing our opinion about in the light of a weight of contrary experience or counter-argument or just a better idea, then I don't see it's a necessity at all. I'm sure I have some beliefs that would be pretty hard to shake off, but I don't have any beliefs I think that on principle I *shouldn't* shake off if compelling circumstances arose. In that sense, I don't feel any need for faith.

Jul 31, 2012

Why do people believe in God and how can they say he/she exists?

God spends more on advertising than the alternative brand.

Seriously, step back and look at this like an economist for a minute. I guarantee that anywhere in the world you go and you find large scale belief in the Christian God you will find concerted evangelical activity. Furthermore, where belief in God is increasing, you'll find investment : in new churches, in buying up radio stations, cable and satellite TV channels etc. (I'm open to be proved wrong on this if you can find some figures showing belief is inversely correlated with evangelical investment.)

Christian ministry has a profitable business model : you make back from it more than you put in. Certainly it's more profitable than atheism. (I know Dawkins and a couple of big name atheists do make money, but it requires a lot of work and talent, and the majority of atheists, working quietly in school science departments, universities and on Quora earn more or less nothing from their atheist activity.) Furthermore, in recent decades, technologies such as satellite TV have allowed ministry to scale beautifully, reaching far larger congregations for a relatively small increase in employees.

We live in a capitalist consumer society. Where the market structures our activities (both production and consumption) and where advertising and marketing are demonstrated techniques for increasing consumption of particular products and brands. It should be no surprise whatsoever that a profitable business model that keys into the dynamics of technology and benefits from a positive feedback loop between self-promotion, congregation size and income is going to spread.

BTW : I'm saying nothing here about whether God exists or not. Christians can verify this by looking at two comparisons : Scientology, which Christians would regard as utterly bogus, also invests in evangelism and is both growing in popularity and wealth. Whereas Judaism, which many Christians would regard as misguided but at least dealing with the right deity, invests little in evangelism and is hardly growing at all.

So, if the CAUSE of congregation growth was God's intervention, you wouldn't expect scientology to be growing. (God presumably having no reason to push anyone in that direction.) Similarly if the cause was just some spiritual dissatisfaction or longing in modern society, we might expect Judaism to be growing too. Or Catholicism. Etc.

In fact, the only model which really fits the pattern of congregation-growth in, say, the US, is the economic one : the amount of investment in advertising that the different religions put in. And that's exactly what you'd expect given our understanding of how advertising and marketing work.

Aug 1, 2012

Do any gay folk on Quora find this joke offensive?

Seems to me it's more a dig at parents who are unduly worried that their children might be gay. I laughed.

Aug 4, 2012

What are some things people (stuck in a tech startup culture bubble) in Silicon Valley may be shocked to learn about the outside world?

People don't like technology to change. (Even if it's an "improvement") They would prefer it to stay the way they currently understand it.

Aug 4, 2012

Yes I am insanely passionate about my project, but what is the reality outside of my world? Is it viable?

a) Have you got customers using your product and revenue coming in?

b) Have you found a business partner willing to commit his / her-self wholly to doing this with you? (One you trust to follow through.)

If the answer to a) and b) is "yes" then go for it. If either is "no", then think very seriously how you can make it "yes" before continuing.

Aug 4, 2012

I am currently working on a startup, and in business school where my marketing course wants us to create a marketing plan for an innovative idea, how do I go about getting my group to use my idea but ensure they are not entitled to any compensation?

Create a different innovative idea for the school project. Creating new ideas is both fun and a good exercise. Don't waste your time agonising about this.

Aug 4, 2012

Why do so many people prefer to work an unsatisfying job rather than being self employed?

Many people have a collection of valuable skills. But to be self employed you need to have a particular matrix of skills that not everyone has.

1) You need to be able to produce something of value to someone.

2) You need to be able to promote yourself. Not just know how to take out the right advert, but to meet people and ask if you can do something for them. Perhaps to cold-call. Sometimes someone will ask you if you can do something you've never done before within a particular time-frame. The honest answer is "I don't know but I can give it a try". Whereas you have to be comfortable saying "yes, absolutely".

3) You need to be able to manage money. That includes managing your own accounts and tax returns. It also includes being able to chase people for it and act threatening if they aren't paying. And being able to fight your own suppliers / subcontractors if they aren't satisfactory.

4) You need to be able to navigate the changes in the market. Adapt to its signals. Strategise how you'll take advantage of current and potential opportunities.

You might be lucky and fall into self-employment without having to really get involved in some of these. Maybe an ex-employer knows you and is happy to feed you a steady stream of small contracts while always paying reliably. But if that doesn't happen, you have to feel reasonably able to do all of 1-4 before you can confidently choose self-employment.

Aug 4, 2012

Why do Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in their more fundamentalist versions, have such an obsession with sex, the role of women in society, their covering up their bodies in public, and reproductive rights?

Sex is a very very powerful human motivator. Anyone who wants power over you will try to take control over sex. That ranges from corporations, who use sex in advertising to sell you things, to organised crime (pimps sell prostitutes, partly to make money, but mainly to signal their power in their community), to religions which want to assert their right to be the *gatekeepers* of sex.

Aug 4, 2012

What is commonly known or believed in one country, which would be mind-blowing to foreigners?

Here are a few that surprised me about Brazil :

- pretty much EVERYBODY takes astrology seriously. People will ask you about your star sign within a short time of meeting you, and people will analyse your personality and relationships in terms of it. (Update: see User's comment below)

- Brazil has had a working biofuel industry for decades. You can buy a car that runs on alcohol and fuel it up at any gas station.

- It's common for universities (and other government services) to go on strike for months as part of normal pay negotiations. When that happens, the whole university semester just slides back by 6 to 8 weeks and nobody seems particularly disturbed or outraged. It should be noted that university is free to any student that can pass the entrance exams to get in, and in other ways the quality of education is comparable to my experience in the UK.

- many middle-class families still have servants living with them. It's quite freaky if you aren't used to this. Like falling through a time-warp back into the early 20th century.

- Brazil seems to have very little cultural conflict between generations. Teenagers will happily learn and sing songs written 20, 40 or 60 years before they were born, while their grandparents will be equally happy to dance to something contemporary, regardless of how outlandish the sounds. Growing up in post-punk Britain where we were enthusiastically anti-everything that wasn't exactly of our generation and subculture, I was disturbed by this for a long time. But now I find it healthy. Similarly, Brazilians, even the more moral Catholic ones, don't seem to see the world as being in some kind of decay. I get no sense of a complaint that young people are worse than their parents' generation. Or worries about falling standards or an increasingly permissive society. It feels like sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll (or at least carnival) have always been a dangerous temptation, no less familiar to your great grand-parents than your grand-children. These are eternal problems not some new fangled discontent of modernity. This is very different from the presentation of social problems in the Anglo-Saxon world where they are always considered new and urgent to solve.

Rolling Update as I think of more :

- TV adverts for supermarkets are disturbingly graphic in their depiction of meat. In the UK, meat on TV is pretty much always shown either cooked or safely wrapped in plastic. Brazilian TV loves to pan the camera slowly over raw and bloody chunks of the stuff.

- Brazil is a hot country. There are a LOT of insects. Why, why, why? Brazilians, do you feel the need to take ALL the food we might possibly want to eat out of the fridge and lay it out, unwrapped, on display an hour before breakfast (or lunch) so that it can be crawled on by ants and hovered over by moscas? Can't we just take the food out of the fridge at the point we want to eat it, and put it back in the fridge once we've served ourselves? Is that such a cultural faux pas?

Aug 4, 2012

What's the one song that can get me into Jazz music?

OK. Let's suppose for a minute that you don't actually like the sound of jazz ... the formlessness of it, but you do like the vibe and texture of it and that makes you wish you were into it.

Well, this is about the best *advert* for jazz (without being jazz) that I can think of :

I think if you can convince yourself that this is one awesome record (not an entirely unfeasible possibility) then you're half-way to actually jumping into jazz.

Aug 4, 2012

Are you for or against privatization of prisons?

The reason that the US will never cure itself of its absurdly expensive and socially destructive habit of sending harmless people to prison for minor drug crimes is that there are now rich and powerful people making profits from incarceration.

This is a nightmare hybrid : the instinct of the despot allied with the rapacity of the corporation.

Aug 4, 2012

Political Rhetoric: What does it mean to "politicize" something?

People use the word politics in two different ways.

1) Some people think it just means that bunch of stuff that the politicians and political parties fight over. To them, to make something political seems to be, at best, to create unnecessary argument and, at worst, an attempt by external powers to impose their will over it.

2) I, on the other hand, regard "politics" as an extremely positive and optimistic term, more or less synonymous with the word "freedom". Both "politics" and "freedom" are a state of being able to reflect critically on something so as to open up the possibility of acting on it to change it.

To politicize something, then, is to start the process of looking at it criticially. Asking whether it has to be the way it is. What forces make it the way it is, and what forces make us see it the way we currently see it. Politicization creates a new space for action.

Aug 4, 2012

Could it be possible there is a species living deep underwater with similar intelligence to us?

Let's assume that "similar" has to imply social, and potentially with communication, language, grammar. That's what basically we recognise as intelligence. (No grammar means no creative expression by recombining "words")

A social animal needs a reason to be social, say pack hunting, storing and protecting food, basic agriculture / animal husbandry. It needs to discover a communication medium eg. sound, chemicals, vision.

Octopi manage complex bodies and do some interesting stuff with camouflauge (suggesting a basic perception of when they think they are being looked at.)

What we'd be looking for, I suggest, is something like a swarming / pack-hunting octopus that lives in the deep ocean, communicating via a variety of bioluminescent flashes. Perhaps the skin of this octopus is entirely covered in lights and light-sensitive cells, so overall moods can be shared.

Perhaps the octopi practice some kind of horticulture - though below the sunlight you won't get sea-weeds, so perhaps they keep sea-slugs the way ants keep aphids.

Perhaps they swarm on and kill sperm whales as they hunt colossal squid.

Aug 7, 2012

What are important complicated things that people should understand but which they are unable to understand because such things are too complicated?

Non linear effects ... ie. systems whose outputs don't change linearly with change in input.

1) The IDEA that such things exist
2) The fact that some phenomana they encounter may be due to non-linear systems

Aug 7, 2012

Why do you have to pass a test to drive but not to vote?

Because we can, in advance, more or less understand the parameters of what types of driving are considered valid and what are invalid. We can't do the same with politicians or governments.

BTW : it's amazing the number of people who are giving a patently wrong answer to this question : Governments can't kill people? Er ... yes they can and do all the time. You are far MORE dangerous in charge of a vote than a vehicle.

Aug 7, 2012

Why shouldn't I feel contempt for people who vote in national elections?

You shouldn't feel contempt for anyone.

Aug 7, 2012

What are some examples of applications where tablets and smartphones have/might replace dedicated display/input mechanisms?

Tablets have made huge in-roads into professional music, providing surfaces that allow complex touch interaction with synthesizers (both hardware and software), mixing desks, lighting rigs etc. Furthermore they are actually replacing traditional instrument interfaces such as piano-style keyboards, drums and, in some cases, guitars. (See also virtual ocarinas on iPhones etc.)

To answer the second part of the question, the main disadvantage of tablets is cost and fragility. There are plenty of situations where cheap and disposable controllers would be better than $500 controllers that contain your address book and family photographs. Nevertheless, the tablets triumph in terms of flexibility, the number of things they can control, and general coolness (at the moment).

Personally I expect we're going to see a new fragmentation at some point as the multi-touch screen detaches from the heart of the mobile device. Perhaps the heart of the system migrates to the wrist in the form of a smart watch. Or higher up the arm like a jogger's MP3 player. Or to the belt or a lanyard. And touch screens will become very cheap, disposable input / output devices wirelessly connected.

Aug 7, 2012

What are the technical challenges in building an online voting system?

"should be able to create an online voting system which is hacker-proof"

There's your problem, right there. No computer system is hacker-proof. And technology giants often have a worse record than other specialists.

Paper based systems are not hacker-proof either. But they make the COST of hacking very high indeed. With electronic voting, it's precisely the automation, that reduces the cost of information processing, that ALSO reduces the cost of hacking. And so makes hacking a more plausible and pressing problem.

Aug 8, 2012

How can you be an atheist or a theist, and be confident in your belief if you have not read a lot of philosophy?

The only way to be confident in any belief is to have not read a lot of philosophy.

Aug 8, 2012

Since the concept of God can be used to help guide children, do atheists have fewer kids because without this concept, they find parenting hard?

No. They have fewer kids because they're not afraid of contraception.

Aug 8, 2012

Why do people want to enforce their religion on others?

Often religion is used as a cover / justification for advancing a *political* agenda. It's used to stop women having abortions. To confuse the teaching of biology (and likely in the near future climate science). To motivate people to go to war and fly planes into buildings.

"New Atheism" of the Dawkins or Hitchens varieties only appeared as a reaction to the increasingly visible political effects of strong religious beliefs.

If religion was just about who you prayed to and the clothes you wore, it wouldn't be an issue and few people would care about persuading anyone of anything. But because the patterns of belief shape the patterns of power in the world (remember when Christianity took over the Roman Empire?), people try to martial faith as they would any other weapon.

Aug 8, 2012

How do atheists explain the concept of death to a child?

It's not a particularly hard concept to grasp. Particularly for kids in the age of electronic media who, from a very young age, are seeing hundreds of TV shows, films and video games where people get killed. "Death" is what happens when you've been shot.

Aug 8, 2012

What determines success: luck or hard work?

Stastically, the best predictor of how well off you are in life is where and when you're born and who your parents are. Some people manage to get rich from poor backgrounds but they're statistically insignificant exceptions,

It would be very interesting for someone to sit down and actually try to do a respectable empirical test of this question of luck vs. hard-work. (I've not heard of one yet.) The first problem would be trying to pin down the slippery concept of "hard work" to something measurable.

Do you go for the joules of energy expended by the person? In which case, I'm willing to bet the manual workers are going to beat out the managerial types.

Do you go for hours worked per day? And how do you ensure you include the unconcious ponderings in the shower of the creative designer, but exclude the self-important busy-work we all sometimes fall into at the office? And does clothes shopping time count for the salesman?

Do you try for some psychological metric? What?

What makes one *decision* harder work than another? How do you avoid falling into a circularity where you assume that the decisions of successful people, that have greater consequences, must be harder, and so render your result a tautology where hard-work is defined in terms of success and - lo and behold - you "prove" that success comes from hard-work?

Aug 8, 2012

What websites best carry on the Whole Earth Catalog's goals?

First thought :

Still thinking ...

Aug 14, 2012

What insights do expert hackers have for novice programmers?

Really simple things for complete beginners.

1) Never assume you know what code is doing. READ it. And run it to WATCH what it does.

2) Indentation matters. You may be convinced that indentation is just a fussy and unnecessary ritual. Fine. You are wrong. And the computer will keep punishing you until you learn the error of your ways.

3) If you can't type, you can't program. A programmer needs manual dexterity and fluidity with the keyboard exactly the way a guitarist needs to be able to shape chords and pluck strings. For a programmer, code must be *malleable*. You need to be able to add to it, remove it, add it again as quickly as you think through the problems you are trying to solve. If your typing can't keep up with your thinking, you will continually lose your train of thought as you struggle with the keyboard.

However much it seems like hard work, you need to practice typing. Resist trying to use the mouse to copy and paste a "for" loop or the name of a variable from a previous line. If you do this, you will never develop the dexterity you need.

Aug 14, 2012

So we evolved. Now what?

Aug 14, 2012

Should our top musicians make a moral stand and shape society for the better?

Everyone should take a moral stand and try to shape society for the better.

So obviously musicians fall under that umbrella. As do accountants, bakers and shop-assistants etc.

Whether musicians need to do it by putting explicit messages into their art I think is a matter for them. Art has its own logic which may or may not align with explicit preaching. On the whole I think music generally adds to society's wellbeing, so that may well be sufficient.

Aug 29, 2012

Who are some people whose public status was suddenly upgraded from crackpot to prescient guru?

Facteur Cheval :

Once thought pretty odd, but now recognised as a great artist (and an important fore-runner of art-deco, surrealism and other 20th century art movements)

Aug 30, 2012

Which are the most influential bands of the 00s which are created during the 00s?

Ariel Pink maybe?

Aug 30, 2012

What hugely popular musical acts have you tried hard to like, but just don't understand what everyone sees in them?

I admit that life is too short and there's too much good music to spend much time *trying* to like something you don't, just because other people do.

But here are a couple I've been exposed to more than once and I just do not get :

Bob Dylan - why does everyone think he's a good / profound song-writer? Every lyric I can think of by him just sounds like trite doggerel. (Comparison, I see why people think Leonard Cohen is a great song-writer, although I don't listen to him.)

The Rolling Stones - can't think of anything interesting or even catchy by them. (Comparison : The Who. Never listen to them, but I see what they had in terms of vibe / interesting sound.)

All 80s pop rock / hair metal - Metallica? Bon Jovi? Guns and Roses? Meh. (Comparison, admittedly I don't really like metal. But I do see what was striking about, say, Black Sabbath at one end of the spectrum and Slipknot at the other. These 80s guys though don't even seem to have the grand macabre spectacle.)

Frank Sinatra - he's just way too smug to be likeable. It's just irritating. Try Johnny Mathis instead.

Sep 5, 2012

Who are some notable modern day inventive polymaths?

Stewart Brand ( )

Started in the 60s between the hippy scene in San Francisco (dropping acid with Ken Kesey) and the conceptual art scene in New York (doing light-shows at early happenings). While also hanging with early computer scientists at Stanford.

Started the Whole Earth Catalog, a "hyper-text" style magazine designed to equip hippies to drop out and start alternative communities, while learning about the latest cybernetic theories.

Filmed the infamous Doug Engelbart demo that showed a mouse driven, GUI-based networked information system in 1968.

Wrote about computer gaming (in the 60s) for Rolling Stone

Created the Co-evolution Quarterly

Advised the California Government on environmental issues

Started the WELL (one of most influential online communities)

Residenced at the MIT Media Centre

Wrote a truly great book about architecture and design :

Created the Long Now Foundation ( )

And quite a bit more ...

Sep 5, 2012

Who is a modern day genius?

James Lovelock :

Sep 7, 2012

What did you once know but don't know anymore?

Lots of laws in physics, how to integrate, how to calculate the determinant of a matrix ...

Sep 7, 2012

What are the things that I must know, If I wish to understand concepts/problems in the most beautiful way that they can be interpreted, such that it is also retained the most?

I like where Joshua Engel is going with his answer but don't entirely like the aesthetic relativism it seems to start with.

I'll phrase it like this. You must understand that there isn't one unique "right" way of seeing or thinking about the world.

If you start to believe that there is only one right way to see or understand the world, everyone who sees it differently or reasons about it differently will seem to you to be either idiotic or malign and the world will become very ugly indeed.

Instead, if you accept that different perspectives can be valid (which doesn't mean that ALL perspectives have to be) then you can learn to love the diversity of models you encounter, even when sometimes they are a cause of frustration (as in when people vote for the wrong politicians or believe in astrology).

The most beautiful way to understand concepts is to know them from these different angles. As though they were something you can hold in your hand and turn around rather than a flat painting on the wall. Even better is to be able to poke at them, or pull at them. To feel how they respond to questions? Are they hard or springy? Do they fracture at a sceptical knock? Or are they resilient enough to bounce back?

Sep 8, 2012

Would becoming homeless be a good strategy to cut costs?

Sure. But "costs" are not the only thing you should be trying to optimise in life.

Sep 10, 2012

Is it possible to take people seriously, who describe themselves as polymaths? A polymath, also called a Renaissance man (or woman) is someone who doesn’t have only broad interests or a superficial knowledge, but his/her knowledge is profound.

Sep 10, 2012

How do polymaths present themselves to modern society?

I rather suspect you can't.

Almost everyone you deal with will be interested in one dimension of you rather than the complete package. Or, in the best case scenario, two or three. "What? You're a programmer who can write and take pictures? You'll be perfect to run our tourism web-site (we can save paying two salaries)".

Sep 23, 2012

How did people wake up on time before the invention of the alarm clock?

Sunrise and cockerels.

The premise is wrong. People didn't need much more accuracy than that. Everything else is train time-tables.

Sep 28, 2012

What conditions favor the emergence of scenius?

No-one mentioned good cafés yet?

Sep 28, 2012

What is the case in favor of naming American buildings and structures after Christopher Columbus?

Not much, as Columbus was a chancer, using outdated ideas and who achieved very little for his sponsors.

The Portuguese, who had better knowledge of geography and the size of the globe - from Greek via Arabic and Jewish scholars that were still welcome in Portugual after being expelled from Spain - knew that Columbus's model of the world was way too small for the Orient to be in the place he said it was.

They had also figured out how to get to India around the Cape of Good Hope and were about to successfully take control of the lucrative spice trade. They even, plausibly, knew about a Western continent but were reluctant to publicise the discovery. Based on their superior knowledge, they did clever deals with Spain to grab Brazil : a large chunk of South America that was closer to Europe than the rest of the continent, more fertile and rich in other resources. (It was the site of the world's first gold-rush).

Columbus didn't discover a new continent. Nor was he particularly successful at commercialising it or opening it up to exploitation.

More here :

Oct 1, 2012

What are the most innovative co-working spaces in the world?

Projecto 767 is a project to turn a decommissioned Boeing 767 into a co-working space in Brasilia.

It's both an interesting practical solution to getting a cheap(ish) but striking venue for co-working in a place where the kind of old, industrial architecture that co-workers love isn't really available. And highly symbolic, given that Brasilia is built in the shape of an aeroplane.

Oct 1, 2012

What were you born "too late" for?

I was born too late to be innocent about the effects that our technological innovations and increased consumption are having on the environment.

In some ways, it would have been nice to be able to celebrate the ever accelerating torrent of new products and economic expansion without having to experience the sickening horror of knowing that we're trashing the only home we'll ever have.

Oct 1, 2012

Why are we advised to study Python as the first programming language?

Although Python can be used in Object Oriented and Functional styles, it doesn't force them on you, so you can start by writing simple, procedural programs, much as beginners have always done in languages like Basic.

At the same time, it has a clean syntax, which avoids a lot of strange conventions that are there largely for historical or ideological reasons.

It's very powerful and flexible with many of the OO and functional features that you will want to use as your learning progresses.

It has a large library that lets you get stuff done.

It has no explicit "compile" phase which removes another source of confusion and frustration for beginners.

It's the only programming language named after a bunch of comedians, which feels friendlier than programming languages named after obscure mathematicians or arbitrary letters and numbers.

Oct 4, 2012

What should one do in their 20s to avoid regrets in their 30s and 40s?

1) Getting into the habit of regular exercise and staying in shape.

2) Actually getting the PhD I spent 7 years faffing around failing.

3) Talking to more girls.

Oct 5, 2012

Why hasn't evolutionary computation been more successful?

Basically people expect GAs to give you a certain kind of free lunch.

They don't.

You want a solution to a problem which, to specify by hand, would take, say, n bits of information. But you think that by specifying an m bit fitness function (where m is considerably smaller than n) you can evolve that solution.

The problem is, for any fitness function of m bits, there are far more ways of meeting it that *aren't* the particular n bit solution you really wanted. So, after your first couple of attempts, (where your GA converged in a place quite different from the solution you expected) you start tweaking and adding to your fitness function to fine tune it towards the solution you really want. Essentially you are putting more bits of specific information about the desired solution into the fitness function.

After a while, you realise that you're going to need to do more or less the same amount of work to DESIGN a sufficiently fine-tuned fitness function as you would to design the original solution by more traditional methods and so you abandon the genetic approach altogether.

This seems to me to be an insurmountable problem with using GAs for engineering design in general.

The only case where it may not apply, is where you're evolving within an "embodied" system eg. a controller for a robot, and where the fitness function includes feedback from the physical world. In that case you can rely on the world to fill in the detail accurately. As long as you're presenting your robot with a sufficiently comprehensive range of the situations that it will encounter in real life.

In this case, the problem is just cost : are you able to produce enough robots cheaply enough to test out hundreds to millions potential solutions to evaluate their fitness? At the moment, almost certainly not. Though maybe technological innovations such as MEMS will change that in the future :

Oct 5, 2012

Will it ever be economically feasible to colonize another planet?


People who think it's possible are either a) totally deluded about the size of inter-planetary / inter-stellar space and the budget required in terms of *energy* to move a self-sustaining biosphere there, or b) banking on a miracle discovery of some kind of warp-drive / worm-hole thing.

Almost certainly AI and robotics will outpace any improvements in energy technology.

So basically, anything we might want to send humans to do in space will be done more cheaply (in energy terms) by robots. That includes exploration and science, asteroid mining etc. In fact it's probably going to be easiest, if asteroids are worth mining at all, to just clamp a couple of thrusters on them, fly them back to earth orbit, and do the mining here. We can have specialised machinery on permanent space-stations that are connected to the ground by auto-piloted shuttles. Occasionally humans might visit these space-stations, but most of the time there won't be any need.

I think we should face the fact that Earth is the only home humanity is ever likely to have and we should make sure we make it work (in terms of population, environment, imminent threats) not fantasize about running away.

Oct 5, 2012

Back Button: are we at web 3.0 yet, or did we go back to 1.5?

Yes. Basically, when web sites were collections of *pages*, the browser gave you the back-button for free. (Just return to the previous web page.) Now sites tend to be single pages with special Ajax calls to pull packets of data off the server, the browser back-button doesn't work.

This is a natural result of the switch from page oriented web to Ajax / small packets of data oriented web. That switch is, of itself, a good thing. But breaking the back button is utter crap. No one who breaks the back button can claim to be a good UI designer. (Disclosure : I've broken it myself on too many occasions.)

HOWEVER, there is a big question on what should be done about this. As web-apps become more complex, "back" becomes a more diverse and complex issue. Should it be used more like ctrl/cmd-z that undoes the previous action? Should app. designers try to maintain a skeuomorphic "page" metaphor to protect the meaning of "back"? Should the back button be disabled? (But then how do you really get back to before you entered this page?)

Oct 6, 2012

Is The Economist left or right?

It's right wing. But is reasonably truthful rather than partisan, which means it sometimes admits left-wing facts.

Oct 6, 2012

Which is better - a demurrage currency or inflation?

In theory, demurrage could offer a government / central bank finer-grained control over the "velocity" of money in the economy. Just directly change the demurrage rate rather than try to control velocity via the quantity of money in the economy.

Oct 7, 2012

What is your most unshakeable belief?

Cogito ergo sum

Oct 7, 2012

With which of your beliefs would you be surprised if most people didn't agree?

That people should be free to do what they like as long as they don't cause harm to others.

Of course, we fight all the time about what constitutes harm and what things count as causes. But I'd be very surprised if people didn't agree with the basic principle outlined about.

Oct 7, 2012

Identity: How old would you be if you didn't know how old you were?

I tend to let my (greying) hair and beard grow long (and fairly unkempt) for a couple of months. And then go to the barbers and have it shortened, tidied up.

If I catch myself in the long-hair stage I could easily think I was ten years older than I am. (50 something). When I come out of the barber, I optimistically think I've knocked a couple of years off my real age. (Could I pass for late 30s? Or is that a fantasy?)

Oct 7, 2012

Which is the best way to outsource 3D production for a start up?

If you're doing one offs there are a lot of companies like Shapeways, Ponoko, iMaterialize etc. which deal with people with casual 3D print requirements.

If you want high quality in your home town you may find specialist equivalents.

If you want to manufacture in bulk you'll probably still want to move away from 3D print (at least in 2012) towards a more traditional manufacturing technology.

Oct 7, 2012

Why do Democrats believe private/voluntary charity is incapable of serving the needs of the poor?

There are no examples of it working anywhere in the world. In no country with rich people and no welfare state do the rich voluntarily provide medical care to the poor comparable to that provided by state systems.

Oct 7, 2012

What are some good music contests in Brazil?

Rio Carnival.

In fact Carnival in a lot of cities has a competitive element where each school or block tries to outdo its rivals in some way.

Oct 8, 2012

Computational Thinking: What would happen in a world where almost everyone is programming literate?

How might such a world (of universal programming literacy) come about?

Most likely from a continuing trend to automate the way a lot of work gets done, and then people would learn programming as a way of engaging with that world.

For example, instead of spending half an hour in the supermarket or even 10 minutes browsing a supermarket site on the web, you might be able to compose an augmented shopping list on your phone.

6 Apples
4 bread rolls

Could become :

prefer("Pink Lady" or "Fuji").

"Bread rolls".
prefer("Top=Poppy Seed")



Similar little languages can be developed for most activities. So I'd guess that we'll all be writing little scripts for robots or large automated services. There's an assumption that people must prefer navigating rather laborious graphical interfaces to get stuff done. But if they were more programming literate they may learn to use and love such small scripts instead.

Oct 9, 2012

Why are hippies so uptight?

"Passive aggressive" is a derogatory term which gets thrown around pretty easily these days. Are you sure that they're passive aggressive or are they
just disagreeing with you and your life choices?

Oct 14, 2012

What specific set of characteristics or criteria make one "anti-intellectual"?

I wouldn't use the term "anti-intellectual" for someone who just happens to prefer junk culture to high culture or not to have been fortunate enough to encounter inspiring education in their lives.

Anti-intellectualism is a specific and active political force. The people who practice it tend to be those who passionately want to believe something that intellectuals have dismissed. They feel oppressed by the success of those intellectuals in shaping what seems to be the dominant culture of the place they live in. So they go on the (often personal) attack against them.

Oct 15, 2012

Can I advertise here regarding my composition techniques?

I see what you did there. You made an advert into a question about advertising

You might get away with it just this once but it's not really a repeatable trick.

Oct 29, 2012

Does legalizing same-sex marriage lead to legalizing polygamy?

There's no moral argument against polygamy per se, except as noted by others that, in practice, it often goes hand-in-hand with cultures where women are disempowered and coerced into it (by family etc.). But if there's no coercion there are no moral probems.

There is, I suggest, a messy legal question to resolve about what claims members of a poly marriage have over each other. Particularly in the event of one or more of them wanting to leave the relationship. Gay marriage could (and should) be legalized tomorrow, and there would be no real extra legal work to be done. But you'd probably have to rethink and rewrite much of the legislation about rights within marriage and divorce to make poly a viable legal institution.

Oct 29, 2012

What does the United States do wrong?

I don't need to rehearse all the specific cases. But one observation from an outsider. For inhabitants of a country which is run by a bunch of rogues and shysters, Americans seem incredibly innocent about the nature of their ruling classes (both politicians and wealthy oligarchs).

I can't think of any other modern, developed culture where people seem less cynical about the motivations of the rich and powerful, or more inclined to believe in the myths of the genius of the founding fathers, the exceptionalism of their destiny or the superiority their system above anyone else's.

Much of what's wrong with the US could be fixed if people would just get over themselves and how wonderful they were and start to address their flaws.

Nov 2, 2012

Why do some people say they listen to every kind of music, except country?

Because we do. :-) Though "every kind of music" is an exageration given the millions of types of music out there.

But I will say that any day of the week I will listen to dubstep, klezmer, electro-swing, frevo, ethiopian jazz, tango, IDM, juke, samba, reggaeton, Bollywood film music, English folk, Russian ballet, gypsy swing, 2-step garage, dark-wave, MPB, cumbia, old-skool jungle, impressionist piano music, backpacker hip-hop, ska, chanson, or dozens of rock, pop and hip-hop artists (though not *anything* in those genres) in preference to anything in the country genre. (Proof)

Mainly I don't listen to country because

a) I find it pretty tuneless. I'm not musically sophisticated enough to explain why. But I suspect when they handed out the chord sequences, country got landed with a fairly limited selection, and not the good ones.

b) nothing about the use of the instruments engages me. I love accordions. When they come from Argentina. How can music from the US make them sound so trite and lacking in drama? (And here I'm talking about the best of "country" music : Cajun)

c) I can't dance to it. (There's some awful hip-hop out there. Dire in almost every way. But at least the beat sets the pulse racing.)

d) My God! Those whiny voices!

e) Country is conservative with a small c as well as a big one. My father listened to it and I used to joke with him that lyrically it was all about adultery and homesickness. It's about a bit more, but it's still all about small pleasures, retreat into the home and community. I don't think I ever heard a country song about being excited by something. Or about an aspiration (either personal or political). Or about being intellectually stimulated.

f) Whenever people say country is breaking out of its straightjacket, it always seems to mean it's just becoming more like the worst of mainstream pop or rock - both of which are similarly dull.

Nov 3, 2012

What are some good songs?

I Will Survive.

Really. It's hard to think of another song that more perfectly captures and encapsulates the particular situation / emotion that it wants to describe. Both in terms of music and lyrics. Has an absolutely top tune. And is more or less impossible to fuck up. However badly you mangle it. It's always a party.

Nov 4, 2012

What are the best robot songs of all time?

Nov 7, 2012

What are some open source software solutions for alternative currency systems?

There are dozens. I know the guy behind this and that he's making steady progress. Good phone / SMS support.

Cclite Alternative Currency Software

Nov 7, 2012

What software engineering projects did Quorans undertake for their senior/junior projects at college?

I tried to build an elaborate physics model of articulated objects made of rigid beams connected by hinges - using Smalltalk. I had no understanding at all of mechanics or the correct physics models at the time. And I was a fairly novice OO programmer (in the late 80s before people had really started documenting and understanding patterns and stuff). So it was pretty much a mess.

Nov 8, 2012

What are the simplest things one can do to make oneself happier?

Different things work for different people.

Getting a bike, cycling to work, using my daily ride home to explore the city. These things brought me a great deal of new happiness at a time when I was pretty stressed and lacking confidence in myself.

Other simple things I'm pretty sure will work. Taking care of yourself physically. Get some exercise (but don't feel obliged to do something you don't want or can't fit in.) Drink more water. Have a good clean out of the junk from your home. (Or one room to start with.) Find a new social group or make a new connection. Start a new hobby. Hit the internet and find some new tuneful music : Grooveshark ...

Nov 8, 2012

Did humans invent gods?

No. God evolved.

Out of a lot of, probably hardwired, human tendencies to anthropomorphise different aspects of our experience of the world.

We didn't try to make him up. He sort of happened to us, as an inevitable byproduct of our evolving Theory of mind and social and linguistic capacities.

Nov 8, 2012

Gangsta Rap: Who is the most violent sounding rapper of all time?

Wu Tang have plenty of songs that sound like a bar-room brawl where Luther Strode just turned up.

Nov 10, 2012

Why are evangelical churches growing faster in Brazil than anywhere else in Latin America?

Som Bhatta is right :

1) Brazil has a lot of very very poor people looking for some hope / reassurance in life.
2) Brazil has a large, fast growing economy where you can make money if you find a good scam

Nov 10, 2012

Why do women believe in astrology so much more than men do?

Astrology purports to answer questions about relationships, particularly love, that are traditionally in the "woman's domain". Back in the days when Astrology was used to forecast the results of wars, men were pretty interested too.

If men's magazines started publishing horoscopes along the lines of "Virgo : This month you have a particularly high chance of getting lucky with Taurus and Gemini but due to the dual alignment of Venus and Pluto, if you can swing a Cancer she will blow your mind" you can bet that men would be lapping it up.

Nov 12, 2012

How would you explain the abortion debate to a 10 year old?

Some people think that human life begins when the egg is conceived and that killing the foetus at any time after conception is the murder of a human. Others believe that the developing foetus only becomes a real person after it has developed a brain with sufficient complexity and awareness, and before this it is not murder or wrong to terminate it but more like removing an unwanted organ.

People who are anti-abortion tend to be social conservatives who also believe that women have a particular role to play in society which includes bearing children and raising them at home. People who are in favour of abortion rights tend to be socially liberal and particularly concerned with the rights of women to escape being constrained by these traditional social roles.

Nov 13, 2012

How and why is the 'Gangnam Style' song such a worldwide hit?

