Tag Archives: www

Where Your Purchases and Information Come From

“This Headline Is Irrelevant” will never make the front page. The evening news will not say, “Tonight’s top story, Nothing to Report.” You’ll get a lot of “news” about sports, and “Muslim Rage”, but never, “Government Forsakes Tax Payer Interests to Bail Out Acme Corporation” or “Tonight’s top story, our senior business correspondent, fired for investigating our major sponsor”. Likewise, products that admit “may contain nuts” will never admit “may contain cocoa harvested by captive runaway children”.

Spring Meadows Farm

Spring Meadows Farm

If you want legitimate information, you have to get it from the horse’s mouth. So I visited some animals and their farmers two weeks ago on Open Farm Day in New Brunswick. On two farms, I saw turkeys and chickens move about freely in open pens that were not spacious but not overcrowded. I saw pigs that were happy as pigs in…sod (that’s what they’re happy to be in). They ran to me like any family dog would, then scurried off and played. A week later, returning from the farmers market, I ate bacon that came from one of their cousins, smoked by the articulate, charismatic, happy-but-overworked (his words) young farmer with whom I spoke both on the farm and at the market.

Kingston Farmers Market

Kingston Farmers Market, New Brunswick

Another thing I saw on Open Farm Day was grass fed cattle. (Contrary to a popular myth, Canadian cattle can be raised exclusively on their natural diet of grass and hay year round; they just can’t graze in the pasture all year. The alleged “need” to feed beef cattle with corn—which they cannot easily digest, like making a lactose-intolerant person live on milk—is just a way to fatten them up in two years instead of three.) The four dozen cattle grazing in the field were as happy as cattle grazing in a field. The young ones, about 15 of them, were in a barn lined up almost shoulder to shoulder. The barn was clean and quiet, the air was fresh, the young cattle had fresh water and hay. What was distressing was that they were on very short tethers. For their first season, they can do nothing but stand up and lie down. The intelligent and personable farmer explained in plain and unapologetic terms that they are being shielded from pests (horseflies) and predators (coyotes) until they are grown. “We’d take them out for a walk every day if we could, but there are only two of us,” she said. “In the spring, they’ll be out in the pasture with the rest of them.” For a dog or a cat to be chained up like that for a year would be torture. But these are not pets. Compared to conditions for industrial cattle, such treatment is luxury. My first thought was, It’s so unfair. But I looked the cows and the farmers in the eye and, despite my sentimental misgivings, I felt that these were not conditions of cruelty and I did not feel the urge to return to vegetarianism.

If only we could all have such immediate access to the origins of all products we consume. To be able to drive an hour from home and see the very starting point of any item you pick up off the store shelf downtown, and form your own conclusions about how well the system is working. But for most people and most products, going to the source is not so easy. Where, then, do you get your information?

Around 1994, attending a presentation at UNBSJ discussing the emerging World Wide Web, I asked if it could be a reliable source of useful information. The presenter told me it would take time, but he believed it would gradually become a powerful resource.

My immediate reaction upon first reading about Twitter (back when I used to discover things on my own rather than through Facebook, to which I remember having a similar initial reaction) was, “What the hell is the point of that?” But as Oscar Wilde said, “The value of the telephone is the value of what two people have to say.” Although it is damningly faint praise, I can now say that a few minutes on Twitter supplies me with wide ranging information of significantly greater importance and interest than does “the news”.

People who have something valuable to say are finding each other. And, having been away from my own blog for some time, (the rewriting of my novel is going well, thank you), I was pleased to once again find something on my own—an increasingly rare occurrence—while looking for something to read in French.

http://alternatives.blog.lemonde.fr/2012/09/29/sourcemap-le-wiki-qui-simplifie-la-conception-des-produits/

This blog post introduced me to Sourcemap, “the crowdsourced directory of supply chains”. A project of MIT’s Tangible Media Group, Sourcemap “is a social network built around supply chains, enabling collective engagement with where things come from and what they are made of.” Something starts out as some project which then begins to attract a handful of geeks and enthusiasts, and then one day is suddenly indispensable, a tool which becomes to shopping (and selling) as a seat belt is to driving. People are becoming increasingly conscious of the harms their spending can be connected to.

