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Babbage on economics and innovation

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Hmm… might be worth a look sometime, if I can find it in the library. From this talk.

Google books link.

Babbage, who, like Isaac Newton, was Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, attempted to construct the first computer in the early nineteenth century, more than a century before the first working computer was produced. Of course, Babbage’s computer was based on mechanical power rather than electronics, but it still required parts with very precise specifications. In carrying out this project, Babbage had to work with many workshops. In the process Babbage learnt a great deal about modern manufacturing.

Based on his experience, Babbage published an extraordinary book, The Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, which well beyond any contemporary work of political economy in creating a realistic analysis of modern production. The significance of rapid technical change struck Babbage, who claimed, “… the improvements succeeded each other so rapidly that machines which had never been finished were abandoned in the hands of their makers, because new improvements had superseded their utility” (Babbage 1835, p. 286). Babbage’s rule of thumb was that the cost of an original machine was roughly five times the cost of a duplicate (Babbage 1835, p. 266).

More from Wikipedia, on comparative advantage:

In On the Economy of Machine and Manufacture, Babbage described what is now called the Babbage principle, which describes certain advantages with division of labour. Babbage noted that highly skilled – and thus generally highly paid – workers spend parts of their job performing tasks that are ‘below’ their skill level. If the labour process can be divided among several workers, it is possible to assign only high-skill tasks to high-skill and -cost workers and leave other working tasks to less-skilled and paid workers, thereby cutting labour costs. This principle was criticised by Karl Marx who argued that it caused labour segregation and contributed to alienation. The Babbage principle is an inherent assumption in Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management.

My favorite Babbage quote:

On two occasions I have been asked, – “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower, House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

Written by infoproc

September 13, 2008 at 3:39 pm

iPhone 3G

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My childhood dreams of a communicator/tricorder gizmo have finally been fulfilled 🙂

Activation was a snap. I was lucky that one of the stores in town got a shipment of 20 black 16GB phones in this morning via FedEx. They had sold out completely over the weekend (maybe on Friday) and most people are paying in advance and waiting (possibly 7-10 days) to get theirs. Rumor is that Apple sold 500k over the weekend and that they are making 100k per day in their factories in China.

It’s actually not that much more functional than the HTC smartphone I’ve been using for 2 years, but it’s much more aesthetically pleasing. Once developers get cranking on new iPhone Apps I think we’ll see some amazing stuff — especially using the built-in GPS.

At foo camp people were really jazzed about Android (the new Google handset operating system), which is totally open. HTC, a gritty Taiwanese company, will be the first out with an Android phone. It’s gotta be better than Windows Mobile 🙂



Written by infoproc

July 15, 2008 at 12:12 am

Posted in gizmos, iphone, technology

Foo camp 2008 coverage

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Nice article and photos here (Techcrunch) and here. My sessions were “The information security industry is broken” with John Viega and Dan Kaminski, and “The technology of hand to hand fighting: MMA” 🙂

Techcrunch: Shangri La for geeks

275 or so people congregated on the small town of Sebastopol, located 60 miles north of San Francisco in the heart of wine country, for the 2008 Foo Camp this last weekend. Attendees included technologists, professors, researchers engineers, major company executives, billionaire entrepreneurs, students, press and the odd astronaut.

They all had one thing in common – a love of technology. Foo Camp, which stand for Friends of O’Reilly, is an annual three day tech event put on by O’Reilly Media at their Sebasopol headquarters. They supply a huge lawn area where attendees put up tents, food and drinks, bathrooms, Wifi and one very large blank piece of paper marked off in a grid.

There is no structure to the event – if an attendee wants to hold a session on anything at all, they simply write the name of the session somewhere on the grid, which tells people what day/time and place the session will be held. People attend any sessions they like, and with 15 or so happening at any given time, there may be 2 people, or 75 people, in any particular session.

Sessions this year included, to name just a few: “how to fly the space shuttle” by a former astronaut, “the future of news,” “user generated meta data,” “the metrics of virtual worlds,” “decentralizing social networks” and “online hate/trolling.”

In one session on Sunday that I co-led with Tim O’Reilly and Danny Sullivan, we debated the need for competitive search. This was an offshoot of a previousdebate we held on our blogs, but this time with audience participation in real time (including people from the companies being discussed).

The sessions are in an unconference format, meaning the leaders are there to guide the discussion only. Audience participation isn’t just encouraged, it’s a well exercised right (in the picture to the right, you can see Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales behind the table with his hand raised to make a comment in the “user generated meta data” session led by Esther Dyson). With so many different types of interesting people in any given session at any time, the conversations tend to be fascinating, and occasionally explosive. …

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July 14, 2008 at 7:29 pm

Posted in foo camp, geeks, technology

Foo camp 2008

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I’m off to foo camp tomorrow. I doubt I’ll have much time to blog, although you never know…

Written by infoproc

July 10, 2008 at 1:56 pm

Posted in foo camp, technology

Neal Stephenson on wiring the world

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I’d thought I’d share a link to this somewhat obscure WIRED article written in 1996 by science fiction author Neal Stephenson, about the laying of transcontinental fiber. (Warning: the article is very, very long.) Ever wonder how, exactly, your packets get to that web server in Japan or India? I found it quite inspiring at the time.