It goes with everything ...

Nov 14, 2012

Is arguing with atheists a futile effort and a waste of time?

If you're both smart, logical people willing to listen and try to understand each other, then arguing can be very stimulating and productive. Don't assume that you're trying to "win" though.

If either side isn't like that. Or is unable to see that they're working from certain unquestioned assumptions, then it's likely to be more an essay in frustration.

Nov 14, 2012

What are some good rhetorical counter-punches (or just rhetorical punches) for a Christian who argues with an atheist?

Point out to the atheist that they may be conflating

a) science (which is a method for finding out about the world that pre-assumes that there are universal regularities)

b) material monism (which is a metaphysical presumption that only the materials and energies described by physics exist.)

Point out that nothing in a) the scientific method can say anything about whether b) holds or not. All the scientific method can do is talk about relationships between the materials it observes. It can't say anything about whether there are other things in metaphysics which aren't made of material / physics type stuff (and therefore not experimentable on)

[aside]At this point you may get drawn into some discussion of Occam's Razor. For example, "material monism" is simpler than a multiplicity of substances. Remind them that Occam's Razor is basically a heuristic for making evidence tractable and not something which *proves* anything. [/aside]

Point out that the materialist metaphysics has been defined as EXCLUDING something we all experience every second of the day. Ie. the first-person perspective on the world, the fact that the view out of my eyes is different from the view out of your eyes despite us sharing the same, single, material universe. Help the atheist see that this is massively embarrassing for materialism.

Point out that all attempts by materialists to answer this problem are laughably naive. They just wave their hands and label the mystery as "emergence". Or do that convoluted thing that Dennett does where he thinks that at a microscopic enough scale the distinction between subjective and objective breaks down.

Re-emphasize that this is utter bunk. Science is incapable of talking about subjective experience. So all claims that materialists make about how subjectivity arises in a material universe are, at best, philosophical speculation or, more commonly, "making shit up". No scientific rigour or credentials they have carry across into having any authority on this question whatsoever.

Remind them that they experience subjectivity every second of the day, and can't reason about their relationships with other people without relying on it.

If they're still having trouble following this through to its rational and logical conclusion help them along by explaining that, therefore, material monism is completely incompatible with every moment of experience we've ever had. You only have to wake up in the morning and open your eyes to be seeing a world with more in it than metaphysical monism allows is possible.

Seriously ... how could all these (allegedly) smart atheists have been so WRONG about that? And if they are so wrong, what else might they be wrong about?

Nov 16, 2012

Is USB Audio input a standard?

Update : I bought the item in question, and it turns out it works fine in Linux with Audacity. Indeed, it came with Audacity for Windows on a disk. And seems to work with a generic "USB Audio Device" driver in both operating systems.

Nov 17, 2012

Would you rather surround yourself with primarily good people, or primarily smart people?

I don't know whether I'm just fortunate, or discerning, but I've found that the two line up pretty well. Sometimes I look around at my friends and I'm amazed that I've managed to meet so many awesome people.

Nov 24, 2012

How do I explain the Israel-Palestine conflict to someone in one sentence?

It's a bloody mess, with wrongs on both sides, but as the Israeli government is the only political organization with any real agency here, the onus is on them to solve the problem by pulling out and giving the Palestinians an independent state; denying *all* Palestinians freedom to be citizens of their own country because *some* Palestinians are terrorists is tantamount to collective punishment.

Nov 25, 2012

What is the worst thing about being British?

Having non-British people fawn over the bloody Royal Family.

I DO NOT CARE. Don't try to talk to me about them!

Nov 27, 2012

Freedom: Consider property is equal to life (you spend life to gain property) -- Is it wrong then to value your property above the cloud of remaining humans?

The (standard Libertarian) equation of property with life is just wrong.

You can acquire property WITHOUT spending your life. Eg. if you inherit it. Or win it in a lottery. Even when you are spending your life to work to earn it, the amount of property your life corresponds to varies according to a whole diffuse, holistic context that includes how many rivals there are in the market, exchange rates etc. etc.

In fact, if Libertarians really believed that property equalled life they'd subscribe to some version of the Labor theory of value which, in practice, they utterly reject.

So they don't really believe it. The ONLY reason that Libertarians make the claim that property is equivalent to life is as a rhetorical trick to try to convince you that property rights should be elevated to the same moral status as humanist rights such as the right to life, health, freedom of speech etc.

My advice is just not to fall for the rhetoric. Life, health, freedom are a whole different kind of right than mere property. And, yes, it's wrong to prioritise the latter over the former.

Nov 29, 2012

What's the real reason for the drop in cash that Y Combinator now gives companies? What really precipitated this change? Were they not seeing the value for their money and wanted out?

Nov 29, 2012

Cultural Anthropology: Are there social milieus that feature noticeably less bullshit than is typically observed?


Dec 1, 2012

What ways did you think the internet would change your life, but hasn't?

I thought we'd have killed off professional media by now, and would all be reading citizen journalism, listening to creative commonsed music and watching funny YouTube videos instead of bad TV sitcoms.

Dec 3, 2012

If ghosts were proven to exist, would more people believe in gods? Wouldn't the existence of souls then open the door to the belief that god could exist?

If I remember, Christianity officially doesn't believe in ghosts. I suspect this would actually be more trouble for Christianity. (What do you mean these spirits are on Earth not in heaven / limbo / hell? How can that be?)

OTOH, the proof of disembodied spirits would do wonders for substance dualism and the anti-materialist concept of mind. So it may help.

Dec 8, 2012

What are the most interesting buildings in the world and why?

Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval - An extraordinary achievement. Read more about Ferdinand Cheval

Dec 9, 2012

Which year do you think Google+ will be killed?

It's unlikely to be killed any time soon. In my (anecdotal) experience it's used enough that it can't be seen as a failure. Even if it doesn't topple Facebook as the #1 social network it still has immense value for Google.

The evolving advertising market (Google's main business) requires that advertisers are given more and more information about the people who are seeing the ads. G+ is as much about consolidating and unifying Google's services (GMail, YouTube, Android, Play etc.) into a single user account as it is about letting people post personal details. Google don't have as intimate picture of you as Facebook does, but your G+ shares and YouTube preferences etc, probably give it plenty of information about your interests, affiliations and demographic classification. They won't change strategy to throw all that away.

Dec 12, 2012

What is the best music lyric, bar, beat, melody, composer, artist, album, guitar riff, bass line, drum beat, or solo you've ever heard and why do you like it?

Here's one I like so much that I made a site dedicated to it : The Sublime Loop

Dec 12, 2012

How might rock and metal music (guitars, bass, drum...) be compared with disco or electronic music (synthesizer)?

To my mind, the main difference is that rock (including metal) emphasizes a continuity with traditional musical virtues while disco and electronic have opened up new ways of thinking about music that break with tradition and create possible futures.

Rock is played live by musicians. Despite its novelties it grows out of traditional folkloric song structures. It uses simple, but recognisable, harmonic progression. It is almost always a song with lyrics, human sentiments etc. Not only is it BY musicians but it is largely FOR musicians. It emphasizes musicianly virtues.

Disco ushered in a new kind of music. Not made by (or for) musicians but made with the help of machines, largely for dancers. Much tradition could be selectively abandoned : including musicianly skill, traditional harmonic theory, song lyrics, familiar sentiments. This allows the music to explore a wider, stranger range of moods and messages than rock music can. In a sense, disco is "post-human", no longer tethered to the human experience through voice or the limits of the musicians body. For some people, this can make it feel cold and / or alien.

Rock looks backward, disco looks forward.

Dec 14, 2012

Who are some notable famous bald people?

The present King of France.

Dec 15, 2012

What does it feel like to not have values?

No idea whatsoever.

Dec 18, 2012

Who are some good comedians who are also lawyers?

Clive Anderson

(YMMV on the "good" part. I'm not particularly a fan, but he does successfully make jokes for a living.)

Dec 24, 2012

Brazil: What should I know before going to Carnaval in Salvador?

I don't think much of it.

Salvador has some nice traditional blocos (eg. Fillhos do Gandi, Olodum) but mainly carnival is horribly commercialized and racist. You get Trio Electrics (big floats) with what are effectively amplified pop bands playing on them and which have privatized the public streets. The rich white kids dance inside a zone marked out by a big rope that's carried by hundreds of poor black kids. You have to buy a ticket to get into that zone. The rest of the population are stuck outside it. Salvador is one of Brazil's blackest cities but carnival is a blatant display of white privilege.

Personally I much prefer Recife where, allegedly, Trio Electrics are banned. In Recife the music is played by marching bands / batteries of drummers, who walk through the streets and everyone is dancing together with no obvious separation of class or race. Frankly, the vibe is just more relaxed and fun.

Salvador doesn't even have a giant chicken :-)

Dec 25, 2012

Who are the leading verifiable sources of insight into the phenomena of emerging "global/planetary mind/brain"?

Dec 26, 2012

What are some of the most common misconceptions/myths about programming?

That the hard part of programming is figuring out the weird syntax.

The history of computer programming is littered with failed projects based on the idea that "if only we made a programming language that was like English, then everyone could do it and we wouldn't need programmers"

If you still think that the hard part of programming is the syntax, you are not even on the first rung of the ladder to enlightenment. What's actually hard is abstract thinking, designing algorithms, understanding a problem so well that you can turn it into instructions simple enough for a machine to follow.

All that weird syntax is nothing. It's not there to confuse the uninitiated. It's there in programming languages because it actually makes it easier for us to do the genuine hard work.

Do you know what English looks like when you try to make it really precise and unambiguous? It looks like law. Ever read the license agreements and legal disclaimers on the products you buy? Probably not. And that is still way too informal for a computer to make sense of. So imagine that you had to write something that currently comes out as a few thousand lines of C or Python but in English. It would take books and books of legalese-style writing. I guarantee you would hate that way more than figuring out what a few asterisks and curly brackets mean.

Dec 30, 2012

What are some upcoming technologies that will change the daily life?

Cheap (sub $50) drones (eg. Robot Dragonfly - Gaming & Photography is just the beginning)

We're totally unprepared for a world where everyone can afford to have an autonomous flying camera. With the intelligence of a smart-phone, a compass / GPS and built-in maps which let it always know where it is and an app-store / ecosystem of software suppliers to teach it new tricks.

What happens to privacy when every kid on your street has a couple of drones? When both police and criminals are packing swarms of them?

I've said elsewhere, physical security in government, schools, office-buildings, airports, military bases, nuclear power-stations etc. is entirely based on keeping out things that are the size and shape of a human being. What happens when a threat can be something with the size and behaviour of a small bird carrying a pen-drive or wifi-sniffing device, a microphone, camera or bomb?

Jan 14, 2013

Will humane robotics become a huge industry?

Caring robots have to become cheaper than people before they'll take off.

There are projected to be between 7 and 10 billion people in the near future. And they're pretty cheap, all things considered. Also, most people like to be cared for by other people.

So I'd expect technology to *augment* rather than replace carers in the near future.

What will certainly happen first is intensive monitoring technologies : sensors which are worn by, or embedded in the rooms and furniture of, people who need support. It will be easy for one nurse to monitor dozens of patients in a hospital or at their own homes in a district and to talk to them whenever they request.

Robotics will continue to develop within medical instruments. Most medical operations will be conducted by tiny robots, largely under the direct control of a surgeon, but with areas of increasing autonomy. Expect to see robot anaesthetists, machines which can painlessly take blood samples from an exposed arm, machines which can sew-up wounds. Not to mention extensive 3D printing of organs and to repair wounds. All these machines will be fronted by a caring and responsible human being.

Later, expect to see more machines that allow self-monitoring and even self-treatment turning up in the home.

Humanoid nurse-substitutes are likely to be fairly late arriving, if at all.

Jan 15, 2013

Why do some people get annoyed at those who want to make the world a better place?

None of the answers seem to actually address the real question about annoyance (and, by implication, dislike). I frequently come across people who have ideals and over-simplified views of the world that I disagree with with. But if I realise their intentions are good and that they honestly believe the things they believe I never become annoyed with them or dislike them for it. I may respectfully argue with them and try to get them to see the world for the more complex and messy place it is.

I reserve my annoyance and disdain for people who seem to delight in their own cynicism and are proud of their selfishness and anger towards others.

Jan 17, 2013

What do 3-D printers use as a base material?

The most common for the RepRap / hobby printers are ABS and PLA ( Polylactic acid which is good because it's made from plants and not petrol.)

More professional machines can use everything from starch to liquid resins to ceramics and concrete. Sintering (with a laser or concentrated light) can work with various powdered metals (titanium seems popular), sand (to make glass) or powdered plastics.

There's even a printable wood (

) though I guess it's really a sawdust in resin.

Jan 17, 2013

Do atheists ever think they could possibly go to hell?

Sure. It's rather like every time I get on the aeroplane I'm frightened it's going to crash.

Now, if I *really* believed it was going to crash, I wouldn't get on the aeroplane at all. I do get on the plane, so I clearly don't believe it will crash. But that doesn't mean I don't feel the fear.

Similarly, I feel the fear that I might be wrong and in for eternal damnation. It's thoroughly unpleasant. (Thanks Christians!) But if I *really* believed in hell, I'd believe the whole package and just be a Christian.

Jan 17, 2013

What causes a person to defend a concept in one venue, but argue against it in another?

Always :

It's a fun mental exercise. It forces you to be creative and understand different sides of a question.

Sometimes :

You're talking with people you agree with, but who are discounting the rationality of, or otherwise underestimating the intellect or goodwill of, your mutual opponents. In those situations you might want to argue "devil's advocate" to help the guy on your side understand the stength of the opponent's position.

Jan 18, 2013

Why doesn't Microsoft take a shot at the 3-D printer market?

It's largely out of their level of expertise and not big enough to spook them. I'd expect them to jump on the drone bandwagon first.

Who are / should be getting into 3d printing are Autodesk, Adobe, Corel, Serif etc.

Jan 20, 2013

What programming language is used to write 3D Printing software?

I've been writing design software in CoffeeScript. With OpenGL available from the browser and through libraries like three.js the browser is a great place to design 3D objects.

I'm rolling my own STL (which is still buggy) so it would be nice to have a professional library for that. But I think the browser is now perfectly acceptable for design.

Jan 23, 2013

What's the correct answer to "do you support our troops?"


This answer has the virtues of both truth and extreme moral clarity.

Look, if you sign up for a job which involves both a) killing people, and b) giving up your personal discretion over when you have to kill people and who you have to kill then you are basically a moral idiot. No one with a shred of ethical sensibility would delegate that decision to anyone else. (Least of all to the fucking government.) "Just following orders" wasn't an excuse for the Nazis and it's not an excuse for you.

Jan 24, 2013

When you learn that in community sometimes up to 25 people live in a house together, what questions come to mind about how they live?

How many toilets are there? How are they distributed? How do they get cleaned?

Jan 24, 2013

Can a cogent argument be made that abortion is immoral?


1) Foetuses are people.

2) Killing people is wrong

=> therefore killing foetuses is wrong.

That's got to be the default position you take. If you want to argue *against* abortion being wrong you have to take on either 1) or 2).

Jan 24, 2013

Why aren't comedians generally allowed to laugh at their own jokes?

Jokes are all about cognitive surprise. By definition a comedian isn't surprised by his / her own joke. So they aren't likely to have a genuine surprised look on their face as part of the laughter. If you can't have the genuine look, it's extremely dangerous to try to fake it because humans are very good at reading facial expressions, especially at detecting false ones.

An interesting contrast. Many TV shows used recorded laughter tracks. In one sense this is the equivalent of the comedian who laughs at his / her own joke. However we aren't evolved to have the same reaction against hearing recorded laughter as we are against seeing false laughter, hence TV seems to get away with it.

Jan 24, 2013

What can programmers learn from designers?

The horrible truth that most people in the world can't see behind the appearance of things.

Jan 24, 2013

Makers: What are some companies that can take over the selling/marketing/shipping of the kits you design?

Several 3D printing / laser cutting ones. Not really marketing, just letting you upload designs which they'll make and sell on demand.

Ponoko: 3D printing, laser cutting

Cubify :

Shapeways : Shapeways - Make & Share Your Products with 3D Printing

For a deeper relationship, say SparkFun Electronics sell electronics kits which are sometimes based on open-source designs. Interestingly they'll pay the designer a royalty on each kit sold even though the design is open-source.

SeeedStudio ( may be able to help with more commercially minded electronics projects.

Jan 24, 2013

Can a cogent argument be made that racism is moral?


Racism is a miasma that always surrounds us. It might be inescapable in the sense that our brains are always pattern-matching and making judgements based on similarities between things we know about and things we don't know about that appear "similar". Because of this, many cultural things that have infiltrated our minds, eg. seeing a lot of aggressive black males on TV, will trigger those pattern-matches, and we may be more inclined to imagine the next black male we see is aggressive than that the next white male is.

But none of this counts as moral justification.

Jan 24, 2013

Why weren't early BASIC interpreters structured?

I'd guess because the idea of structure was still fairly experimental. Eg. when Basic was invented in 1964, Algol had been defined and implemented but mainly as an "academic" language. The popular working languages were Cobol and Fortran which were similarly structureless.

I'm assuming here that structure means that you have function calls with arguments passed on a stack ... but actually I'm pretty hazy about all this.

Jan 25, 2013

Why don't we put more emphasis on learning by doing, rather than by reading?

I think computer programming is already taught like this.

When I was teaching a university course a few years ago we did most of our classes in the lab, and pretty much all of those sessions involved coding. The main reason for being in a classroom, when I was in a classroom was just the availability of the room.

A couple of times I'd have students doing exercises on paper, but most of the time they were in front of the computer.

Jan 25, 2013

Why does terminal text flow up rather than down when we read most other text top-down? Is there a strong usability reason?

Richard Careaga is right. Historically, typewriters and teletypes the paper scrolled upwards and interactive terminals copied that.

The interesting thing is that a whole bunch of new web-based software : originally blogs / RSS feeds, then Twitter and now Facebook et. al ... have all adopted the reverse ... the input box DOES come at the top and the history scrolls downwards.

I've been wondering for a while if this change in sensibility will jump back across to the terminal. I think it would make sense for someone to try it.

One advantage might be that switching between line-based histories and curses based text-mode apps. might feel more natural. Just as we're used to using the nav-bar in the browser to switch between both page-shaped things and feed-shaped things, maybe switching between scrolling histories and full terminal apps. like editors would feel smoother if we put the interactive line at the top.

Jan 28, 2013

What Should You Do If X: What should you do if a person insults and/or ridicules your favorite bands/artists/musicians?

Nothing. Why should I care?

Jan 31, 2013

Copyright Infringement: Why is there no "Pirate Bay" style website for academic papers?

Bittorrent is great for a) large files which b) lots of people have a copy of.

Academic papers aren't all that big and tend not to have a lot of readers. If you were planning to design a system for pirating academic papers you wouldn't use BitTorrent. I'd suggest that it should look more like music blogging sites. Write a blog post about 10 important papers in subject X and put a zip on YouSendIt etc.

Feb 5, 2013

What were people's reactions to seeing the Matrix (1999 movie) for the first time?

Bit boring. An OK comic-book-style action movie but too much emphasis on "stylishness" (black suits, slow-motion bullets and gun fetishism) and not enough compelling story-telling or characters.

Also a bit grim. Compare with Star Wars (my generation's mega-trilogy). Even at the height of Imperial oppression, the Star Wars universe is a place you'd want to live. It's beautiful and exciting. I couldn't imagine, as a kid, wanting, for one minute, to play at being in the dark, claustrophobic and banal Matrix world.

I also argued with my girlfriend who complained about all the new age, "what is reality?" mumbo jumbo. I patiently explained to her that this was a standard cliche in this genre and no-one would pay it any attention. Boy was I wrong about that one.

Feb 10, 2013

If 3D printing is set to be the next disruptive technology, what are some useful skills to invest in today that will pay off in the future?

This is something I'm trying hard to figure out from a programmer perspective. What software is going to be needed? Definitely 3D geometry and the appropriate efficient algorithms for working with and transforming meshes. I suspect programming that involves handling constraints.

I believe that a software attitude to 3D is going to bring us "thing" definition languages, not unlike HTML / CSS where you specify the basic logical structure of things eg. "this box has four sides, a base and a lid" or "this vehicle has four wheels" and an automated layout engine more or less fits it all together to be the right size. Then you'll use the equivalent of style-sheets to give further hints about the extra geometric constraints you want. "Make sure it fits together AND the sides are 4cm longer than the height". "Position the first pair of wheels 2 metres from the second." etc.

That's a way of thinking I imagine will become important. How to design in paramaterizable terms, so that people can buy models customized to their own requirements.

Feb 13, 2013

How does Leanpub work?

I've dabbled a bit with LeanPub and I'm very impressed by the pipeline they've built out of standard components like Dropbox and Markdown.

Leanpub let's you publish drafts of work-in-progress books as ebooks. The focus is on making them easy to keep up-to-date. When someone buys an ebook in progress, they automatically get the right to future updates.

From the author's perspective, you simply write your book in a number of simple text files using Markdown, without worrying about further formatting.

You keep your work in a Dropbox directory which is shared with LeanPub (hence LeanPub themselves always have access to the latest draft without any explicit uploading phase).

When you want to generate or publish your latest work, you simply press a button on the LeanPub website. This fires off their formatting process which shortly delivers a new version of the book as a PDF, EPUB and MOBI formats both to your shared Dropbox folder and, if the book is published, to subscribers.

What is really nice about this process is how easy it is to integrate it with other services. Basically anything that can read and write to a shared Dropbox folder. For example, the poet Mr Scribe has a master-hack whereby he scrapes the haikus he publishes on Twitter and assembles them into a semi-random, ever-changing ebook ( Butterflies and Sand ). Buyers know that every month, a new version of the book will arrive with new and re-arranged poems.

Feb 13, 2013

What are some new technologies or re-invented ones you'd like to see come into the world by 2020?

Printable electronics. It's close, we're ironing out the problems.

I want to see smart-phone level portable computing with touch-screens and e-ink, powered by on-board solar-cells, costing < $10. Printable electronics, screens and solar-cells can get us there.

Feb 18, 2013

Why do some Christians and other theists lean so heavily on the origin of the universe ("creation") as proof of the existence of their deity, rather than evidence of the deity's presence in the world today?

Seems Curtis Lindsay got here before me.

OK. Aristotle answered this question over 2000 years ago. When we look for understanding of things, we look at four different kinds of "causes" (Four causes )

Religion, as a framework for explaining the world needs to deal with all four of these causes, including the third, the "efficient" or "moving" cause or how the thing came to be. (It does also address 1, 2 and 4)

Why should the religious focus on this particularly? Partly because there comes a point at which all our alternative explanations fail. For example, we have great scientific explanations about why the tide comes in and goes out. We only have fairly weak speculations about where the universe comes from or why. The religious rightly realise that they aren't at quite such a hopeless disadvantage to science when it comes to explaining why the universe exists as they are at explaining the tide. Everyone wants to fight the battle where the terrain is most favourable.

Feb 22, 2013

Will the world be a better or worse place in 20 years?

What Richard Fawal said : the question is "from whose perspective?"

For many people in the world, the climate will have got worse. Extreme weather,
droughts and floods will be playing havoc with their ability to feed themselves.

Food prices will be trending upwards despite new advances in biotechnology, because land suitable for growing will be diminishing.

The wealthy, in all parts of the world, will have greater opportunities to protect themselves from these trends. They'll have a larger share of the wealth and greater freedoms to use the increased technology and productivity to make their lives more pleasurable and interesting. Everyone else will be busy firefighting, faced with unstable economies, insecure jobs, unstable weather and periodic resource crunches.

Feb 25, 2013

Given unlimited funding, could people build a free-standing statue a kilometre high?

If it was shaped like a very large pyramid, yes.

Feb 26, 2013

What are the coolest artificial intelligence companies (startups or otherwise?)

Personally, I think the coolest company on Earth has to be Festo.

Of course, Festo are more about bio-inspired engineering and artificial muscles than what we think of as AI. (Abstract, reasoning, information processing, calculation etc.)

But actually the most striking developments in AI in the next 10 years or so are going to be in robotics. My bet is that we'll continue the re-evaluation of the field that began with people like Rodney Brooks, and start to see that a well engineered and integrated physical body is as much part of "intelligence" as symbolic computation. This "physical intelligence" will include bodies that are not merely fantastically well engineered and smooth actuators, but composed of multiple layers of sensors, and localized tight-feedback loops.

The most exciting and cutting edge AI research will be in designing such complex "subsumption architectures" consisting of multiple layers of sensors and actuators that add up to sophisticated bodily behaviour and interaction with the human world.

Feb 28, 2013

How are programming design patterns harmful?

Design patterns are context specific. They've appeared in particular languages, on particular systems, for particular types of applications. A pattern might even require subtly different expression in different parts of the same program.

Good design patterns document their context and rationale. To understand them is to understand WHEN they're relevant. Problems come when people lose sight of when and why they are important and start applying them out of context, simply because "you're meant to use the X pattern".

Mar 2, 2013

What have Quora users used Fiverr for?

Having a tune a tune I wrote mastered. Certainly a fiver's worth of improvement in the sound.

Two things I've tried to use Fiverr for and failed. To get someone to take a photo for me of a wooden marble run in a wilderness / garden setting. I've also asked someone who does HTML / CSS work if he thought that a small amount of CSS for a web-page was within a $5 scope. He didn't reply. Maybe it wasn't.

Mar 15, 2013

Is it possible for great thinkers like Leonardo da Vinci, Karl Marx, Noam Chomsky and Paul Graham to come from outside the top tier U.S. universities? If so, how?

In general, all the thinkers you have mentioned came out of some kind of historically significant intellectual community. Leonardo da Vinci was in Florence during the renaissance. Marx studied and got his doctorate from good German universities in the aftermath of Kant and Hegel. Chomsky comes from the US academic elite. Paul Graham is certainly smart, well educated, and deliberately moved from the no. 2 centre of startup culture (Boston) to the no. 1 centre (Silicon Valley) because he is such a strong believer in the importance of context.

Based on them, you'd have to assume that answer is "no". It doesn't have to be "top tier U.S." universities, but it certainly has to be some of the leading institutions for whatever you are trying to do.

Frankly, if you're not in some sort of community, you have problems. I was going to suggest Satyendra Nath Bose as a model. But then I saw on Wikipedia he was taught by Jagadish Chandra Bose who, himself, had been educated in London (the wealthiest and most important city in the world at the time.)

Mar 20, 2013

What are the most important programming languages to learn right now and going forward?

Functional Reactive Programming (FRP) is likely to be where it's at in the next few years.

Right now, manually handling call-backs for communications between model and view, between different processes, or between different machines on the network, is rather like manually handling memory allocation / de-allocation in the days before garbage collection.

We're starting to see various approaches to try to hide that complexity. Particularly in browser and web frameworks like Meteor, Angular.js etc. These definitely signal the desire to push callback management under the programmer's horizon of things to have to pay attention to.

Elm-Lang ( seems like a good example of a language which has FRP baked in as the solution to all varieties of this problem. I'm not 100% sure that it's going to be the next big language (Haskell syntax and conventions might be a bit too alien) but it's my current (2013) language to get to grips with, because even if it doesn't win out, I'm fairly sure that the ideas it contains ARE going to become majorly important.

Mar 22, 2013

Why isn't Microsoft “cool”?

Microsoft "sold-out". They tailored their product to appeal to the mainstream.

Mar 25, 2013

What is it like to downgrade from a smartphone to a feature phone?


All smart-phones I've had have been a worry, expense (when I lost them) and rarely did I need their capabilities.

I now have the cheapest Samsung phone I can find. It fits into my trouser pocket, is lightning fast, battery lasts almost a week, and I feel as connected as I need to be. I've dropped it several times without problems.

Caveats : I carry a FiloFax ( for making notes, todo lists, to write down new contacts etc. And I do a lot of work from home (and so am online using my laptop most of the day). YMMV.

Mar 27, 2013

Which side is right in the Israel-Palestine conflict?

If you're looking for a simplistic story of an evil aggressor vs. an innocent and virtuous victim then you're out of luck. Neither is "right" in that sense. Both sides have retreated into an antipathy for the other which ranges from total distrust to abject hatred. Both sides can legitimately claim that their lives have been made a misery by the other. And among both peoples you can find a wish that the other be blasted off the face of the earth.

However, there are two things you can say.

1) It is an injustice that every Palestinian grows up not as a free citizen of a state but as a non-citizen under a kind of martial law.

2) The only AGENT in this conflict is the Israeli government. The Israeli government a) directs its military, b) has the fire-power to enforce the borders that it chooses to enforce, c) is, in practical terms, invulnerable to any threat from the Palestinians or Arab neighbours, d) can be clearly identified with the will of its people through its democratic process.

The situation for the Palestinians is the opposite. They are divided into two regions, with different and competing "governments" neither of which can really claim to speak for all Palestinians when it makes deals. Those who attack Israel are not directly controlled by these governments : some work for Hamas, some for the PLO, some for other terrorist organizations, some for criminal gangs. Many are just pissed-off civilians throwing rocks. None of the Palestinian violence has ANY practical possibility of shifting the borders by force. They can't even stop the Israelis extending settlements into the disputed zones. There is no single and responsible agent there.

As a result, there is no sense that this can be resolved through some kind of agreement or deal between "equals". This is not a negotiation between two agents, who both have the power and responsibility to make concessions. Thinking with this model has given us the last 30 years of impasse.

The problem that Israel faces with Palestinian terror is closer to the US's absurd and cynical "War on Drugs" or the problems of "gang-warfare". In the US (and Europe) militarising the ghetto with regular aggressive police attacks on its oppressed and dispossessed residents has done nothing to resolve the drugs "problem" nor reduced gang-related crime. Israel's occupation is just the same thing written larger.

Israelis who feel themselves to be victims, and their cheerleaders in the US who are more concerned with signalling their political purity than resolving the problem, won't admit this, but the only agent with the power and THEREFORE the moral responsibility to end the problem is the Israeli government. If Israel pulls out of the territories, completely, leaving the Palestinians free to create their own state - or perhaps 2 states, given the physical separation of the two - this won't immediately undo the 60 years of pain and animosity. It won't resolve all Palestinian claims against Israel. It won't suddenly make the Palestinians feel sweetness and love towards Israel. They'll continue to hate it. But it WILL begin a process of healing and normalizing Israel's relations with its neighbours.

Start on this road and in another 30 years, there might be the chance of genuine peaceful coexistence. Stick to the current plan of posturing, refusing to negotiate until you think you've won the concessions you want (a piece of paper that "acknowledges the right of Israel to exist"? Think how vacuous such a treaty would be in practice given that neither Hamas nor the PA fully represent or control the Palestinian people) and in 50 years time we'll still be in the same place.

Except worse because in 50 years time society will have been transformed by the proliferation of drone technology. Either, in the attempt to keep the population under control, Israel will have been led to impose an Orwellian solution of positioning robot observers in every Palestinian home and flying them along behind every Palestinian youth. Or the Palestinian terrorist will have replaced rockets with autonomous drones able to range independently for weeks within Israeli territory before suddenly popping up and killing people. Most likely we'll see an arms race between both tendencies, and a tragic continuation of the waste of lives, wealth and happiness of both peoples.

So neither side is "right". But Israel has the opportunity and responsibility to try to bring it to an end and to create peace and happiness for both peoples. Magnanimity is a winning strategy available to it. Palestinian leaders have no such option. They can't proclaim an acceptance of Israel without looking like they've betrayed their people for a hand-me-down personal power.

Apr 2, 2013

When do pro-choice adherents believe life begins? It seems that most pro-choice adherents would say the point where abortion becomes immoral (or even murderous) would be well before the actual moment of birth, but if not conception or birth, when?

It's not a question when "life" begins. It's when independent personhood begins. Your appendix is "alive" inside you but it's not an independent person. When you take it out you aren't killing anyone.

Same with the foetus. It has life processes inside it, but it isn't a person.

When does it become a person? It's not a single point in time but a gradual dawning of self-consciousness. It doesn't really finish until long after the child is born and using language to communicate, but I'm willing to be conservative here and assume that birth is the point where the child clearly has a kind of independence from the mother in that other people can start to provide for its material needs.

Apr 2, 2013

Do people who support abortion rights believe anti-abortionists have a valid point?

I'd say that they may have an intelligible point. And one which is potentially motivated by good will and ethical beliefs. But no, not a valid one.

Apr 2, 2013

What are the most common failure modes of complementary currency projects?

From what I've heard, thinking within the LETS community is that manually keeping the accounts is too much work. There seem to be a lot of anecdotes of LETS systems that got started and were building up momentum when founder "Jane" was keeping the books. But when she died or left town, no-one was willing to take over the responsibility.

Apr 7, 2013

Is it time for us to dump the OOP paradigm? If yes, what can replace it?

Programming languages used to be one-trick ponies ... they could be "procedural", "functional", "OO", "declarative" etc.

Increasingly, modern languages tend to be a mix of good and useful ideas from all these paradigms. They do objects, but functions are first class citizens and don't need to be "escorted" by objects. "Declarative" thinking is sneaking in via type-systems and Functional Reactive Programming etc.

OO won't disappear from that mix, it's still useful for certain kinds of data modelling. But people are becoming more comfortable with mixing their paradigms, even within a single program.

And you no longer hear is people going around saying "Language X is better than Language Y because it's purely OO." (Ie. everything has to be in a class.) It's hard to believe but people used to see that as a feature.

So the future is not a new paradigm as much as a break-down of the distinctions between paradigms.

Apr 7, 2013

What are the coolest robots in the world?

Festo, Smart Bird

Apr 7, 2013

If C and C++ give the best performance, why do we still code in other languages?

1) Programmer time (and sanity) is usually more important than computer time.

2) Once you get into parallel / multi-core programming, languages that help parallelize algorithms can be way faster than a C++ program which you haven't parallelized because it's too damned hard.

Apr 7, 2013

What arguments have been used to support the statement that human beings will never be able to unlock the mystery of consciousness?

Your first problem is the term "mystery" of consciousness. Consciousness is totally familiar to you. It's there when you wake up in the morning and with you until you go to sleep. What's mysterious about it? Nothing.

What's mysterious about consciousness is only that it's incompatible with our materialist presumptions about the world. That's not consciousness's fault, that's the fault of material science. It's basically been set-up to fail when it comes to talking about consciousness because consciousness is subjective and science is designed as inter-subjective.

The biggest problem for materialism that I see is the "symmetry breaking" problem. That is, there is only one material universe, but your consciousness - your view from somewhere - is associated with a particular person in a particular body.

How is that symmetry broken? To repeat, there is ONLY ONE PHYSICAL UNIVERSE. For everyone. So what breaks the symmetry and makes your perspective look out of your eyes and not out of my eyes? What links your consciousness to your physical body can't itself be one of those shared physical facts.

At this point it might sound like I'm going to start talking about souls or somesuch spooky stuff. But I'm not. I'm happy that our intelligence, our feelings, our perceptions all emerge out of the physicality of our bodies. BUT I think we have a problem with this because we've basically been too restrictive in our definition of science. We've excluded individual perspective from it (for the good reason that we wanted to investigate laws that were universal) and in doing so, come up with a vocabulary / conceptual framework which can NEVER grasp or explain the existence of subjectivity.

tl;dr; Consciousness is neither mysterious nor immune to rigorous analysis (see Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty) but right now, we don't have a way to reduce it to our materialist world-view. The problem is neither that consciousness is "mysterious" or non-existent. The problem is that the materialist world-view is inadequate.

Apr 7, 2013

In what ways can the combination of 3D printing, Arduino, and MYO change the world?

Hundreds of ways.

The most obvious is that the Arduino is the brain inside dozens of home-built 3D printers. Arduino makes the "drive this from a microcontroller" WAY easier than any other technology.