A rant about fair-trade bananas or chocolate gets a pretty small audience. But responsible consumerism may become something in which everyone partakes as a matter of course once it becomes possible to confirm, as easily as checking the weather forecast, whether the thing you are planning to buy is produced under inhumane conditions, grown in night soil, derived from unsustainable sources, or shipped from thousands of kilometres away when a local, ethical, sustainable option might be available.

sourcemap showing sources of laptop

A Sourcemap showing sources of laptop components

With the “era of traceability” now upon us, participating in unsustainable and unethical consumerism is becoming increasingly inexcusable. Even here in backwards old New Brunswick, I am finding with no effort such things as fair-trade chocolate chips and local, grass-fed beef, at multiple locations and reasonable prices (no more expensive than the same products in fancy-ass Toronto where everything other than rent is generally cheaper than on the east coast).

sourcemap reveals shared problem of bottle shipping

Sourcemap shows shared shortcoming of shipping

Take a look, get involved. We can bring meaning to the phrase “guilt-free shopping”. Where did the parts of this computer come from? Where will they go when it is recycled? Who made your T-shirt and where was the cotton grown? Sourcemap is still a work in progress, and it may not dazzle you yet, but watch out. You may soon forget what life was like without it.

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Here Comes My Big Brother: Robert J. Sawyer’s Wonder

Robert J Sawyer‘s 20th novel Wonder is being launched in Toronto tomorrow and will be in book stores on April 5th.

ROBERT J. SAWYER  Photo Credit: Christina Molendyk
ROBERT J. SAWYER Photo Credit: Christina Molendyk

Since 2008, I have been attending talks by Sawyer in Moncton, Montreal and Toronto, on a range of topics covering writing, publishing, science and philosophy.

I recently interviewed him for the second time. The first time was at the beginning of his WWW trilogy about the World Wide Web spontaneously becoming self-aware; this time his trilogy is concluded. Please read my article Here Comes My Big Brother: Robert J. Sawyer’s Wonder posted at AE The Canadian Science Fiction Review

or for a very abbreviated version of the interview please read http://www.postcity.com/Eat-Shop-Do/Do/March-2011/Wonder-lust-Robert-J-Sawyer-launches-his-latest-novel/ at www.PostCity.com (where you may encounter more of my writings).

Wake

Wake

Watch

Watch

Wonder

Wonder

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Moving Experience

We were roommates in this west Montreal neighbourhood when the 90s had just begun. Now at an age when we measure our friendship in decades, she is moving home (does that phrase make anyone but us hear a Beatles tune…in reverse?). Home to our little east coast hometown.

Is this good? Is it bad? It’s home. Home is where you go.

What is she leaving behind? Fantastic restaurants and cafés, a plethora of festivals, magnificent architecture, and a mountain of joie de vivre! And a life partner who, like her, is beginning a new life.

Why? Because that’s what happens. When people say “you only live once”, they are speaking metaphorically. Right now she is taking a break from packing and watching TV, from which I hear strings playing Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. She is not the same person who walked down the aisle a decade ago, nor am I the same person who walked down a different aisle in Mexico a few months after that. When you get married, it’s not just to the person with the matching ring, it’s to the person they will become, and the person they will be after that. Sometimes you are lucky enough to love all of the people you marry. “Forever” is not always for everyone.

What is she taking with her? Cats, books, dishes, music, and a friend whose love for her has been deepening for 25 years. If we could pin down the exact date we became friends, this would be the Silver Anniversary of our friendship.

