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Monthly Archives: November 2010

Comparing girlfriends

When you travel in a country on your own for some time, it becomes like a girlfriend. Even though comparing girlfriends is almost never a good idea I’m still going to give it a try.

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With my current girlfriend (India) I got off to a bad start in Delhi where she showed her ruthless, uninterested and ugly sides. In Goa she displayed her split personality by becoming seductive, beautiful and terribly superficial. But by then we understood each other a bit better and were unconsciously ready for a next phase in our relationship. That phase came sudden: the massive rocks in Hampi, combined with some of the most beautiful monuments I’ve ever seen pushed our relationship into the right direction. Most of all, her superficiality gave way for an interesting almost mystic depth, which was badly lacking from our relationship before.

My ex (iran) was a different story altogether. Love at first sight, she was friendly, we had excellent conversations and (not unimportantly) she looked gorgeous.

Despite that we’re together already for a couple of weeks, it’s much more difficult to love my current girlfriend. She doesn’t talk back when i talk to her. All she does is stare at me, making me think. After a lot of thinking I concluded that whether our relationship will develop further might say more about me than it does about her.

The sound of cooking

Please note: as I don’t have a TV, I haven’t seen any cooking programs. Therefore. what I tell you below might be common knowledge except for me.

I ran into a German Michelin star chef yesterday. He had an interesting story on how he manages his kitchen. First of all, there is total silence by the staff. The only words spoken are when he announces the choices of the customers and when the meals are due (‘plate xyz ready in 2 minutes’). Secondly, he approves each plate and if the food is not good he throws it away, no matter how long the customer has to wait. Great food comes first.

Thirdly, as he has got a good reputation, many ambitious people want to work for him. This makes it relatively easy to attract great staff.

I asked him how he manages to get his team to such a level of perfection. He claims it’s easy. Once the recipes are invented they cook it together a couple of times, each member of the team notes what he/she has to deliver and when, the rest is execution.

For me, the bigger lesson was that many more (not all) businesses could be run this way. It ‘just’ takes a great chef to get there.

Money talks

I don’t like talking about money, but today I make an exception. With Joe, a travel friend, I ended up in Baga, the bright-lights-big-city around here. We had just arrived so we needed to find out where we could find an accommodation. As everybody and their brother rents them we had difficulties finding an independent (reliable) source of hotel information. The only thing we managed to find out was a room for the (for us) shocking amount of 800 rupees (13 euro’s !!!) for 2 persons. So we asked a group of 2 Americans and 1 Canadian what they payed and where. The girls said “350 per head for two days”. We were instantly sold: “what a great deal!” They asked what we had found, we sheepishly said “800 per day for 2 persons”. They looked very impressed, “what kind of great place is that?” was their reply. We shrugged and said “that it doesn’t even have air-conditioning”. Confusion arose, “it doesn’t have aircon for 800?” Suddenly, one of them found the answer: “we’re talking dollars and you’re talking rupees”. We all stared blankly at each other and realized abruptly we had nothing in common anymore. We said goodbye and quickly found a great place for 700 rupees for 2 persons. Later that night Joe and I ran into them again by accident. We concluded that they didn’t look happier than we did. Probably they did the same.

What does technology want?

To most people this question sounds ‘incorrect’ as technology doesn’t want anything. Only human beings or animals are able to want things. In his provocative and deep book, Kevin Kelly (KK)- founder of my beloveth Wired magazine – makes a conving case that technology does want something.

First of all, he explains that technology is not limited to humans (I can’t think of a more convincing display than the movie 2001 – space odessey where a monkey starts using a stick to gain power). Ant hills and bird nests are also forms of technology (houses) even when we typically classify these examples under ‘nature’. KK explains it as follows: “However you define life, its essence does not reside in material forms like DNA, tissue or flesh, but in the intangible organization of the energy and information contained in those material forms. And as technology was unveiled from its shroud of atoms, we could see that at its core, it, too, is about ideas and information”. Stated differently, “technology is unnatural-by definition. And technology is natural-by a wider definition”.

KK reluctantly invents the new word ‘technium’ to emphasize an important property of technology: “The technicum extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. [] And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology inventions and more self-enhancing connections”. Moreover, as the “technicum is an outgrowth of the humand mind, it is also an outgrowth of life, and by extension it is also an outgrowth of the physical and chemical self-organization that first led to life”.
These definitions seem pretty self evident, as the technicum is occurring on earth, therefore it must abide to the laws of nature, which resulted in life itself. However, KK extends this by stating: “The techinicum wants what we design it to want and what we try to direct it to do. But in addition to those drives, the technicum has its own wants. It wants to sort itself out, to self-assemble into hierarchical levels, just as most large deeply interconnected systems do. The technium also wants what every living system wants: to perpetuate itself, to keep itself going. And as it grows, those inherent wants are gaining in complexity and force”. This seems like anthropomorphisation (the attribution of human-like qualities to something that isn’t human), but according to Kelly even a worm wants moisture, so it doesn’t seem unthinkable that the technicum has wants too.