The culture / knowledge / ecosystem growing around Arduino is inspiring thousands of projects and thousands of new hackers to engage with the world as a programmable thing. The conscience that the web created : that any small startup with a great idea and drive could transform the world is now being spread to people who want to engage physical stuff. This is about more than putting factories out of work, this about radically expanding the number of people who want to design and make products. As those people move on from the basic electronics of their product they start to think about the shell / body / physical mechanics too, the 3D printer lets them prototype and maybe even manufacture (in small quantities) these.

The MYO may or may not be revolutionary in itself. To be honest, the video looks cool but a bit banal in the applications it imagines. Plus I'm guessing that the MYO will have a massive problem distinguishing intentional bodily movements from unintentional ones. Notice that even in the video, the people using it seem to be unnaturally static and controlled in the rest of their body.

But I'd say it IS representative of a massive trend. The move of computing into the physical world, and our interaction with it via our bodies. This may have all kinds of consequences. For example, people will need to do a lot less sitting behind desks at keyboards. Perhaps more of us will be able to work / engage with the sphere of information processing using our full bodies, outdoors, which will have benefits for fitness and health.

Apr 8, 2013

What are some extremely sophisticated lyrical themes unexpectedly found in mainstream pop songs?

Apr 8, 2013

How did you get started with Java programming?

I've never had a good relationship with Java.

My first OO experience was with Smalltalk. And that spoiled me for the whole C++ / Java family of strongly typed, compiled OO languages.

Because I'd learned Smalltalk and this new fangled OO thing when it was still relatively new (in the sense of the late 80s!) I thought I had it sussed. But actually I had very little clue. I enthusiastically grabbed the first C++ compiler I could get my hands on and proceeded to spend 10 years writing dreadful programs in C++ and then Java. I had assumed that the OOness of both these languages made them as flexible as I remembered Smalltalk to be. I thought that OO was the reason for Smalltalk's elegance and that C++ and Java automatically had the same magic.

Instead I created bloated frameworks of dozens of classes (down to ones handling tiny data fragments that would have been much better as structs or arrays). I wrote hugely brittle inheritance hierarchies. And then would spend 3 months having to rewrite half my classes, just to be able to pass another argument through a chain of proxies, or because somewhere in the depths of objects nested inside objects inside objects I found I needed a new argument to a constructor. The problem was, I was programming for scientific research and in industry but I hadn't really been taught how to do this stuff in C++ or Java. I had no knowledge of the emerging Pattern movement. Terms like "dependency injection" probably hadn't even been invented.

I was very frustrated. And the funny thing I started to notice was that when I had to write in other languages : Perl, Javascript, Visual Basic (Classic), even C, I made progress much faster. Without trying to model everything in class hierarchies I found I just got on and got the job done. Everything flowed much faster and more smoothly.

Perl's objects looked like the ugliest kludge, and yet I used them happily on occasion. In small simulations C structs did most of what I wanted objects to do for me (and I did finally get my head around malloc, though I never really wrote big C programs). And I had no idea what the hell was going on with Javascript arrays, but I wrote some interesting, very dynamic, cross browser games in js (this is 1999) using a bunch of ideas I'd seen in Smalltalk years before (MVC, a scheduler, observer patterns etc.) and it just came out beautifully.

It wasn't until the 2000s that I started to find and read a lot of discussions online about programming languages, their features, strength and weaknesses. And so I began my real education as a programmer. Before this, a lot of the concepts like static and dynamic typing were vague to me. I mean, I knew that some languages you had to declare variables with a type and in some you didn't. But it never really occurred to me that this actually made a big difference to what it was like to USE a language. I just thought that it was a quirk of dialect and that good programmers took these things in their stride. I assumed that OO was a kind of step-change up from mere procedural languages, but the important point was the ability to define classes and make multiple instances of them. Polymorphism was a very hazy term. I had no real intuitions about how it related to types or how to use it to keep a design flexible.

Then, in 2002 I had a play with Python. And that turned my world upside-down.

For the first time, I fell in love with a programming language. (Or maybe the first time since Smalltalk, which was more of a crush).

Python made everything explicit. Suddenly it was clear what things like static vs. dynamic typing meant. That they were deep, crucial differences. With consequences. That the paraphernalia of OO were less important than all the other stuff. That the fussy bureaucracy of Java, the one class per file, the qualified names, the boilerplate, was not an inevitable price you had to pay to write serious code, but a horribly unnecessary burden.

Most of all, Python revealed to me the contingency of Java. In the small startup where I'd been working, I had argued vehemently against rewriting our working TCL code-base in Java just because Java was OO and TCL wasn't. I thought this was a waste of our time and unnecessary extra work. I'd lost the argument, the rewrite had taken place, and I hated now having to do web-stuff with Java. Nevertheless, I still accepted the principle that Java was the official, "grown up" way to do this stuff. Of course you needed proper OO architecture to scale to larger services, to "the enterprise". Ultimately the flexibility and convenience of mere "scripting" languages would have to be sacrificed in favour of discipline. (I just didn't think we or our clients needed that kind of scaling yet.)

What Python showed me was we weren't obliged to choose. That you could have "proper" OO, elegant, easy to read code, classes, namespaces, etc. which let you manage larger frameworks in a disciplined manner and yet have it in a language that was light-weight enough that you could write a three line program if that's what you needed. Where you didn't need an explicit compile phase. Or static typing. Or verbosity. Or qualified names. Or checked exceptions. What I realised was that Java was not the inevitable way to do things, but full of design decisions that were about disciplining rather than empowering the programmer.

And I couldn't stomach it further. Within a few months of discovering Python I had quit my job. Every time I opened my machine and tried to look at a page of Java I felt literally nauseous. I couldn't stand the difference between the power and excitement I felt writing my personal Python projects, and the frustration and stupidity I felt trying to make progress in Java. My tolerance for all Java's irritations fell to zero. Failing to concentrate I would make hundreds of stupid errors : incompatible types, missing declarations or imports, forgetting the right arguments to send to library methods. Every time I had to recompile I would get bored and start surfing the web. My ability to move forward ground to a halt.

I was so fucking happy the day I finally stopped being a Java programmer.

Postscript :

1) Something I realized a while after my bad experience was how important the tools are. My period in Java hell was trying to write with Emacs on a small-screen laptop without any special Java tools (except basic Java syntax colouring). I realize this is far from the ideal condition to write Java and that those who are used to Eclipse or IntelliJ have a totally different experience and understanding of the language.

2) A few years later, I taught the OO course in the local university computer science department. All in Java. By that time, I'd read a couple of Pattern books. Read Kent Beck's eXtreme Programming. Picked up some UML. And I had a much better idea what Polymorphism really means, how to use Interfaces to keep designs flexible, and why composition is better than inheritance. I tried to get the students to do a fair amount of thinking about and practising refactoring code, doing test driven development etc. It all seemed quite civilized, but I'm still happy I'm not writing Java every day.

3) A couple of years ago I did do quite a lot of Processing. I was very impressed how the people behind it managed to take a lot of the pain of Java away from novice programmers. I wonder how far their approach could be taken for other domains.

Apr 8, 2013

Why do rappers love putting skits on their albums or in songs?

Unlike a lot of musical genres, which focus on "musicianship" and playing instruments etc. Hip-hop is an art-form of "recording technology". This goes beyond the sense of people like Phil Spector or Brian Eno "treating the studio as an instrument", which is ultimately, still an "instrument" : just a polytimbral one.

Public Enemy's characterisation of rap as "Black CNN" is closer to the mark. Hip-hop is as much related to the art of radio as it is to musicianly concerns. Tropes from TV and film are as valid as tropes from jazz or rock. Rappers do skits the way a band may choose to add strings to a ballad. It's another element of the vocabulary of the art-form.

Apr 10, 2013

What is the most colorful way to die?

I would guess being smashed up by a Mantis Shrimp

Why the mantis shrimp is my new favorite animal

Apr 11, 2013

Will you "dance on Margaret Thatcher's grave"? (Are you celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher?) Why or why not?

I was almost swayed by the argument that at least you should respect the feelings of the family. And then I remembered who the family actually were. Whose feelings am I meant to worry about again? The obnoxious racist D-list celebrity Carol? Or the tax-dodging loan-shark who was found guilty of trying to start a war in Africa, Mark?

Apr 13, 2013

Is There a 3D Wood Carving Service Online?

If you're talking about laser or CNC cutting of wood in 2D then yes. Ponoko will do laser cutting and there are people like CNC Workshop (CNC Cutting For Creatives In London) for architectural size stuff.

I'm not sure where 100K Garages ( Where projects are made by digital fabricators (fabbers) working with 2-D or 3-D digital fabrication tools ) are these days. But if you can find one of them, you might be able to get CNCing done.

Apr 20, 2013

History of Great Britain: What are the best sources to learn about egalitarian ideas in England during and after the English Civil War?

Apr 20, 2013

Why is it acceptable for Mongolia to name its main airport after Genghis Khan, but it is not acceptable for Germany to name its main airport after Adolf Hitler?

I'm surprised no-one else went for this answer so I guess I'll raise it :

Genghis Khan's evil was a product of his time and culture in a way that Hitler's wasn't.

Khan might have been bloodier and more ruthless than some of his rivals, but sacking a city and slaughtering its civilian inhabitants was a norm of the time. Read some of the accounts of the Crusades. Or other fighting within the Muslim / Asiatic world. Persians did it. Turks did it. French and English knights did it.

Hitler, on the other hand, should have known better. He was the product of late 19th Century Christian, European civilization. Leader of one of the most technologically and culturally sophisticated nations that had ever existed. Someone who'd seen the pointlessness and pain of the first world war at first hand.

His evil is stunningly original and innovative. Totally breaking with the norms of European politics and warfare of the time. Neither Napoleon nor Bismarck would have dreamed of pulling a stunt like that.

Khan left his empire in high regard. Hitler obliterated any belief that Germans or Europeans could have in their own moral worth.

Update : This turned up in my feed today : The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking Seems relevant.

Apr 24, 2013

What is the most hauntingly beautiful instrumental guitar composition you've ever heard? I'm looking for songs without lyrics here - just the pure unbridled sound of guitar strings being strummed to perfection.

Circus Boys, original sound-track.

I guess this comes second :

Apr 24, 2013

3D Printing: Do you think that investing 30 million in Shapeways was a good long term move?

My personal belief is that one obvious way that 3D printing is going to play out is that it will be bought by major online retailers. Shapeways is definitely worth 30 million to someone like Amazon who can slot on-demand fabrication and a design library as one more product range behind their standard online shopping interface and start to reduce supply-chain and squeeze out some of their suppliers, much as their self-published ebook service now challenges traditional publishers.

So, if this investment is with an eye to selling on to Amazon (or Walmart) at a later date then it might well be worth it.

If you plan to build-up Shapeways as a serious independent fabrication facility then you need to acquire those retail chops. Unlike Facebook and Google which kind of sell themselves, I don't think 3D printing will ever be "viral" in the sense that one customer pulls in another.

So you have to decide, are you selling one-offs to end-consumers? Or fabrication facilities to small-run independent designers / product startups who handle the customer relationship? You'll need to develop different capabilities for the two scenarios. And you'll need to be prepared for when Amazon does come into the market. Shapeways + 30 million may or may not be able to do that. From what I've seen, they're doing a lot of right things so I don't want to rule them out. But it's a challenge to stop being a niche player for the maker community and to go mainstream.

Apr 25, 2013

What is Britain's worst contribution to the world?

A lot of our contributions have been fairly ambiguous. For example, if we manage to trash our food-web and drive humanity extinct due to climate change, then the industrial revolution will have turned out to be Britain's worst contribution. But most people still feel fairly positive about it at the moment.

Apr 25, 2013

How would you define the genre that Andrew Bird's Yawny at the Apocalypse falls into? What are some songs like it?

In my collection it would go in the "Cinematic and Soundtrack" section. Because it's very film-music-like. Don't know if it is from a film or not.

If you like this, you might also like :

This one's a bit left-field :

Apr 25, 2013

How much do the political leanings of a band or genre influence how much you like them?


I loved Consolidated in their day. And there's no question that the in-your face political ranting was part of their attraction.

On the other hand, today, I also love Current 93. Who are probably not far-right fascists, but have certainly hung around a scene that flirts with fascist imagery and contains people who have been involved in far-right politics.

Now, if Current 93 were a full-on fascist band with explicit lyrics advocating right-wing themes I definitely couldn't like or listen to them. Much as I won't listen to or support bands with blatant misogyny or homophobia in their lyrics. (Though yes, I sometimes waver at Jamaican ragga which is musical genius and where I can pretend not to understand what it says.)

But as C93 is basically an unworldly religious mystic with a nice line in apocalyptic imagery that just happens to draw on the apoliteic, I can kind of rationalise being a fan. (Without believing or supporting anything that the lyrics might be talking about.)

So if you're entertaining enough, and I can just about pretend you don't really believe the things you might be saying, then I can still like you. But otherwise, you've gotta be reasonably left-ish, liberal-ish for me to relate to your music.

Apr 25, 2013

Are there any musicians whose real identities are hidden?

Burial tried to stay anonymous for a fair while. Not sure if the media successfully outed him yet.

Apr 25, 2013

Does music suck now, or are we just getting older?

Every now and then I get bored. Everything exciting seems to have been done. All the new stuff is just an inferior copy of the old stuff.

Then, guaranteed, a couple of years later, kids come along with something totally unexpected which excites me all over again. I can usually see some kind of parallels and influence from earlier stuff, but they'll have hit on a new blend / formula which makes it identifiable as NOW. And suddenly music is awesome again.

Apr 28, 2013

What are the top 10 most important TV/movie tropes aspiring storytellers should know about?

Not sure I understand what a "trope" is, but I'd suggest the 3-act play / film-script is fairly important :

Act 1 : introduce ALL important characters / background. Present your protagonist with a problem.

End of act 1, 1st turning point : have the protagonist attempt to solve the problem in a way which initially appears to work, but actually fails and, exacerbates the problem.

Act 2: Now have your protagonist face the harder problem. During this act, you pass the "point of no return", an incident which shows that the protagonist has been changed irrevocably by the problem and is a different, more experienced, person.

End of act 2, 2nd turning point, a climax where the protagonist confronts the problem and seems doomed to fail, but actually manages to solve it (preferably in a way which is both a) surprising to the audience, b) consistent with the new person he or she became)

Act 3 : the repercussions. Show the implications of the problem and its solution. Its effects on the characters and world.

Apr 28, 2013

What's the underground electronic music scene like in Buenos Aires?

No idea, but you should check out Tremor : Tremor Music

Particular the first album : Landing (which mysteriously doesn't seem to be mentioned on their site or on the Internet).

And ZZK Records

Apr 28, 2013

Is Mathematics and Science itself threatened by closed source, black box products like Mathematica?

I think there's a real issue with the black-boxness of proprietary software.

Although I agree with Hongwan Liu that, in practice, many users don't check, the fact that something is checkable in principle is an important property of the whole system.

Of course proprietary software does have weaknesses. And we can even check some of them eg. Page on Drexel. But, as that link shows, market forces don't always correct errors. It's much easier if the source is open.

May 2, 2013

Is there any documented and successful strategy against corruption at government level?

Transparency International : the global coalition against corruption Is one of the main independent NGOs trying to address this problem.

I think their methodology is interesting. Not the only approach you might want to use, but a valid one to try.

May 6, 2013

What are the best ways for a complete beginner to learn functional programming? Which language should he/she opt for?

Probably depends a lot on your personality. I'm not a purist.

Although I'd been told about it lots of times, I basically started getting the idea of higher order functions and playing with the principle through using Python.

It's hardly pure functional, but you can do a lot of cool stuff with functions in Python. Enough to get a taste for the style of programming.

May 8, 2013

What can be done to improve the human race?

Humans are very flexible creatures. Our brains and hands, tools and language have let us occupy and thrive in more types of terrain, eat more kinds of food etc. than most species.

We live in many different institutions, under different political regimes, with different kinds of work, education, religion, culture. What we can see is there's a huge difference made by these institutions.

One quick and easy way to improve humanity is to figure out the "right" institutions and cultures and adopt them.

May 11, 2013

What features do you wish Facebook had?

Genuine privacy (as in Facebook don't get to analyse your life and pass the data on to whoever they like)

May 11, 2013

Why don't more programmers use Haskell?

Q : Huh? What's a monad?

A: Go and read this.

Q : Still not sure I get it. What exactly is a monad?

A: Well, perhaps try this.

Q : WTF?

A : OK. Well what about this?

Q : Huh????

A : Hmmm .... OK. So how about if I just say that ...

Q : Fine. I'll use Python. It does almost everything else Haskell does (it even looks like it) but doesn't make me think about monads.

May 15, 2013

If Ruby is such a fun programming language to work with, why are there not a lot more web frameworks in Ruby?

Rails got traction early. And was the reason why many people got into Ruby.

So a lot of Ruby programmers are de facto Rails programmers.

The situation is different in Python where people got into it for a wider variety of reasons, then realized they could / should use it for the web, and went off to create their web-frameworks.

May 15, 2013

Is there a lot of overlap in programming knowledge?

For all values of n ... your n+2th language is easier to learn than your n+1th language. Except where two languages are trivially similar.

May 15, 2013

What are the ways to excel in programming, given having only a little knowledge of coding so far, and because I should have started two years ago but did not, is it too late for me to become an excellent one?

Write lots of programs. It's as simple as that.

It's not too late to become a great programmer. But there is no short-cut that avoids doing a lot of programming. (Eg. you can't read books or websites as a substitute). Just get off Quora and start writing programs.

May 17, 2013

Prove that God is not always watching?

OK. Did it.

Prove that my proof is wrong :-P

May 17, 2013

Is Secular Humanism a religion?


Depends how you want to define "religion" of course. If you just mean "belief system" or something that people can get dogmatic about then you could call it that. But I'd bet that most people hearing the word "religion" will think of something that involves a belief in the spiritual / anti-material in some way.

May 17, 2013

How do men feel about glasses on a woman? Why?

This is a survey question, right?

For my taste. Damn! Yes!

May 17, 2013

Is Britain a secular nation?

Officially no. The Anglican church is part of the government in a way which would be unthinkable even in the US : Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords

May 22, 2013

Why do so many people fail at dressing well?

The fashion industry is largely focused on young, sexy, mainly girls, who conform to particular ideals of body shape. Even though most people don't quite have that body shape, those are the clothes that sell most. So this is where the energy goes : both in terms of design but also marketing and education.

I'm a 43 year old endomorphic man. The nearest thing I can find to clothes that a) I think look good, b) society thinks look good, c) fit me, d) don't cost half a year of my income in Savile Row is a pair of jeans and a t-shirt with a nice picture / slogan.

If tailors made affordable and practical shirts that accorded to your criteria of dressing well while simultaneously covering my girthy frame and had cool pictures of wolves to boot, then I'd be down with them. Tailors never seem to make such things though :-( Maybe you should ask them why not.

May 22, 2013

Are there any organisms that can withstand/live in extremely high heat? Is it possible for life to exist in the Sun?

Joshua Engel is probably (boringly) right. But I've always been partial to the idea that fire itself actually fits some of our more abstract scientific attempts to pin-down life. Take Stuart Kauffman's notion of a living organism as "something that can both reproduce itself and do at least one thermodynamic work cycle." then I'm pretty sure forest fires fit the bill. They reproduce, consume, spread from one place to another, protect their own boundaries (autopoiesis), have a self-organized internal structure etc. etc.

May 23, 2013

I'm new to electro/house music. What is the best way to begin listening to these genres?

If you're planning to buy, Beatport is pretty good.

But there are dozens of blogs which provide downloadable "mixtapes".

May 23, 2013

Should American communities introduce more mixed-use communities where living and work communities are integrated, as Europeans have traditionally lived and worked, to reduce reliance on automobiles for commutes?


May 24, 2013

Why are none of the greatest composers of classical music from England, Spain, or France?

You have a point with England and Spain. Putting France (Berlioz, Offenbach, Debussy, Ravel, Satie) in the list is nonsense.

I think Daniel Alejandro Gonzalez's answer that these countries were somewhat on the periphery of the classical "scene" that was happening in central Europe is plausible. Handel actually corroborates that. He worked in England, but was a product of Germanic Europe.

I think there may be an socio-economic argument to be made that Britain was becoming a more modern, industrial state from the 18th century onwards, whereas many of the great central European composers were patronized by dukes, princes and emperors. A very traditional kind of wealth coupled with a particular cultural taste. (Perhaps English nobility preferred to spend their money on other things.)

May 24, 2013

Is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?

No. You have a moral absolute right to try to stay alive and care for the lives of others.

"Property rights" are merely a legal convention which we see usually lead to a more or less good outcome. You should never elevate them to the state of real moral imperatives.

When real moral duties come up against property rights, real duties always trump them.

May 27, 2013

What information that Americans are ignorant of should we be most concerned about and why should this worry us?

I wish Americans actually knew and understood the way they've fucked over the other peoples of the world over the last century or so.

I'm not expecting as much as an apology. Maybe you still feel that it was justified. I just wish that American schools / media would actually explain to American kids that their freedom and democracy loving country had a history of doing stuff like engineering military dictatorships that tortured and disappeared hundreds of thousands of people for decades (eg. The Day That Lasted 21 Years (O Dia Que Durou 21 Anos)

Nothing makes people in the rest of the world hate America as much as Americans' ignorant and self-satisfied assumption that they are the good guys. An American population with a bit more perspective and humility will be far better equipped to cope with a world where people no longer have to be nice to them for reasons of economic hegemony. A world run by the Chinese won't be pleasant but at least we'll be spared the hypocrisy.

Update : Mapped: The 7 Governments the U.S. Has Overthrown

May 27, 2013

What are some things that the British do best?

Arguably the three greatest scientists in history are Newton, Darwin and Einstein. And Germany and the US have to share Einstein between them.

May 29, 2013

How much value all the gift economies combined produce per year?

I remember hearing that the amount of money sent back from the US to Mexico by migrant workers exceeded the value of Mexico's income from exports to the US.

Most of this money was sent back to families, but quite a lot was sent as contributions to "clubs" in the home town or village which provided things like clinics and schooling.

It's a striking statistic, but obviously depends whether you consider giving money to parents or siblings "gift economy". (If so, do Christmas presents to children count too?)

There needs to be a lot more research in this area. Gift-giving is still a nebulous idea.

For example, I firmly believe that every corporation is a kind of "foam" which trades at its boundaries, but actually the co-operation within any particular department acts more like a gift-economy. Employees are paid a salary but they don't negotiate with each other when they co-operate. Nor does their employer micro-manage every act of co-ordination between colleagues. You're paid a flat salary. You have a shared mission. You co-operate on a spontaneous "gifting" basis.

Hence corporations are effectively ways to enclose little bubbles of gift-economy and extract transactional value from them. (That's the dirty secret of capitalism's success, corralling the gifting behaviour of people inside a facade of "exchange")

May 29, 2013

Why do intelligent white people tend to dislike clubbing more than intelligent people of other races in the U.S.?

White people in the US are more likely to be privileged and wealthy. One feature of club culture, particularly of the red-velvet rope kind is the *performance* of wealth : the dressing up thing. Smart privileged people tend to be self-confident and relaxed. They can afford to be scruffy and comfortable in a way that a member of a non-privileged group can't.

Whereas a person from a less privileged background, dressing up is a fun way to assert an individuality which transcends the hardships and stereotypes of their background, for a member of the privileged class, dressing up just looks like bad taste. Rich AND flaunting it.

You'll always find the truly privileged playing down their wealth and the poor (or insecure rich) playing it up.

Speaking personally: I love club-music. And I love to dance to it in the privacy of my own home. But I have no desire to be out in public dancing. Particularly nowhere where I'm going to be judged on my appearance or state of dress or (God forbid) my skill in dancing.

May 30, 2013

Do wealthier people tend to be more intelligent?

People who were brought up wealthy tend to have
a) had more exposure to education / "high" culture
b) had fewer distractions from their education / cultural experiences due to problems caused by poverty.

You can fake a lot of "intelligence" with "education" and "culture". For example, I can watch or read a Shakespeare play and pretty much understand it. That definitely doesn't make me more intelligent than someone who's never been exposed to Shakespeare but understands the ins and outs of the latest soap-opera. They're both just stories about people and their tempestuous relationships. But Shakespeare can make me appear "smart".

Good education can certainly be correlated with wealth up to a point - though above it, once people start become doctors in mathematics or theoretical physics, the correlation breaks down as they tend to earn less than less-educated people in industry.

Jun 2, 2013

Do African startups stand a chance against well established companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter?

It's very rare for a new startup, anywhere in the world, to directly challenge the incumbents head on. The way a small startup becomes successful is to disrupt the market.

Disruption has a very specific meaning. It means finding a nascent market that the incumbents DON'T currently serve well, and serving that while the market itself grows. Microsoft didn't challenge IBM in making mainframes or typewriters. It did something that was initially too small for IBM to care about : PC operating systems. It grew on the back of that market. It only came into direct conflict with IBM about a decade into its existence, when IBM realized that it too wanted to be in the (now huge) desktop PC operating system market and came out with O/S 2.

Similarly Google started in areas that Microsoft didn't care about (partly search and partly micro-transactions for adverts) and didn't come into direct conflict for several years until Microsoft realized they wanted to be a search giant and Google decided they could make better (more focused) laptop operating systems than Windows

An African copy of Google, Facebook or Twitter won't go anywhere. But neither will a new copy of Google, Facebook or Twitter from Silicon Valley. An African startup has every chance if it picks the right large, underserved market that the current giants can't be bothered with and grows with that market.

I don't know Africa. By all accounts it has several fast growing economies. A relatively high penetration of mobile phone use and sophistication of mobile phone users (people are more used to doing research and making financial transactions on their phones than Europeans or North Americans). The Chinese are making large investments in land and mining there. Who knows what that confluence of factors combined with Africa's varied cultures and histories will bring. I'd suggest that an African startup has more or less the same chance as anyone else in inventing the next world-beating augmented reality app. or an interesting peer-lending scheme or some crucial B2B service that hooks into the APIs of Chinese social networks. Of course, African startups are going to face the problems of raising money from Silicon Valley VCs. And a cost of promoting their startup in the US. But these days there are ways you can grow without VCs, and the online world is a lot bigger than the US.

Jun 4, 2013

Is there a possibility for the whole population to become gay?

If there's a "gay gene", it's been spread by homosexuals who have conformed themselves to hetero norms and produced children in sham marriages for the sake of appearance.

IF that's the case then, now that homosexuals no longer have to fake a hetero role in society, the gay gene is probably dying out. Allowing gay people to live and love as they like is probably the fastest way to eliminate homosexuality from the gene pool.

Jun 4, 2013

Are gay people on the whole smarter than straight people?

Consider Alan Kay's quote that "Point of view is worth 80 IQ points".

Whatever the brain-wiring, being in an oppressed minority gives you a lot of perspective and learning opportunities.

Jun 4, 2013

What makes young men turn into grumpy old men?

When you're young, you're surrounded by people with energy, enthusiasm and desire to make the world a better place. As you get older, you see all this energy spent, see all the beautiful new things that are created and then watch as idiots fuck it all up.

Invent the internet? Give people a wonderful global space for free-speech and open communication? Suddenly it's full of spammers shouting about viagra and warbloggers spewing racist garbage to promote war and torture. Warn people about global warming? Expect to be pilloried. Start a revolution? Get Stalin.

Nothing leaves you more jaundiced about humanity than watching the cynics exploit and then abuse the idealists.

Jun 4, 2013

Who are the great intellectuals of the late 20th century/early 21st century?

It takes some time to filter and interpret who are the really significant intellectual figures of an era. I think we're just about figuring out who were the "giants" of the 50s / 60s generation. People who have been both publicly recognized AND have survived the "test of time", been shown to have something interesting to say.

Turing and Von Neuman. Maybe lesser known cyberneticists like Norbert Weiner and Gregory Bateson.

Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan and Guy Debord stand out for operating in new, unconventional fields like design and cultural studies.

Then there are the continental philosophers who have left their fingerprints everywhere in the studies of culture and the arts (Deleuze will probably turn out to be most substantial / influential. With Foucault in attendance. Derrida as the fall guy.) If you've had any kind of intellectual life in the last 20 years you'll have been infected with ideas from these people even if you haven't heard the names.

Hardcore scientists have the problem that most of the really good science has been beyond the understanding of the casual audience. And much of it relies on mathematical models or statistical analyses of large datasets rather than flashy experiments that can be done in front of an audience at room temperature. Because of this gap, science popularizers have generally done well. But it's a role which rarely leads to fame beyond your own times.

Another problem for the modern would-be intellectual giant, as McLuhan could have told you, is that television doesn't create the same conditions for the public intellectual to thrive as the print culture did. TV turns wannabe intellectuals into celebrities and forces them into endless bickering. Even when, like Chomsky or Neil deGrasse Tyson, you can retain a certain level of intellectual integrity in the circus, you're still a performing animal.

Something that strikes me is that we're currently blessed with some remarkable people who you could say "diagnose and orchestrate" the intellectual scene. The original of the current crop, and one of my great heroes, is Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and WELL. Tim O'Reilly seems a worthy successor as a curator of ideas within our wider culture. And to an extent you can see people like Jimmy Wales at Wikipedia and Chris Anderson at TED in the same category. Maybe also Nicholas Negreponte and Joi Ito at the Media Lab too. I think the importance of the entrepreneurial publisher / salon-owner / comprehensive designer shouldn't be underestimated for our current intellectual scene. They are our own Diderots and d'Alemberts.

Although I agree we spend too much time thinking about CEOs of the tech. industry it's funny you contrast them unfavourably to Edison who was surely very much in the same category as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Jobs probably deserves to be as remembered as Edison or Ford though without an eponymous company he probably won't.

Update : A couple of other people who I think are worth listening to as modern "intellectuals" thinking about politics, economics and technology in the age of the internet : Douglas Rushkoff, Clay Shirky, Bruce Sterling, Dave Winer, Alexander Bard.

Jun 6, 2013

Who are some 'post' Dubstep producers and artists?

I like

Maribou State

JamesZoo at the seriously funky, fucked-up up experimental end.

Though, weirdly a lot of Brazilian lounge elements too :

Jun 9, 2013

What are the advantages of dynamic scoping?

Oh. My. Fucking. God. No. ... No! No! No! No! None! None whatsoever! Zip! Zilch! Negatory!

Dynamic Scoping is the nearest thing to hell in a programming language. Please don't make a programming language with dynamic scope. And try to avoid using one. For your own sanity. Particularly don't try working on a code-base someone else has already written in a language that has dynamic scope.

The biggest problem of dynamic scope is that it makes it impossible to refactor and clean up old existing code. You can't look at some code, identify something which is being done badly and replace it with a cleaner / better version. Because you NEVER know if something else was dependent on a side-effect of that old / bad code. So you more or less have to leave ALL the cruft in your program. Forever.

A code-base in a dynamically scoped language is essentially unmaintainable in a way which makes other notions of "unmaintainable" look trivial.

So what are the potential advantages?

Well, it's easier to implement a language with dynamic scope than with lexical scope.

And I suppose dynamic scope gives you a tool to address the hardest problem in programming: dependency injection. Dependency injection sort of becomes trivial when you have dynamic scope. Just have a function somewhere that sets up the variables that define your policies and refer to them everywhere else in your code. Except it's still horrible.

Jun 9, 2013

Is capitalism an American value?

Capitalists pretend it is in order to appeal to the patriotic feelings of Americans.

In China, capitalists pretend it's a Chinese value for similar reasons.

In fact, you won't find a single country in the world where capitalism doesn't pretend to be a home-grown product and part of the national soul. Ever seen Coca Cola adverts? In Brazil Coca Cola supports the Brazilian football team. In Argentina the Argentinians. Like God, Coca Cola is always on your side. Capitalism too.

Jun 9, 2013

Are there any web apps that have chosen to implement their interface in Canvas or WebGL instead of using the DOM?

I believe Mozilla's Bespin Editor project (which is defunct but gave rise to the Cloud 9 IDE : Your code anywhere, anytime ) used Canvas rather than the DOM because it was faster. I seem to remember seeing Dion Almaer giving a talk to that effect.

Jun 9, 2013

Would you use a Twitter client that sorts the tweets based on their relevance, instead of timeline?

Given how short Tweets are it seems that "relevance" is going to be hard to make sense of. Maybe some links may be more relevant than others but relevant to what context?

What I'm interested in when I happen to log into Twitter? How would you or Twitter know?

To my last Tweet? That's hard to figure out.

If PEOPLE aren't interesting to me, I don't follow them. If there's an event / particular subject, hashtags do a reasonable job of focusing on them. I'm not sure I believe you'll get a significant improvement over those two mechanisms.

Jun 9, 2013

What are the most beautiful Brazilian songs?

Current favourites, which are pretty hard to beat :

Jun 10, 2013

Is there any rule that it is "unethical" to write metal electric guitar track to a hip-hop song?

There are no "music rules". There is only lack of imagination.

Jun 10, 2013

Do you think that there was a degradation of music in the 80s?

I was almost swayed by User, but then the 80s defenders got to me. Particularly in 2013 when all pop music seems extremely 80s influenced, the idea of the 80s as a dead decade doesn't fly at all.

But some things clearly did happen.

a) the 60s / early 70s generation of rock stars and their fans grew up / got old. We hadn't really seen that before. Adult Oriented Rock. An entire genre / industry predicated on youthful energy and rebellion being full of older people who were running out of energy and had become the new establishment. No one knew how to play this : did rock musicians try to pretend they were still reckless teenagers? Or did they try to evolve their sound and attitude to speak to their own lives and increasingly complacent peer group? Were they in the fashion business or the nostalgia business? There was no consensus; artists were trying to go in different directions. The labels were tempted towards nostalgia, re-issues, supporting the old and trusted artists. Taking advantage of new media (CDs, MTV) to promote the old.

The youngsters were just as confused. Was punk "new" or a return to the purity of 60s garage rock? And if we were returning to garage rock, why not to 50s r'n'b? Or 70s soul and disco?

b) It wasn't pure "retromania" though, because at the same time there was the continuous ferment of novelty, driven mainly by new technologies : cheaper than ever recording and record pressing meant an explosion of new "indie" record labels willing to take artistic risks. Home taping turned listeners into curators and more widely travelled explorers. Cheap synthesizers and drum machines created first synthpop, then electro, house and techno. Direct drive turntables and samplers created hip-hop.

The 80s represent the struggle between these two forces : the new generation (of music and musicians) fighting for attention from a music industry and public that was invested in its old artists. The fallow periods being those where the nostalgia instinct got the upper hand.

And then, by the 90s, something remarkable happened. The situation sorted itself out. In effect, both the industry and the audience became "post-modern". They stopped worrying about where the zeitgeist was going, and who would be dominant, and instead recognized that it would be a patchwork of zones, some radical, some painfully conservative. And that it was all OK. Weird electronic noise? Without melody or harmony? Fine. Britpop's turgid pub-rock? Sure.

It was largely mediated by the artists who had became promiscuous. Noel Gallagher could sing with the Chemical Brothers. Madonna and Bjork would grab cutting edge electronic musicians to produce or remix their records, while Massive Attack would pull in blues tinged torch singers, and hip-hop was digging deep in the crates. Anything went, and no one felt they needed to take on curatorial responsibility for "pop-music" anymore.

So that's what happened in the 80s. The struggle to figure out how pop-music was going to work in the long-run. How it could continue when it was no longer just a novelty, but had to contend with a history and being a fixed part of the landscape.

Jun 10, 2013

Is it OK to use icons with a GNU License in your commercial mobile application?

I'd *guess* (IANAL) it's OK if you also put the icons somewhere easy to download on your site and explicitly say that people can reuse them in their own applications.

Jun 10, 2013

Which way is better to add pages/things/stuff to your favourites in a mobile application?

I hate them both on the grounds that both mean something different to me.