I won’t stay with her in our hometown. I’ll move her and her cats into their new place, visit my family and other old friends for a couple of days, and then I’ll hurry back to the person I’ll marry next (I love the people she’s been so far).

My oldest friend is back to fussing about what to pack and what to leave behind, but one thing that won’t get left behind, and won’t get lost or broken in the move, is me.

Happy Anniversary M.

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Social Media Week is Here! Toronto, Rome, Paris, São Paulo, Istanbul, London, Hong Kong, New York, San Francisco

Social Media Week has begun! 2011 February 7 – 11

I was late coming to the world of social media, but I have high hopes for the good things we can do with it. By the time I found out about Social Media Week, the following Toronto event was filled up, but that’s OK. I can still do… I don’t know, something!

  • Social for Social Good – the power, politics and potential of ideas and causes to change the world

Organizations and individuals from all sectors are working together in ways they’ve never before.  Ideas are being created, adapted and recreated again.  And, it’s all happening in the accelerated and deregulated environment of social media. We invite you to a conversation on the opportunities, challenges and best practices at the intersection of big ideas and social media.

This afternoon I did go to

  • Educ@te Me: Social Media and Higher Learning

A joint program by the Ted Rogers School of Retail Management and the School of Fashion at Ryerson University, this event will be produced by Ryerson students as part of their coursework and will explore:

•    the use of social media in the classroom;
•    how social media is being used at Ryerson to bridge the gap between industry and higher education;
•    how social media is being used for student recruitment.

What would you expect from that? I wasn’t the only one who thought it would be about education, but it was pretty much about marketing to students. Too bad, business heads, I learned a few useful things anyway!

 

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Interview with Optimistic SF Writer Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer: A Sunnier Tomorrow by Evan Andrew Mackay,

published 2011 January 10 edition of AE — The Canadian Science Fiction Review:

From Orwell to Atwood, speculative fiction offers plenty of grim futures to ponder. But reading Robert J. Sawyer is a positive experience: You learn a lot of fascinating facts, contemplate new ideas, enjoy a good story, and end with the impression that the future might not be all that bad. While we need cautionary tales, a good dose of intelligent optimism also makes for a satisfying read. As a fan wrote to Sawyer about his latest novel, WWW: Watch, “It is rare to find a fresh idea that offers hope and delight, and rarer still for that beautiful idea to come with evidence that really convinces the heart and mind, and moves someone to say ‘Yes, it’s true, we really can become better people.’”

windowless room

 

Robert J. Sawyer

And why wouldn’t Sawyer be optimistic? Since the age of 23, he has made his living in the arts, in Canada — and with 20 novels sold and the trifecta of Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell awards to his name, his career has been a spectacular success. Sawyer arrives full of energy, at ease, and ready to talk, over a light pub lunch at “The Unicorn” in Toronto before meetings with his new publisher, Penguin. A seasoned speaker, he emphasizes he is not intimidated by the voice recorder and slides it right in front of himself. A perusal of Sawyer’s website sfwriter.com will corroborate that this man is not a technophobe.

Wake, Watch, Wonder

In his latest trilogy WWWWake (2009), Watch (2010), Wonder (due out in April 2011) ― Sawyer lays out a hopeful view of things to come with what he says is the inevitable advent, this century, of artificial intelligence that will spontaneously emerge and then develop to surpass human intelligence. “I don’t think it is inevitable that [the existence of beings more intelligent than humans] means the end of life as we know it,” he says.

“I wrote my trilogy in response, in part, to the large number of negative portrayals of the future of humanity at the hands of our robot masters, of emergent AI, because the only visions we had were The Matrix, The Forbin Project, Terminator, every computer Captain Kirk had ever gone up against, Neuromancer, cyberpunk — we did not have a model, a template for the future in which we might survive with our essential humanity, liberty, individuality and dignity intact. I don’t know that we’re going to be able to do that, but I think if the only models that are on the table are ones where, if at midnight tonight the World Wide Web wakes up, tomorrow morning the human era ends ― if that’s the only template that’s on the table, we’ve given up the battle before we’ve even arrived at the battleground. I think an argument can be made, and I make it at length over the course of three books here, it’s a subtle argument but I think it can be made, and it does at least bear initial scrutiny that there is a path out of this.”