The technicum is important, according to KK: “the technicum is now as great a force in our world as nature, and our responses to the technicum should be similar to our response to nature. We can’t demand that technology obey us anymore than we can demand that life obey us.”

In a discussion about evolution he singles out sex as the biggest step in reordering of biological information as it combines traits of both partners which results in faster evolution.

For technology, he considers ‘language’ the most important development. Not just because it helps us to store and communicate ideas efficiently, but because language “allows the mind to question itself; a magic mirror that reveals to the mind what the mind thinks; a handle that turns a mind into a tool”. Moreover, language bridges the natural evolution (single-cell to multicell etc.) to technological evolution (book knowledge to the scientific method etc.).

Kelly argues that the technicum and evolution are both emergent adaptive systems that tend to converge on ‘inevitable’ solutions. Examples are the telephone which was independently invented by multiple people at the same time and eyes that appear in unrelated species. The fact that the same (biological) ‘invention’ happens multiple times strengthens Kelly’s faith in convergent evolution. According to Kelly: “In the old view, the internal (the source of mutation) created change, while the external (the environmental source of adaption) selected it; in the new view, the external (physical and chemical constraints) creates forms, while the internal (self-organization) selects or directs them”. He identifies 3 vectors:
a. adaptive: adapting to your environment increases chance to breed offspring
b. luck
c. structural inevitability
I found this a tough part both to understand and to agree with. The following helped me: “all of the main morphological features of organisms:
– hearts, brains, guts, limbs, eyes
– leaves, flowers, roots, trunks, branches
[] are emergent results of morphogenic principles and would reappear if the tape of life was rewound”. This means that [e]very organism (and artifact) is a wholly improbable arrangement of it’s constituent atoms. Yet within the long chain of reproducing self-organization and restless evolution, these forms become highly probable, and even inevitable because there are only a few ways such open-ended ingenuity can actually work in the real world”.

Kelly considers it necessary to defend technological progress. According to him it’s better to have a more limited freedom within many choices, than unlimited freedom within a fixed set of choices. He also concludes that: “To improve our chances of making better decisions, we need-I almost hate to say it-more technology”. Kelly writes a heartfelt argument, but in my opinion the section that could have been called ‘what we should want for technology’ should have been saved for a different book. My main reasons for that are that Kelly firstly argues that a lot of developments for the technicum are inevitable. Secondly, because of technicum’s self reinforcing powers the human brain is unlikely to be capable of keeping up even with technology monitoring tools. As Kelly argues himself: we’re currently unable to keep up with the impacts of a technology (who thought about ‘suburbs’ when the car was invented?). Thirdly, even if we are capable of fully assessing the pro’s and cons of a technology before or during the start, it’s unlikely that somebody would be capable to gather sufficient power to stop the development.

The stories Kelly narrates are a big plus to the book. He fondly narrates the choices the Amish make (and forgets that there are many similar people even in The Netherlands who abstain from technology), and he brings remarkable insights in the mind of the Unabomber and painlessly includes little pearls of wisdom. However, the stories also reduce the clarity of the bigger picture significantly. Same applies to the scenario’s and multitude of frameworks. Stated differently, I would have loved to be his editor 😉 I would have focussed him more on identifying the long term trends in technology and some guidance on policy actions for the present.

Kelly opens the last chapter of his book with what he considers ‘playing the infinite game’. Finite games have fixed rules. Infinite games keep going by changing its rules. Needless to say that he considers the techicum an infinite game. Furthermore, he considers the waste of human potential if the right technologies wouldn’t have been available to the right persons. For example: if Mozart would have been born and the piano wouldn’t have been invented. An interesting thought, but it hardly justifies the suffering of many due to the rapid development of technology. I am as big a techno-optimist as Kelly, but for different reasons. Kelly quotes Heinz von Foerster’s Ethical Imperative: “Always act to increase the number of choices” (for yourself and others). And he defines God as the autocreator and “if you believe humans are made in the image of God [], then we have done well, because we have just birthed our own creation: the technicum”.