The heart means "love" which I take to be very different from "like". I only "love" a few, very special things. Whereas I like quite a few. This is a problem I have on SoundCloud. I don't want to say I "love" things that I just like. I prefer not to like anything at all than to make a "love" commitment.

OTOH, the star means very little to me, except I've kind of worked out it means "bookmark" in my browser which leads me to think I can store / classify. If adding to favourites is a preliminary to creating a permanent / easy to navigate repository then it might work. But I wish someone would invent a better icon convention for this.

Jun 10, 2013

Can software that modifies a library under GNU GPL be sold without releasing the proprietary source to the software?

"This implies that any tech company that uses modified GPL software would need to release their code if they charge for their service."

Forget the "if they charge for their service" bit. But yes.

If you use GPL software in your code-base, then you have to make your code available for others to use. However much you'd like to keep it proprietary you can't. That's the bargain you enter into with the Free Software community when you choose to use their GPLed code.

There are a couple of legal loopholes, but you shouldn't care about them, because the principle is what's important here. Everyone in tech. benefits when software is free-software. The GPL just exists to remind companies that they shouldn't try to abuse and screw up the cornucopia for a temporary individual advantage.

Jun 10, 2013

Were there any non-window based GUIS?

One of the key features of a GUI based system is that multiple programs are "open" at once and the user switches between them. That strongly pushes you towards separate areas of the screen (ie. windows) for each program.

The only metaphor which really competes with WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer) for this, is tabs. Which, if I remember correctly, first appeared in spreadsheets then became standard in the browser. Maybe ChromeOS started with a focus on tabs, but seems to have reverted to WIMP ( Google Chrome OS )

Jun 10, 2013

Software Licensing: Is it necessary to open source an Android application if I use a GNU GPL 2 library inside its APK?

Yes. You need to release it as free-software under the GPL. There are a couple of exceptions, but if you have to ask, they probably don't apply.

Jun 10, 2013

Can I rename open source libraries licensed under LGPL?

I'm pretty sure yes. As long as you make your changes available for other people to download if they want to.

The GPL doesn't want to put any constraints on you apart from preventing you restricting the redistribution of your changes, so I can't see that it would put extra constraints on naming.

Of course, obfusticating the naming scheme might be an excellent way to discourage anyone actually taking your changes and merging them back into the main code-base ;-)

Jun 10, 2013

What can and can't I do with open source software licensed under LGPL?

No, you don't need to share your changes back if you aren't distributing UNLESS the code is licensed under GPL Affero ( Why the GNU Affero GPL ) where you must share it even if you just run it on a public server.

Jun 11, 2013

Is it accurate to describe the founding of America as an "improbable experiment in democracy?"

Given the time that the American state was created (in the middle of the Enlightenment) it was fairly much part of the zeitgeist. It was certainly bold, and possibly courageous, but it wasn't that surprising.

Jun 11, 2013

Is The Democratic Process In America An Important Factor In Her Loss Of Competitiveness?

Whatever the facts of this particular case of obesity, this is an interesting problem.

Let's put it at its starkest : should we think of the economy as a means to the ultimate end which is the happiness of the people? Or should we think of the people as the means to the ultimate end which is the health of the economy?

I believe the only civilized, decent answer to this question is that the economy should serve the people rather than the people should serve the economy. Of course we have to care for the economy so that it continues to function for us, but ultimately it exists to serve us, and our needs trump its.

For some reason, facing this question so starkly makes people uncomfortable. We're conditioned to think that the needs of the economy are paramount. So most people tend to try to get out of the question by insisting that there's no possible conflict of interest. What's good for us and what's good for the economy must be the same thing.

With that in mind, in the particular case of freedom to eat what you like vs. health, you'd have to do a study of work lost to sick-days, and what those illnesses are. You'd also have to ask what makes US health care so expensive compared to equivalent services elsewhere in the world. My hunch would be that obesity isn't the largest issue in American competitiveness or the health of the US economy by a long measure. And you'd be better off addressing the other things before trying to get the government to manage what people eat.

But I wouldn't want to deny the fundamental premise at the heart of this question.

Jun 11, 2013

Is a populous uprising an effective democratic process?

Popular uprising is extremely ineffective. In 99.9% of the cases, the uprising just fails, at a great cost to the people who participated. In the few cases that "succeed" (from the French to the Russian to the Iranian 1979 or Egyptian 2011 revolutions) you very quickly get new governments that the majority of the uprisers didn't really want and really don't like. And because these governments are born of violent process and unsure of themselves, they tend to see any disagreement as a failure to fully secure the gains of the revolution. Hence even the new leaders who aren't paranoid psychopaths tend to act like they were.

The problem is, popular uprising looks to be the last thing left when other possibilities of creating change don't exist. So it's hard to tell people that their uprising is pointless if you don't have a more constructive story to sell them.

Jun 11, 2013

What is the extent of the influence of the Zionist (or pro-Israel) lobby over the US government?

Well, it depends what you mean by "Zionists".

The US government sees Israel as an important ally in a strategically important part of the world. It certainly wouldn't want it to disappear or become an Islamic state. If you think that "Zionist" just means "in favour of the existence of Israel" then certainly almost everyone in the US government is one.

Jun 11, 2013

Centrism & 3rd Party Prospects in U.S. Politics: Is there a rational middle ground between Democratic and Republican views of government?

No. Political positions tend to be bundles of preferences. Eg. this is more important than that. (Gay marriage is more important (or worth thinking about) than Iraq. Low taxes are more important (or worth worrying about) than Health Education.)

These tend to be discrete rather than continuous beliefs. Of course, they're held with some degree of firmness and passion. But people don't tend to passionately believe that gay-marriage and low-taxes are sort of neutral issues. There is no "being in the middle" on an issue, there is just not caring about it. And that just means you care about something else.

Normally we try to construct a middle-ground by horse-trading. Basically saying "I care more about low taxes than I care about gay marriage, I'll let you have gay marriage if you promise to keep taxes down". If different sides can agree with the set of trade-offs then you can make progress and call these compromises "the centre". But they aren't a centre at all. Just a compromise that works out. Other times you'll find that such compromises are impossible. That doesn't mean everyone has gone off to the extremes. (Even if the rhetoric can sound like that.) It just means that there's no deal available which everyone can live with.

Related :

Phil Jones (He / Him)'s answer to What should I know about centrism and its political, economic, and social views?

Jun 12, 2013

What are some perfect albums that work perfectly regardless of genre in terms of flow, narrative, an absence of filler songs, etc., e.g., OK Computer and Kid A, both by Radiohead?

Current 93 : Thunder Perfect Mind

There are a couple of tracks on it that are a bit long and you probably wouldn't listen to by themselves, but in context the whole thing is about as extreme trip through weird, esoteric, spooky, soul-risking beauty as you're likely to get. Like a desolate psychogeographic theme-park of old churches, Blitzed London and heartbreak. You may not enjoy it, but you can't reach the end without realizing you've just journeyed through something unique and profound.

Jun 13, 2013

What was it like to work with Stock Aitken Waterman during the height of their reign over pop in the 80's and early 90's?

No idea at all.

But I highly recommend reading Bill Drummond's chapter in 17 about his experience of working with SAW as they were starting out. Essentially Drummond credits Waterman with teaching him much of what went into The Manual and the KLF.

Jun 13, 2013

What are some cultural faux pas among programmers?

You know that job I gave you two weeks to write? Actually I need it for the meeting next week so I'm putting John to help you on it.

Jun 14, 2013

What are some examples when artist from different bands came together and performed to produce quality music?

Legendary Ethiopian sax player from the 50s meets bratty Dutch punks from the 80s. What could possibly go right?

Jun 14, 2013

Electronic Music: What are the best EDM tracks that don't have any melodic elements?

Well, there was this monster back in the day.

Could be a bit too melodic, I suppose.

Jun 15, 2013

Why doesn't a major player like Amazon have an app store for Windows 7?

I've wondered this for a while ( Platform Wars : Why doesn't Windows have an AppStore? )

I don't think it's quite Amazon's forte (they only created an Android one to support Kindle) but I'm surprised that people who've been in this business forever (eg. CNET, Tucows etc.) didn't see the light earlier.

Jun 17, 2013

What are the best justifications for benevolent dictatorship as a form of government?

The argument is obvious. Coherent decision-making without distraction from internal politics. The benevolent dictator can focus all his / her energy on making strategic decisions and acting on them.

The flaw is equally obvious. The moment your dictator stops being "benevolent", or simply stops making smart decisions, you have no way to correct the situation.

Jun 17, 2013

Can 3D printing save Apple?

3D Printing doesn't need Apple at all. It's doing just fine as it is. (There may be a bubble as investors go crazy over something that's suddenly got a lot of hype, but that's normal. See the Gartner Hype Cycle for more details.) The fundamentals of 3D printing are solid.

The idea that Apple might *need* 3D printing is based on two ideas. a) that Apple needs to be in fast-growing and enormous markets to continue the spectacular performance it had through being in the fast-growing and enormous smartphone market. And b) that 3D printing will be such a market.

I think everyone is just going to have to chill and accept that Apple won't always be the leader in such markets. It wasn't the leader in the internet bubble of the late 90s or internet resurgence of the mid 2000s that gave us Google and Facebook. It may not have the skills / temperament in the next wave either. Fine. It's a good, successful company. Will continue to have a great design tradition. And may make some more innovative products. Be happy with that fanbois.

Secondly, it's unlikely that 3D printing per se will be the next smart-phone like market either. I believe that 3D printing (and the associated ecosystem) will have a huge effect, but I don't think it will be by 3D printers becoming a mass-produced consumer device. In fact there's something self-contradicting about the expectation. If 3D printing becomes something that everyday folks do, it challenges the very *idea* of mass produced things. (Ie. unlikely to lead to a single company dominating.)

Jun 18, 2013

What is the best device to develop RoR applications on?

I have the problem with my (otherwise very nice) Asus Bamboo running hot in Ubuntu. It maybe that Linux is failing to use the graphics accelerator. Check if it is and, if not, you might try moving to a different window manager instead of Unity. (Won't be a problem for RoR development)

Jun 18, 2013

Until RoR came along, was MVC popular? If not, what was the way to go back then?

I've always hated the MVC religion in web-apps. MVC was derived from patterns for desktop GUIs in Smalltalk back in the 80s. Applying it to the web, where the layers got conflated with the distinction between browser / server / database was always a misunderstanding.

There was certainly a lot of talk of it before RoR (for example, Java Struts (shudder)).

It seems things are improving now, though, as more code moves into the browser and we get a proper MVC distinction WITHIN the browser, and it's recognized that this is a distinct issue from the synchronization of data between browser and back-end.

Jun 18, 2013

Is mathematics the purest form of art?

If it is, so what? "Purity" isn't all that big a virtue in art.

You might as well ask "which is the fastest art form?" Maybe it's stand-up comedy. Maybe it's pencil sketching. No-one cares much because speed isn't what it's about.

Maths may be the purest art form. But again, purity isn't really the point.

Jun 20, 2013

Can a FDM 3D printer (Replicator ,cubeX etc.) make products which are commercially salable eg. iphone covers?

I suspect the answer is very much "it depends". On what things and how much people are willing to pay for them. The main issue is that when just printing plastic on an FDM you have a worse quality and much higher price than mass-produced plastics. So you need a product which supports those characteristics. The most obvious features that may trump cost and quality are a) timeliness and b) customization.

Timeliness as in, if I can go to the high-street and have something printed today, that's more important than if I have to wait until next Thursday to have it
delivered. Customization is self-explanatory.

With an iPhone cover, I'm not sure it works out. Designs for them have been around for a few years and I haven't (yet) seen any viable shop / stall selling customized iPhone covers with FDM. Maybe that's ignorance but probably that suggests that once people get over the novelty, it's not going to be a viable business. But that doesn't mean that there isn't a more compelling use out there somewhere.

Obviously, all else being equal, if I'm faced with a choice between a $10 object printed in higher quality SLA vs. the same design for $10 in lower quality FDM I'll probably choose the former.

Jun 22, 2013

Are there any rap or hip-hop artists that use odd time signatures?

Themselves, "It's them" (can't find a decent version on YouTube unfortunately, all live and muffled) is an awesome 3/4 rap by Dose One.

Jun 23, 2013

What is scene-hacking and how does one go about doing it?

No idea if this is what you're talking about, but a couple of years ago when I wanted to find out more about the maker / 3D printing etc. scene in London, I hit "". It turned out there were no related meetups so I started one. First night me and 3 other people said they were interested. I booked a table in the pub, went there and sat around by myself all night as no-one else showed.

Almost gave up, but then found a related event at the Victoria and Albert museum and scheduled a meetup to coincide with that. Because that time, other people were going anyway we had around six members and someone invited us to dinner with Adrian Bowyer (an extremely impressive guy). Over the next few months we had a few meetups, sometimes our own in the pub, sometimes in conjunction with other events. By then I knew about 10-15 interesting people, a few of the local companies and other organizations that were around. But I had to drop out as I was moving out of town. My successor seems to be doing well as there are now about 400 members and various events and collaborations (Future Manufacturing )

So, I'd say, if it's at all popular in your area, Meetup, is your friend. A great way to go from zero connections in a scene to a handful. Or even from no scene at all to an embryonic one. And, if you're dynamic, I'm sure you can work those connections, make introductions, join / ferment collaborations and start to have a greater influence.

Update : Ah, ok. No idea about the Sceniverse sense. That's a Seb Paquet thing.

Jun 23, 2013

Why is JavaScript getting more popular, especially for server-side code? What makes it more desirable than traditional server-side languages such as Ruby, .NET, and Java?

For most programmers, I think, the syntactic / idiomatic differences between say, Javascript and Python/Ruby/Perl/PHP etc. are trivial. It's not really the language being the same that counts.

In fact we've had javascript (via Java) available on the server for ages and no-one cared much.

What seems to be the big win is to have the javascript event / callback semantics for free on the server without having to use some kind of weird library for it.

People are used to event-driven programming in Javascript. Node.js gives them that server-side in a lightweight, fast form. Plus Coffeescript gets rid of most of what you superficially DON'T like about javascript.

So I'd say the reason for the recent explosion in popularity is a) node (fast and lightweight), b) CoffeeScript (nicer syntax, classes), c) people used to / liking the javascript event model.

Jun 23, 2013

How does one stay focused on one programming language?

1) You totally don't want to do that. Programmers should try to learn a new language more or less every year. And a year is enough to learn most things that are important about a language. Of course there are skills in programming that take a life-time to master, but they are rarely things which are specific to one language.

2) The best way to get stuck using one language for the rest of your life is to get a corporate job maintaining legacy code.

Jun 23, 2013

How does one create a Python web application?

1) Decide if you really want to.

Why? Because while Python is a wonderful language, its most popular web-frameworks : Django, Google App Engine etc. are focused on the old-style of page-based interactions, wrapped around relational or quasi-relational databases.

It's clear that the new trends in web-design focus on the page being a rich dynamic application in its own right, sending tiny fragments of json data backwards and forwards, often to synchronize an in-browser data-model with a backend, NoSQL model.

The direction is clearly signalled in frameworks like Meteor, Derby: The full-stack JavaScript framework for next generation web apps etc.

You can certainly do such things in Python, but I suspect that the main energy in Python web-frameworks (and similarly Ruby on Rails ) isn't on supporting that. And maybe the language isn't quite as amenable to it as server-side event-driven javascript in node.js or some functional languages that provide the equivalent of continuations.

2) If you're really a beginner and just want to learn the basics, try! ( which is probably the simplest framework to get started with.

Jun 24, 2013

Is there any point in learning an instrument or can we just make better music electronically now or in the near future?

If you make computer music your computer will be your instrument. So you'd better learn how to play it properly.

Jun 29, 2013

Will a solar panel gather the same amount of energy in a transparent glass box as it would if completely free of any surroundings?

My guess is that it would get a lot hotter (ie. being inside an enclosed space in the sunlight). Solar panel efficiency is sensitive to heat, with the amount of energy potentially going down as heat rises.

Might be worth checking the heat performance of the panels before committing to put them into boxes.

Jun 29, 2013

Why has no Brazilian ever won a Nobel Prize?

I spend a lot of time discussing this question with Brazilian friends who are pretty negative about the Brazilian intellectual character.

But I'd hazard that there isn't really a reason, it's just a set of historical accidents.

Most winners of the literature prize have gained a certain international reputation beforehand. And no Brazilian writer has caught the world's imagination like, say, Borges or Vargas. (Is Paolo Coelho a potential candidate?) It doesn't help that Portuguese is a less commonly used and known language than Spanish.

Brazil, as both a developing country and a colony of Portugal has a historic double disadvantage. Like any colony, it passed a sizable proportion of its wealth back to the colonizing power instead of investing it locally. And as a colony of a power which has, itself, been one of the poorer and less developed European countries in recent centuries, it gained less from its association with its colonizer. Smart Brazilians have had fewer opportunities when studying and working in Lisbon than smart Indians and Africans have had in London and Paris.

Brazilians often point out that the pattern of colonization of Brazil differs from, say, the US where Europeans went to live. The usual Portuguese plan was to go to Brazil to make a fortune (by owning and running a plantation or mine) and to retire back to Portugal. The Portuguese made little commitment to Brazil until the beginning of the 19th century. That means that there were few institutions such as universities developed before then. (See ) By comparison Harvard was founded in 1636.

Combined, these facts mean that Brazilian education is less well resourced than Europe or the US. Its institutions have a shallower history. And it's less connected culturally to the centres of achievment than even Spanish speaking Latin America.

Jun 29, 2013

Has Brazil ever had a significant secessionist movement?

Sure. For example the Farroupilha Revolution by the South.

Jul 1, 2013

Would you want to be part of a LinkedIn Most Connected Person's network?

Not really. What's important on LInkedIn is the value of the links. Ie. If I know X and X knows Y can X help put me in touch with Y / put in a good word for me etc?

If X is someone I don't really know, but just collects as many connections as possible, it's not likely that those connections will be very meaningful to anyone else. If I ask X to connect me to his "friend" Y it's, frankly, not that likely that Y will pay much attention.

Jul 1, 2013

The man in line ahead of you buys a lottery ticket. 10 Minutes later he scratches it and you ... (read description) ... Do you kill him?

$300 million is too cheap for my soul. I have more self-respect.

Jul 1, 2013

Is it wrong to connect with someone on Linkedin just to be part of their network?

The good thing about LinkedIn is that the recipient of the request gets to decide what's appropriate or not. If they don't like it, they can ignore it.

Jul 1, 2013

What is the secret to Quora's success?

A critical mass of smart / informed / well-meaning people. Combined with a slightly conservative but functional design and fairly heavy policing to keep people on their best-behaviour.

The more important question is how did Quora get that critical mass of good people? Were the founders particularly well connected? Was there a particular community that Quora marketed itself to or who jumped on it?

Jul 2, 2013

How much would you pay for a 3rd-party program that downloaded all your Quora questions and answers?

There are way more interesting business opportunities for Quora (or third parties if Quora are tolerant of such things) than just exports.

For example, I don't just want a *dump* of my answers. What if I want to be able to select a bunch of my answers and have them automatically formatted into a nice ebook ("Phil's Programming Answers") ready to be sold via Amazon etc?
What if I'd like to buy a book of "The Wisdom of Joshua Engel on Atheism and Evolution" to give to my Christian neighbour? Or "Venkatesh Rao's Idiosyncratic Guide To Indian History")?

Someone should be brokering a deal between Quora and LeanPub etc.

Update : Nevertheless, the start of anything interesting is getting access to those answers. Fortunately Quora provide an RSS feed, so here's a simple script I wrote to back-up my answers to my local machine. Note that it will only get the current feed's worth (last 100 answers) so history isn't available.

Update 2 : This is now a properly hosted project on GitHub. I'd be very grateful if people will try it, send bug reports etc : grabquora (Update: now rss_backup )

Update 3 : For those who prefer not to have to tackle the technology themselves, I've decided to offer the service of using this script, as a gig on Fiverr. Read more here : Scraping Quora Answers for a Fiverr

Jul 2, 2013

To those who grew up in the 80s: Do you think the world in the 80s was better or worse than our world today? Why or why not?

Nah ... we thought it sucked. We thought that a kind of utopian idealism of the 60s and early 70s (which we'd missed) had been betrayed by greedy yuppies, evil politicians and our self-indulgent peers who kept voting for them.

We thought that we were in serious danger of a nuclear war. (You think this "terrorism" shit is something new or sui-generis to be scared of? Nope, politicians are always scaring us with something : both with stories of how crazy and dangerous the enemy is and with displays of how cynical and dangerous they (our politicians) are prepared to be in retaliation.

We thought our music was best and most exciting ever. (Compared to all that dinosaur rock crap.) And it felt a hell of a lot more important than music does today. People read the music magazines (NME, Melody Maker, even Smash Hits religiously). In retrospect, what strikes me is how porous the divide between the underground and the mainstream was ... how obscure indie bands could grab a cult popularity and the following week they were in the charts and on sale in Woolworths. The music industry "worked" in a way which may surprise people who see how disfunctional it is today or even who assume the 80s was only about bland rock re-issues on CD.

I don't remember much difference between Hollywood block-buster movies in the 80s and today. They were almost always formulaic and lifeless. But perhaps we were more impressed by good special effects in the 80s than you are today. Before CGI, special effects of the kind you saw in Star Wars or Robocop were expensive and rare. You would be genuinely excited to go to a movie promising them, and you'd be genuinely moved when you saw them. As we got older and artier we thought Wim Wenders and David Lynch were the coolest. (Which, when you think about it, is a hell of a lot better than thinking the same about The Matrix and Donnie Darko)

We (I mean boys, not sure about girls) played a lot of computer games and (like Rupert Baines) D&D, which were cool. But still very minority. ET was a cool movie basically BECAUSE it referenced D&D. Not for any other reason.

There were no iPods but we had Walkmans and, frankly, there's no real difference : socio-culturally speaking.

We had no web. But what we had were newspapers. And newspapers did much of what the web does. There's enough meat / bandwidth in a decent newspaper to keep one's mind fed for a day. (News, politics, and current affairs, and gossip, and cartoons and (the good ones had) book / movie / music reviews, science articles etc.)

So frankly, I suspect there isn't THAT much difference between being a teen in the 80s and in the 10s. Ultimately though, It's impossible to make an accurate comparison between a time when you are a teenager and a time when you are much older. Because whatever the differences in the times, there are major differences in you. Being a 40+ year old, holding or looking for a job and living with a family is different from being a 14 year old going to school and living with parents.

Jul 2, 2013

What is the best low cost 3d printer on the market?

Printrbot Simple looks pretty cheap at $299 (Printrbot Simple) but whethr it's good enough for your needs is another question.

Jul 3, 2013

How should non drug users handle pre-employment drug screening if they find it ethically objectionable?

You won't be able to change the system from within. So rule that out of your calculation.

All you have to decide is :

a) whether refusing the test will lose you the job
b) whether your objection is so strong that you're prepared for that, or whether it's a compromise that you can make.

Jul 3, 2013

Which is worse, being a drug dealer, or a drug user?

No "everyone should be accountable for their own actions" is libertarian nonsense. You are accountable for all aspects of the world you help create for other people including the temptations and dangers you put in their way.

Jul 3, 2013

Is it possible to be a functional adult and do drugs without becoming addicted?

Yes. I know several. But as a functional adult, why would you want to?

Jul 3, 2013

What is it like to attend Carnaval in Brazil?

Jul 7, 2013

Have liberals/progressives become intolerant of their opponents? If so, why? Before 1980, liberals worked with conservatives on lots of issues and rarely demonized their opponents.

They haven't. What's happened is that TV media has decided that "balancing" different points of views is an excuse to turn all interviews into a cage-match which gives neither side a chance to advance its arguments cooly and logically.

When you watch this, if you're inclined to be conservative, the liberals will look intolerant (they don't have time to listen to their opponents). If you're inclined to be liberal, the conservatives will look intolerant (they don't have time to listen to their opponents).

The best thing for you to do is to stop watching political discussion as misrepresented by TV and to read some good essays / articles written by conservatives and liberals. Long-form essays give someone the chance to advance their views without being forced to come up with knock-down answers to immediate criticisms raised by a hostile opponent in the room.

Jul 7, 2013

Do liberals tend to base their arguments more on emotion than objective facts? If so, why?

Is "fairness" a more emotional concept than "lawfulness"?

Of course not. They're both "moral values".

Jul 8, 2013

Which organisation is currently the most trusted with regard to forecasting the impacts of climate change/global warming?

Look for a group of people who :

a) have a significant immersion in the scientific background of climate

b) have spent a lot of time thinking about and working on it

c) have had to jump through various hurdles, like anonymous peer-review, in order to get published

So, on the whole, I'd go wth climate scientists, as opposed to, say, economists, statisticians, politicians, retired physicists, journalists, minor aristocrats or random bloggers who may once have worked spreading disinformation for the tobacco industry.

Should you take any one group of climate scientists as definitive? No, it's probably best to take a survey, find out the various journals, look at a few papers, follow the references to see if they "smell right" as rigorous scientific research. Look at comparisons between work. Find out what the real areas of uncertainty and doubt are (hint, the scientists will readily admit to them.)

Jul 9, 2013

Why does it bother liberals and progressives if other people make a lot of money?

Money is basically power to control how the world's scarce resources are used. Scarce resources are, by definition, a zero-sum game. If X has 10 times as many dollars as Y then X has 10 times the power to use the scarce resources of the world as Y. If X has 1000 times as many dollars than Y then X has 1000 times the power to orchestrate those resources.

THAT is the problem. Great "wealth" means great power-imbalances. One person gets to dominate others. Engorged oligarchs are a tyranny no different from aggressive warlords or dictators. Someone who tells you he wants to have more money than you is no different from someone who tells you he wants to keep you locked in a cage. Both are trying to have more control over your world and your life than you have.

Jul 9, 2013

If Democrats are called "Progressives" shouldn't Republicans be called "Regressives"?

They are. It's just that they use the word "conservative" which is another way of meaning "staying in one place instead of moving forward".

Actually, this dichotomy between "moving forward" and "staying still" has been at root of our political sense-making for centuries. Originally the opposite of "conservative" was "whig". But whig means more or less the same thing as progressive : moving forward, seeing the future as more positive than the past. Conservative means trying to conserve the past, seeing the future as potentially more dangerous and unsettling than that which we know.

Whig history

Jul 10, 2013

Is an atheist homophobe more dangerous than a theist one?

On an individual level there's no way you can generalize.

But the atheist homophobe is unlikely to have any kind of institution to back him up. The theist homophobe probably does.

Jul 17, 2013

What is the best ska record of all time?

Easy ...

BTW : There are dozens of other truly great Ska records. But there can only be one "best" one. And this is obviously it :-)

Jul 18, 2013

What kind of people like reggae music?

It's tempting to make these generic comments that "humans" or "anyone" can like reggae. And I agree that you don't have to be a particular race or age or classification to like it. But as someone who likes reggae periodically (I go through phases of not listening and then listening to nothing else) I'd say that there are characteristic virtues of reggae which may indeed appeal to certain kinds of people.

First off, I'd say good reggae is serious. Some genres lend themselves to irony, pastiche or silliness but reggae is not one of them. Comedy reggae is dire in a way that, say, comedy rock isn't. Reggae can be sensuous and serious about love. It can be hard and serious about politics or social problems. It can be serious about religion or spirituality. Or it can be serious about just getting stoned and being irie. But it can't be trivial or self-deprecating[1] Ska can be feel-good and light-hearted. Ragga can be cheeky. Electronic dance music can sample a bit of reggae for cheesy feelgood vibes. But reggae itself thrives on gravity.

The corollary is that if you aren't looking for a serious music, if you like your music to be varied and pleasant but not something that demands too much emotional commitment from you then you may just not get it. Reggae is all about immersing yourself, it's excellent mood music for obsessives. But if you aren't looking for a mood then it might all sound a bit repetitive, worthy and dull.

Second, it's a bit of a truism that reggae has rhythm. Though almost all popular music of the last 50 years or so has been rhythmically driven. Nevertheless the rhythmic matrix is crucial to the essence of reggae. And you either catch that swing (and nod your head / wind your waist) or you don't. If you aren't particularly caught up with the groove in music then once again, you'll miss what makes reggae so great.

Thirdly - and here I admit this is the perspective of a white Englishman, not a Jamaican - reggae is weird. Yes, we got used to it. And it's been terribly influential on everything else in Anglo-Saxon pop. But it's still an exotic, alien sound. For me, one of the joys of Jamaican music is that it's like looking at an alternative evolutionary history of modern pop. A kind of Galapagos with its own ecosystem. Like discovering Australia and finding all the ecological niches are occupied by marsupials instead of mammals.

The same ecological niches are there : party-time, showing off to girls, young men with long hair getting serious and spiritual. Technology. Loudness and heaviosity. But everything turned out a bit different from the way it did in the rest of the world.

Compare Jamaica with (a slightly stereotyped idea of), say, Sweden. Sweden is full of fine songwriters and musicians but whenever a Swedish artist breaks out it's through doing something in a well known global genre. Pop and disco from Abba; hard rock from Europe; heavy metal; indie from The Cardigans; Swedish House Mafia etc. Sweden is a passive reflection of global pop culture. Most of the time you don't even notice when the latest artist you like happens to be Swedish.[2]

That NEVER happens with Jamaica. Jamaica takes whatever you throw at it, chews it up and spits back a completely new thing. Show it Soul and Motown and you get Ska, something which is obviously the height of 60s modernity and yet curiously quaint. Show it John Lennon and get Bob Marley. Bring Jamaica the basic 4-track recording technology that the Beatles and 60s psychedelic bands used, and get taken on a voyage through the caverns of dub by Lee "Scratch" Perry and King Tubby. Give it the same cheap Casio synths and drum-machines that spawned electropop in Europe and get the Sleng-Teng riddim and raggamuffin. Show it rap and rave and get back some of the most brilliant / disturbed music of the 90s.

Hot Bwoy - Beenie Man & Buccaneer


Just to be clear, I'm pretty sure this second is an insane, murderous apocalyptic fantasy, equivalent to anything that Osama Bin Laden could have dreamed up, but it's a brilliant if horrid record.)

Jamaica has done something that no other insignificant impoverished island has done. It's fought a culture war with the great Anglo-Saxon rock empire and won its independence. It speaks back to the dominant culture on equal terms. Even the casual listener around the world knows instantly when he or she is listening to reggae (or its progeny).

For that reason, I think that Jamaica is loved by certain listeners the way that certain leftists admire Cuba. It's an existence proof that resistance and independence is possible. That a music culture from outside the dominant centres of power can hold its own on the world stage.

[1] There's no hipster / nerd reggae the way there's hipster / nerd rap. It's just not a viable genre.

[2] If anyone thinks there's a racial component to my Jamaica / Sweden comparison, forget Sweden and think French hip-hop. Some excellent black / French and French-African rappers and great hip-hop music from France, but they don't make new genres, they just make hip-hop with a local language and flavour. Jamaica is very rare in that it always does things its own way and exports its genres.

Jul 19, 2013

How would you show support for an aesthetic revolution?

Buy the output of the artists (paintings / sculptures / books / music)

Jul 20, 2013

Is China very poor?

Stop thinking in terms of "countries". Averaging over a country is meaningless (along the same lines as saying the average human has one breast and one testicle.)

No-one should pay attention to average anything statistics without also looking at standard-deviation.

Jul 20, 2013

Would you rather be beautiful or smart?

Because of the Dunning–Kruger effect, stupid people don't know they're stupid. So if you chose handsome, you win both ways. :-)

(OTOH, ugly and smart is miserable. You know full well you're ugly and you never think you're smart enough.)

Jul 20, 2013

Luxury Business by Specific Sector and Market: Would you rather be house rich and cash poor? Or cash rich and house poor?

I live in a fantastic (shared) house (which I don't own and couldn't afford) but have a relatively low income. Because I feel reasonably secure here, I'm very happy.

Security is the real issue.

Caveat : although I don't own the house where I live I do own a flat which is rented out. In a pinch, I could move back there.

Jul 20, 2013

What do people think of the new Gmail Inbox Tabs feature?

Pleasantly surprised.

I'm pretty sceptical when anyone tries to mess with my email, but I think it's doing a good job so far. The "Promotions" tab is getting generic sites / mailing lists that I don't quite want to throw in the spam bin out of my face, and apart from a couple of tweaks for some mailing lists I've found Primary and Social segregation is working out pretty well too.

My main concern is that, medium term, I want to decrease my dependency on Gmail, and this just makes it harder to go back to another mail-client. But I think it's an excellent bit of UX work. On par with early Gmail innovations and better than some of the other recent faffing around to integrate G+ or with prioritization.

Jul 20, 2013

Would you rather be rich or stone broke and have a dragon?

You have to ask? It's a fucking DRAGON!

Jul 20, 2013

Why do promoters of intelligent design automatically conclude that the designer must be the Judeo-Christian God when there are countless other possibilities?

The honest ones tend not to. They do break the argument into distinct parts :

1) look at how this complexity couldn't be evolved. it must have been designed.

2) OK. Now you accept 1), what evidence do we have for designers? Oh look here's a bunch of texts that have been talking about an intelligent designer for thousands of years. Maybe we should take another look at them.

Where we are today, all the real argument and work is around point 1. If someone has accepted that basic thesis : that evolution couldn't be true because the design needed an intelligence behind it, then the IDist probably doesn't need to hammer home point 2.

a) if they're in an English speaking culture, and an Anglo-Saxon dominated one, Christianity is likely to be the most prominent offer on the table.

b) although you say there are countless other possibilities, you might find that that isn't quite true. Other major world religions tend to describe the creation of the world as a natural event, a kind of transformation or distillation out of some prior-material, or the side-effects of animals or even flawed / hapless creators. ( List of creation myths ) The Judeo-Christian tradition is firm in its assertion that creation is part of an ongoing plan by a very smart omniscient super-being. Not just some inhuman ancestor. For example, Raven / Trickster is a personal creator, but he's hardly an "intelligent designer".

Jul 20, 2013

How can I search for 3D printable objects (in the form of data files) on the internet?

Well, there's the infamous DEFCAD which was set up to host designs for things that other thing-search engines found too hot to handle (especially guns). To the best of my knowledge the gun designs were pulled by the US government but I don't know what else DEFCAD have.

The PirateBay (google around because they keep being forced to move) introduced a category for searching for thing designs, that will probably be used for "copyright" objects. But remember the law is pretty much still being made in this area. Object designs are not necessarily copyrightable in all places. And it might be worth engaging in some activism to try to prevent them becoming so.

Jul 20, 2013

As more content on the web is published in the form of data, are monolithic search engines still useful?

Although the quantity of machine-to-machine data on the web will expand and potentially swamp the human-to-human data, it's the human written, human readable data that humans are really interested in.

So there's always going to need to be a human-readable interface to search human-readable documents, and I don't see much reason to think that that requirement will scale faster than the monolithic search-engines' attempts to keep up.

Jul 22, 2013

If you were tired of or disgruntled with Facebook, a) would you just stop or slow your daily use b) what social network would you start to use in its place?

I decided to close my Facebook account earlier this year because of the Zuckerberg / Fwd / Keystone thing. It wasn't the only reason but it was the last straw. Beyond that I had been disgruntled for a while.

Mainly with

a) the idea that our open internet culture was being so successfully enclosed by powerful private corporations.

b) that as a medium Facebook design seemed to be optimizing an addicting flow rather than giving users space to communicate or do things together. (Consider how little screen "real-estate" was given to writing. How Facebook wanted to hide any long-form writing behind a "see more" link.)

When the decision came, I just closed the account and exported what data I could. (I think I took a couple of days before closing it.)

For a while I did more on Google+ and Quora. (Actually, a LOT more on Quora). Then I decided that G+ was only marginally better and decided to get back to investing in my own blogs / sites and using RSS.