Mother Earth Mother Board

The hacker tourist ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, chronicling the laying of the longest wire on Earth.

By Neal Stephenson

Many of the themes from the WIRED article also appear in my favorite Stephenson novel, Cryptonomicon (Google Books version). I have a particularly soft spot for the novel, since its plot parallels some spooky, crypto aspects of my own startup experience.

Written by infoproc

June 16, 2008 at 3:11 pm

The Singularity, AI and IEEE

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An entire special issue of IEEE Spectrum has been devoted to the Singularity, with contributions from people like Vernor Vinge, Rodney Brooks, Gordon Moore and Douglas Hofstader. I’m confident it won’t happen in my lifetime. I don’t even think a machine will pass a strong version of the Turing test while I am around.

My favorite book on AI is Eric Baum’s What is Thought? (Google books version). Baum (former theoretical physicist retooled as computer scientist) notes that evolution has compressed a huge amount of information in the structure of our brains (and genes), a process that AI would have to somehow replicate. A very crude estimate of the amount of computational power used by nature in this process leads to a pessimistic prognosis for AI even if one is willing to extrapolate Moore’s Law well into the future. Most naive analyses of AI and computational power only ask what is required to simulate a human brain, but do not ask what is required to evolve one. I would guess that our best hope is to cheat by using what nature has already given us — emulating the human brain as much as possible.

This perspective seems quite obvious now that I have kids — their rate of learning about the world is clearly enhanced by pre-evolved capabilities. They’re not generalized learning engines — they’re optimized to do things like recognize patterns (e.g., faces), use specific concepts (e.g., integers), communicate using language, etc.

What is Thought?

In What Is Thought? Eric Baum proposes a computational explanation of thought. Just as Erwin Schrodinger in his classic 1944 work What Is Life? argued ten years before the discovery of DNA that life must be explainable at a fundamental level by physics and chemistry, Baum contends that the present-day inability of computer science to explain thought and meaning is no reason to doubt there can be such an explanation. Baum argues that the complexity of mind is the outcome of evolution, which has built thought processes that act unlike the standard algorithms of computer science and that to understand the mind we need to understand these thought processes and the evolutionary process that produced them in computational terms.

Baum proposes that underlying mind is a complex but compact program that exploits the underlying structure of the world. He argues further that the mind is essentially programmed by DNA. We learn more rapidly than computer scientists have so far been able to explain because the DNA code has programmed the mind to deal only with meaningful possibilities. Thus the mind understands by exploiting semantics, or meaning, for the purposes of computation; constraints are built in so that although there are myriad possibilities, only a few make sense. Evolution discovered corresponding subroutines or shortcuts to speed up its processes and to construct creatures whose survival depends on making the right choice quickly. Baum argues that the structure and nature of thought, meaning, sensation, and consciousness therefore arise naturally from the evolution of programs that exploit the compact structure of the world.

Written by infoproc

June 6, 2008 at 1:37 am

Posted in ai, singularity, technology

Obama’s Silicon Valley money machine

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In politics, as much as anywhere else, it’s all about the benjamins. Obama isn’t just smart and charismatic, he had the savvy and vision to build a 21st century, digital social network-driven campaign that has obliterated all the records for fund raising: nearly $200 million raised from over a million donors. In February, the Obama campaign reported that 94 percent of their donations came in increments of $200 or less, versus 26 percent for Clinton and 13 percent for McCain.

This is real democracy in action!

No experience? Who in Silicon Valley wants to send a candidate to the white house with lots of beltway experience? Obama gets it, in a way that Clinton and McCain do not and can not.

The Atlantic Monthly: …In a colossal error of judgment, the Clinton campaign never made a serious approach, assuming that Obama would fade and that lack of money and cutting-edge technology couldn’t possibly factor into what was expected to be an easy race. Some of her staff tried to arrange “prospect meetings” in Silicon Valley, but they were overruled. “There was massive frustration about not being able to go out there and recruit people,” a Clinton consultant told me last year. As a result, the wealthiest region of the wealthiest state in the nation was left to Barack Obama.

Furthermore, in Silicon Valley’s unique reckoning, what everyone else considered to be Obama’s major shortcomings—his youth, his inexperience—here counted as prime assets.

I asked Roos, the personification of a buttoned-down corporate attorney, if there had been concerns about Obama’s limited CV, and for a moment he looked as if he might burst out laughing. “No one in Silicon Valley sits here and thinks, ‘You need massive inside-the-Beltway experience,’” he explained, after a diplomatic pause. “Sergey and Larry were in their early 20s when they started Google. The YouTube guys were also in their 20s. So were the guys who started Facebook. And I’ll tell you, we recognize what great companies have been built on, and that’s ideas, talent, and inspirational leadership.”

This was the dominant refrain as I traveled around the Valley. From a policy standpoint, there are many reasons for tech-minded types to support Obama, including his pledge to establish a chief technology officer for the federal government and to radically increase its transparency by making most government data available online. …

What ultimately transformed the presidential race—what swept Obama past his rivals to dizzying new levels of campaign wealth—was not the money that poured in from Silicon Valley but the technology and the ethos.