Keeping an Eye on Big Brother

Even without considering the notion of the World Wide Web becoming self-aware, there are and always have been concerns about the hazards of the Web: from the annoyance of spam to the perils of identity theft, from Web censorship in places like China to the heinous crimes of child pornography where the Web is unregulated. Orwell’s vision of Big Brother is now so quaint as to bring a tear of nostalgia; Big Brother is watching you, but you are watching Big Brother. With the World Wide Web enabling the average citizen, in much of the world, to instantly retrieve or transmit information of any sort or quantity, person to person or in interest-based, regional or global forums, can a person get away with anything these days? Can a corporation or — in light of organizations like Wikileaks — can a government?

The first two books of WWW look at various facets of these concerns. In Wake, a freedom blogger in China tries to evade the authorities while communicating his suspicions online about a mysterious government cover-up. In that first novel, the heroine Caitlin’s private world is necessarily exposed to the scientist whose implant has corrected her blindness, but in the second novel, Watch, her every move is shadowed by the fictitious US government agency called W.A.T.C.H. and by the now-highly-developed consciousness Webmind which sees through Caitlin’s own vision. In Watch, Webmind is able to read the email of everyone on the Web. But although that’s fiction, these issues are still of concern to every user of Facebook or Google, really of every person who goes online or whose personal information exists online, which surely includes you (you are reading this online, aren’t you?). So before getting into the what-ifs of AI, let’s look at what the Web means to the world as it now stands.

WWW — The Key to Our Future?

Is the World Wide Web the key to our future? Sawyer answers, “Yes. Several reasons. The first is, the World Wide Web is the first infrastructural necessity that’s ever existed that isn’t controlled by any one government or region.” Within a region, of course, there can be far-reaching control. Such control is exerted in China, and Sawyer begins examining the implications of this control in Chapter 2 of Wake. Two and a half millennia ago Lao Tzu said, “People are difficult to govern because they have too much knowledge.” Sawyer’s balanced portrayal of the government and the people of China ― a country he has visited and where the Galaxy Award winner has a loyal following — is both sympathetic and pragmatic, no more and no less than a crucial element in his story. “There’s no way that China will be able to succeed indefinitely in keeping people in the dark. It just can’t be done,” he says. And the means by which they will find the light? “The Web will be that tool!”

Back to why it is the key to our future. “We have with the World Wide Web, by design, something that ― and increasingly so year by year ― is decentralized in its authority, ungovernable by its nature, and therefore liberating in its use.” What’s more, it is unstoppable, and “that is wonderful, in the sense that we have become dependent on something that nobody can take away from us, unlike, say, oil, where we are at the whim of the oil producers be they domestic or foreign.” And there’s more. “I think the World Wide Web is also key in a lot of ways to world peace. I’m an optimist at heart, and I do believe this ― the fact that in my own life, just on my Facebook page, I am routinely communicating with people, in Africa and Korea and China and Japan and so on and so forth ― you cannot be locally partisan when you are on the World Wide Web … When we look at pictures of Earth from space, you can’t see the borders. All you see is the unity. And of all the things we have ever built, this is the only one that actually is a worldwide entity.”