I've adopted Fargo as my link-blog (place to drop quick links to things that I would have otherwise dropped on FB (or G+ / Twitter)). Maybe not so many people read it. But maybe not so many people really saw my links go past in the headlong rush and torrent of noise that was happening on the FB walls and Twitter either.

Right now, I don't miss Facebook at all. I can see that I've lost some of the high-quality interaction I was having on G+. My next mission is to try to recreate that / encourage those people to re-engage with the open blog / RSS conversation.

Meanwhile I'm still on Quora a lot, but now I've found my Quora Answer Feed I'm more comfortable with that. I've made a quick script that stores a copy of my answers to my local machine so that I don't lose that writing. And overall, I'm pretty happy with the decision.

Jul 22, 2013

If you were to start a social network today what languages would you use to build it?

Next time I build something like this I'm *tempted* to try Meteor.js

There's a lot WRONG with this strategy. Meteor is new, untested, possibly the philosophy or implementation is flawed in some way and it won't scale or the way it works won't match the needs of my app.

OTOH, it seems to take whole chunks of responsibility (the client / server communication) off your hands, which could lead to a dramatic improvement in programmer efficiency.

Jul 22, 2013

Is it appropriate to tell a 17 or 18-year-old high-school female studying in Starbucks that her cleavage is distracting me?

I have to warn you. It's a really bad chat-up line and isn't going to end up the way you hope.

Jul 22, 2013

You are invited to an intimate family dinner by a close friend. Then you realize the hosts have a tradition of praying before dinner. For an atheist, what would be the best etiquette in such a situation?

It's a "close friend" and you only now figure out they pray at dinner while they don't know you're an atheist?

Anyway, just mumble along. There's no reason for atheists to try to turn every occasion into atheist outreach. What your Christian friend does in the privacy if his home is his business. It's only when he tries to tell your kids what to learn in school or starts stoning your daughter for talking to boys that you need to take a stand.

Jul 22, 2013

How easy is it to scrape Quora?

Update : It is no longer possible to get an RSS feed from Quora.

If you want your answers from Quora, you can try this : How to Extract Your Data From Quora and Reddit

Old and outdated :

Not sure about scraping, but you can get an RSS feed of your recent answers.

I just wrote a script to use that to archive my answers locally : grabquora

Jul 22, 2013

How easy would it be for Quora to make a million bucks?

It's never easy to make a million bucks. But if I ran Quora I'd be looking at people who've successfully turned a roster of smart people into other kinds of smart-product. I'm thinking Chris Anderson at TED, John Brockman at, maybe even Tom O'Reilly.

Is Quora positioned to be the perfect literary agent to discover next year's best-selling authors? Can it run conferences? Can it help enable some of its most popular (and acknowledgedly brillliant) answerers to become highly paid consultants? Can it launch an online college?

Jul 22, 2013

How should I respond to friends who unnecessarily make fun of me? I really can't ignore them, as they are either my friends or fall in a friend circle. I sometimes try to fight back but I fail at their level of making fun.

There are no friends who make fun of you unnecessarily.

Friends will sometimes make fun of you to help you see some of your own absurdities. But they'll do it with a certain amount of love and balanced by support and loyalty.

People who like to keep you around as the butt of their jokes, to help them show off or feel superior aren't friends. Dump them.

Jul 22, 2013

How should I respond to a "friend" who invited me to hang out, after 10 years of his being a non-friend (making zero effort, not responding to my emails when I passed through town)?

It's hard to tell. Maybe you shouldn't read much into it.

I have people I don't see for 5 years, we meet up, have a blast. Say we must keep in touch and see more of each other. And then we don't for another 5 years. Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes there are people who that's your relationship with. You like them. They like you. You get on great. But actually you don't have many projects in common. (Maybe you did in the past, but not now.) And that's fine. As long as neither of you wants more from the friendship that's OK. If one of you does want more, they'll have to make the effort to stay in touch, invite the other out etc. And then take it from there.

Jul 22, 2013

What should I be careful to do or avoid doing when hanging out with friends who make less money?

Avoid gambling. You can afford to lose more than they can. But they'll want to try to keep up with you and you could lead them into serious losses.

Jul 23, 2013

Is there a statistical basis for the stereotype of young, black males being more prone to crime?

"Crime" is such a nebulous term. And law is a huge and complex thing. Almost everyone is breaking some kind of law. (We might claim to be law-abiding but each of us breaks 260 rules a year, according to a new study)

If that's the case, then no, there's no statistical validity behind the stereotype unless you get clearer about what crimes you're talking about.

Jul 24, 2013

Do atheists believe that there are no deities, or do they believe that it is proven that there are no deities?

I think, by definition of the word "atheist", atheists don't believe that there are gods. (Including God.)

You can't really prove the non-existence of anything. (For example, I can challenge you to prove to me that Sherlock Holmes didn't exist. It may seem obvious and trivial to show, but it can't be done.)

Atheists mainly just believe that the burden of proof is on the positive (they exist) side, rather than the negative (they don't exist) side and that they have not received sufficient proof. They think that that's sufficient for them to get on with their lives without worrying too much further about the subject.

Jul 24, 2013

Why should (or shouldn't) you migrate your blog to Quora?

The internet is a two class society :

- those who own their own domain names (and have their assets located at those names) are first-class citizens. They are free men and women. At any time they can up-sticks, take their identity and content away from the current host and put it somewhere else. Even if it's a certain amount of work to extract and reformat it, they can do that without losing their address and audience.

- those who don't own their domain names and park their assets at someone else's domain (Facebook, Blogger, Quora) are basically sharecroppers or feudal serfs. They're owned by the lords of the particular manor which they've attached themselves to.

The longer you wait to get your own domain, the longer you are in servitude. No service or software, whatever the functionality is worth giving up your own domain for. And if you don't have a domain, but are planning to make the effort to break from your existing owner, don't just walk straight into another captivity.

Jul 24, 2013

How is Noam Chomsky summarized in one sentence?

Linguist, important in the development of cognitive science in the 20th century, also widely known for political writing and activism critiquing the US government and media from a left-libertarian standpoint.

Jul 24, 2013

Why have so many people never heard of Quora?

Why should they have?

It's a fairly new service. (One among millions on the interweb.)

It doesn't advertise (Not that I've seen, anyway, either on other people's sites or offline). So people only come by word of mouth or because someone put a link somewhere. (Compare Yahoo Answers which is on the Yahoo Portal.)

It's a site which requires you to read and write a lot to get the best of it. Many people don't have the time, inclination or skill to read and write a lot.

Jul 25, 2013

Which computer programming language would be best to learn for the future?

Elm-Lang looks to be a nice way to try out Haskell-like syntax and ideas, while getting Functional Reactive Programming, in an environment - the browser - which can be both fun to play in and very practical.

Jul 25, 2013

Does anyone use Fiverr?

I've used it a few times.

I've had small bits of HTML / CSS done. And some fairly standard icons designed. I also had a tune I wrote mastered.

In summary, I think all the services I received were remarkably good / good value for $5. None of them were perfect. (The design-work isn't perfect because no-one can read my mind, and although I asked for a couple of iterations in some cases, I'm too embarrassed to keep pushing it until it's really right, given the low price I'm paying.)

If you go there expecting you'll get the same service / quality as you'd normally have to pay 100 or 1000 times for from a local supplier, then you'll be out of luck. (And frankly you deserve to be.) If you use it as a useful way to get rough / quick prototypes / ideas / sketches knocked up that you plan to polish yourself later, then it can be a useful part of your workflow.

Jul 25, 2013

What was it like to be a programmer without the Internet (no online documentation, no Google, no Stack Overflow)?

We had a lot of magazines which published reviews, source-code of programs (we called them "listings") and other bits of news and gossip about the computer scene.

We didn't really know we didn't have the internet, because we didn't envisage such a thing as exists today. Most of what we wanted to know we got from the magazines and that seemed an acceptable and viable bandwidth for getting this information (two or three magazine's worth a month, decided by an editor.)

Jul 25, 2013

What can micro-gig marketplaces like fiverr and taskrabbit do to upsell their users?

I think Fiverr is doing the right thing by allowing sellers to offer higher-value / higher-priced add-ons to the basic $5 gig.

Could it go further? I'd guess once it starts building up better feedback about vendors it could use that in some way. Give badges / credits to successful / reliable vendors. Allow privileged vendors to create gigs with a minimum of $25 or $50.

A bolder move might be to try offering a Kickstarter-like service. Allow gig vendors to create Kickstarter-like projects but at a smaller-scale than the average Kickstarter. For example "I will write this short ebook if 20 people commit to buying it for $5". Or "I'll cycle naked through Manhattan if 500 people pay $10."

Or look at something like CafePress which has been a great idea for over a decade but feels tired. Fiverr is full of creative artists and performers. Many of whom are using it to build their personal brand. Maybe those vendors would love the option of offering a t-shirt or other branded items to happy customers etc. right on their page.

Fiverr could also beef up the vendor profiles in other ways. Steal good ideas from everywhere from Behance to LinkedIn to DesignOutpost to oDesk to vizify.

Jul 25, 2013

Where are some of the best places to eat in London? What dishes can you recommend?

A couple of places I like to take visitors. Note this isn't classy or about fine-dining, these are everyday places, but a bit unusual, very good food and good value.

1) Little Georgia on Goldsmiths Row (London Fields / Broadway Market area)

Little Georgia - პატარა საქართველო

Nice Georgian food. Great for breakfast (pancakes, fruit, yoghurts)

2) I had an amazing Peanut Soup at Zoe's Ghana Kitchen when it was just a pop-up at Hackney Wick Festival. Now it's a full restaurant I've been meaning to try it out again next time I'm in London.

3) If you're visiting London and want Indian food, then you should try Brick Lane, for the atmosphere. Most places are OK. (Not necessarily as spectacular as some 5 star restaurant somewhere, but I think average quality is higher than random Indian restaurants elsewhere in UK.) I take people to Cafe Bangla cos the food's reliable (I particularly like the mint Karahai), the staff friendly and the pictures on the walls are crazy.

4) There used to be a good Persian place in Upper Street, Islington. Small, red-fronted, name begins with S I think. Not sure if it's still there (couldn't find it on Google maps), but I liked it.

5) Ariana II Afghan restaurant in Brondesbury is a good, cheap Afghan restaurant (basically a slight variation on Turkish but done well and surprisingly cheap.)

Jul 28, 2013

Why do atheists consider only objective evidence and turn a blind eye to subjective evidence of any experience?

Good question. I think it's a genuine blind-spot for people of a materialist persuasion. Somehow we've managed to persuade ourselves that everything in first-person-vocabulary MUST be translatable into third-person vocabulary and therefore can be made compatible with our theory of a universe that contains only material and its interactions.

As I've said elsewhere, the fact that I am me and not you, where as you are you and not me, despite there only being one material universe, is a kind of symmetry breaking which has no material explanation, and therefore OUGHT to be deeply embarrassing to anyone advocating materialism.

Jul 29, 2013

What's the coolest thing you can get a computer to do in 10 lines of code?

Jul 31, 2013

Do people think songs today are not as good as classical music pieces composed by Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, etc.?

The thing is, we *know* that classical music is "timeless". Not because it's good but because we already saw it survive the test of time. We also know that something recent, however good, will go through a cycle of first sounding modern, then, if it's at all popular, sounding clichéd, then sounding a bit passe, and only much, much later will the listener mentally detach it from its time and consider it "classic".

Most film makers trying to signify "the future" rightly figure they don't need that extra aesthetic problem.

Aug 1, 2013

How do you pronounce "Cthulhu"?

"Kid, have you got 9 tongues? Is your mouth more than 6 feet wide?
Then give it up. It's an alien language. Your little skin flap of a mouth can't handle it.
Besides, it's more of a mental thing than an actual word ..."

Aug 3, 2013

If "brogrammers" are bros who program, what are hipsters who program?

Bret Victor

See The Future of Programming for details.

Seriously. Bret Victor is the uber-hipster of programming : ironic pocket protector? Check. Overhead projector? Check. Only references obscure artists from the 60s and 70s? Check (Engelbart is about as mainstream as he'll go).

Of course, the most hipster language is Lisp. Lisp programmers were into EVERYTHING before you'd even heard of it. (Garbage collection, objects, continuation passing, proper macros ... etc. etc. )

Aug 3, 2013

Do you consider it morally wrong to kill elephants?

Yes. I think it's morally wrong to kill all creatures that have an awareness of themselves as selves. (Ie which pass the Mirror test )

Aug 3, 2013

Do I still have a future in Programming if I don't do well on the Ap Computer Science Test (tested in Java?).

Here's the honest test :

Now that you "like" programming, are you doing a lot of it? For yourself, your own projects etc? If so, you have a future in it.

If you ONLY do it for classes, when pressurized by project / deadlines etc. you probably don't .

Aug 3, 2013

I don't want to do Java any more. What should I do?

Obviously you can learn new languages by yourself, making personal projects. Make something that's interesting (or potentially lucrative) for you, not just something you hope will impress potential employers.

Age is absolutely not a problem for getting into new languages or ways of thinking.

"Pays well" might be more of an issue. Programmers are normally paid well either because of a) seniority in an established corporate environment, b) being part of a successful startup.

By definition you can't leave your corporate job / world and continue to have the money that you were being paid (partly as bribe) to stay in it. And you probably won't get paid so well while a newbie in a cool startup unless you bring something to them other than your newbie skills in their language. Maybe you find yourself become an "architecture specialist" for some startup which needs to scale up and rethink their architecture. Though be aware that many of the patterns you learned in corporate Java may be catastrophically irrelevant (Python Is Not Java) If you have good intuitions about architecture, though, and make sure you're up on contemporary ideas (NoSQL, using local browser storage etc.) you might have a chance.

The other thing, Java is a language for doing cool stuff ... in Android. You may find there's a role in a startup with people who've been doing web ( PHP / Javascript ) now need to up their Java skills to write apps. You get to be a Java expert / mentor, while simultaneously figuring out how to do things like use Scala / Clojure to make Android programming more productive.

I have no idea of these strategies could work out in practice, but might be worth thinking about.

Aug 3, 2013

What is it like to spend several hours on an answer and not see it gain any traction?

All too common.

Aug 3, 2013

If robots decide to exterminate the human race, how would they do it?

Bombs in cell-phones. Wait until pretty much the entire population of the world is carrying them. Bang!

Mop up the survivors with drones. Hit he survivors when they try to work the fields to grow food.

Aug 4, 2013

What are the best and most up to date examples of great electronic music composition?

Here's what I'm feeling, 2013, bit at the experimental end but still funky as hell.


Scratcha DVA


The Drum

Aug 4, 2013

What is the future of computer-generated music?

A lot of popular music today is "computer generated" if you just mean sequenced, recorded on a computer with a lot of computer generated synths and samples.

Then there's that thing that people think of as "computer generated" music which is a kind of academic world that seems strangely retro in focussing on analyzing and resynthesizing the rules of harmony and melody that governed "serious" classical music over 100 years ago.

But today, much of the energy / interest in popular music is coming precisely from new sounds, timbres and rhythms. So one avenue that I think we're going to have to explore in the future is computer analysis and resynthesis of timbre.

Computers already let composers play with an extra-ordinary space of sound. But I'm not sure how much they're helping us come to understand that space.

Can a computer figure out why a particular guitar riff / set pedal effects pumps you up, while a melodically comparable one falls flat? What makes the sound of someone like, say, Burial so different and so much more emotional than a similar minimal lo-fi looped garage beat?

Computers can compose something that sounds like Chopin. When will they start to compose something that sounds like John Cage (with all the intellectual and spiritual implications)?

Aug 4, 2013

Why is Silicon Valley not investing in healthcare as a sector other than pure healthcare IT plays?

a) Healthcare has a lot of regulation. Many SV entrepreneurs don't like / understand regulation or want to have to spend their time dealing with lawyers rather than code / customers.

Furthermore, many products can't be rolled out without clinical trials which can take years. This is a barrier for startup culture : funding doesn't last that long; entrepreneurs are often, by nature, restless and impatient.

b) SV entrepreneurs tend to make products for people like themselves or their friends. That's not an entirely stupid heuristic for young, inexperienced entrepreneurs to have. At least they'll know something about the customers.

But the main customer base for health-care products are the old, ill, infirm, poor, chronically fatigued etc. People that the healthy young things of SV don't really relate to. (Contrast with fitness products which healthy young people and SV does love.)

Aug 4, 2013

What prototyping services are there avilable online? Like shapeways but for other stuff too like CNCing

100kgarages is an interesting mode : a network to help you find small providers in your area.

Aug 5, 2013

Given that it's just a theory, can the theory of evolution be wrong?

There are NO facts or laws in the way you seem to think there are. All knowledge is conjectural. (Including your biblical knowledge.)

So sure. Evolution can be wrong. And?

... what happens next? Where is this going?

What I mean is ... you aren't going to have any kind of interesting debating point or leverage against an atheist simply because evolution might be wrong.

Because, as atheists keep trying to tell you, they DON'T make evolution or materialism into a kind of religion or blind faith. They know that it might turn out to be wrong. They're cool about it. They have no insecurities. No hang-ups at all. Zilch!

If we find out it's wrong, it will be because we've come up with an even better model for how our species got here, and all the millions of other pieces of information we have about other species, one that's even more intellectually satisfying and fits more of our observations and makes more novel predictions. And that's cool. That's like we get to upgrade from the boring old evolution theory to newer, shinier "phylogeny 2.0" theory. We'll love it.

You see the point? We aren't phased. We don't think that our knowledge has to be absolute or perfect. No one is telling us that we have to believe in THIS theory or we're bad people and we'll get punished. We know it's just the best working model we have. (And, boy, does it work.) So we're happy. We're cool.

So let's be open minded. The theory of evolution can be wrong. What now?

Aug 5, 2013

Do you think Evolution is at odds with the idea of helping the weak?

As others have pointed out, evolutionary theory is descriptive not prescriptive. It just tries to explain where we came from, not where we should go.

However, it's a bit disingenuous to pretend that evolutionary theory hasn't sometimes been used by some people as a justification for selfish arguments. Either that their "race" is more evolved / superior to another and so has a responsibility to rule the other or has the right to dominate it. Or that as individuals it justifies their selfish action. Particularly, evolution is sometimes still wheeled out to "explain" sex-differences in behaviour (why men are programmed to want lots of sexual partners while women are programmed for monogamy, that kind of thing)

So, yes, sometimes people have tried to use "survival of the fittest" as justification for selfish acts. But there isn't anything in the theory that demands that. Nor any serious belief that we can't resist instincts. (As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, we rebel against our genes every time we use a contraceptive.)

Good evolutionary scientists won't try to draw moral conclusions from evolutionary theory. Or, at least, won't try to claim that they have the same status as scientific hypotheses. (Sometimes evolutionary theorists WILL act kind of relieved that evolutionary theory doesn't preclude moral behaviour as, for example, when the prisoner's dilemma was used to explain altruism.)

Aug 6, 2013

I'm 21 and I've never played computer/video games. Am I missing anything in life?

Well, the good side of games is, if you're into them, you're often motivated to mod them, hack them, write your own. For a lot of programmers that was one of the first reasons to get into programming and the first applications to focus on.

(Just like being into music might make you practice playing the guitar.)

Secondly, games ARE part of our culture, so there are references that people talk about, jokes they make, especially in nerd culture, that you won't get if you don't play them.

Thirdly, sometimes games are things you can play socially, to bond with friends.


I'm not convinced by the "problem solving" activity argument. As an engineer you're already facing a lot harder and relevant problems in your course / work. And frankly, they're more interesting because they're tied to the real world.

So if you don't want to play videogames, you aren't really missing out on much. Don't feel obliged. I'd go as far as to say, if you want mind-stretching / leisure / training, do decent cross-words from a good newspaper (it will improve your language skills and wider cultural references.)

Aug 6, 2013

Do you think the idea of bitcoins is ethical? It’s attractive to illegal sellers, requires the same energy to earn and sell for ‘solid money’, may not justify energy spent saving money, and could be outdated by another technology tomorrow.

1) All kinds of things can be used for criminal ends : computers, cars, aeroplane tickets, screw-drivers etc. etc. As long as they have good uses as well as bad, then they're just tools.

2) One of the big problems in the world is that most people don't understand where the money denominated in their national currency actually comes from. The short version in modern economies is this : private banks create it out of thin air every time they make a loan. When you take out a mortgage they don't give you money that someone else deposited there. They just make it up, type it into the computer, and credit you with it.

They can do this because governments have idiotically given them the right to do this, with very little oversight (what oversight there was has been reduced greatly in the last 40 years). That means banks make huge amounts of money collecting interest repayments on loans which didn't cost them anything. This has two bad effects 1) this acts as a strong force for concentrating the money in the world in the hands of the financial sector (through all those interest repayments), 2) because money is always created in the form of a loan that requires interest repayments there is always more debt in the economy than money to pay it off. This has all kinds of weird, socially corrosive effects.

(If you think this is all crazy, check out Positive Money, a UK think-tank that investigate this stuff)

So, the problems of money in the world aren't just "greed, poverty, corruption, extortion" as personal failings. Some of the problems are systematic, built into the way money is created.

One advantage of BitCoin is that the way it's created is completely independent of this system. Yes, it's still unfair, in the sense that only fairly privileged (in terms of wealth and knowledge) people are likely to be able to do their own "mining" (ie. creating the money). But there's still less of a barrier to entry than starting a private bank. And it's much more transparent.

And because money is NOT created in the form of loans (what we sometimes call "debt-money") it means that there are actually more bitcoins in existence than debts denominated in bitcoins (unlike pounds / dollars etc.)

3) We now know that other payment systems are compromised in different ways. We know, for example, that the NSA in the US is trying to collect and store pretty much all the information running through a computer anywhare. And that they claim they have the co-operation of large cloud-services, including Google. If they're sucking up meta-data about who mails who on GMail and what searches you make you think they won't also be looking in your Google Wallet?

A year or so ago I made a donation to wikileaks. (An activity I consider to be highly ethical.) Today, I believe that would be fairly hard as the existing credit card providers and paypal have unilaterally chosen to block such payments.

BitCoin payments can't be stopped by governments or corporations. And that's something we should welcome. You don't have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorists to realize that governments should have some limits on their powers.

4) I agree there is an issue with the spending energy on creating bitcoins. I see why it's integral to the system. And obviously it's tiny compared to the energy spent on other computer related leisure, such as surfing YouTube or playing games, but it would be nice to think that this energy could also be put to some use. I've suggested building electric heaters out of bitcoin mining hardware so at least people could get some benefit from the heat chucked out.

5) You're probably driving up the price of energy by a small amount. But I'd guess it's tiny compared to all the other uses we make of electricity. (Like I say, less than Facebook or overfilling the kettle. )

6) Well I'd have to see the actual amount of scarce resources and weigh up the costs / benefits. Ordinary money isn't energy-free to make transactions either. Gold mining has huge environmental costs.

BitCoin got prominence by being clever enough and viable enough for a libertarian-leaning geek community to take it seriously, and spiralled from there. It probably helps that our governments have been acting in an extremely untrustworthy way recently.

Update : since writing this, I’ve become more aware of the huge and increasing energy demands of “proof of work” crypto. While I think my points above are OK, I wouldn’t be quite as blase about the energy / resource demands. It might be that PoW crypto shouldn’t be adopted at scale because of the energy demands.

Aug 6, 2013

Where in the world do aspiring electronic artists go?

In the UK, London is the obvious huge gravitational centre. MOST of UK electronic innovation comes from there.

But not all. The Bristol scene always seems to produce its own interesting take on things (from Massive Attack / Portishead to Roni Size to Pinch and Joker)

Glasgow / Scotland seems to producing good artists at the moment (Rustie, Zombie, Hudson Mohawke / TNGHT)

Manchester, Birmingham, Brighton all have scenes that get interesting every now and then, Don't know if they are at the moment though.

But, basically, London is a world-class metropolis with immigrants and visitors from just about everywhere. There's probably as much clubbing action and innovation there as any city in the world.

I couldn't tell you about America. I like a lot of LA artists at the moment, but not sure if I can infer anything from that.

Aug 6, 2013

Why is the French electronic music the best in the world?

It isn't. End of story.

But you might ask a more interesting question about what gives French electronic music its character.

Aug 6, 2013

How might Al-Qaeda attack Guantanamo Bay and what would be the likely outcome?

The point is, Al Quaeda have zero interest in attacking Guantanamo Bay.

Al Quaeda are a decentralized network. Almost no-one (if anyone at all) in Guantanamo Bay is a member of it. And absolutely no-one in Guantanamo Bay is important to Al Quaeda's operational capacity in 2013.

Guantanamo Bay is far, far, far, far, .....
.... far, far, far ... (have I said this enough yet?) ... far more useful to Al Quaeda in its current state - as a shining beacon of US hypocrisy, cruelty and political ineptitude (remember GB is basically still open because Republicans in Congress blocked the necessary funding to close it, in order to spite Obama) and therefore creating justifiable global disgust at the US - than it would be liberated.

Aug 6, 2013

How has the development of culture and the intellectual class in Europe been affected by the Nazi extermination of the Jews during WWII, along with the fact that many relocated to the US and Israel?

Who's the last famous German / Austrian philosopher or intellectual you've heard of? Apart from a couple of artists there are none since the mid 20th century.

Go back 100 years and Vienna was absolutely the intellectual capital of the world : not just Freud, but Carnap and the Vienna circle, Wittgenstein, Popper, Austrian Economists, Serialist composers. Everything was happening in Vienna. Germany wasn't doing too badly either.

Today, its contribution to philosophy, the humanities, cultural theory is microscopic.

It's not as simple as "Europe" though. Because Paris has remained an intellectual powerhouse, from Sartre, de Beauvoire, Merleu-Ponty, to Guy Debord, to Deleuze, Foucault. Derrida, Latour etc.

It's also not quite a simple as the intellectuals being Jewish. Derrida and Levinas were Jewish. Others weren't. But think of it like this, the Creative Class don't want to hang in places which are prejudiced against Jews any more than they want to hang around in places that are prejudiced against gays. Places which welcome their intellectuals (despite race, sexuality or other popular prejudice) are places that all the other intellectuals (however avant-garde, challenging to the mainstream) will also feel welcome.

Places that try to discourage or drive out the "other", are going to drive out everyone who values freedom to be yourself.

So yes, the Nazi expulsion / extermination of Jews did massive damage to the culture of Germanic Europe.

Update : almost certainly there are other reasons for the lack of German intellectual output in the last 70 years : perhaps the culture puts a higher value on science and engineering. Perhaps for a long time German theorists were too reticent to promote their ideas. Perhaps there are great German thinkers but the outside world wasn't interested in translating them. Perhaps the split during the Cold War. Perhaps university policy is to spread talent around the country rather than concentrating it and getting critical mass. I'm sure all these can play a part too, but I think it's clear that there's been a pretty catastrophic collapse in Germanic culture compared to the 19th and earlier 20th century. You have to be pretty suspicious that the Nazis played a big part in that.

Update 2 : Of course, Berlin is now a very trendy city that's attracting a lot of artists and culture. I'm sure other kinds of thinkers will be following in the wake of this. In 30 years time we may be talking about a renaissance.

Aug 6, 2013

How can we create a global community for sharing ACTIONABLE IDEAS in any field of endeavour?

There have been various attempts to build things like this. The main problem is that votes on a site don't really signal any kind of commitment from the people doing the voting.

Everyone can say they want someone to do something about blah blah, but if that isn't backed by some more concrete commitment (money / time) then it means very little. It doesn't help allocate scarce resources (because people can "like" far more than there are resources to satisfy) and it doesn't bring more resources to the table.

"Actionable Ideas" are only really "actionable" if someone is ready to put them into action. It's not a property of the idea itself. It's a relational property between the idea and the actor.

So, to me, the most promising examples of working systems like this are Kickstarter and Indiegogo etc. Platforms where people put up their ideas in the form of well defined projects / products with an already assembled team committed to carrying them out (if they get funding). And where "votes" come in the form of cash commitments.

This doesn't have to be just about preselling videogames or gizmos. You can do a lot of good in this format (eg. Kite Patch ) I think that these kinds of site are truly revolutionary, and can plausibly bring us exactly the kinds of benefits you're hoping for.

Aug 6, 2013

Is mathematics scientific? Isn't this the same fallacy as committed by positivism?

Maths is just a way of rearranging the information you already know in a form that makes it more tractable to extract other implications from.

You have 5 apples in one hand, you have 4 apples in the other hand you can "know" you have 9 apples, without having to put them all into a big pile and count them again. You haven't "learned" anything new, just teased out the implications of what you already knew by manipulating some symbols.

Maths isn't a branch of science. It's practical skill that scientists use, no different from knowing how to focus a telescope or do a proper experiment.

Aug 6, 2013

Do you agree that Atheist people like to thumb down everything (people and even god)?

Yep. There are many times I'm out on the road and it's kind of miles from where I want to go, and suddenly there's god, just driving by, so I thumb him down and catch a ride.

It's cool that god gives rides even to atheists. :-)

Aug 6, 2013

What do you do when you feel like the only value you have in life is being "smart" and even that seems to be fading away?

Get some sleep.

Seriously. Don't underestimate the effect of tiredness on your mental abilities.

Aug 7, 2013

Would you pay 1 dollar per month to use Quora?

No. I would be glad that the paywall cured me of my Quora addiction.

I love Quora but there are days that go by and I'm like WTF happened to today?

Aug 7, 2013

Which Muslims are admired and respected globally by people of other religions?

Muhammad Yunus (founder of Grameen bank).

I know he seems to have been caught up a lot of realpolitik accusations / scandals these days. And you have to be pragmatic and not overly naive in what you think microfinance can really achieve, but I believe he was a man with a genuinely brilliant and worthy idea and conviction to pull it off.

He deserves our admiration and respect.

(Caveat, if he turns out to have embezzled then I'll revise this but I think it's unproven and likely to be a political smear.)

Aug 7, 2013

What major breakthroughs are expected to come in this field?

I think this is a good article to read to get some perspective on all the "super-batteries are around the corner" hype : On Batteries and Innovation

Aug 8, 2013

Why are new rock bands not using soundcloud to promote their songs? Soundcloud seems to have a lot more trance/dubstep.

Soundcloud is very resistant to visual image. That's particularly problematic for anyone who wants to be seen "performing". Rock music is a performance genre, where musicians want to be seen to be musicians : thrashing their guitars, pounding those drums, straining those vocal chords etc.

YouTube is great for that. BandCamp is cool. MySpace is OK. SoundCloud is for people who basically want their music to be heard, without some kind of visual mediation.

Aug 8, 2013

What do people who are pro-LGBT think about the Ex-Gay Pride Month that will be held in DC?

It smells like it's getting an awful lot hype / funding from people who aren't themselves ex-gay.

I have no idea whether there are people who've changed (rather than suppressed) the orientation of their sexual desires. And no idea whether such people feel oppressed by the LGBT community. If there are and they do, then I sympathize with them and think they have every right to organize themselves into a mutually supporting community, to publicize the fact and to speak out against their oppressors. I'm in favour of everyone being allowed to be happy with their sexuality.

BUT ... It smells like it's getting an awful lot hype / funding from people who aren't themselves ex-gay ... but do have an interest in promoting the idea that homosexuality is an abnormality that needs fixing.

Aug 9, 2013

What does it say about Bitcoin when a US judge rules in favour of regulating Bitcoin as a currency and still the value of Bitcoin doesn't fall by more than $5?

Either Ted Suzman is right. Or

a) people didn't hear about the ruling yet
b) people outside the US don't think US regulation will affect them

Aug 10, 2013

Pop Music: I know there are exceptions, but why do lots of song writers write their best tunes when they are young?

Two slightly contradictory reasons :

- Sometimes great tunes are really simple. A young person is still figuring out whether they can do this. So they don't mind doing something simple. It's part of the learning. As they get older though, and more experienced, they'll start getting more ambitious. They'll want to do something more sophisticated, that demonstrates their new-found understanding of complex harmonies or mastery of stylistic techniques. They don't want to repeat themselves.

- At the same time, younger musicians are willing to work harder. They may spend more time fiddling around, trying to find what they want. A more mature musician has settled into certain patterns / musical tropes and often just goes with those.

So it's slightly paradoxical, the younger musician is willing to experiment more, try more different combinations of ideas, but is then happy when he / she discovers something that "sounds good", despite being structurally simple. The danger for the older musicians is that with their greater technique and higher baseline of expected quality, they go looking for something that is structurally more impressive, and demonstrates greater skill, but are less curious and willing to challenge themselves on the way there.

Aug 10, 2013

Which talented bands or musical groups disbanded before hitting their peak?

How would we know?

Aug 10, 2013

Why are some people so judgmental about other people's tastes in books, music and movies?

I'm going to try making a defence of this position. Though, obviously, the easy answer is to say that taste is just subjective / relative.

The *good* reason to be judgemental is because you believe that aesthetic value is real and not simply relative. If you do believe that art can be "better" and "worse", then why wouldn't you try to correct people's mistaken beliefs about it, just as you'd help people improve their understanding of science or ethics?

Quora is about sharing knowledge not indulging people's ignorance. So it should also be about promoting the truth and criticizing erroneous beliefs and tastes.

Aug 10, 2013

What new sounds/music from around the world do think when you heard it the first time "the world should hear this"?

Aug 10, 2013

Do music subcultures and underground scenes require a hegemonic pop-culture to rebel against in order to thrive?

The way you phrase the question the answer can't be anything but "yes". By definition of the words "subculture" and "underground".

But there have probably been times when the "overground" was also pretty vibrant and thriving.

Aug 10, 2013

What cultural and political factors inspire a vibrant music scene?

I think it's easy to romanticize oppression and suffering. We seem to like our artists to suffer.

But I think it's pretty hard to justify such generalizations.

We can't really say that, say, Kraftwerk were anything other than privileged white Europeans, but they ushered in the most radical transformation to European and American popular music of the second-half of the 20th century and their sounds and rhythms still influence the shape of hip-hop and techno.

Sanjay Sabnani is probably right that a place which is a nexus (trade route, city) that brings together a number of different influences is likely to be more vibrant and productive than a place which is out in the sticks. (Network theorists talk about betweenness centrality for this property of being a connector.)

If Ethan Hein's Songwriting and genealogy is correct, then it offers a completely different theory to his answer here. Black Americans have been the most dynamic and innovative force in 20th century music, not because they suffered (though of course, they did), but because they're the inheritors of two entirely different musical traditions and have had ample opportunities to experiment with different ways of recombining them. Unlike either white Americans or black Africans. Big cities play an important role too : New York, Chicago, New Orleans.

Gypsies have had a similar effect in Europe, bringing eastern sounds and instruments to influence the west.

The interesting question, now, is has the internet destroyed geography? Is everyone now conncected to everyone else? Has it only partly destroyed it? Because the city you live in is still so important.

Or, even more interestingly, has it created new topologies? Are there online scenes (Seapunk? Drag? Vapourwave?) which are more or less vibrant than each other? Can we see reasons for that? Is it still topology?

Aug 10, 2013

Why were the sixties such an influential era in music?

The way to be influential in any artistic genre is to get in at the beginning. Be one of the pioneers of the genre.

Genres depend on several factors :
- technology
- institutions
- actual artistic ideas / tropes

When you're working with novel technologies and institutions, you a) have no competition from the past (no-one else in the past could have done what you did) and b) you can be sure that whoever works in the same way in the future will inevitably be compared with you. (They will either cite you themselves, or others will diagnose your influence on them.)

The 60s mainly owes its iconic status in music largely due to the invention and development of the transistor in the 1950s. The transistor changed popular culture in many ways. Firstly, it allowed the creation of radios which were both :

a) cheap enough for a young person not yet of working age (henceforth known as "teenager") to own their own

b) small enough to be fitted in a car or carried outdoors.

The widespread diffusion of personal / portable radio was as culturally transformative in the 60s as the widespread diffusion of mobile internet connectivity has been over the last decade.

