That other sort of café

September 11, 2008

I’m in the office trying to get stuff sorted for a work trip to Amsterdam and I stumbled upon this (while trying to find a decent map). I thought it was hilarious.

In the 17th Century Catholics and Protestants discovered that they were living side by side in Amsterdam, and in a very surprising development for the time, they didn’t slaughter each other. This seemed to work out well, so they developed a concept that they called ‘tolerance’, so that nowadays the Dutch don’t care if you are gay, foreign, or even if you eat mayonnaise with your fried potatoes (the latter of course is strictly speaking illegal, but the police turn a blind eye).

As you are probably aware, Amsterdam also has a policy of tolerating the sale and use of soft drugs. This activity is centred around so-called smoking cafes or “Coffeeshops” as the Dutch euphemistically call them. Whether you wish to avoid them or patronise them, they are easy to recognise: they are usually dark, have a characteristic smell, and tend to use words like free, high, happy, dreams, and space in the name of the cafe. They typically have a menu of the products they have on sale.

The Man Watching

March 5, 2008

I’m at the Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego and we’re about 1 day in. There will be more ETech related content over the next couple of posts. Unfortunately, I’ve not been as efficient with the conference blogging as I’d like. My brain (and fingers) can’t process information in a legible and intelligent way in that amount of time but I’ll do what I can.

In the meantime, I’m leaving you with a poem titled “The Man Watching” by Rainer Maria Rilke, which Tim O’Reilly shared during his keynote address, “Why I Love Hackers”. I like the gung-ho-ness of this poem. Winning isn’t everything and there is a lot of be learnt just by participating in the fight (and even in defeat).

The Man Watching

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

From William McDonough’s 2005 presentation at TED:

“Imagine this design assignment:  Design something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates micro climates, changes colours with the seasons and self-replicates.”

Searchability and serendipity

November 28, 2007

A gem of a quote from the inimitable Erin McKean from this year’s TED.

“Online dictionaries replicate all the problems of print but for searchability. And when you improve the searchability, you take away one of the advantages of print, which is serendipity. Serendipity is when you find things you weren’t looking for because finding what you were looking for is so damn difficult.”

It makes me wonder if the same can be said about “the meaning of life”. Maybe it’s time to stop searching for it about letting it serendipitously fall into our laps? *hopeful look*

By the way, the 2007 Oxford word of the year is “Locavore”.

The lemming effect

November 23, 2007

I like the word “lemmings” (it just sounds funny!) and use it on a fairly regular basis. Lemmings have all the usual trappings of cuteness (furry & round) and it turns out that some of my interest in lemmings is the result of myths about mass lemming suicides!

“While many people believe that lemmings commit mass suicide when they migrate, this is not the case. Driven by strong biological urges, they will migrate in large groups when population density becomes too great. Lemmings can and do swim and may choose to cross a body of water in search of a new habitat. On occasion, and particularly in the case of the Norway lemmings in Scandinavia, large migrating groups will reach a cliff overlooking the ocean. They will stop until the urge to press on causes them to jump off the cliff and start swimming, sometimes to exhaustion and death. Lemmings are also often pushed into the sea as more and more lemmings arrive at the shore.”

So anyway, lemmings became a metaphor for people who go along unquestioningly with popular opinion, with potentially dangerous or fatal consequences. And at a talk on technology clusters yesterday, I learnt that it can be extended to the term “The Lemming Effect” (the act of following the crowd into an investment that will inevitably head for disaster). It is the idea that in the dot.com boom, the VCs would invest in 25 startups with each expecting 25% market share.

Ye-ah. The lemming effect.

(Does anyone else think this is hilarious?! )

I attended a talk by Richard Somerville yesterday. I got to say that his presentation was a touch dry (but at least he was self aware and humorous about how communication skills weren’t the expertise of the climate change scientists).

Anyway, he drew the analogy between climate change scientists and doctors. If your doctor says, you better reduce your cholesterol levels otherwise you are going to get a heart attack, you don’t ask him/her for the precise date you are going to get the heart attack. You just hop on the treadmill and eat like a rabbit for a while. I thought it made an excellent point that all this debate about when the world is going to overheat and implode and whose predictions are right seem a little irrelevant. We, as policy makers, should just do whatever we need to do to make things better.

Robert Boroffice, head of the Nigerian Space Agency, came on stage and told us that 1 in every 5 Africans was a Nigerian. Therefore, 1 in every 5 scam letters received was from a Nigerian but that he did not have any money to transfer (which got a few laughs from the audience).

Boroffice was there to tell us about the Nigerian space program. Initially, I was rather skeptical. I couldn’t figure out the relevance of space technology to Nigeria (which actually says a lot about my ignorance). But Boroffice presented a convincing case for the Nigerian space program as a tool for socio-economic development. The main reason for their space program seems to be to generate geospatial information for national development. He argues that Africa has resources but it is mismanaged and that satellites provide critical information for decision making. This in turn enables the government to address many environmental problems, like soil erosion and deforestation. Other applications range from healthcare to education.

It was all very interesting but I do have one last question – Couldn’t they have just used Google Maps?