His last words are: “It will take the whole technicum, and that includes us, to discover the tools that are needed to surprise the world. Along the way we generate more options, more opportunities, more connections, more diversity, more unity, more thought, more beauty, and more problems. Those add up to more good, an infini
te game worth playing. That is what technology wants”.

random quotes:
– King Henry had some fine clothes and a lot of servants, you could not pay people to live as he did, without plumbing, in dark, drafty rooms, isolated from the world by impassable roads and few communication.

– The majority of neighborhoods in almost every modern city are merely successful former slums.

– Try to imagine imagine the same rise in wealth in the past two centuries if the world market [population] […] had shrunk every year.

– If we’d gone on as we were, as hunter-gatherers, we’d have needed about 85 earths to feed 6 billion people. [] We don’t go on as we are. We address the problems of tomorrow not with today’s tools, but with the tools of tomorrow. This what we call progress.

– When critics asked us champions of the Internet what we were going to do about the digital divide and I said “nothing”, I added a challenge: “if you want to worry about something; don’t worry about the folks who are currently offline. They’ll stampede on faster than you think. Instead you should worry about what we are going to do when everyone is online

– How we handle life’s cascade of real choices within the larger cages of our birth and background is what makes us who we are. It is what people talk about when we are gone. Not the given, but the choices we make

Conclusion
In my opinion Kevin Kelly has written a truly remarkable book. It’s wordy at times (so am I) and sometimes lacks focus too. This will make it easy for adversaries to attack the details. Also, the book switches between an aaabbb and ababab structure, which makes it a confusing and needlessly complex read. However, most of his statements and conclusions are resounding truths. Especially that technology is something natural is regularly overlooked. He adds to that an amazing breadth of knowledge in this excellently researched book. The stories to back up his arguments almost make it as exciting as a pageturner novel. In short, it’s a must read for everybody in our technology driven society.

Traveling with an iPhone 4 and Kindle

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I like to travel light, that’s why my iPhone4 and Amazon Kindle are the only devices I carry. Here are some of my experiences.

The Kindle is excellent for reading books. However, don’t try to use it for anything else like surfing the web (horrible user interface). Moreover, I found it not suited for the Lonely Planet either as that book requires to much annotation and going back and forth.

The iPhone 4 has been a positive surprise. Picture quality is excellent for photo’s and video and due to the handy format (and that it’s also a phone) I tend to have it ready nearly all the time. I like especially the following apps:

Photo
– Pro HDR: this app is simply fantastic. In difficult light conditions (dark + light areas in the same picture) it takes 2 pictures right after eachother and automatically merges the best parts of each picture to create 1 good picture. Amazing! It also helps you to prevent to flash (which is horrible 99% of the time).

– iPicasso. I have searched everywhere but couldn’t find a good app that allows me to send multiple pictures and video’s to cloud storage like Google’s Picasa (I don’t feel like leaving my iPhone for a couple of hrs in a cybercafe cum photo place, then burn the files on a couple of DVDs and then send them home and then pray that they arrive and only then delete the pictures from the iPhone). iPicasso is the only app that I know of that let’s you upload multiple pictures at once (tried Dropbox and others, but they didn’t work for me). The only reason why this is necessary is that Apple doesn’t allow apps to access the photo’s and video’s on your phone.

– other noteworthy photo apps are: Hipstamatic, Colorsplash, and CropForFree. They obviously aren’t as good as Photoshop, but definitely are easier and fun to use

Navigation
Here I tried nearly a dozen apps (Google earth, Omaps, Wikimaps, National Geographic world atlas etc.), but only 1 performed well for the main trick: have a GPS enabled map that works offline. Why? Mobile Internet is expensive, slow and has poor coverage (especially in the areas where you most need it). The name off the app: OffMaps (it also features city guides, but I haven’t tried those yet).

Communication
I recommend buying a simlock free non-jailbroken iPhone without subscription. This means in practice that you need an iPhone from Belgium, UK or Italy (I bought mine at www.Gigavolt.nl , who gave me excellent service). Why? Simlock free is necessary so you can buy local simcards (especially when traveling outside europe, otherwise Vodafone has a package that could be interesting). I have looked into special international simcards (Worldsim etc.), but found their local-to-local rates very expensive (1 euro/min+). I have bought a non-jailbroken phone because I didn’t want to discover in the Vietnamese jungle that my phone (with my pictures on it) was ‘bricked’ due to a shiny new iOS update. The phone was expensive (1050 euro), but as it also meant a new camera and videorecorder. I somehow put myself over the price.