Suddenly teenagers could hook themselves into a global network of free music distribution. They could hear new sounds from (potentially) anywhere, without having either to wait for musicians playing that music to arrive in town (if they ever did) or to spend a fortune importing records. (Although the explosion of interest in all this free music also fed back into growing the record distribution network.)

With their own radios, teenagers were also no-longer constrained to listen to something the whole family would like. It was possible for musicians and radio stations to cater to their specialist taste.

All these factors rewarded novelty-seeking among the musicians. When you are mainly trying to appeal, quickly, to young people whose tastes are not fully formed, against an increasing level of competition, then you start to diversify.

Beyond transistor radio, other technologies helped too : television was becoming more widespread with both better sound and picture quality. That rewarded music programs and musicians to pay more attention to their looks. Fashion is always important, but it became increasingly part of the cultural product of the music industry. That also helped to make sixties stars "visual icons" more like Hollywood actors.

Other answers here fill in more pieces of the puzzle (especially the economic and institutional changes). But I'd say that's the basic reason for the enduring appeal of the 60s generation of musicians. They got to explore and map out the uncharted continent of rock music. All the contours of the system of stars, singles, charts, albums, recording studio, stadium gigs, the clothes, the attitudes. And like early explorers of any continent, they left their names all over the map.

Aug 10, 2013

What do the very rich and the very poor have in common?

Lack of middle-class insecurity and public moralism.

They know who and where they are and aren't afraid that if they don't behave, they'll end up somewhere worse.

Aug 11, 2013

Do people overrate Adolf Hitler as the most evil person ever?

I do think there was something very unusual about Hitler (see Phil Jones (He / Him)'s answer to Why is it acceptable for Mongolia to name its main airport after Genghis Khan, but it is not acceptable for Germany to name its main airport after Adolf Hitler? )

Nevertheless, I think we've not quite got our heads around the great question raised by the Nazis : was the spectacular harm they caused the result of spectacular evil? Or was it merely the result of a common, everyday evil, amplified by "modernity" (ie. modern bureaucracies and industrial technologies) which enabled the execution of that evil on hitherto unknown scale?

I think it's important to be open to the second possibility. Not least because otherwise we tend towards a certain "smugness". That we and our neighbours are nothing like the Germans of the 30s and 40s. We would never fall for politicians stirring up hate against a minority they told us was secretly plotting against our society. We would never believe brazen false-flag operations like the burning of the Reichstag. We would never let the freedoms of our society be dismantled for the greater interests and security of our nation. We could never become unquestioning cogs in a machine designed to repress, imprison and exterminate.

The real problem with building up the idea of Hitler's evil is that he becomes a kind of James Bond villain. Someone mysteriously crazy and all powerful. As many people have noted, what's truly terrifying about Nazi Germany was NOT the magnitude of Hitler's evil. But that the entire country (of ordinary, not-evil people,) went along with it.

To the extent that people focus on Hitler, and not on the complex of social forces and ordinary psychology in Germany, then they're certainly "overrating" him.

Aug 11, 2013

What non-technological innovation would be most mind blowing to someone 50 years ago?

Gay Marriage. Technically feasible 50 years ago, still blowing minds today.

Aug 11, 2013

Between 1997 and 2012, what are the most impressive innovations that happened in Silicon Valley that blew your mind?

15 years ago from 2013 is 1997.

Handhelds and mobiles aren't particularly shocking. We'd already had Apple's Newton. Go Corp. General Magic. Nah ... nothing new there. The multi-touch screen is very sexy. That was an aesthetic delight. But not shocking.

Not even Google Glass. People were already going around with augmented reality, virtual reality goggles. You'd be reading about them in Wired every other month.

OTOH, the Google self-driving car is one of those things that I'd have dismissed as "yeah sure, but in practical terms it's just going to turn out to be too complicated to be feasible." It's the kind of thing we always joked was "20 years down the line" meaning that people were underestimating the difficulty.

Well, I'm genuinely shocked that they've actually been able to do it. That the computer power / algorithms are finally equal to the complexity of the traffic. Now, I think, we have to expect that the human-like androids ARE coming in the not too distant future.

Aug 11, 2013

What is the differece between blogger and Google site builder?

I haven't looked at Google Site Builder for a long time. I'm not even sure if it's still supported.

Traditionally the difference was this :

- Blogger is (obviously) blogging software, that came from the culture of blogging and emphasized the tools that bloggers needed. It's by no means as full featured as WordPress, but it does most of the basics, reasonably well.

- Google Site Builder was for complete novices on the web (typically small businesses) to put up some kind of web-presence. It's main focus was to be as easy as possible for someone with no knowledge to make some kind of page with their other contact details (phone, address) without having to pay a web-developer to make one for you.

What's interesting is where this is going in future.

No-one should underestimate how much the thinking about the web has changed since the rise of Facebook and Twitter. Today, most people's basic "web-presence" is their Facebook page. There are people who still have no idea about what a website is, or how (or why) they could create one, but still use Facebook everyday as an app. on their mobile device.

Some people use Twitter similarly.

Now it used to be obvious to most of us in web-culture that people should have some kind of web-page. And things like blogs and site-builder type sites were ways to get that. Today there's an assumption that FB or Twitter might be all that most of humanity need.

Now, to be very clear I don't agree with this. I think it's an extremely important principle that people should own their own domain names and have some kind of site of their own. If you DON'T own your own domain name you are effectively a serf online, entirely dependent on and exploited by the corporation you've attached yourself to. (BTW : I'm even starting to run open-events / workshops under a "reclaim your domain" banner in the town I live in, to help people understand this principle and get their domain name.)

But to stand back from the political for a minute, the large corporations, the internet industry today, is now focused on getting people to sign-up and be locked-in to Facebook-like things : accounts that have statuses and followers all within the site itself.

So here's what I expect to happen. I don't think Google, right now, care very much about site-builder. (I have a no inside knowledge, possibly they have a strategic use for it, but haven't heard of one.)

Meanwhile Google's longer-term strategy (I believe) will be to merge Blogger into GooglePlus (their Facebook-like thing). They already merged the comments systems into more general G+ comments. (If you enable this on Blogger, only G+ users can comment on your posts.) They have a way to automatically link your new Blogger posts on G+. I think next time they redesign Blogger it will be even more integrated with and like G+ .

If I'm right about that, don't expect Blogger to start getting any tools that are not "Facebook-like" in some sense. So it might get better tools for creating events (that's something that Facebook lets individuals do), but it's unlikely to give you the ability to run a shop.

Update 2018 : I’m not sure I was right about the “merging Blogger into Google Plus” thing. They both seem to be drifting.

Update 2019 : And now Google Plus is being switched off. So was wrong on that.

Related :

Phil Jones (He / Him)'s answer to What are your thoughts about news aggregators?

Aug 12, 2013

How do atheists define the difference between a living and a dead person? Imagine there is a dead body lying in front of you. You also have the same organs but you're alive. Why?

Let's turn the question around. It's actually quite an advantage for scientifically minded atheists to not have too firm an idea of the difference between a live person and a dead one.

That seems to leave open the possibility that we might continue to push that boundary backwards.

Of course, as everyone else here has pointed out, a living body is one with millions of chemical and electrical homoeostatic and autopoeietic systems which are in the business of trying to keep themselves within certain limits of operation. And "death" is the point where they break down and stop resisting external attacks.

Once the self preservation processes break down and the decay processes start it's horribly difficult to reverse. Billions of interdependent variables difficult to reverse. But not, in principle, impossible.

Perhaps in future we'll find better ways of preserving important organs like brains with their memories / personalities intact, and be able to kick-start new regeneration processes in old "dead" bodies, which bring them back to life.

This is pure science-fiction at the moment. But plenty of things that are commonplace today are yesterday's science fiction.

Aug 12, 2013

Considering that all cultures are equal, why have Europeans achieved so much more than other cultures throughout history?

As Raymond Holmes and Anirvan Lahiri point out Jared Diamond has a great book on this called "Guns, Germs and Steel".

Largely it's to do with geography and weather.

Particular advantages that Europe had :

- land productive for agriculture (not deserts or jungles)

- we inherited horses from Asia

- we didn't have big dangerous animals that had co-evolved with humans and resisted domestication (one of the many problems faced in Africa.)

- because Central Asia / Europe are a horizontal East-West corridor with consistent climate, the cultivation of plants and animals could pass east to west and vice versa.

As a contrast, consider the American continent, which is oriented on a North/South access. While humans have clearly migrated all the way from North to South, the changes in climate along the axis mean that the animals, plants and techniques for working with them don't migrate so easily. There was little exchange of technique between the indigenous of North America and those of central and south America. For example, writing never spread from Mexico down to the Inca Empire. Llamas (the only native animal potentially capable of being harnessed to a cart), were never brought North to the Aztecs.

- Unlike China, Europe's "crinkly" geography makes it harder to unify politically. China was a huge, powerful, and inventive empire for millenea. But the ease of unifying it also led it to be a centralized intellectual monoculture. There are countless examples of Chines inventions or discoveries that were suppressed by powerful emperors who seemingly didn't want to be bothered. In contrast, Europe's fragmentation allowed for more variety of thinking. Intellectual dissidents were able to flee oppression in one kingdom or country and find safety in another. Diamond gives the example of Columbus trying to raise funding for his expedition from several minor kings and princes in Southern Europe before he finally got it. In China, Columbus would have had one-shot (the Emperor) and if he didn't get support there, there'd be no voyage.

These are a few I remember.

Aug 12, 2013

As European CIO would you offshore your datacenter to non EU cloud? Why?

Even I had, previously, right now I'd be seriously rethinking the decision.

Aug 13, 2013

What are some of the greatest mind-fucks?

I think Philosophy of Time is quite a mind-fuck.

Initially time seems so straightforward.

But given that time is just a dimension of the space-time continuum why is it "now" and not some other point in the past or the future?

Is that just subjective? Or is there an objective sense that it's "now" for my body, just same way that my body is in a particular point in space? Or is it "now" for everything in the universe at the moment?

Does my body actually "move" in time? Or is some variant of it located at all points in its timestream?

Either way, why does "time" as a dimension seem to be different from all the other dimensions?

What is *causation* such that it links events at different positions in time?

Aug 14, 2013

Will content be micro-curated by the average person?

Maybe I'm misunderstanding something. Don't people "curate" every time they post a link or meme to Facebook or Twitter?

Aug 14, 2013

Nature: Why is hunting by man considered intrusive/detrimental to our ecology while for every other creature it's considered to be 'survival of the fittest'?

It's not only man. There are other Invasive species whose hunting disrupts the ecosystem. And we try to constrain that too.

Aug 17, 2013

How did Alan Turing die? Was his death a suicide?

There's some discussion. The popular theory today is that he killed himself in some kind of depression or mental instability due to being forced to undergo chemical "treatment" for homosexuality.

I've heard another story, that it might have been a genuine accident with some chemistry experiments he was working on, and that he wasn't in a suicidal frame of mind at the time.

Not sure if we're ever likely to have certainty on this question. But the suicide theory is definitely more popular now.

Aug 17, 2013

What song made your day today?

Aug 18, 2013

Who is the most gangsta looking old woman you've ever seen?

Not quite "old woman" but I thought Evelyn Glennie's look at the London Olympic opening ceremony was spectacular; she rocked in a truly terrifying way.

Aug 18, 2013

How does an atheist define the God(s) that they don't believe in? Do they suppose gods to be physical deities that sit above the clouds, or are they more likely to conceive them as sources of intelligence that govern the orchestration of nature?

Big supernatural, omnipotent spirit, that allegedly created the physical universe, knows everything (including the future), and wants to enter into a personal relationship with me.

There are other gods I don't believe in too : ravens, jackal-headed gods of the underworld etc., but people don't seem to be pushing them so hard.

Aug 18, 2013

How would the economic system be different if it had not been founded on previous systems of serfdom?

The fact that our economic system used to be based on serfdom (if you mean in the feudal sense) is NOT the reason that we have a debt-driven system today.

We have a debt-driven system today because we are STILL producing money as debt. Capital has a cost, because the CURRENT system imposes it on the population. Not because of something that happened in the past.

You could fix this right now, by changing th way we create money today.

Aug 18, 2013

A society solely based on the Right to property - will it “work”?


Property is a concept which needs to be defined : eg. what things count as property, what are legitimate transfers of property etc. You can't negotiate what property IS from inside the game of property itself. (Eg. are people property? Are ideas? Is land? Are contracts? Is the right to pollute? All these are concepts of property that have been debated in recent times and have required some external authority to adjudicate on. None of these questions could have been decided simply by people trading.)

So, there has to be a system external to the market, which sets the rules for the market to work on.

Also, in all human history, we've never had a society where people respected property rights voluntarily and property rights don't need to be enforced with the threat of violence. So this external body that defines what property is, also needs to be seen as wielding a credible threat of violence. (Even if it delegates it to a third party.)

Now, the only way a body which a) decides what property rules are, and b) enforces them through violence can have any kind of legitimacy (and not be simple tyranny) is if it is given a mandate by some kind of social process. Examples of things that might have such authority include a government that can claim it derives its legitimacy from elections; a tribal tradition that can claim it derives its legitimacy from history etc.

So, no, a market isn't sufficient to run a society. At the very least you need

a) someone to define what counts as property
b) someone to use violence to defend property rights
c) a social process to legitimize a) and b)

Aug 18, 2013

Why it is said that a prosperous and united pakistan is important for indian peace rather than a Balkanised one?

I'd guess because a balkanised Pakistan would

a) free states that border with India from central Pakistani control. It would be harder for India to negotiate peace if it has to deal with several independent regional disputes.

b) increase the risk that Pakistan's nuclear weapons would fall into the hands of a fringe organization.

c) displace waves of refugees who would like to escape into and settle in India.

Aug 19, 2013

How has feminism negatively impacted society?


Any movement which makes people think critically about the roles they are expected to play in society is to the good. Feminism has almost certainly elevated questions of gender (and thence sexuality) as political questions which has helped us overcome some prejudices against homosexuality (though by no means all, unfortunately).

So, it's all good, basically.

Aug 19, 2013

Why do technical products/startups spell their names like, CityMaps, HootSuite, ShopClues, BioBeats, BlackBerry, BearExtender. Why not follow simple English and use "City Maps" or "Tech Crunch"?

IANAL but my understanding is that you can't trade-mark ordinary English words. If you called your company something like "The Car Resellers", you couldn't stop anyone else calling themselves "the car resellers". (CAN SOMEONE WHO DOES UNDERSTAND LAW, SANITY CHECK THIS FOR ME?)

That's one reason you see so many companies with "misspelled" names (ie. Kar Resella). Online, though, which is an international context, you can't expect people to pick up on "sound-alike" terms (except removing the e before a final r as in flickr etc.), so maybe it's better to use a couple of easy to remember words, spelled correctly, but smunged together to make a new word.

Aug 20, 2013

Is Edward Snowden the creator of Bitcoin aka Satoshi Nakamoto?

Firstly, BTC has been around since 2008. And it surely took Satoshi a bit of time to invent / research / develop the idea. Snowden is 29 in 2013, so he'd be 24 in 2008.

Not impossible for some kind of genius to invent by that age. But it is kind of young.

Secondly, if you were the creator of the world's most popular and famous anti-state currency, would you really have then got a job working for the NSA? UNLESS you were a mole planning to leak documents all along.

But then there's the real kicker. If you were Satoshi and had created the world's most popular and famous anti-state currency, and decided to stay anonymous about it, why would you then come out to reveal yourself as the NSA whistleblower?

Satoshi either doesn't exist (is a group like Luther Blisset) or clearly is smart enough to keep his head below the parapet. Snowden is smart, heroic and honourable, but it's not clear he has Satoshi's self-preservation instinct.

Update : a more interesting speculation, given that there are people who argue that the cleverness of BitCoin would be beyond a lone inventor, is that BitCoin might be based on ideas that were "appropriated" / "leaked" / "stolen" from a secretive research project (either by a national security agency or corporation). Perhaps Satoshi is LIKE Snowden in that respect. He was liberating information for the good of humanity that other people were hoping to keep for themselves.

Aug 20, 2013

Why do people misunderstand sarcasm and straight-forwardness as being rude and adamant?

Because they are.

Both sarcasm and a kind of straightforward bluster are strategies for saying something that goes against the norms of politeness in the conversation you're having.

Violating the norms of politeness is usually considered rude.

Aug 22, 2013

Why do so few people listen to classical music today compared to forms of popular music?

It's not just "today". People have always prefered contemporary popular music over "classical" (ie. old music from a different age).

That's what it means to have a living culture.

Aug 22, 2013

Why are there so few startups around how we interact with lyrics?

How much do we want to do with lyrics, really? Listen to them, read them to check we heard correctly. Occasionally quote them.

There seem to be hundreds of sites where you can already read lyrics to popular songs. Almost all of them are probably working without any kind of official licensing, and mainly just seem to have the business model of passing you on to download sites or ring-tone sellers. I can't imagine how you could build a more significant business out of lyrics. (Though maybe some entrepreneurial genius can.)

Aug 22, 2013

Why do so few countries make music that is popular around the world?

As to the question details, no competition at all, control for size and general hegemonic power and Jamaica is the most successful country at creating and exporting its music to the world.

It doesn't do it by owning MTV, or a film industry, or having large corporations buy the local radio stations and record stores. Or by invading other countries and stationing its armies there. It does it by having awesome music that people in every country in the world love.

(See more on Phil Jones (He / Him)'s answer to What kind of people like reggae music? )

OK. Back to the main question. The first point is that most countries make music in their local language. English is the most popular second language in the world, and so English speaking countries have a huge advantage here. Everyone else has to make a deliberate decision to sing in a foreign language in order to try to win international acclaim, whereas an English girl can just write a song for the boy down the street and it can catch the world's attention.

While Jamaica is a slightly odd case, it probably benefits from this compared to say, the French speaking Caribbean.

Secondly, of course the shape of the record-industry matters. Sony is EVERYWHERE in the world, and Sony, despite being a Japanese corporation, is an American record label. Everywhere where Sony sells, they sell their American product.

Thirdly, everything that Ethan Hein said : America has wealth, cool, Hollywood, and successfully synthesized the traditions of Europe and Africa in its popular music.

Fourthly, it may not always be obvious how much influence in popular music actually comes from countries that aren't the usual suspects. Jazz, Broadway and West End musicals, popular ballroom dance tunes are full of the influence of European romantic music and Latin dance rhythms (rumba, cha cha cha, tango etc.)

And not everything is funnelled through the US either. I've heard great Latin-styled music turning up in everything from Russian pop to Bollywood films. I've bought records in Beijing of Mongolian pop that sounds almost exactly like Ace of Bass.

Finally, one could make an arguments that many parts of the world have produced at least some tune or piece of music which is known and loved everywhere else whether its Podmoskovnye Vechera, Guantanamera, Corcovado, Yeke Yeke or Dum Mast Qalandar Mast Mast. The question may be making an exagerated assumption.

Aug 22, 2013

How do you deal with someone who's chronically late?

Set your alarm-clock to snooze mode and take advantage of it.

Aug 23, 2013

What are the technological and cultural legacies of MUDs?

A Rape in Cyberspace

Also, all the MMORPGs from Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, Diablo, Everquest etc.

Aug 23, 2013

How do I find someone interested in building a new toy?

Depends what you're looking for.

Is it just the particular look of the toy that appeals? Is it a whole articulated / moving thing? Do you think it has real commercial potential? (And do you understand what "commercial potential" actually is?)

First thing would probably be to make a more solid prototype than just a sketch.

Now there are 3D print-on-demand services like Shapeways you can fairly easily turn a 3D model into a physical one. If your product is more like a static figure, then you might even just start by selling the design itself (ie. Shapeways offer it as print-on-demand to anyone and you get a royalty.)

If it's an articulated doll then Shapeways or your local hackerspace or someone on Etsy can help you make the parts. But you might end up having to learn to assemble it yourself.

I'd personally stay well away from any lawyers or anyone offering you intellectual property services to help you "protect your idea". Most of these people are a scam. They'll take tens of thousands of dollars off you in legal fees for protecting an idea, and it will feel like you're making progress, but in actual fact you'll be zero steps closer to actually making and selling a toy. And they have no real ability to help you progress in that direction and no real expectation or interest that you will. They're just there to sell you as much expensive paper-work as they can before you run out of money and give up.

Because toys are an extremely competitive business. Driven by a small number of large companies. And contrary to mythology these companies rarely look at or buy an idea from an outsider (unless it's a proven hit from a small company). And most children's toy-desiring is driven by their wider media consumption. (Ie. kids want to buy things that are tied in to the cartoons and films they see, or at least which are heavily cross-promoted with them.)

Almost certainly, with the right promotion and marketing behind it, your toy idea could be absolutely massively popular and profitable. That's wonderful. Unfortunately, with the right promotion and marketing behind it, MOST toy ideas can be absolutely massively popular and profitable. Even an accessorized potato. So no one has any reason to pick your idea particularly.

Ways (I think) you can buck the system. (But I'm certainly not speaking from experience here.)

1) If it's a more folksy / hand-made kind of a toy, then find some collaborators from the crafting / maker communities and try to make and sell a few on Etsy. That way you'll have a real product, even a few customers, even if it stays at the hobby level. If it's a massive hit on Etsy, then you might want to talk about licensing the design / concept to a larger manufacturer.

2) If it's more technical, talk again with your local hackspace. You might be able to make some kind of kit (much as many electronics hobbyists are now doing.)

3) If it's a really original / educational idea. Get together with local makers and start a Kickstarter project. Educational toys are probably best suited to Kickstarter because adults can understand the value up front.

Aug 23, 2013

How likely is it that the aquatic ape hypothesis is true? What are some good arguments for or against it?

You want a probability between 0 and 1? Not possible really.

Instead, let me take you through a reasoning process.

As far as I can tell, the enmity against AAH is largely motivated by

a) dislike of Elaine Morgan (for being an outsider, for having political motivations, for just banging on about it for so long (somehow being persistent is meant to be a negative thing in her case))

b) conservatism. It conflicts with a lot of assumptions that people have picked up at college so they assume it must be weird and wrong. The funny thing here is that this is one of the most speculative, unsubstantiated areas of science, riddled with wild guesses and assumptions, but mainstream scientists who wouldn't bat an eyelid when someone conjectures that the size of the human brain is due to runaway sexual selection (something that's extremely hard to corroborate in the archaeological record) suddenly gets hot under the collar about bad science when someone else conjectures it might be due to fish-oil in the diet.

c) Some specific hypotheses have been naive and shown to be wrong.

OTOH there's a MASSIVE question to answer about the evolution of humans. We are very distinct from our nearest relatives in very specific ways. It's very hard to tie those differences to savannah living.

An ape evolved for the African savannah runs fast, on four legs, and has big teeth.

Our nearer ape relatives (the ones that look and act more like us) all still live in forests. NOTHING else on the savannah has the kind of human characteristics that impress AA hypothesists. And it's very hard to tie those characteristics to the ecological niche of savannah life.

Which is why ALL the anti-AAH people find such a big role for sexual selection. Sexual selection is a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card for evolutionists that can't match an adaptation to a practical use. They say "this feature must exist because the other sex just happens to like it."

So human fat is sexual. Human hair is sexual. Human brain development is sexual. Human spoken language is sexual. (And not about communication in water where smells don't stick and reflected sunlight gets in the eyes.) Etc. etc.

Another thought. Even without wild animals, before the advent of farming, few humans seem to have chosen to live on the savannah. Indigenous tribes have tended to live in the forests and on the edge of rivers. Places where there is more, and more varied, food. Savannahs and grasslands dry out for parts of the year and are only really good for hunting or herding grazing animals. Modern humans only really colonize them when they've managed to domesticate animals and are taking horses across the steppes or nomadically wandering the semi-desert with their cattle.

Read the Wikipedia article on Aquatic ape hypothesis the Langdon critique ( Umbrella hypotheses and parsimony in human evolution: a critique of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis if you can get it from behind the paywall) and the Reply to Langdon

Now, I'm unashamedly a sympathizer with the AAH, even as I recognize that it's controversial and might well be wrong.

I'm betting that the most likely result will be that there's a gradual accommodation of the claims of AAH into the mainstream. Those who are anti-AAH will increasingly admit that early hominids lived alongside rivers and around lakes and the sea; that much of their activities and lives were oriented around the water (foraging for shell-fish etc.) but they'll continue to sneer at the AAH as "the mermaid hypothesis" and assume that it claimed humans were fully aquatic.

They'll continue to make grandiose claims about the philosophy of science and pontificate on exactly how science ought to be done and how an elderly Welsh woman who wrote popular screenplays couldn't possibly be doing it right. And they'll quietly forget all the equally outrageously unjustified speculative presumptions they made about how life on the savannah was organized and sexual selection that had to be quietly dropped in the firming up of contemporary models. (This will probably happen once aquatic claims start being championed by younger, maler, and less witty thinkers than Morgan.)

Aug 24, 2013

Electronic Music: What Genres of EDM do you think will dissipate in 2013?

People will continue to love the energy of the Skrilllex / Calvatron axis of "dubstep" but I think their star is waning.[1]

There are a bunch of effects (sounds, styles of doing drops etc.) associated with that music which are incredibly exciting, But you can't keep on doing them over and over. And somehow there seems no way to develop from that sound. It seems to have reached a dead-end of peak-excitement.

I'm not really plugged into EDM in the US, but I'd guess that the sounds you hear in Baauer's Harlem Shake : the Moombah-influences, the Trap snares etc. are going to be more influential and open more ways forward in the future. It's actually sexy / funky in a way that the brostep just ain't.

I'm not exactly looking forward to it but I think there'll be a return to more 90s drum'n'bass influence too.

[1] Don't get me wrong. I'm not a Skrillex hater or anything. I don't begrudge him his moment, but he's always reminded me of this decade's Chemical Brothers. Big, bombastic, massively popular, not actually very interesting. I think Calvatron's made some awesome tracks but a casual trawl through YouTube reveals a lot of filler. (Perhaps Calvatron is this decade's Fatboy Slim.)

Aug 24, 2013

Why do African-Americans in pop, rock or R&B music tend to be solo artists?

It's worth noting that even as recently as the 1990s, hip-hop acts were still bands : Public Enemy, De La Soul, Fugees etc.

Wu Tang might be an interesting case, as they managed to bridge the transition between a band and a "stable of artists". They were able to have successful hit albums both as a single unit, AND as individual stars. And then still come back together and make another "band" album. (Normally once stars break out of bands they don't go back.)

Perhaps OFWGKTA are carrying on this tradition.

In this sense this is an old tradition in jazz, where a famous named band-leader put together a crack-team of specialist musicians who often grew to become famous band-leaders in their own right.

To an extent, modern hip-hop stables of artists also continue this tradition but tend to downplay the "collective identity" that Wu or OFWGKTA use. Modern big-name rappers are continually using young and up-coming rappers and producers as guests on their tracks. It's a kind of apprenticeship model. Perhaps the difference is pure the economic, business model. Who owns the rights to the collective name and tracks released as a collective?

Sep 2, 2013

Sailing with just wind and solar?

It worked for thousands of years. And the wind hasn't gone away.

Sep 4, 2013

Is 3D printer Technology going to change the way we live in the World?

Yes, sort of.

But not the way some people think. We probably won't all be printing consumer goods out of the universal replicator in our garage.

The way the 3D printer will transform the world is that it will increase the number of people involved in the designing of stuff by orders of magnitude. There will be far more possible kinds of things available and in much smaller production runs. (Down to custom runs of 1 in many cases.)

Smart kids these days are working on "thing" startups the way they used to work on web startups. They prototype on their 3D printer and then use Kickstarter to get scale.

The entire manufacturing industry will become a "hit driven" business like the music industry (or web 2.0).

Instead of going to the local retailer to decide what to buy, you'll hear the buzz about it on social networks, if you like the idea, you'll pre-buy on Kickstarter. Hot designers will be as feted and as cool as new bands. But will prove equally ephemeral.

Retailers (Amazon, Walmart etc.) will become more like major record-labels. When a product has proved itself popular via crowd-funding, they'll step in and buy the rights for large-scale production. They'll have the back-catalogues of all the famous designers. They'll also run their own make-on-demand services (for the long tail its cheaper than warehousing).

Update : Also - Phil Jones (He / Him)'s answer to How might 3D printing affect business strategy?

Sep 4, 2013

Should the USA intervene to help overthrow Syrian President Assad (2011-12)?

No. It will just perpetuate all the problems that it is allegedly trying to solve.

Overthrow him and replace him with what? Elections? The islamists will win them, then the US will end up backing the army (full of ex-Assad insiders) in a coup to get rid of them. We're still watching this movie in Egypt. (The US will hope that the puppet they install will be their man rather than Iran's, but "our" middle-eastern dictators have a habit of going woefully out of control. For obvious reasons, they're embedded in their culture, their history and their religious and tribal commitments. These don't disappear because the US supported them into power.)

Syria is possibly the weirdest intervention in the middle-east we've yet seen. It seems to be driven by nothing more than US grandstanding. At least with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan there was an argument (stupid and wrong as it was) that this was in the US interest. Here we've devolved to a debate about whether NOT intervening will damage the US's reputation as the country that always blunders in and intervenes.

WTF? Nothing would be better for the world, the US or international relations in general than for the US to lose it's image as the thug guaranteed to barge into any fight in the middle-east and make things worse. (Does anyone notice that there are still car-bombs killing 15-50 people pretty much every week in Iraq?)

The only explanation at this point is that the US is now fully driven by "empire" thinking and believes it must be seen to uphold its hegemony over the world at any cost. But the truth is that the US is a broke-empire and it's burning itself out try to keep up the appearances of being in control.

Sep 4, 2013

Is learning C++ still worthwhile to learn?

It depends. I wouldn't try to learn it as a first language. C++ is what we call a "low level" language. One which makes you think about the system you're programming rather than the algorithms.

To learn programming I'd go for something higher-level. (In the old days we all used to use BASIC to learn programming. These days we use Python.)

BUT as you're doing an electrical / electronic engineering course you will indeed have to think about the low-level / hardware oriented style of programming. And for that C/C++ is essential. It may be old but it's still the basis of most software systems today.

Sep 5, 2013

Does marriage carry the risk of losing one's identity? If so, is it worth it?

Yes. Of course.

It's a trade-off.

You can't make a major (potentially life-long) commitment to someone and start living so close to them without it changing you. (Destroying the person you used to be and creating a hybrid that has to be a negotiation between the two of you.)

Whether it's worth it has to be judged on a case by case basis.

Sep 5, 2013

What does it feel like to have a parent die?

Weird. The world just carries on so normally. You expect that there should be some kind of dramatic perceptible effect to reflect how much your world has changed.

Instead it's just that they aren't there. But everyone carries on as normal. People go to work, you have to go shopping, small problems keep cropping up. You even keep worrying about trivial things. Everyone says sympathetic stuff but then gets on with their own lives.

I found that very disturbing in the short run, but I guess it's how we have to be.

Sep 5, 2013

If I hung an “Arbeit macht frei” sign above my dorm room door as a geeky joke, would anyone be right in asking me to take it down?

It's pretty bad taste and unless you have a particularly witty reason to do it, it's not all that funny. So yes, bad taste + lack of wit == general crapness which is aesthetic reason enough for someone to demand you take it down.

Of course, it's not a hard and fast rule. There COULD in theory be a joke funny enough and profound enough to justify you putting it up. (In which case the someone would be wrong to ask you to take it down). But I'd bet good money that you don't actually have such a joke.

Sep 5, 2013

Why do Americans condemn the Nazi statement "Arbeit macht frei"?

Even if it weren't tainted by association with Auschwitz, it's still a stupid statement. Peoples have been enslaved for thousands of years. They all worked and few of them became free. NONE of them became free BECAUSE of working.

Sep 5, 2013

Why is it acceptable to deny or revise Stalin or Mao's genocide, but not Hitler's?

Motivation matters when you're making a moral judgement of someone. That's why we make a distinction between murder and manslaughter in law.

Sep 5, 2013

Why do atheists think that Christianity is false?

It's not so much we think it's false as we think it's very implausible.

For example, I tend to think like this : we have animal bodies, our chemistry and anatomy is pretty much identical to our close relatives like chimps and gorillas. We see continuities of behaviour and (so we infer) continuities of thought-patterns with them too. Like animals we need to breathe, to eat and drink. We reproduce sexually like animals. We are born as immature infants, grow to maturity; and die. Like animals.

Given all this similarity, which seems most likely :

1) that we, in fact, are animals, that just happen to have acquired some extra tricks of language and abstract thinking and got ideas above our station?


2) that we are, in fact, immortal spirits that a super immortal spirit has decided to send on a tour of duty of the physical world, packed into a mortal animal body? For no apparent reason whatsoever. (Remind me again, if everything in Christianity is about immortal souls, why IS there a physical world at all?)

Is it more likely that the sexual instinct to reproduce ourselves is an essential weapon in our evolutionary struggle? Or that the super-spirit just happened to arbitrarily make us intensely horny despite not wanting us to do too much of it, too early, or with too many people or with the wrong kind of people?

Is it more likely that we are born / grow / die like animals because we're animals? Or that the super-spirit which could have had us pop into physical existence as adults chose (once again, arbitrarily) to create us in the form of immature babies and have us grow to maturity. Like all the other animals.

Given that souls are immortal (and there are presumably a finite number) why are bodies not? Why is the physical world not simply populated with a finite collection of these souls walking around (on a sufficiently big enough planet.)? Why the constant dripping of them out one generation after another?

Ultimately my reason for rejecting Christianity is not a single piece of evidence but a holistic picture. The materialist / evolutionary idea of us as a smart animal makes sense of everything: why we come into the world through sexual reproduction, why we're born, grow and die. Why we need to eat, drink, breathe. Why we feel desire, hunger. All these factors unfold from the basic principle of what animals are.

Christianity OTOH annihilates that coherence. Why we're stuck here in physical bodies. Why we appear as infants and grow to be adults. Why we have sex. Why we need to eat. And breathe. Why we die. Why there are generations and generations of us. All of these must simply be whims of God, because immortal souls seem to have none of these characteristics.

Sep 8, 2013

Why is the feminist movement so polarizing?

If the answers here are anything to go by, it's because most critics have no clue what the word means.

Sep 8, 2013

Why do some atheists believe that they arrived at atheism through logic or reason, since it’s well known that people make decisions at an emotional level?

Doesn't really matter how you arrived at your position. The important point is does it stand up to criticism.

Sep 8, 2013

Is it possible to compete with free? If so, how?

Look for customers who are either stupid (Linux vs. Microsoft) or suffer from low self-esteem (Linux vs. Macintosh).

Sep 8, 2013

Was Dilma Roussef's appointment of Ana Maria Buarque de Hollanda as Minister of Culture good or bad for copyright policy in Brazil?


Allegedly she took the "creative commons" license off her department's site on the spurious grounds that the government shouldn't be seen to be "favouring a particular supplier". But really it was a signal that she was undoing all the good work Gilberto Gil did to bring open and free culture into the Brazilian government during Lula's presidency.

Sep 8, 2013

What are some essential jungle tracks?

This gets my vote as the most exciting record ever made, in terms of sheer energy, vibe to make you throw yourself around the dance-floor.

Sep 8, 2013

Is paying someone to do something ethically equivalent to doing it yourself?

Murder, yes. Answering exam questions, no.

Sep 9, 2013

I'm pretty sure that when people rail about "the bankers" they mean "the Jews." Am I wrong?

I rail against bankers and I categorically DON'T secretly mean The Jews.

Bankers are people whose job gives them access to certain levers of power in the economy which shouldn't exist in their current form and who have been demonstrably irresponsible, when not outright dishonest, in their use of them. Jews are people whose ancestors or religion comes from certain parts of the middle-east.

See the difference?