Helen Keller, The Matrix and the Origins of Consciousness

Sawyer describes the WWW series as the meeting of the mostly Canadian William Gibson whose seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer set the stage for the Wachowski Brothers’ movie The Matrix, and the late American playwright William Gibson who authored the play The Miracle Worker, about Annie Sullivan teaching Helen Keller to communicate and become aware of herself and the world around her. The inspiring story of Helen Keller and her teacher provides the template for the relationship between Caitlin and Webmind in Sawyer’s trilogy.

portrait 1960s

Sawyer believes consciousness will arise in some manifestation of AI much as it did in the evolving human mind not so long ago (in evolutionary terms), as Caitlin reads in Julian Jaynes’ influential 1977 treatise The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. “I suspect that the scenario that’s in my book, the World Wide Web gaining consciousness without it being planned to do so, is far more likely than somebody at MIT or Google or Microsoft announcing to the world, ‘I have made it in my lab,’” Sawyer says. “I suspect that when we do face AI on this planet, it won’t actually be artificial in the sense of some clever programmer figuring out how to code it.”

Colour burst abstract

Although AI is often imagined as coming from some software engineer writing “X number of lines of code that wake up and say cogito ergo sum …” Sawyer says, “I don’t think anybody has made any progress at all towards that.” An AI researcher tried to convince Sawyer he had a laptop that “learns.” Sawyer doesn’t think so, adding, “I don’t think it’s got one iota closer to being self-aware than an abacus is.” Sawyer thinks self-awareness will come to AI as it did to us: “Our consciousness was an emergent property of the complexity of our brains. Evolution is not teleological … nothing thrusting us towards being self-aware. It just happened.” It happened as an accident of evolution and it stuck around because it “turned out, apparently, to be useful, at least for the last 40,000 years.” In Jaynes’s theory, human consciousness developed a mere 3,000 years ago, before which time people essentially just did what their un-unified cerebral hemispheres told them to do.

But what is consciousness? In WWW, Sawyer examines the boundaries of consciousness and self-awareness from several angles. Caitlin, blind from birth, gains sight and must learn new ways of processing information and perceiving the world. One character, a high-functioning autistic genius, exhibits minimalist social interaction and a hyper-focused way of understanding the world that is scarcely comprehensible even to immediate family members. Hobo, the fictitious hybrid bonobo-chimpanzee, creates the first non-human representational art ― “that ability to have a mental picture,” Sawyer points out, “is part of the gaining of consciousness” — and converses in sign language with humans and an orangutan in order to make informed decisions about his fate. Although no such hybrid is known to exist, there is evidence that such breeding could lead to developments in the direction imagined in this story. Sawyer depicts, with frequent references to Helen Keller’s remarkable accounts, Webmind’s struggle to attain and integrate self-awareness, learning, communication, and to grasp and make choices based on moral distinctions. For many readers, it is likely this moral sense which most clearly distinguishes a fully conscious being from a beast or robot. What convinces Caitlin that a consciousness is somehow forming within the Web is her observation of rising Shannon’s Entropy scores as measured against Zipf plots applied to patterns made by rogue cellular automata in the background of the Web. (The science behind Sawyer’s hypothesis on how consciousness might emerge on the Web is explored in detail in Wake and Watch.)

The World as We Know It.

So if the World Wide Web, or maybe the device you are reading on right now, wakes up at midnight tonight, don’t think the only option is to rage against the machines. “Between what I have to say and what the dystopians about AI have to say, there will hopefully be a middle-ground reality that we will actually live in: alongside of, not underneath, our intellectual betters.” And, when WWW: Wonder comes out in April, even those dead-set on fighting our new robot overlords would do well to consider what Sawyer has to say about the very idea of shutting down the World Wide Web.

Leaving aside for now the issue of technology becoming self-aware and surpassing human intellect, what would Sawyer see if he were to flash forward twenty years into the future? “I think we will be continuing the current trend which is — despite what makes news: A smaller percentage of human beings are at war right now than at any other time in human history, there’s a higher degree of literacy right now than at any other time in human history, there are more people enjoying more freedom, civil rights and civil liberties than at any other time in human history … We’ll see much greater ecological sensitivity, and much more globalism and much less jingoistic nationalism in twenty years. We will be a World Wide Web of people … It will be a better world in twenty years.”

More coming soon at AE — The Canadian Science Fiction Review.

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