The campaign’s focal point is, which has made better use of technology than its rivals since the beginning. As a consequence of this fact and the general enthusiasm over the candidate, Obama’s Chicago-based staff is constantly besieged by suitors offering the latest applications, services, software, and widgets. Since many are based in Silicon Valley, Spinner volunteered his services as a talent scout.

To understand how Obama’s war chest has grown so rapidly, it helps to think of his Web site as an extension of the social-networking boom that has consumed Silicon Valley over the past few years. The purpose of social networking is to connect friends and share information, its animating idea being that people will do this more readily and comfortably when the information comes to them from a friend rather than from a newspaper or expert or similarly distant authority they don’t know and trust. The success of social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace and, later, professional networking sites like LinkedIn all but ensured that someday the concept would find its way into campaigning. A precursor,, helped supporters of Howard Dean organize gatherings during the last Democratic primary season, but compared with today’s sites, it was a blunt instrument.

Obama’s campaign moved first. Staffers credit the candidate himself with recognizing the importance of this new tool and claim that his years as a community organizer in Chicago allowed him to see its usefulness. Another view is that he benefited greatly from encouraging a culture of innovation and lucked out in the personnel department, with his own pair of 20-something wizards. Joe Rospars, a veteran of Dean’s campaign who had gone on to found an Internet fund-raising company, signed on as Obama’s new-media director. And Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, took a sabbatical from the company and came to Chicago to work on the campaign full-time.

When launched, at the start of the campaign, its lineage was clear. The site is a social-networking hub centered on the candidate and designed to give users a practically unlimited array of ways to participate in the campaign. You can register to vote or start your own affinity group, with a listserv for your friends. You can download an Obama news widget to stay current, or another one (which Spinner found) that scrolls Obama’s biography, with pictures, in an endless loop. You can click a “Make Calls” button, receive a list of phone numbers, and spread the good news to voters across the country, right there in your home. You can get text-message updates on your mobile phone and choose from among 12 Obama-themed ring tones, so that each time Mom calls you will hear Barack Obama cry “Yes we can!” and be reminded that Mom should register to vote, too.

“We’ve tried to bring two principles to this campaign,” Rospars told me. “One is lowering the barriers to entry and making it as easy as possible for folks who come to our Web site. The other is raising the expectation of what it means to be a supporter. It’s not enough to have a bumper sticker. We want you to give five dollars, make some calls, host an event. If you look at the messages we send to people over time, there’s a presumption that they will organize.”

The true killer app on is the suite of fund-raising tools. You can, of course, click on a button and make a donation, or you can sign up for the subscription model, as thousands already have, and donate a little every month. You can set up your own page, establish your target number, pound your friends into submission with e-mails to pony up, and watch your personal fund-raising “thermometer” rise. “The idea,” Rospars says, “is to give them the tools and have them go out and do all this on their own.” The organizing principle behind Obama’s Web site, in other words, is the approach Mark Gorenberg used with such success—only scaled to such a degree that it has created an army of more than a million donors and raisers. The Clinton campaign belatedly sought to mimic Obama’s Internet success, and has raised what in any other context would be considered significant money online—but nothing like Obama’s totals, in dollars or donors. John McCain’s online fund-raising has been abysmal.

The social-networking model provided Obama with something that insurgents before him, from Gary Hart to McCain, always lacked: a means of capturing excitement and translating it into money. In the 2004 primary, Howard Dean raised $27 million online. Obama is fast approaching $200 million.

…At a critical point in the race, this money had a dispositive effect. After “Super Tuesday,” on February 5, Clinton’s campaign ran out of money—a scenario that would have been unimaginable a year earlier. Obama, flush with cash, proceeded to win the next 11 contests, all but putting the nomination out of Clinton’s reach.

“What’s amazing,” says Peter Leyden of the New Politics Institute, “is that Hillary built the best campaign that has ever been done in Democratic politics on the old model—she raised more money than anyone before her, she locked down all the party stalwarts, she assembled an all-star team of consultants, and she really mastered this top-down, command-and-control type of outfit. And yet, she’s getting beaten by this political start-up that is essentially a totally different model of the new politics.”

…The alchemy of social networking and the presidential race has given Obama claim to some of the most fabulous numbers in politics: 750,000 active volunteers, 8,000 affinity groups, and 30,000 events. But the most important number, and the clue to how Obama’s machine has transformed the contours of politics, is the number of people who have contributed to his campaign—particularly the flood of small donors. Much of Clinton’s haul, and McCain’s, too, has come from the sort of people accustomed to being wooed in the living room, and Obama initially relied on them, too. But while his rivals continued to depend on big givers, Obama gained more and more small donors, until they finally eclipsed the big ones altogether. In February, the Obama campaign reported that 94 percent of their donations came in increments of $200 or less, versus 26 percent for Clinton and 13 percent for McCain. Obama’s claim of 1,276,000 donors through March is so large that Clinton doesn’t bother to compete; she stopped regularly providing her own number last year. …

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May 25, 2008 at 8:08 pm