Update : although I'm being sarcastic at the end of my answer I don't think this is an entirely silly question. Because there is a history of anti-semites using stereotypes of banking as a Jewish speciality / conspiracy. In order to take the rightful indignation that people feel when the financial sector screws up the economy and throws them into poverty, and apply that energy to racial scapegoating.

However that move depends on it being explicit. You can only make people feel negatively against Jews for being Bankers if you make that equation publicly. Otherwise it's pointless.

So you, the questioner, can probably trust people like me who state that we aren't doing it. There's no motivation to lie about this.

Sep 9, 2013

Many people try to prove a point that C as a computer language is better than other languages as all the other languages have been written in C. To what extent is this true?

It's a stupid a argument. You can safely ignore these "many people" on this one.

Sep 9, 2013

Why are so many people who are involved in radical politics so bad at communicating their views effectively to people outside of radical politics?

Seems there are two questions here :

1) Why are people in radical politics bad at communicating?


2) Why are radicals bad at listening and compromising?

As to 1) communication is about moving a certain amount of information from the sender to the receiver. The more difference there is (in knowledge, beliefs, intuitions, experience) between the sender and the receiver, the more information that has to be sent, and the more possibility of noise / corruption interfering with it.

Radical people (whether political or in other fields like science or art) are, by definition, thinking very different thoughts and seeing things very differently from the average so they'll always have more of a problem in trying to send a whole lot of information and complex ideas compared to someone who's worldview is pretty conventional.

As to 2), the great problem with "the left" is that we believe in consensus. Which is another way of saying we can only make progress when everyone agrees and wants more or less the same things. The downside of that is that you can end up pathologizing disagreement.

The great strength of the right is that they know and accept that people believe and want different things, and they're more concerned with building effective institutions to govern those differences (markets where people can trade some of what they're willing to give up for some of what they really want to get; legal frameworks to govern potentially antagogistic encounters; even military build-ups that lead to balances of power.)

Sep 12, 2013

How long will 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden remain part of our cultural memory before fading away?

I think Bin Laden will be around for a long time. 9/11 will probably have the status of events like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand or the Treaty of Versailles, marking the moment when the world took a turn towards a darker place.

Whether that's the stuff of children's folk-culture is another matter (though Guy Fawkes has been with us for a long time). I'd hope that every historically literate teenager or adult would continue to understand him though.

Sep 12, 2013

Are there any evolutionary advantages to being a racist, e.g. to maintain the purity of one's race or to prevent the recessive genes from being "overrided"? Isn't being a racist a part of preserving biological differences (not ethnic cleansing)?

The great thing about humans is that we have very plastic brains that can adapt dramatically through learning during our lifetimes. This is a far more effective aid to survival than slight genetic advantages.

So, whatever benefit you *hope* might acrue in the long term, through selecting against particular race you probably lose in the much shorter term (of your own life) by missing out on all the trading with, learning from, collaborating with etc. experiences you might otherwise have got from people of other races.

Sep 12, 2013

What is Apple’s new Secure Enclave and why is it important?

Ah. But does the NSA have a back-door?

Given everything we've discovered in the last month or so, where the NSA clearly says it has relationships with hardware companies, why should anyone trust hardware-based security as opposed to software-based security where you can examine (and, yourself, compile) the source-code?

If Apple or Arm have been coerced they're legally forbidden to admit it, so there'd be no hint from them.

Sep 13, 2013

Would a DJ Shaped USB Flash Drive drive hype and be marketable for electronic music?

Which particular DJ? Tiesto or Dave Lee Travis?

Or do you mean something more like a flash-drive in the shape of a pair of decks? I could see that working as long as it's still small and convenient enough.

Maybe a physically larger one could work too, as long as it was comparable (in terms of capacity, price to an external hard-drive.)

Why don't you have a go at Kickstarting it to see what happens?

Sep 13, 2013

Was there any evolutionary advantage for beards?

Sexual selection, baby! Sexual selection.

Sep 13, 2013

Should we attribute the colossal failure of innovation in areas outside of computers to government regulation?

Firstly, what's your baseline for how much innovation there *ought* to be?

You have to know that before you can diagnose a colossal failure.

If your basis of comparison is the computer industry, then I'd say not. The computer industry has special characteristics. The main reason that the computer industry is so innovative is that software scales in a way that hardware doesn't.

A 2-person startup can launch a world-beating piece of software or a popular website. It doesn't need a staff that scales with the number of units sold. It may not even need much of a marketing budget if it's able to go viral.

There's really only one other industrial sector for which this is true : pop music. And we see similar fast innovation and trends there too.

Every other industry requires far more capital investment to turn an idea into a viable (let alone successful) product. That means that investors are the real gatekeepers to innovation. Far more influential than government regulation.

Now, the interesting thing is that the world is getting eaten by software. The culture and ideas of the software and web are spilling out everywhere else. Today it might be reasonable for a 2-person startup to try to design a new kind of car. Or a new food product etc. But they'll do it with the help of all the things software has given us : social networks instead of marketing. Kickstarter etc. for crowdfunding / pre-selling. New personal / small-scale tools like 3D printers / CNC routers etc. for the prototyping (largely a question of software). Huge amounts of knowledge available online.

So I'd say government regulation is more or less trivial compared to the characteristic of the market itself and when and how these tools become available.

The only place where regulation might have an effect is in medicine, where the government does place a greater restriction on bringing new products to market. OTOH how much do you want people dying of untested medicines or paying a fortune for medicines that don't actually work?

Sep 13, 2013

If time travel is possible, why haven't we found items from the future in archaeological digs?

The answers obvious, dude! These are time-travellers!
When they found out that they'd dropped their iPod they just went back in time and warned themselves not to.

Sep 14, 2013

Tribalism: How common is slavery among tribalists?

As far as I can tell (though this is based on my casual knowledge rather than scientific study) slavery only appears in conjunction with agriculture.

Hunter-gatherers in forests don't do slavery. Probably because it's hard to control people doing independent foraging in forests. Instead, such tribes tend to eat their enemies. (Our stereotypical cannibals tend to live in the jungles of South East Asia or South America.)

Once you've got agriculture, and people are working in an open field with a well defined border, it's easier to observe and control them. Similarly, once you're producing the kinds of surpluses of, say, grain that can construct temples and palaces, then slavery becomes common.

Sep 14, 2013

What is your opinion on the three laws of robotics?

It's an interesting exercise in philosophical fantasy to come up with a mechanizable ethics. To try to imagine ethics as an algorithm. And obviously it's fascinating to see all the ways that such systems fail or fall into paradoxes.

In future we may very well face situations where we do want to mechanize ethics and we'll almost certainly find ourselves with similar problems. In fact we should probably be doing it already. Eg. the kind of NSA mass analysis of communications must have some "laws" built into it, to decide who is considered legitimate target and who isn't. Future automated policing systems, in banks, in streets etc. will almost certainly be making analyses of the ethics of the people they're observing.

As Asimov himself demonstrated, the laws themselves are clearly insufficient though they aren't a bad first stab at a robot-ethics.

Sep 15, 2013

Why do people ranging from the age (39 to mid 40s) Consider EDM just a banging noise?

I'm tempted to say "what's wrong with banging noise?". But I guess that's not the way it's meant here.

I'm in my mid-40s and given that acid house blew up when I was a teenager, and we were already listening to banging industrial bands, breaks, bass heavy reggae and even pretty hard electropop back in the 80s, I'm amazed anyone of my generation is acting all surprised.

Of course, there's a lot of crap EDM. And once you get old it's inevitable that you start to compare some new thing that excites the kids with something that excited you when you were a kid and can't help noticing that it's more or less the same. But still ...

Sep 15, 2013

Why has dance music become so tolerant of extreme repetitiveness?

I want to take issue with the basic assumption. In 2013, dance music is full of syncopated stop-start rhythms, disjoint 8 and 16 bar sections, buildups, drops etc.

There may be people still listening to 90s style trance or house where each track has the same beat, but I'd be surprised if you find it in the modern axis of future garage / moombah / dubstep / trap / retromaniac etc. influenced musics.

Here's a mix that turned up in my SoundCloud feed today : WHP13 MIX 003 /// MARIBOU STATE & PEDESTRIAN

Sure each track has a groove which repeats for 2 or 3 mins, but you really want to tell me that the whole things is extremely repetitive or like fingernails on the blackboard?

Sep 15, 2013

Will a track such as this ever have a place in the popular music scheme........

Depends how popular you want to be. Aphex Twin / Autechre became cult-heroes making music not that different from that. (A more contemporary reference might be Four-tet.)

You have to make sure you ingratiate yourself with the arty crowd though.

Update : It's a nice update on the 90s IDM sound with a bit more of an EDM vibe. I think it could definitely have a fanbase.

Sep 16, 2013

Is there such a thing as a "rare" musical track anymore?

It's certainly possible to be obscure. Given the number of people making music today, it's probably easier than ever.

Sep 16, 2013

Is it wrong to hate poor people?

Hate is pretty much never a useful emotion, either for the person doing it or the person receiving it. It's best to simply not have or feel it.

Sometimes, you might be driven to it, and there are reasons that might at least be "exculpations" if not justifications. For example, you might feel hate towards someone who has knowingly and deliberately done you wrong.

As "poor people" (or dumb people) as a general type are very unlikely to have done anything against you knowingly, deliberately or of any great magnitude, you don't really have something we might sympathize with.

So yes, it's wrong.

Sep 17, 2013

Why can't societies let kids be kids?

No, industrial societies have been absurdly raising the age of legal sexuality for teens. Most traditional cultures around the world have some kind of coming of age ritual of adulthood around puberty, 13 - 15, and marriage at a not dissimilar age.

In practice, everywhere in the world teens of this age start experimenting with sex because that's what their body chemistry is encouraging them to do.

Industrial society needs to prepare people for more complex technical jobs and so it extends the period of education, and therefore has to perpetuate the myth that people of 14 or so are not ready for adulthood.

14 year olds are prohibited from marrying, having sex, drinking alcohol and going to work, despite the fact that for thousands of years 14 year olds were considered adults and that's exactly what they did do.

Instead we have this artificial new category of "teenager", which is highly useful for the consumer society : teenagers are prohibited from doing anything to actively contribute to society and kept away from adults from whom they may learn responsibility in joint projects. They're kept penned-up in compulsory schooling and in their frustration they do the only "adult" thing that they're allowed to, which is try to buy stuff. Which trains them for a life of excessive consumption.

Or they transgress the artificial boundaries that are imposed on them and do drink, have sex, get pregnant. At which point the adults accuse them of irresponsibility and take this as evidence that they weren't being restricted enough in the first place.

Sep 17, 2013

Besides his influence, is Michael Jackson overrated?

Have to say I never understood what people saw in MJ. Not melodic enough, not funky enough, a certain kind of monotonous pounding instead of a real groove.

I always found Prince far more interesting.

Sep 17, 2013

What type of music app would you like somebody to build for you?

I'd love a non real-time DJing app. to let me make great mixes without having to faff around pretending to DJ.

All I want is a standard iTunes-like playlist where I can set up my tracks. Have more than one overlap. Have the ability to pitch-shift / time-stretch them a bit (with help from the app to synchronize them). And maybe the ability to loop a section while another plays over the top. And some effects.

I don't want this to be as complicated / time-consuming as a full DAW. And I don't want to try to control it in real time.

I just want to be able to set up a two hour playlist in 15 minutes, by choosing tracks and tweaking the transitions between them. And then be able to mix it down and pass it to others as an act of curation.

Sep 17, 2013

What's the evolutionary explanation for why some people think everything has an evolutionary explanation?

Not everything has an evolutionary explanation. It's a fairly vulgar idea of evolution to think that everything that exists in modern-life must be explained by it.

Of course, evolution put a constraint on it, just as gravity does. But we gravitationists don't spend our time wondering what the gravitational explanation for, say, Switzerland, is. Even if we believe that, ultimately, if gravity had worked differently, the Switzerland we know today wouldn't exist. Still, that's not the kind of explanation that would matter to anyone.

Similarly, I don't think there's any kind of interesting evolutionary explanation of steam engines. Sure, if we'd evolved differently we'd have no capacity to invent or use steam-engines. But so what? That doesn't mean we were adapted FOR steam-engine invention. Or that evolutionary theory has anything useful to say about them. The explanation is about the history of the ideas that went in to them, ideas that many kinds of general intelligences could have discovered.

I'm inclined to think evolutionary theory itself is like steam-engines. Not something worth looking for an evolutionary explanation for.

Your examples are, of course, much less abstract and closer to our bodily / animal natures and so maybe evolution has more to say, though personally I think the more abstract cases are borderline. I'm not sure that there are really any interesting evolutionary explanations of music. I think that's veering towards the gravitational explanations of Switzerland thinking.

Sep 17, 2013

What is the hardest thing you do as a software engineer?

Get into "the zone" when debugging.

Writing original code is fun. You can get into it easily.

Debugging something is NOT fun. Once I'm in the zone I can spend hours resolving all kinds of awkward problems. But before the zone, faced with stupid annoyances , when it's tempting to check if there's been any activity on Quora or my favourite news feeds ... I can spend far too long faffing without being able to engage my mind with the problem.

Sep 18, 2013

What is the carbon footprint of 3D printing?

Adrian Bowyer, founder of the RepRap project, says that when he prints with PLA derived from plants, he's sequestering more carbon (in the printed object) than was released to generate the energy to run the printer.

Of course, to be true it depends using the right kind of plastic. And probably other criteria. But in principle it seems an economy of locally 3D printed objects, fabricated on-demand, from bioplastics could be far lower carbon-footprint than mass manufacturing.

Sep 18, 2013

How would you position Justin Bieber to appeal to an adult audience?

There's no great mystery to this.

Although if you really want to compete in the "boy-band" to serious adult artist game then there's only one role model to follow :

Sep 19, 2013

Are Smalltalk and Pharo out-dated?

Smalltalk is two things. A language and an environment (including standard library, a set of patterns of how to do thing, a virtual machine with its own storage system, assumptions about the kind interface people will use etc.)

Languages don't really date. And good languages are timeless. Lisp is the classic example of language that never seems to grow old. Though it does evolve a great deal.

Smalltalk is a very good language. Inspired by Lisp, and with many similar virtues. There's no reason that Smalltalk should go out of date.

Except ... Ruby.

Ruby is a modern and very popular language which is sufficiently like Smalltalk that many (not all, but many) people who would otherwise be hankering after Smalltalk can be satisfied working in it.

Python is not nearly as like Smalltalk, but it was the first language that I picked up and said "OK. Now I don't have to keep fantasizing that maybe I can go back to Smalltalk." It had enough of the good stuff. Smalltalk is every bit as good as Ruby or Python (and written over 20 years before them!), but it's not obviously so much better that it can overcome the other obstacles to Pythonistas and Rubyists switching.

Now, the other side of the equation is the environment. Smalltalk was created in parallel with, and explicitly for, programming GUIs based on windows, icons, mice and pointers. And the irony is that, while this kind of GUI took over the world, a series of mis-steps in Smalltalk relegated it to a bit-player.

And now the era of the desktop machine and windows is drawing to an end. The important environments are the server, the browser and the mobile "device swarm" (soon to fragment into tablets, watches, glasses, drones and other robots etc.) While Smalltalk can certainly be made to work with these environments, it's not clear that there's enough need or momentum for it to become the "best" way to write for any of them.

Smalltalk is my first love. And I'm sad to say this. But I think it's going to be the great "also ran" of programming languages. Something that was extremely talented and influential but never achieved the popularity it deserved.

I'd love to see a tablet built around Smalltalk. The philosophy of the self-contained virtual machine, built-in library would work well. If someone could just do the work of making a slick multi-touch UI library and set of patterns. I'm not sure if anyone is.

But with things like FirefoxOS coming out it's clear that the browser - another self-contained virtual machine with it's own scripting language, and (with HTML5) own storage - is a direct rival (and far, far better known and understood.)

(See also Phil Jones (He / Him)'s answer to Why did the Smalltalk programming language fail to become a popular language? )

Sep 19, 2013

What's preventing HTML based apps from taking on native apps, i.e., in your experience, what is preventing HTML5/CSS/JS apps from becoming the present rather than the future?

Basically no (or unreliable) access to the underlying resources of the phone and it's native OS:

eg. accelerometer, GPS, cameras, fingerprint reading thingy, local file-system, distinctive OS libraries for touch, accelerated graphics, priority threads for sound generation (try writing a music app in the browser), standard GUI elements, permissions system; "intentions".

While there's some progress on all this, it isn't reliable or fully standard.

In contrast, the writer of the native app. can assume access to all the resources the operating system provides.

Sep 19, 2013

What are the best cultural areas in London?

Depends what you mean by "best" cultural areas.

If you mean, where do the cool people hang-out, where can you find weird events happening, interesting galleries or shops popping up then there are three broad areas :

- Hackney (see Shoreditch, Dalston, Stoke Newington, Lower Clapton / Hackney Wick)
- Peckham (I'm not too familiar with this but probably try around Peckham Rye and New Cross Gate / Deptford which is the vicinity of Goldsmiths)
- Brixton (Can't be more precise than this)

Why? Because these are places cheap enough for artists / students etc. to live, and have some ex-industrial architecture to do things with.

If you're staying for any time, to know London cultural life you need to know these areas. OTOH, they won't necessarily give up their secrets if you just turn up on the bus one afternoon. You have to do your research. Preferably find some natives to show you around.

If you're a tourist just for a couple of days, looking for official museums etc. then South Kensington is where almost all of the good museums are. (Science, Natural History, Victoria and Albert.) The honourable exception is the British Museum in Holbourne (next door to Covent Garden and theatreland.)

Chinatown is Chinatown. It's good if you want to see the stereotypical Chinese culture that you get more or less everywhere. It's also next to Soho which a centre for clubbing and nightlife. But perhaps fairly mainstream / touristy.

Much better than Chinatown (IMHO) is Brick Lane, the centre of the Bangladeshi community, with great restaurants and way cooler clubs / cafes etc. If you're taking a short trip to London and you have a free Sunday afternoon, use it to go to Brick Lane for the market and to stay around for the evening. If you get up early and have more energy, do the full Hackney Hipster Sunday of Goldsmith's Row book-fair, Columbia Road flower-market, Brick Lane. (You can easily walk this, or take a bike.)

Sep 19, 2013

What do you think of C programming language?

C is a gem. It's one of the best (certainly in the top 3) programming languages of all time.

People forget that. Because it's so everyday. And because we've all had absolute hell working with it. (Segmentation Fault, Core Dumped anyone?)

But C itself is a fantastic bit of programming language design : simple, concise, incredibly powerful (if you know how to use pointers to functions and the void* type, you can emulate many of the late-bound / higher-level virtues of object-orientation and functional programming.)

Perfect for its original purpose of allowing people to write code which was portable from one machine / operating system to another (Forget Java. C is the original "write once, run anywhere" language. All you have to do to port is to set some flags and run the compiler for the new architecture.)

It's no accident that C is everywhere. It beat out the competition time and time and time again. The ultimate convenient and pragmatic choice.

It's only now, when machines are around 6 orders of magnitude(!) more powerful than when C was invented, that we start to think of higher level languages like Python or Javascript or Scala as viable competitors.

Basically you should and will learn C if you want to understand most areas of software development. And certainly if you want to understand programming language design.

Sep 20, 2013

Since we human beings are a bunch of correlated minor living beings (cells), isn't society a living creature in every sense of the word?

I'd be up to say that.

... most of the time.

It really depends what use you want to make of this notion of "being a living creature".

I'd say that for a lot of purposes you could indeed treat a society as a creature. It's definitely biological. You can argue it needs to eat to sustain itself. It excretes waste. It has beliefs, goals etc.

Morally there might be questions. Is it "wrong" to "kill" a society (eg. by encouraging all it's members to move somewhere else)? Can you judge and hold a society "responsible" for things. And then is it justified to punish individual members for the crimes of society as a whole? These are awkward questions but not insoluble. As I say, I'm mainly inclined to agree that society is a living creature.

Sep 21, 2013

When will bittorent release the sync app on android/ios?

It's out. Working for me.

Sep 21, 2013

What is your review of BitTorrent Sync?


I've been using it for a bit.

Initially it couldn't find my friend I wanted to sync with, but the latest version I installed found him with no problem. Syncing to my Android device with the mobile app. works fine too.

It feels a bit slower than Dropbox, which can be frustrating if you're trying to use it in a real-time situation. (A couple of times I had to bundle up files and put them on my server because it was faster than waiting for btsync to do its thing.) But if you aren't worrying so much about time, then it seems to work exactly as you'd expect and hope.

(I still wish the code was open-source and auditable so we could be sure our files aren't being replicated to the NSA though.)

Sep 22, 2013

Are there any bands or composers that, in theory, you should like but don't?


Bjork has incredibly good taste. She consistently chose to work with some of my favourite electronic artists of the 90s : 808 State, Plaid, Matmos, Laila Arab. She is experimental. And pop. I like how she sings. And how she looks. And her attitude.

But I don't like her songs. I like all the elements that go into them, but they always seem to add up to less than the sum of their parts.

Sep 22, 2013

Notetaking: What are the best open source, non-linear, note taking tools?

Well, I'm just going to say ... watch this space : OWL :-)

Not "the best" anything yet ... but keep your eye on it.

Update : I've now been using this for around 7 months. And it's definitely my main note-taking app.

Couple of thoughts :

- I still use a paper notebook for quick idea capture, but I move everything to OWL fairly soon afterwards

- The value to me is largely because I run both OWL on the desktop and OWLdroid on my 7 inch tablet. And I use BitTorrent Sync to keep the two in sync. That's invaluable. It means I can both review and enter data (roughly) on the tablet, have it transparently synced to my main machine, and then do more complex editing / tidying there.

Caveat : I wrote OWL, so I have good reason to trust that it's not spying on me or doing things I don't like. I'm also able to fix it when I find bugs.

In the first couple of months I ironed out a few problems, but I haven't found anything I've needed to fix for a while. So I cautiously trust it. (I do make backups of the directory with the pages every couple of weeks though.)

However, because I wrote it, it also means I'm patient with some of its quirks and comfortable working around things that other people might find awkward.

Right now, OWL is still very much a "geek" solution. To run it on your machine you need to be comfortable running a python program as a server from the command line. And to install it on Android you need to know how to install Android apps that aren't on the Play store.

OWL may or may not be for you. But I believe that it IS powerful. The combination of outliner for small-scale organization and wiki-pages for large scale organization works VERY well. And in a way I haven't seen many other tools provide.

Here's a pretty terrible video of it in action.

Sep 22, 2013

How much would you leave your other half for?

This is an appalling statistic, though I suppose that if these are arranged marriages which are more in the direction of financial arrangements anyway participants may see it differently.

Seriously, though. No amount of mere money is enough.

Sep 22, 2013

What are some widely-liked pop music hits in North America that are remakes of non-English songs?

You mean like this?

Sep 22, 2013

Electronic Music: What is the effect called when there is some kind of noise playing and then is cancelled temporarily and rhythmically sometimes by a bass drum?

Noise Gate (something that cuts out / lowers the volume of a channel based on another signal : could be another instrument or some kind of timer.)

Could also be the infamous "side-chain compression" where one channel's Compression is affected by another channel.

Sep 23, 2013

Which music band would you want your kids to listen to? And why?

I'd like to think I'd want my kids to horrify me with their musical choices.

Particularly by listening to things that are too loud, with no recognizable structure, and played by people without musical (or any other visible) talent.

That's how I'll know they actually get it.

Sep 23, 2013

What are some great lesser-known Simon & Garfunkel songs?

Bookends is my favourite (and under-rated) S&G album.

In addition to "Save the life of my Child", there's "Bookends" itself, "Punky's Dilemma" and "Faking It". All great songs.

Sep 23, 2013

What are some songs/bands you used to like earlier, but not anymore?

Depeche Mode.

As a teenager in the 80s I was DM kid. They were THE most exciting / important band in the world. Blending cutting edge synths, with dark, industrial / gothic attitude, with solid and beautiful song-writing.

But then ... somehow ... by the 90s. I got bored. Songs of Faith and Devotion were good song-writing, I guess. But DM seemed to be descending into a more traditional stadium rock genre rather than accompanying all the hectic innovation that was going on in techno / rave / jungle etc.

And the lyrics? Every fucking lyric just went "Deal with my narcissism, bitch!" Seriously. They didn't seem to have anything else to sing about except whining self-justifications of their over-indulgence.

Master and Servant celebrated edgy, S&M role-play. SoFaD was boring naval-gazing by people who didn't even have the justification of being teenagers or outsiders. Like being forced to listen to a therapy session with a celebrity sex-addict who wasn't really ready to try to change. I didn't CARE.

Every time I've checked them out since ... sometimes the song-writing is still there. Freelove made for good tuneful dance-mixes and I liked the video. But DM don't justify deep engagement. They don't surprise or excite me any more. Musically or lyrically.

Occassionally I go back and listen to the 80s stuff. And it's still great. But it's too familiar to hold my attention. These days, I'm more interested in discovering and understanding the 80s I ignored at the time.

Sep 23, 2013

Why don't kids discover and fall in love with bands and artists that kids listened to 10-15+ years ago but ran out of gas?

Part of "music" for teenagers is a whole lot of other non-musical stuff about identity and role models. The boy and girl-bands of your own era are, usually, just a few years older than you. They belong to your culture. They're people to aspire to emulate or to aspire to date.

The problem with teen-stars from the past is that, by definition, you can't really have that relationship with them. You know that they grew up to become adults. and therefore one of : fucked-up / boring / forgotten / "serious musician".

You can't have the attitude that this idol is an ongoing story that you follow, a pathfinder for your own life.

When teens today idolize stars of the past they have to buy into a different kind of story : that those people of the past were heroes of a different order than those who are merely popular today. That there's been a fall-off in quality, of musicianship, of songwriting, of spirit etc. And most pop trivia doesn't really lend itself to that kind of discourse.

Sep 24, 2013

Which songs are you ashamed of admitting you like?

I'm not THAT ashamed because I like to be a bit surprising and quirky. But a few guilty half-secrets :

- Sally Oldfield. Seriously, how awesome is Sally Oldfield? Surprisingly interesting and quirky melodies. The cosmic-scale new-age spectacle of the lyrics. The rich orchestration blending 70s / 80s synths with world-music. And the beauty of the voice. You can keep your Enyas and Natacha Atlases, Sally is the true goddess / queen of the universe.

Particular songs (Mirrors, Sun in my Eyes, Water Carrier, Break Through the Rock, Mandala, Flaming Star, Into Wonderland ... the list just goes on ... )

- I just discovered the Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish and have to admit I'm disturbingly hooked on their version of "Walking in the Air" amongst others. (Including Phantom of the Opera)

- Talking of Andrew Lloyd Weber. I once spent a month where I watched the video of Cats every morning. Cats is brilliant!

- Various songs which I'm inordinately fond : Steven "tintin" Duffy's "Icing on the Cake", Robbie Williams' "Me and my Monkey", Randy Edelman's "Concrete and Clay", Barry Manilow's "Copacabana", Keane "Everybody's Changing", Gary Moore's "Parisian Walkways"...

Sep 24, 2013

Does trance music reminds you of the sunlight?

Nope. It reminds me of dark, smokey rooms with a lot of ultraviolet light and fluorescent stickers.

Sep 24, 2013

Please describe in detail how you do, or do not, manage your digital music?

File system with my own classification. I have about 120 gigs of music.

Current top-level folders are :

- 80s-ish
- alt.songs
- ambient
- asia
- bootlegs
- brass
- brazil
- christian
- cinematic and soundtrack
- classical
- dance
- electronic
- electro-song
- euro-cosmic
- europe
- folk
- global bass
- hip-hop
- jazzish
- latin
- lounge
- lusophone
- polka
- pop
- reggae
- retromania
- rock
- slipstream
- song oriented
- tango-accordian
- world

Beneath these headings there are 1 to 3 levels of hierarchy BEFORE you get to folders for specific artists. For example "europe" has a massive subsection called "gypsy-balkan", "asia" contains an "india" sub-folder which (confusingly) has a "UK" subfolder in which you'll find my "bhangra" collection.

I pretty much HATE all software that tries to classify my music for me or hide my file-system. I mainly use rhythmbox to listen to music and choose the day's playlist by dragging files directly from the file-system.

The two most important criteria for me for any music classification software would be :

a) I get to choose how to categorize things. I want to classify things together that go together in my head, in my playlists etc. as part of the same "genres".

b) I can do large scale re-organization of folders and sub-folders. I don't mess with my taxonomy the whole time, but I'm always shifting one or two files around, and sometimes I decide that an entire subcategory should move. (Eg. "reggaeton" moved from "hip-hop" to "global bass" as I started thinking of it more connected with "electro-cumbia".)

I don't want to have to do this re-organization by reclassifying every song independently. I want it to be able to manipulate sub-categories in bulk like this.

Ironically I'm not a big fan of hierarchies in many aspects of organizing data. But in this case the convenience of being able to drag and manipulate large sub-collections trumps the "inaccuracy" of forcing things to be in only one folder.

Update : One other thing that's important to me. I have this collection synced to an external "back-up" disk. Which means I can take it to a friend's house and plug it into his computer. I don't care whether he's running Linux or Windows or Mac. I use rhythmbox, but sometimes just the video player. Or, my laptop is dual-boot, and in Windows I use Media Player. I absolutely DON'T want to be locked in to any particular piece of software / operating system to have access to music or the taxonomy.

Sep 24, 2013

How was Nurse With Wound's Soliloquy for Lilith made?

Here's the full-album.

Does anyone know, or imagine, how this sound was made? What kind of effects are evolving the sound?

Sep 24, 2013

Metaphysics: How do we know that the brain creates consciousness?

We don't.

It's an assumption we have to make if we want to buy into material monism.

There are philosophical arguments in favour of doing that, but it's not, in any sense, a scientific result. (For the simple reason you can't actually do scientific experiments on subjective consciousness.)

Sep 25, 2013

Would capitalism be able to function without exploitation, or is it a vital part of the system?

Markets and trade could exist without exploitation.

Captilism means something more than just "we use markets".

Sep 26, 2013

How would you estimate the total number of works of art in existence today (total created - destroyed or lost to history)?

At a rough guess, every human has created at least somewhere between 100 and 1000 works of art, if you include the drawings they did as children, their teenage poetry and song-writing. The jokes they cracked. The bed-time stories they made-up for their children etc.

Most people give up taking it seriously, and you can probably ignore the few that don't (ie. become professionals) as a statistical rounding error, so I'd start by multiplying the human population by about 200.

Sep 26, 2013

Is it me or does it seem that Americans like myself are more aggressive than (people from) other countries? Where does all this aggression root from? What is the cause?

Probably not at a personal level. In my experience Americans are less aggressive than Spanish or many Latin Cultures. Probably less aggressive than certain middle-eastern cultures. (My Jewish friend complains that he finds people in Israel way more aggressive than people in the UK.)

Other friends I have complain that French people are rude when they travel there. Germans can be blunt and disapproving.

I've never seen anything similar in the US or from Americans I've met in other places, who are usually extremely polite and calm.

A couple of caveats. There is a tendency of people in big cities to be more aggressive. So if your stereotypical "American" is from New York then that's a bias. You'd have to use Parisians, Shanghaians etc. to make a fair comparison.

America as a country acts extremely aggressively in the world. I'm not sure if this is a scaling-up of the national character though.

Sep 26, 2013

Why does it seem like every major social issue is caused by greed or monetary gain? Is monetary gain worth the suffering of other humans?

Money is an incredible human invention. What it effectively does is create a generic / abstract notion of "value" which is distinct from any particular kind of value.

This is a piece of conceptual engineering of the same level as the invention of language (words which stand for things), or writing (persistent symbols that stand for words).

Like language and writing, money has transformed the world. Often for the better as it allows trade and commerce, negotiation between different kinds of values, that would otherwise be impossible. It allows long distance co-ordination and co-operation that couldn't happen any other way. Money is both the most portable and fast moving kind of value. And the most flexible and fungible.

But this magnificent power comes with a cost. As a kind of value, money is inevitably a rival to, and in competition with, every other kind of "value" we have in society. And its flexibility and fungibility means it usually trumps them.

Social "issues" in society are basically the result of failure or collapse of values that we'd otherwise respect. And one of the main reasons that someone does stop respecting his or her other values is that money has interposed itself between that person and the implications of their actions. Money successfully *blinds* people .. partly because they are too focused on the benefits that money brings to them, but MOSTLY because the abstract nature of money simply hides the concrete reality behind it.

Every time you go to a shop and spend your money, your decision is sending information about value back up the supply-chain, rewarding one action, punishing another. Back up the supply-chain, in warehouses, and factories, mines and fields, in board-room meetings and amongst Wall Street analysts and traders, those signals are being studied and interpreted. BUT YOU YOURSELF ARE ALMOST ENTIRELY UNAWARE OF THEM.

You, personally, don't want people to be forced to work in factories without a break for 12 hours a day. You personally didn't want the mining company to bribe the safety inspectors to turn a blind eye to unsafe equipment. You personally didn't want the logging company to hire a bunch of thugs to burn the indigenous village and execute the environmental activist with a shot to the back of the head. But when you made those purchasing decisions, that's exactly the kind of world you signalled your support for. It's just that the abstraction of money hid that fact from you.

If there was no money, if we had to sign up for all those actions explicitly, we'd never authorize them. Our basic human decency and empathy would kick in. But where there's money to hide the consequences of our choices, then we do promote them, happily ignorant of what we're doing.

Sep 26, 2013

What "middle class values" do I need to de-emphasize in order to move up and out of the middle class? What new values should I adopt?

The main value I'd drop is "not having an income that's independent of selling my labour". Get rid of that one and then you can talk about moving up out of the middle-class.

Sep 26, 2013

What are the pros and cons of using (as a framework) Zend in PHP or Django in Python?

Do you want to write PHP or do you want to write Python?

That's probably the only question that matters here. Neither framework is sufficiently compelling to make you want to move from the language you're comfortable with.

Sep 26, 2013

Should the USA have a national ID card?

XKeyScore, my friend. XKeyScore.

Sep 26, 2013

Why is it that almost all human evolution charts depict a MALE? See example in the question description.

Most evolutionary researchers, authors and illustrators of such charts were men.

Sep 27, 2013

What can scientific research learn from the LEAN startup method?

Hmmm ... haven't watched the presentation yet, but my first thought is "not much". The whole point of Lean is to make your work a better fit with the immediate requirements in the market.

The whole point of science is to pursue "truth" even if no-one particularly wants it. Science is inevitably constrained by financial and social reality, but it's not a goal or virtue of science to be attentive to such financial or social constraints. Scientists shouldn't be striving to be better at listening to what outsiders want them to deliver. That is, ultimately, the death of scientific enquiry.

Sep 27, 2013

Is the USA guilty of the same terrorism it is fighting against?

Not the same, no. Different kind of terrorism.

Sep 28, 2013

Activism: Who are some activists who really 'get' the internet?

Aaron Swartz was one. :-(

Julian Assange.

Depends what you mean by "activist" of course. I think anyone working towards a free internet and open protocols is an activist of a kind. Bet then you'd expect activists whose mission *is* the internet to understand it.

Sep 29, 2013

What makes someone a socialist? Please don't provide tautological answers saying "they belong to the Socialist Party”. If you can't refrain, then explain what makes a party a "socialist" party.

I call myself a socialist. I use the term to mean that I believe that the economy is just a means to the ultimate end, which is social welfare, rather than society being a means to the ultimate end of economic growth.

Oct 1, 2013

Is it okay for a white person to sing dancehall?


Oct 1, 2013

What are some chillaxing Reggae songs?

Chillaxing is a bit vague. Most traditional reggae is lilting rather than frantic so could be seen to be relaxing. (Though it can also be intense.)

The Jamaican word for being in a chillaxed state is "irie", so any song with that in the title / lyrics might suit.

I'd suggest you try the following sub-genres of reggae :

Lover's Rock :

Roots :

1970s dub

Oct 1, 2013

I would like some reggae lyrics?

