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June 2004

Taking the long view

It’s a choice really that we can make, we are building the future whether we want to or not, we’re building it every day, we’re building it by every choice and by every omission that we make. We can either do that with our back to it or we can turn and look at it while we’re making it. I think what we’re trying to say is let’s turn around and look.
Brian Eno, a member of the Board of The Long Now Foundation, talks about The Long Now.


via Boing Boing:

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When I'm gone ...

Anil Dash is a name in the world of weblog innovation and software development. His recent post on death has my vote, and I love the satirical side-swipe at the extraordinary Reagan send-off:

The following is a brief list of things that you should not do at that point, long in the future, when I have died.
  • Do not display my dried-up, beef jerky-looking carcass anywhere so people can line up for it like it's Space Mountain.
  • Do not go on a multi-city "Anil's Dead!" tour where my corpse is passed around the country like a beach ball at a rock concert.
  • Do not get all Solemn and Respectful. I can take it as well as I dish it out, and I don't expect my skin to get thinner after I'm dead.
  • Burial? Uh uh. Cemeteries are a waste of space. Give my organs to whomever wants them, and cremate the rest. You can start a rumor about me haunting a French cemetery if you want.
  • Don't give me credit for having "one of the great love stories of all time" if all I've done is not run off on my wife and kids. You're supposed to like your wife. If I crawl across the desert for 4 months to see her, then you can play it up a little.
  • Please don't dwell on that story of how I had to march in front of my entire hometown after getting hit in the head with an egg during the Homecoming parade. It's just unseemly.
  • Do not cancel any goddamn Stevie Wonder performances! What could be more of a celebration of life than a Stevie Wonder performance?
  • Do not put any of my old cronies on CNBC to talk about old fart anecdotes from The Good Old Days. Get some high school girls to talk about how "He was pretty hot, for an old guy."

That's it. See you in hell!

The dialogue of civilisations

Azeem Azhar drew my attention to a key lecture tonight at the LSE:

For the first time in history, several global societies are simultaneously feeling under siege - Muslims, Israelis, Americans. It is therefore a dangerous time in world history. Professor Ahmed will argue that traditional societies like Muslim societies are feeling under siege as a consequence of the processes of globalisation, and will discuss the contemporary Muslim world and its relations with the West. Certain steps need to be taken for the way forward. Most importantly, there is a necessity for dialogue and understanding. The age of global communications has caused misunderstandings but can also act as a facilitator of dialogue and understanding.

Azeem's post is important and I repeat it here in full and verbatim:

Professor Akbar Ahmed today delivered a lecture on Islam Under Siege: from clash of civilisations to dialogue of civilisations. Ahmed is an engaging and erudite speaker. His lecture has a great review of:
  • What are the main global theories which explain Islam?
  • Why is it important for us to understand Islam?
  • How do we move ahead?

Ahmed gives a scholarly review of the global theories: Huntington, Lewis, Friedman (the "clashers") as well as Khatami and Sachs (the "dialoguers"). And his descriptions of how siege mentalities develop within societies is compelling. He explains the growing importance of Islam in global society from a population and statehood standpoint. However he paints a bleak picture of more friction, greater misunderstanding and ultimately more violence. I believe his proscriptions were weak especially considering how gloomy he reckons the future is. He recommends further dialogue, more conversations. We do need sharper direction than that, something tangible.

The lecture theatre was buzzing. His was an energising performance so I recommend listening to it highly. I recorded it and you can download it in MP4 format here. (12 megabytes, 83min 41 sec). If that doesn't download, you can pull it down as a ZIP file.

Extending the collaborative, open source approach

The Economist:

Can goodwill, aggregated over the internet, produce good medicine? The current approach to drug discovery works up to a point, but it is far from perfect. It is costly to develop medicines and get regulatory approval. The patent system can foreclose new uses or enhancements by outside researchers. And there has to be a consumer willing (or able) to pay for the resulting drugs, in order to justify the cost of drug development. Pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to develop treatments for diseases that particularly afflict the poor, for example, since the people who need such treatments most may not be able to afford them.

It is in this environment that a number of medical biologists, lawyers, entrepreneurs and health-care activists have sought improvements. They have suggested borrowing the “open-source” approach that has proven so successful in another area of technology, namely software development. This is a decentralised form of production in which the underlying programming instructions, or “source code”, for a given piece of software are made freely available. Anyone can look at it, modify it, or improve it, provided they agree to share their modifications under the same terms. Volunteers collaborating in this way over the internet have produced some impressive software: the best-known example is the Linux operating system. So why not apply the open-source model to drug development too? ...

Two big questions remain unanswered as the open-source approach starts to colonise disciplines beyond its home ground of software development. The first is whether open-source methods can genuinely foster innovation. In software, all that has been developed are functional equivalents of proprietary software—operating systems, databases, and so on—that are sometimes slightly better and sometimes glaringly worse than their proprietary counterparts. Their main distinction, from users' point of view, is simply that they are available free of charge. Curiously, this matches the complaint levelled against pharmaceutical companies for developing “me-too” drugs to compete with other firms' most successful product lines—witness the current crop of Viagra imitators—rather than spending their research money in an entirely new area.

The second question is semantic. What does it mean to apply the term “open source” in fields outside software development, which do not use “source code” as a term of art? Depending on the field in question, the analogy with source code may not always be appropriate. It seems the time has come to devise a new, broader term than “open source”, to refer to distributed, internet-based collaboration. Mr Benkler calls it non-proprietary peer-production of information-embedding goods. Surely someone, somewhere can propose something snappier.

Ethnologue: languages of the world is a place where you can conveniently find many resources to help you with your research of the world's languages. is owned by SIL International, a service organization that works with people who speak the world’s lesser-known languages.

Ethnologue language data: the language data you will find on this site came from the Ethnologue database. Once every four years we take a "snapshot" of the contents of the database and publish it along with language maps for many of the countries of the world. The most recently published edition of the Ethnologue database is Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 14th Edition. The language data from the fourteenth edition is presented in this searchable web version.

The Ethnologue database has been an active research project for more than fifty years. It is probably the most comprehensive listing of information about the currently known languages of the world. Thousands of linguists and other researchers all over the world rely on and have contributed to the Ethnologue database.

Europe's oldest language?

via Metafilter: 'Kalevi Wiik makes the argument that most of Europe may have spoken a proto Finno-Ugric language before the appearance of Indo-European speakers in the region. It's still controversial a few years after the paper was published (and likely always will be).'

Finnish is related only to Estonian, Hungarian and some minority languages whose speakers are scattered across the north of Russia. But, Kalevi Wiik argues, Finno-Ugrian languages may originally have been spoken by the whole of northern Europe.