Monday, April 07, 2014

The Internet's Founders Speak to Al Gore's Role

It's often said, usually after another poll comes out, that this is the first time in America that people believe the next generation will fare worse than the one before. This pessimism can be correlated with two increasing vulnerabilities of our nation: the tendency of misinformation to linger in people's minds, and the tendency of Americans to devalue foresight and ignore early warnings of approaching crises. Whether it was the wave of intelligence in the summer of 2011 pointing to an al Qaeda attack within the U.S., the misinformation leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the reckless behavior prior to the financial meltdown in 2007-8, or the long ignored warnings about accelerating destabilization of climate, problems are repeatedly allowed to grow into crises, then the local evening news programs revel in the stories of victims and heroes in the aftermath. We need to value people who are able to see beyond the present bubble of circumstance and distraction to what's coming.

That was one motivation for attending a discussion at Princeton University by two founders of the internet, Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, and the 40th year since Cerf and Kahn published their paper describing the protocols for connecting computer networks. Back in 1974, there was little interest in the concept of an internet. Computers were bulky and very expensive, filling whole rooms, and the universities that housed them saw little advantage in connecting one to another.

After a discussion that showed Cerf and Kahn to be engaging, with a mixture of passion and objectivity often evident in people in the scientific and engineering fields, they fielded questions from the audience. One question I was particularly thankful for was about Al Gore's role in the development of the internet. Not surprisingly, there was some laughter from the audience, but Cerf and Kahn were very clear in their response. Al Gore was misquoted by his attackers, and in fact played an instrumental role in developing the internet so central to the economy and our lives today.

Back in 2000, when Al Gore was facing politically motivated ridicule, Cerf and Kahn wrote the following in his defense:
"As far back as the 1970s Congressman Gore promoted the idea of high speed telecommunications as an engine for both economic growth and the improvement of our educational system. He was the first elected official to grasp the potential of computer communications to have a broader impact than just improving the conduct of science and scholarship."
In other words, the true story--of a forward thinker acting decisively to better the country's future--was overshadowed by the myth that Al Gore had selfishly claimed he "invented the internet". One reason the misquote gained momentum was that "invent" and "internet" start with the same sound, and therefore sound like they belong together. What Gore actually asserted is in the full text below.

Vin Cerf told an interesting story about the news media's response to the accusation. Both Cerf and Kahn got more than 100 calls from journalists that day pertaining to what Al Gore had allegedly claimed. Rather than ask if the quote was accurate, the reporters all asked the same question: "Are you angry." When CNN showed up with a camera crew at Cerf's office, he actually had a picture in his office of him and Al Gore shaking hands. They were good friends, but that story, of the friendship and Al Gore's contributions to making the modern internet possible, didn't make it into CNN's coverage that night.

In other words, the nation not only lacks an adequate mechanism for correcting misinformation in political discourse, but the news media actually participates in the perpetuation of misinformation.

Though Al Gore can have a heaviness that is off-putting, and did not respond adequately to the false accusations during the 2000 campaign, his roles in launching the internet and providing early warning about climate change would, in any country that cares about its future, be broadly known and highly valued. Instead, his legacy is overshadowed and obscured by fabricated quotes and controversy.

Below is the full text, taken from one of many websites where it can be found. Click on "read more".

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A Brain Speaks Up On April Fools Day

So, yesterday I saw there would be a talk at the university entitled “The Future of the Brain”. Being a brain, I was interested. Though most people take the brain’s future for granted, I’ve been wondering. I’m not so sure. You see, the more brains there are in the world, more than seven billion now, the more stupid our collective behavior seems to get. So, I’m thinking that, a lot of the time, maybe most of the time, brains are not additive. That’s the big mistake economists make. They think the more people there are, the more likely someone will come up with an invention that helps everyone. But really what happens is there’s just more chance for someone to invent something that screws things up even more. Roundup-Ready corn, anyone? Nuclear bombs?

What do you get when you put one brain together with another? You don’t necessarily end up with two brains. Sometimes there's a synergy and you end up with a sum greater than the parts, but other times you may end up with half a brain, or they could completely cancel each other out, given the tendency of brains to diverge in opinion. If one brain goes negative while the other brain is positive, the sum of all that nonsense is zero. Or else--and employers are familiar with this--the two brains get along so famously that they end up chatting and getting nothing done at all. Actually, one brain can do this pretty well on its own, thinking about all the things it needs to do until the day is comfortably over.

Sure, a brain is wonderful and all, a real miracle, but you’ve got to admit that it’s also the most dangerous organ to ever come into being. Okay, I’ll change that. It’s only dangerous when combined with hands. Dolphins and whales have really smart brains, but they haven’t screwed up the world because they don’t have hands. They can’t build what they dream up, they can only dream. I’ll bet you their imaginations are taking them places ten times better than anything we’ll ever find on the internet. They’re frolicking in one big womb out there. Doesn’t get any better than that. We’ve turned our homes into wombs--with those umbilical cords bringing in energy and water to maintain optimal temperature and fill the jacuzzy. But it’s not the same.

So let me take you on a brief history of the brain. In the beginning there was a brain. The brain fell in love with another brain, and they made more brains, who in turn made even more, until there were brains over here and over there, and all was love and spirituality until the brains grew hands, and started building stuff. Or maybe the hands came first, and the brain grew to better inform what the hands were doing. In any case, some brains over there decided they wanted what the brains over here had made, and vice versa, which hatched economies until one especially foolish brain decided war would get the job done faster. And the resentments hardened, and surviving brains made more brains that they in turn trained to keep hating the other brains, so it just kinda snowballed.

No other animal needs much stuff beyond a nest, but because we lack much in the way of teeth and speed and fur we needed lots of stuff, And when our brains needed more than what nature was giving them above ground, they started digging under her skin, digging all kinds of things up, stuff to make other stuff--enough stuff that they filled their homes with stuff until they needed other places to store still more. And as places got filled with stuff the brains needed to build superhighways to get away from it all. Which seemed okay, except for everything that had been living in their paths, until someone figured out that the superhighways were really superfactories for climate change. And meanwhile the whales are out there dreaming the finest dreams and leaving everyone and everything else alone.

So let that be a lesson to you. The next time you’re drifting through the galaxies and God comes along and deputizes you to start life on some lonely planet way out there, think twice about the brain-hand thing.