If you think there are "typical" reggae lyrics, you're almost certainly going to end up with some horrible stereotype. Just write whatever lyrics you'd normally write, that fit the reggae music you're working with.

Oct 1, 2013

Why did Snoop Dogg change his name to Snoop Lion? What motivated him, and did he actually have it legally changed?

Rap is a young man's game.

Or rather, all American pop musicians have to have a bratty teenager persona. That's true of rock, punk and metal as well as hip-hop. If you're a rock musician and you want to grow up to be a man you basically have to go country, which is the only genre where you're officially allowed to be an "adult". Hip-hop offers a couple of, not very satisfactory, "grown up" models : the pimp / gangster (who are themselves just the oldest, 20-something kids on the block), or the Jay-Z "tycoon" / master of the industry model.

Snoop is now too old (and perhaps sensible) to be a gangster. And while he's a great success, perhaps no longer quite big enough to pretend to bestride the industry the way that Jay-Z, Kanye etc. do.

Reggae, on the other hand, has always been a man's game. Look at the number of singers who are "men" : Beenie Man, Yellowman, Ninja Man. Think of your traditional dreadlocked and bearded rastaman. Listen to the typical deep voice adopted by many ragga stars. Think of Lee "Scratch" Perry, who goes around like Gandalf.

Reggae/ ragga stars are never kids. They're very much men. It's a great role-model for the maturing hip-hop artist. I'm surprised more aren't adopting it.

Oct 1, 2013

What kind of people like electronic music?

When I was a teenager I used to like electronic music because it felt like "the future" to me. And all music made with guitars seemed reactionary and musically conservative.

20+ years later, I find the world is full of dull, conservative electronic music, lacking in innovation or any excitement whatsoever. And I've gained enough musical perspective to recognize many guitarists and other acoustic instrumentalists to have been revolutionary in their time.

Nevertheless, electronic music still seems to carry the promise that it can take you beyond anything you currently know. I follow electronic music, partly in the hope of the stimulation and excitement of finding something that is still like nothing else I've ever heard before.

So I'd suggest that novelty seekers are often electronic music fans.

See also my answers to :

How might rock and metal music (guitars, bass, drum...) be compared with disco or electronic music (synthesizer)?

Oct 2, 2013

If one could prove that mice are not a good conduit for experimental studies extrapolated to man, what effect would that have on science, scientific labs and ultimately funding?

How would you prove something "isn't good for extrapolation" when we've already plenty of examples of when it was good?

It would have to be for very particular cases where the extrapolation really didn't work. And then, what would happen, in those cases, mice wouldn't be used.

Oct 2, 2013

From my understanding, thought is the brain processing our sensory inputs. If someone is born with none of the five senses, can they think?

Yes. But probably lacking most of the concepts that the rest of us have and, perhaps, fundamentally untranslatable into our own.

Oct 2, 2013

Who are you?

Deep down I'm just a ball of nothing. I have to keep improvising on top of that to have any kind of existence at all.

Oct 2, 2013

What would a government designed by engineers and not politicians look like?

Not that different.

The moment you get a bunch of people together to debate what they should collectively do, they automatically become "politicians".

Politician isn't a kind of personality. It's a "role" that you play. One that largely responds to the forces outside it.

In the "democratic" "west" politicians from remarkably different backgrounds, with remarkably different sets of foundational beliefs get elected into government and start saying remarkably similar things and behaving the same way. Why? Because they're responding to similar situations and exigencies : the requirement to get re-elected, the requirement to keep the media onside, the requirement not to spook the markets, the requirement to be seen to be responding promptly and firmly to current affairs, the requirement not to be seen as uncertain or indecisive, and finally to be seen as serving their constituents.

If politicians in China are any different it's probably less about personality and training than that they don't face the same demands and pressures.

In one sense, you can see governments of engineers inside various technical bodies and international standards organizations. And they still have religious wars (about technologies and standards). And they take an inordinately long time to make their minds up. You can see similar arguments and problems inside any technical company or university. So I don't think you can rely on engineers as inherently wiser or more disinterested than anyone else.

But what if we let the engineers design the government system itself?

Here I think there's some cause for optimism. But not in the traditional "technocrat" sense. In fact engineers are starting to take ideas of governance and social organization more seriously and, consequently, starting to experiment more.

I think that the GNU General Public License is one of the most remarkable and significant documents of the late 20th century. Not just because it's an incredibly important weapon in one of the most important political struggles of the moment, but because it marked the point where engineers successfully attempted to apply a "hacker" approach to the legal / economic system. Since then, engineers have been increasingly interested in how to hack governance in many ways, both with and within traditional government (working on various ways of opening the data up to people, lobbying groups like, through to commerce and finance (Y-Combinator's explicit experimentation with the venture capital business, Crowdfunding like Kickstarter), through to weirder experiments like Debian's neo-medieval apprentice model of managing an operating system.

We are probably seeing more thinking about and design of governance now than any time since the Enlightenment and the French and American revolutions. But you'll be as likely to find the cutting edge at Valve or Github or Wikileaks as in traditional political science.

Oct 2, 2013

If there are accepted Design Patterns for code optimization, what design patterns exist for Life optimization?

Well Design Patterns come from Christopher Alexander's work on architecture that was very much about how to introduce what he called a "quality without a name" into Life. Something that was about enhancing the aesthetics, ethics and health of your existence.

So the idea that design patterns are related to Life is there from the beginning. All Alexander's architecture patterns relate to it. And if you don't know them, I'd suggest you check them out. (A Pattern Language)

You can certainly take the idea further, out of just architecture and urbanism and start thinking about patterns and anti-patterns in education, in work, in economic life etc.

Oct 2, 2013

Who are some scholars who really "get" the internet?

Do they have to be in academia?

I nominate Alexander Bard and Jan Soderqvist for NETOCRACY: the new power elite and life after capitalism

Still one of the most insightful interpretations of the network society, even though it's hard to make sense of and seems to be badly misunderstood.

Oct 5, 2013

What's the difference between a programming language and a scripting language?

There isn't a hard and fast difference.

Scripting languages are typically languages that are designed to quickly tell some kind of system / platform what to do. As opposed to write large-scale software. But it's not deep and meaningful distinction.

Typically :

- they're interpretted by some kind of virtual machine, rather than compiled.

BUT C has been called "the scripting language of unix".

And, in practice both Java and Python are compiled to code that runs on a virtual machine. Java just makes this step explicit and Python doesn't. Python is considered a scripting language while Java isn't.

- they're used for small-scale programs that do one thing.

BUT today people are writing increasingly large applications that run the browser using javascript. And there are some huge Python / Perl / Ruby programs.

- they're "higher level" (ie. have run-time rather than compile-time binding of things like variable names to types)

But really, the difference is not a deep and formal classification. It gets an idea across quickly, but the distinction is fuzzy.

Oct 5, 2013

Is 3D printing of animals possible in future?

Great question.

We can pretty much print meat now. And there's a lot of research and optimism that we'll be able to print / grow usable replacement organs in the future. As I understand the process is more like printing a scaffold of the right shape and then letting a solution of live cells grow on it. The shape helps the cells specialize in the right way.

If you can print organs, why shouldn't you be able to print collections of organs "in place" ie. entire animal bodies?

To be honest, I don't see any theoretical reason why you couldn't. In practice, it's orders of magnitude more complex than anything we can conceive of doing at the moment. But I don't see why not in principle.

Oct 5, 2013

Does data naturally exist in the universe as a material element?

This is possibly the biggest new metaphysical question of our age. You'll find people who assume it either way : that information is just in the eye of the beholder (or a measure of the beholder's ignorance) and people who think it's an attribute of the material universe itself.

I honestly can't say which way I fall on this question. Both sides have some motivation.

Oct 6, 2013

Who all famous personalities in the world history do you think actually created an impact on the society?

LIke Gwydion Madawc Williams says. Famous personalities are famous, almost by definition, because they made an impact.

If you want the "most impactful", there's a famous graph ( Historical Population of World, 1 AD to Future ) whch suggests that human population exploded around the time of the Enlightenment. Nothing else has had such a demographic impact.

People have different explanations for what happened exactly, but the two most prominent suggestions are that this is due to the invention of capitalism (ie. the invention of the joint-stock company, Adam Smith writing The Wealth of Nations) or the industrial revolution (ie. the invention / refinement of the steam engine.)

There are a few other potential but slightly less obvious possibilities too : the invention of the Nation State. Perhaps a delayed reaction to the printing press. Perhaps protestantism.

But I'd say, for impact, go for either James Watt or Adam Smith. (Where these people are placeholders for the invention of the steam-engine or capitalism respectively)

Oct 7, 2013

Why aren't more people worried about the potential consequences of affordable 3D printing?

Most people aren't worried because they have no idea it's happening.

Most people who are following the area are far more excited about the benefits than worried about the problems of people printing guns (as Taj Bennit points out, the US is already full of guns.)

There's a big legal fight coming, as the current mass-producers of all kinds of things will be scared that people will use home-printing technology to "pirate" the designs of those things.

In order to try to stop home 3D printing, they'll orchestrate all kinds of scares about 3D printed guns or other dangerous stuff.

This is not serious. It's just following the pattern of scaremongering that accompanies any new technology that empowers people to do things for themselves rather than remain dependent on the existing system. The dangers are minimal.

Oct 7, 2013

3D Printing: Why aren't more VCs funding robot-built houses?

Homelessness isn't really a problem of "lack of house". It's a more general problem of poverty. It's usually connected with "lack of land" on which to build a house and other questions of land-ownership rights etc.

Most people in poor countries live in shanty-towns and favelas. If they can find a bit of space they can usually build some kind of shelter of their own. Out of left-over materials. They can't invest too much because they don't have security of land-ownership.

Technologies like house-printers (or even something like WikiHouse, which I think suffers similar problems) don't address those issues at all. And are way too expensive for poor people. Not to mention just getting the technology there. This is your typical favela :

how do you get one of these 3D printers half-way up a mountain and run it on a slope?

Having said that, I do think there's massive opportunity for technologies like 3D printing and robotics in construction.

It's not going to be about printing cheap houses. Housing is a social / political problem, not a technological one. But I think the kind of work on fine-grained positioning that lets quadcopters build towers (Prefab Towers Built By Flying Robots: Fact Or Fiction?) could probably be used to automate tower-cranes reducing the risk and expense of human operators. (Basically use a crane to do the heavy lifting, and attached rotors on the load for fine-grained positioning when you put it down.)

If you think of your cranes as more like big robot arms, you can have various attachments at the end of them. For example special purpose machines for riveting / welding / pumping cement or concrete etc.

The secret is to use a Subsumption Architecture. The crane / arm has the job of just getting the tool roughly into place (while supporting it and delivering power to it). The tool itself has enough robotics inside it to do its own fine-grained positioning and work.

Oct 7, 2013

In your opinion what bands, singers or music styles do you feel you're supposed to like (and pretend to) but in reality don't?

I NEVER pretend to like something I don't.

OK, if someone plays me their music and it isn't my thing then I'll look for something good to say about it rather than say "I hate this" or "I think you're crap". But I'm pretty confident in my taste.

Oct 8, 2013

Why do atheists speak against or attack Christian theism the most? Do you believe this is even the case?

Christianity is the most actively evangelical (as in trying to sell itself) religion on the planet. There isn't a poor, isolated tribe in the middle of the Amazonian jungle that isn't harassed by Christian missionaries trying to get them to give up their traditional beliefs and embrace Christ. Sooner or later, these Christianized groups start causing trouble for everyone else. An indigenous activist here in Brazil was telling me only the other day that traditional shamans are often physically attacked and murdered by their Christianized neighbours, as the local pastors stir up accusations against them as witches / "satanists" etc.

Christianity is almost certainly the most virulent, anti-social religion on the planet. Christians are spending more money in your community to build churches, start radio stations and recruit your friends and neighbours to their cult than any other spiritual belief. If you want to prevent the encroachment of irrational beliefs and obnoxious behaviour in your community, Christianity is the movement that's most urgent to resist.

Oct 9, 2013

Is there any feasible way to limit corporate personhood?

Sure. The Corporate "Person" was created by government regulations. Government regulations could unmake, or constrain, it.

Oct 9, 2013

Would you agree that freedom means there should be no limits in any way?

Absolutely not.

Freedoms and restrictions are often two sides of the same coin.

When women in Western society gained the "right" to own property they gained new freedoms to live their lives as they wanted, without needing a husband or male relative to look after them.

But only because government chose to protect the woman's property-ownership. And government protection of property is enabled by government restricting other people from appropriating that property. The government have to threaten to chase and prosecute anyone who tries to walk away with the woman's jewels or set up camp on her land.

Most freedoms are of the "positive" kind (ie. enabled by actively restricting someone else) rather than the "negative" kind. Only a tiny minority of the freedoms that actually make up our society are "negative" freedoms.

Oct 10, 2013

3D Printing: Has Makerbot made a statement on Tangibot?

Isn't that the reason that they didn't open-source their most recent designs? Which has made them very unpopular in the open-hardware / RepRap community. (The original makerbot was based on RepRap.)

Personally I think they should have just embraced it, basked in the increased reputation of being the good-guys, and offered accessories / upgrades etc. to buyers of the Tangibot. But, guess that's what happens when you take investment money ...

Oct 11, 2013

Computer Music: What program can I use to take a list of (time, sound file) tuples and convert it into a sound file?

sox driven by shell-script maybe.

Oct 12, 2013

What is the true power of the Python programming language?

Pretty powerful by most people's standards.

There are things you can do in Haskell or some varieties of Lisp that are probably more mind-blowing. In my personal experience, I can write things in Erlang that are about a quarter of number of lines that I would need to write in Python.

But you can go a long way towards understanding and using fairly high-level "functional style" programming in Python.

And unlike these more exotic languages, Python is very easy to get into and work with. Has a huge standard library and other popular, easily available libraries and frameworks for what you want to do. And it will certainly give you a productivity boost compared to things like Java / C# / C++ / PHP etc.

Oct 12, 2013

What's the best way to backup your Quora answers and votes?

I wrote and use rss_backup which saves each answer to a separate file on my machine. The code is free for anyone to download and use.

Update : since Quora switched off RSS, this solution no longer works.

Bad Quora!

Oct 12, 2013

Is Ruby on Rails a good choice as a first programming tool for 13-15 year olds? If not, what alternatives are there?

Distinguish between Ruby and Ruby on Rails.

Rails is designed to make certain kinds of database backed web-site easier. Unless the 13-15 year old wants to create that kind of site, RoR isn't going to help much.

Even if they are, I'd be inclined to start with the whole "what's inside a web-page" thing : a bit of HTML, bit of CSS, bit of javascript. Learn how to do simple games / applications inside a single web-page.

Then, when they've got a grasp of programming (loops, if statements, functions, objects) from that, move out of the browser to more general languages that control other things.

Oct 12, 2013

Why does the human race need money for survival while all other species don't?

As a species, we probably don't need money for survival. But we need it to thrive the way we currently do.

Historically money comes around the same time as agriculture and cities and is part of the same matrix of discoveries : agriculture gives us surpluses of wheat etc. to store; cities grow around grain stores; money keeps track of who gets the grain; cities / money both enable and benefit from increasing division of labour as inhabitants specialize. Later on, money allows trade between cities, and cities themselves can specialize.

With cities and agriculture humans spread across the whole planet, colonizing every type of environment. Without it, humans are limited to certain kinds of environments that have enough food to support a small tribe of hunter-gatherers or nomads : forests, the edges of lakes and seas that can be fished, plains where you can take a herd of cattle.

Oct 15, 2013

What are some examples of creative (and effective) business cards? Where do I get them?

I don't know if it's creative or effective, but I think I have one of the world's "most likely to freak you out" business cards.

Oct 15, 2013

Dubstep sounds like phone rings, and useful for it, are there any relation between them somehow?

It's hard to know exactly what you mean because it doesn't sound very like phone rings to me. Examples from YouTube might help.

But here's what I *think* you mean. Dubstep is very obviously "synthetic". It uses a lot of synthesizer sounds, very prominently in the mix. This is very different from, say, House music which uses a lot of natural / organic sounds, sampled from, or inspired by real soul, funk etc. musicians and instruments. Or breaks / "big beat" of the kind produced by, say, Chemical Brothers or Fatboy Slim that relied a lot on everything from jazz to ska to rock samples. Or even drum'n'bass which had it's more jazz / prog side.

Part of the excitement and impact of dubstep is that it was willing to push very electronic / unnatural sounds in your face. And when you think about it, ring-tones are also about grabbing your attention, often with unnatural sounds.

So there is that similarity.

Oct 15, 2013

What are some tracks that sound like dubstep but predate the movement?

Oct 15, 2013

Why is Aphex Twin is so popular on the Electronic Music scene?

Basically because he's one of the original pioneers.

Aphex started releasing music right at the beginning of the 90s during the first wave of acid-house / techno. Ambient was hardly a genre when he was already releasing volume 2(!) of "Selected Ambient Works". He was famous for being extremely young. And reclusive. And almost immediately he was known for being experimental / doing his own thing.

Other early techno pioneers kind of got themselves pigeonholed as doing a certain kind of sound. But with James it was expected that he'd be trying something new each time. Like Brian Eno, he was made into a kind of official "intellectual" / "boffin" of the scene. He was abstract. And spiritual. And THEN he started messing with our heads with the whole hip-hop / R'n'B pastiche of the Windowlicker video etc.

As Casey Winters shows, he went through a lot of styles and experimentation. And he was willing to push boundaries with weirder sounds, stranger videos, more daring transformations of his image than the majority of people in techno.

Oct 15, 2013

Electronic Music: Is Aaron Funk (Venetian Snares) more talented than Richard D. James (Aphex Twin)?

I think you can't ignore the fact that Aphex was just in on the ground-floor of the whole techno / ambient / "intelligent dance" thing. He was around so early, doing his own thing, pushing the boundaries in all directions when there was no-one to tell him he couldn't.

Funk (to the extent I know his work) is stuck with almost 10 years of people like James doing experiments before he came on the scene. As far as I can tell he may be more of a "musician" in the sense of someone performing and playing instruments, and he may be more willing to engage the "rock" tradition of song-writing. But in electronic music he's not nearly as wide-ranging / innovative as Aphex in his prime. (Though WTF is Aphex doing these days?)

Oct 16, 2013

Would you ever buy clothing from a vending machine?

People buy clothes on the internet all the time. That already dispenses with the idea that you need to see / feel / try-on before buying.

Whether a vending machine with its necessarily limited selection can compete with the internet's other advantages (huge range, low price) is another matter.

Oct 16, 2013

Are there any companies out there that are as innovative as Apple?

Long term or short-term? In the slightly longer term I think Nintendo has a good track record.

Inventing formats : Game and Watch, NES, Gameboy, DS, Wii

High quality incremental developments of innovations : Super NES, Nintendo 64 etc.

Innovative content : Donkey Kong, Mario, Pokemon etc.

They don't always have hits. Sometimes another company comes along and dominates. But they're always exploring / pushing the boundaries. Finding their own take on things. And like Apple they have a good intuition about how to extract the synergies from their hardware / software / content mix.

Oct 19, 2013

What's the best example of a lang. based on an other tongue than English? Eg. What is French for GOTO?

Well, the Excel Macro Language in Microsoft Office gets translated to the local language. So, for example, "if" becomes "se" in Portuguese.

Oct 20, 2013

What would be the cheapest route to begin programming electronica drums?

I just got FL Studio for my Android Tablet. It cost me about £12.

FL Studio on Android

I have to say, I think it's pretty damned impressive.

I've been using Fruity on my PC for about 12 years now, so I'm pretty familiar with it. I can see what has been cut for tablet, what's been added, and what's been adapted. It's not as full featured as my desktop version (which is about 4 or 5 times the price).

But it's still bloody powerful for 12 quid.

Oct 20, 2013

Who knows how to program aleatoric baroque instrumental electronica?

R. S. Pearson maybe? Music of Composer R.S. Pearson

Oct 20, 2013

μTorrent: What are the ethical issues involved in downloading pirated material through torrent clients?

The moral issues are roughly these.

Someone is making a bunch of non-scarce bits available for you to download. You can download them. End of story.

It's wrong for governments to try to stop the free exchange of information simply to protect a redundant business model.

Artists today are being forced to answer a simple question : "Is it more important for me to be an artist? Or is it more important for me to stop people having access to my product without paying me for it?"

If it's the first, then keep making your art. We will thank you for it.

If it's the second, then. You know. I am sorry. I do feel for you. But freedom to share the information we have is a moral requirement for the human race. And your business model is just a temporary glitch in human history whose time has ended. There will be plenty of musicians, story-tellers, painters and photographers who are willing to choose art over commerce, so we don't, ultimately, need you.

Oct 20, 2013

What are the moral issues involved in running a Freenet node?

What are the moral issues of driving a taxi? After all, you can't know that your next customer isn't a serial killer on his way to his next victim.

Oct 21, 2013

3D Printing: Can there be road printers?

An automated road laying machine should be possible in theory.

Would need support from robotic steamrollers etc.

The big question, though, is how to get the material. Now it comes in fleets of trucks. A pipe would be too heavy. And tar is too viscous to pump. So you'd still need that fleet of trucks.

Those could obviously be automated. As could much of the rest of the process. But it's still going to look like a swarm of robots and autonomous vehicles more than a printer.

Oct 22, 2013

What are the ideas of the future?

The future is basically a race. Between, on one side, exponentially increasing computing power and ubiquity, coupled with smaller and more fine-grained fabrication capacity (starting with 3D printing, robotics, moving on to MEMS, biotech and nanotechnology.) And, on the other, environmental destruction, resource depletion and peak everything.

One of two things will happen : we'll hit a crucial peak of some fundamental requirement (oil, water, helium, potassium); or global warming will cause major food chain collapse. And then civilization will effectively end.

Or, the improved fabrication technologies will make us ever better at managing resources and energy more efficiently, and we'll end up being able to sustain a steady-state population within the energy budget that the sun gives us each year, and with other important materials being continually cycled.

There is no third way : the stocks that the earth has aren't infinite, and we aren't even vaguely close to being able to pull resources from other asteroids, planets and stars. (Yes, we dream of it, no that's not going to be the front-runner in this race.)

So, basically the ideas of the future are going to be those that "go with the grain" of these two broad trends. Anything that uses ubiquitous computing / robots / microfabrication to make material production more efficient in terms of energy and materials is a big idea for the future.

Oct 22, 2013

What different types of arguments are there to use for one who wants to argue effectively?

I think this is one of the most awesome / beautiful sites on the web (been around forever). Will tell you almost everything you need to know about rhetoric.

Check it out : The Forest of Rhetoric

Oct 22, 2013

What are some resources that one can use to learn how to debate more effectively?

Oct 22, 2013

If doctors were to design a combination exercise bike + "desk" that was ergonomically safe and "good" for you in terms of burning calories, what would it look like?

The idea of a single physical workstation or activity is probably wrong from a fitness / health perspective.

The ideal situation would be a work "circuit" that included walking, cycling, swimming, climbing, maybe some muscle building, maybe some being outside in the open air / sun etc.

How would you combine this range of physical activity with "knowledge work"? Well, partly mobile devices. Google-style Glasses. Partly large screens or projections in various places. (Think of doing a short session each day in a "Minority Report" ("gorilla arms) type environment.) More meetings over golf. (An idea which should be extended to far more people than the elite / sales class.) Or frisbee golf etc.

Partly actual breaks from work to do physical exercise (even if your unconscious mind is mulling over problems.)

Oct 22, 2013

Why do people buy canned soft drinks when the same drink in a plastic bottle is cheaper?

Cans are better for the environment than plastic bottles. They can be recycled into useful metals. Plastic can be recycled but not to much except a lower-grade plastic. It will all end up in the Great Pacific garbage patch eventually.

Oct 22, 2013

What is the future of EDM?

EDM basically oscillates between two poles : the sensual and the bombastic.

The sensual is represented by house, deep-house, trip-hop, garage, future bass etc. The bombastic by jungle / d'n'b / nose-bleed techno / dubstep etc.

The sensual is characterized by female vocals, samples of "real instruments", a trancelike continuum, jazzy harmonies etc. The bombastic by speed, colour, discontinuity, excessive bass, spectacle.

After 30 or so years of electronic dance music the one thing we can be pretty sure of is that the pendulum always swings back from one pole to the other. If, when you read this, we're currently in a phase of sensuousness, you can be sure that in a year or two there'll be a new bombast. Or if the thing when you read this is some exciting bombast, you can expect that a year or two down the line things will have calmed down considerably.

Oct 22, 2013

What is the future of musical style?

The future of musical style is ... SeaPunk!

Or rather, the future of musical style is lots of tiny niche styles that appear and disappear over-night, with a fanbase that suddenly picks up the idea and goes with it, partly because it captures their fancy, and partly because they want to be part of the new thing. In other words, music styles will be like internet memes.

Those Harlem Shake videos from 2012-2013? That will be how musical style plays out in future.

The mainstream will continue to exist, but be as historically irrelevant as always. Except when it gets invaded by a sound out of the underground.

Will those styles require talent? Yes, for some sense of "talent" where "talent" equals "grasping the essential traits of the current style and executing them". Like punk it might mean knowing how to use a minimum number of chords to maximum effect. It might mean extraordinary vocal dexterity. Or painstaking multitracking. Or knowing that this week it's all about aquamarine hair. It won't correspond to traditional musicianship. But it will be "meme-manship" of the highest order. And many people will fail to achieve the standards set by the best.

Oct 22, 2013

How do lazy people feel about their own laziness?

"Laziness" is an umbrella term for a bunch of other characteristics though should probably be teased out.

I'm sometimes accused of laziness (especially by my wife) but what I really am is :

a) conflict averse
b) lonely

These two characteristics make me a great procrastinator. I'll avoid all sorts tasks that risk me coming into conflict with someone else (eg. writing an email where I have to make a request that may be rejected, or to reject a request that's made of me)

At the same time, I'll do all sorts of short, trivial tasks, which are low-stakes, but which someone has asked me, while not getting around to doing the big task that I ought to be doing, but which requires me to isolate myself from other people, and for which there's no imminent demand or reward.

That's why it can be hell to write the thousand words that I'm meant to write today, but I might have written two thousand words in Quora answers and other social media without even noticing. Am I "lazy" if I don't get round to doing the thing I should be doing this week but write 30 Quora answers?

I don't know.

I'm definitely picking something that's "easier" for me. Rather than the harder thing I should be doing. I'm not pushing or stretching myself. That can be called "lazy".

Like Visakan Veerasamy, I definitely get moments of looking in the mirror thinking "what's wrong with you" after I manage to screw something up or fail to achieve something that I could have done, if I just been able to make myself concentrate on that thing I had to do by myself, or to challenge that guy that I avoided challenging.

Oct 23, 2013

What are some radical ideas to stop climate change?

Close down all coal power stations tomorrow. Keep gas, nuclear, petrol going. Figure out how we'll cope.

In 15 years time stop oil production equally abruptly and gas generation soon after.

This is more radical than anyone else's proposal. Why? Because it's completely within our power to do. It's not some speculative idea that it's nice to dream about but safely unactionable. It's doable. Would work. But we just can't bring ourselves to do it.

Oct 23, 2013

Is it possible that a small group may take radical steps to mitigate/reverse climate change, and if so, what are some scenarios they might try?

The best hope, if you're really well funded is to buy some crucial politicians.

I wonder what a ten billion dollar personal prize for the first president / prime-minister to halve his or her country's CO2 output during their term in office might achieve.

Oct 25, 2013

Why is there such a huge gap between the rich and the poor?

The magic of positive feedback.

As Hemanshu Desai points out, the richer you are, the more opportunities you have to become richer.

Oct 25, 2013

There might be some sort of perceptual bias here but, does it seem like there are a much larger number of successful symmetrical adaptations than a-symmetrical adaptations?


It's easier to build symmetrical bodies. You need less information than for asymmetric ones.

OTOH, the human brain is allegedly an asymmetrical organ, and that's a pretty damned successful adaptation.

Oct 25, 2013

Is it possible that there are species on earth yet to be discovered that are even larger than whales?

It's possible that there could be really big squid or similar in the very deep ocean that we haven't discovered yet. There's more or less zero probability that there'll be any mammals down there. No mammal is likely to have evolved to not need to come to the surface to breath air.

Oct 25, 2013

Is it it true that any adaptation of an organism is done with the help of mutation?

What do you mean by "mutation"? You can get a lot of variety with just recombination.

Oct 25, 2013

What is adaptationism?

I don't understand why the debate is so fierce. It feels a little bit like a stale terminological argument to me.

For example an anti-adaptationist might point out that the shape of a particular animal is largely due to the body chemistry and the body chemistry in turn is largely constrained by what molecules can be built which is, in turn, inherent in atomic forces and the geometric properties of particular molecules.

But it seems to me that the laws of chemistry and geometry are as much part of nature (and therefore exerting "natural selection" pressure) as any lion. So "choosing" to build with chemical X rather than chemical Y or "being triangular for rigidity" is as much an adaptation as having long legs to run from predators.

Marc Srour gives a good account of an anti-adaptationist position, but the tautology he complains about in adaptationism cuts both ways. It's equally damaging to the anti-adaptationist. Because to be anti-adaptationist you have to artificially divide the constraints on the animal into two categories : "natural selection" and "everything else" and your anti-adaptationist argument is wholly dependent on where you drew that line.

Oct 25, 2013

Can there be morality without God? What would that even mean?

Why shouldn't there be?

You can, presumably, accept in theory that an objective system of atoms could exist without God. Then it's no more problematic to imagine that an objective system of "oughts" can exist without God. What makes oughts different from atoms?

Oct 26, 2013

Is it possible to create a completely new industry that doesn't currently exist? How? What kind of thinking goes into doing that?

Luck. Basically.

Or rather, basic science. Just research whatever in the universe makes you curious. It might lead to a completely new industry.

There's no method that guarantees a new industry though. By definition anything that is well enough established that you know there's an industry there isn't new.

Oct 27, 2013

Are all the good ideas already done/ being done?

It seems extremely unlikely. Today it's 27th October, 2013

1) Many good ideas are just small variants on existing ones. It's just that what makes them so good is that they are the right variant rather than one of the many wrong ones.

2) This guy managed to make a hi-res 3D printer for $100 with a bit of lateral thinking and a re-purposed medical drip. The Peachy Printer

3) O'Reilly just launched a journal for amateur bio-hackers : BioCoder News - O’Reilly Media

4) Yesterday I listened to an O'Reilly Radar podcast with Amanda Parkes talking about feeding organic conductive ink to algae to grow circuits.

5) Urban Shepherds rent out sheep to manage temporarily unproductive wasteland

6) People are working on Graphene Chips.

7) Weightless have a wireless communication chip that runs for years on a single battery.

8) These people have a new take on restaurant reviews, without the reviews

9) Mozilla run a science fair : Take a tour through the MozFest Science Fair

10) A VC directly competes with tech. news : USV puts news on their home page

Seriously ... quickly read through that lot ... or Future Glimpse and tell me you think all the ideas have been done. Or that there aren't opportunities exploding all over.

Oct 27, 2013

What is the most persistent problem with your career, business, or daily life, that you'd happily pay for a solution if there was one?

If I could have an "agent" who could get me interesting gigs, negotiate to get me reasonably well paid, and shield me from a lot of the negotiating I'd otherwise have to do, that would be worth a percentage of my salary.

Oct 28, 2013

If you had $4M, would you allow yourself a $250k car?

Not interested. I might buy a decent bike though.

Oct 28, 2013

What are the working hours like in Brazil?

Like everywhere, it varies. But something along the lines of 8 - 12, 2 - 6

Lunch is important. So many people take 2 hours for it. (Often going home to eat it with family.)

Oct 28, 2013

Given the right amount of time required, could chimpanzees or other any other animals evolve into species as advanced as human beings?


Oct 30, 2013

If you were so rich that you could afford to blow $250,000 on something, what would that something be?

Spend a year supporting the coolest Kickstarter projects I found each month.

Blog about everything I'm supporting.

At the end of the following year I'd have, not only stacks of cool, cutting edge stuff (which would probably include a bunch of electronics projects, robots, 3D printers, wearable devices, geek toys etc.) and the satisfaction of having helped them come into existence.

I'd also know about a lot of up and coming artists, film-makers, musicians etc. And would possibly be one of the most interesting people around.

Oct 31, 2013

Is it immoral to benefit economically from pseudosciences like astrology, or is just a benefit for being the clever one?

Pretty much. You're wilfully helping spread ignorance and confusion in the world.

Oct 31, 2013

What are some practices endorsed in the Bible that would be considered immoral or illegal to do today?

I'm pretty sure if I physically attacked money-lenders I'd be thrown in jail pretty damned quickly.

Oct 31, 2013

Why does Makezine publish so many lame electronics projects?

I think it's three things :

- primarily it's about teaching the basics, particularly to younger people. Basic projects have to be, well, basic. That is, simple, achievable with limited knowledge and tools, and cheap.

While our society is now incredibly literate in the consumption and use of sophisticated electronic devices. And while things like Arduino make some of that a lot more accessible to hobbyists. You still have to learn some fundamental electricity ideas and basic tool use. With simple projects and cheap materials.

The chances are, some of those projects are going to be the same as projects from 40 years ago.

- You're probably right that the business model is about amateur contributions. That's also the culture of the web and the community that they're trying to cultivate / work-with.

- The writing style may be aimed at young people today. 40 years ago, you'd expect even a child to have read more and be more rigorously schooled in certain use of English. Today children read less and watch more TV. Plus their vocabulary has evolved. What you'd consider "coherent" English from 40 years ago is probably quite opaque the average 8 or 9 year old.

There's no excuse for errors in schematics though. O'Reilly should have editors / testers to make sure of that.

Oct 31, 2013

What is needed in order to help designers find makers (and vice versa) in the Makers Movement so that they can collaborate on projects?

I started the London Future Manufacturing Meetup, partly to help with this problem (in London, obviously). The idea was for makers, 3D printing enthusiasts, designers, crafters and even people from traditional small manufacturing, to get together and potentially spark collaborations.

Oct 31, 2013

Begging: Would it be immoral to ask a panhandler to pick up trash for 20 minutes or so in exchange for a few bucks?

It sounds like you're basically one of :

- trying to do a test : "let's see if this guy is willing to work or is just lazy"

- teaching what you consider to be a moral lesson : "see how work is good for you!"

Both of those make you look pretty ugly. After all, you wouldn't go up to other random people on the street and start testing their integrity or trying to teach them moral lessons. So being willing to do it with this guy is clearly a result of you feeling superior because you have money while he needs it. That basic economic inequality has fooled you into assuming there must be a moral inequality too. (Something that's wholly unproven at this point.)

It's not immoral per-se to offer someone who might need a job, a job. But it should be done sensitively. And with some kind of framework that respects the person and their position. For example, things like The Big Issue and other newspapers sold by the homeless are not that different, and I don't think they're immoral. But they start by focussing on the system and respect for the people they're trying to help. They weren't created to score points.

Oct 31, 2013

What is the most helpful thing you can say to a panhandler who begs you for money?

I always say "take care of yourself" (after giving some money).

Not sure how helpful it is, but I hope it conveys some kind of message that I wish them well and hope they'll cope with whatever they're going through.

Oct 31, 2013

Why should kids be grateful to their parents for bringing them up? Isn’t it the parent’s duty?

I'm grateful. My parents gave birth to me. Brought me up. Educated me. Entertained me. Didn't abuse me. Gave me what I consider to be pretty good examples of how to live. And very much shaped the person I am.

To the extent that I like myself and am happy with myself, I'm grateful for them giving me that.

OTOH I think it's such a profound and sui-generis relationship that terms like "gratitude" and other things that suggest reciprocal gifting are pretty inadequate.

Nov 1, 2013

What characteristics of a programming language makes it capable of building very large-scale software?