Buy local prepaid simcards for headache free calls to hotels, emergency internet surfing etc. Buy a ‘simcard cutter’ (also at Gigavolt.nl) for effortlessly cutting regular simcards to the right size (damn you Apple 2!).

Use Skype for calling your Skype contacts. Use Skype Out for calling people without access to Skype (call from India to NL for 2 cent per minute). Unfortunately, this only works via Wifi (damn you Apple 3!).

I use WhatsApp for chatting.

Posterous is the only tool I need for maintaining this site and the updates to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. You only need to send an email to an email and Posterous does the rest (very helpful in Iran where Twitter and Facebook are banned).

Last, but not least: buy the thickest and uggliest protector for your iPhone that you can find.

That’s it! If you’ve got any tips, please share them below or send me a mail.

Delhi shock

I believe it was during WW1 that ‘shell shock’ was first documented. I’d like to introduce you to the ‘Delhi shock’.

I arrived from the pittorque city of Tehran (15 mio inhabitants) at 04.00 in the morning. The taxi drive through the tree filled streets was one I won’t easily forget. Only after 10 minutes I noticed that cars should drive on the left. The mist (visibility: 50 meters) added a mystic touch to the scenic trip.

Hotels are really affordable in Delhi and interior design is fantastic. Unfortunately, the execution of the master’s design is off a slightly lower standard, which means that basically everything is broken.

There’s a festival on these days, thus you can (and do) light firecrackers at any moment of the day. Fortunately everybody is in an extra festive mood.

The cokroaches and dead dogs in the street come with the territory, but please don’t make me get used to the homeless people.

exit Iran

I’m in the bus towards Tehran, and I will be leaving Iran soon. After my short stay overhere, I would like to share some things I’ve seen and read about Iran:
– Iranians like jews, they even *guarantee* seats in the parlement specifically for jews. Admittedly, jews don’t have the same rights as Muslims. Iranians don’t agree with the current situation in Israel.

– Iranians like Americans. The Americans I’ve met in Iran were extremy positive about their reception (even at the border). American products are cherished by Iranians. Both are a miracle as the USA overthrew the legally elected government in Iran in 1954 (headed by the Times man-of-the-year Mossadegh), categorised Iran in the ‘axis of evil’ when it had its most pro-western and peace loving government in decades, the Iran-contra affair, shot down of the civilian IranAir flight 655 (290 people on board) by the US navy most advanced warship. Surprisingly, you’ll find amazing similarities between the ideas of American Christians evangelicals (and tea party movement) and the current situation in Iran. – Iran is not agressive: it hasn’t attacked anoyher country for centuries and its miliyary budget is only 2,7% of GDP. As an indication, the USA spends every two weeks in Iraq alone what Iran spends in a year. This despite that Iran has been occuppied by Russians, British and was under attack of Iraq and had operations on its soil by the USA. Despite what many western people might think, Iran despises thd Taliban about as much as the USA.

– Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons (yet). This is an exception in the region as the main countries that operate in there (India, Pakistan, Israel, Russia and USA) all have these weapons. Moreover, Iran is an importer of fossil fuels (they lack refinery capacity for their oil), therefore nuclear energy really is important to them.

– Iran isn’t anti-west, it just doesn’t want to turn into a country where mindless pursuit of money, status and sex are its citizens main occupations.

Isn’t there anything negative in Iran? Of course there is. – The oppression of women and non-muslims is non-worthy for such a great nation (the fact that the situation in neighbouring countries is far worse isn’t an excuse).

– Economic policy is dramatic, leading to poverty in what could be one of the richest countries in the world. Again, income disparity isn’t something that is confined to Iran, but the situation is needlessly bad.

– Support for movements outide its country need to stop (it wouldn’t want other countries do the same to Iran).

– The influence of the clergy should be limited to theological affairs. Freedom of speech and elections are sacred too.

– Despite what many people from the west think, the green movement didn’t want to make the country secular, nor did it want to stop Iran’s nuclear efforts. Also, the support from the west for the green movement did far more harm than good (it was inmediately branded as a foreign supported coup, with which the Iranians have very bad experiences).

-And many more…

The world seems to misunderstand Iran and Iran’s ruling class doesn’t understand its people. After reading a couple of books and spending a couple of weeks in Iran, I can’t pretend to understand it either. What I do know is that Iranians are in general genuinely nice people. They’re very hurt by their negative image abroad (it’s typically the 2nd question they ask you). In my opinion it’s a country that will slowly change for the better and then emerge as the leading country in its region and maybe this will work as a ‘religious democracy’. ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there’ as they call it over here. And I’ll miss Iran.