Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Creationists evolve, Google searches in vain, bankers keep their hands where we can see them and September 1993 is finally over

Monday 24/1/2004

Everyone has their weaknesses. Some gamble, some snort cocaine, some collect pickled onions. Among my many foibles -- none of the above, except the onions -- I spend far too long online reading about evolutionary biology and arguing with creationists. It's never terribly satisfying -- the creationists can just say: "Of course, the Grand Canyon was carved by the waters of the Flood" and then you have to go and dig up geological columns, dating methods, hydrodynamics and so on. Which gets roundly ignored in favour of: "But the amount of helium in the atmosphere proves the Earth's only six thousand years old," and so on, and so forth. Still, you learn a lot of biology, geology, physics and theology, and one must stand firm in the face of the counter-Enlightenment.

You can also get your code debugged for free. Take Avida, an artificial life program chuntering away in the non-throbbing non-metropolis of East Lansing, Michigan. This takes little lumps of self-reproducing code, randomly mutates them and then rewards those that can do a particular task better than the others -- in other words, it's modelling biological evolution. The good thing is, while the real thing takes place over millennia and is only partially self-documenting, Avida can churn through and log thousands of generations in less time than it takes to read a page of The Origin Of Species.

Pleasingly, the software is producing some truly bizarre results -- and the biologists are getting interested. The simplistic idea of evolution is that good mutations thrive while bad ones fail: however, in Avida bad ones can turn into even better ones down the line. Also, some of the successful artificial organisms are so complex that there's no way of working out how they got that way - until you look at the logs.

Now, creationists have a special place in their hearts for evolution -- although most branches of science contradict their ideas, this takes pride of place. And one of their trump cards is complexity: some things about living organisms are so complex, they say, that they must have been designed as complete systems by an intelligence. "What good is half an eye?" they ask, No matter that they can't begin to explain how to show this or actually point to anything that clearly lies outside the bounds of evolutionary possibility, least of all eyes.

They really, really don't like Avida. So much so, according to an article by the unrelentingly excellent Carl Zimmer, that thousands of them emailed the project after the first results came out to say: "You must be wrong. It can't be doing that." "Fair enough," said the researchers. "Here's the source code. Tell us where it's broken."

Two years later, Avida's going better than ever -- thanks in part to the incensed creationist programmers (engineers and computer bods being over-represented in their ranks) finding a handful of small bugs. There's no better way to fix code than to have it picked over by people highly motivated to find fault, as the battling egos of open source know only too well. Now, if only the religious wars of the operating systems could be turned to such mutual benefit…

Tuesday 25/1/2005

Poor old Google. Like this week's favourite rock band, it's gone past the stage of providing sheer simple joy to the masses and is now in the middle of extreme media scrutiny. Can the backlash be long in coming?

The extreme scrutiny is already proving wearing to the newshounds in the office. When faced with a story like "Google hires lead Firefox programmer" and the resulting feverish "Google to do own browser?" speculation, what do you do? Write something that goes along with the hype, quietly point out that there are lots of reasons Google needs browser expertise without going into that business, or just decide it's a non-story and perhaps miss out on a Firefox feeding frenzy? Personally, I think it was just that the chap's called Ben Goodger. Google's probably got some sort of charity search engine in the works and needs to get dibs on the name.

And that was just one story this week: those ever-active Reuters chaps spotted another Googlehire story, this time for someone who knows the black art of dark fibre negotiation. Seems that Google needs to buy lots of cheap bandwidth for long-distance data transfer -- my lord, said the Times, they must be about to buy Skype and start a free phone service. That must be it: it can't be that the company runs a huge number of massive international data centres it needs to keep in synchronisation and thus is consuming global bandwidth on such an enormous scale it needs the best deals it can cut. D'oh.

However, Google didn't help itself with this week's Google Video search launch. Uniquely, it doesn't deliver what it finds and is very limited in scope: it produces a few stills from a small selection of US TV companies alongside a transcript of the relevant part of the show. Useful in a small way, but not as hoopy as AOL's Singingfish service -- a video search service that actually produces video. Video and audio are under-served by search engines: together they present a target rich environment for the Googlistas to plunder, and one that's a lot closer to home than free phone systems or rebadged browsers. And that's just the official stuff: the first search engine to dip its toe into the oceanic currents of illict media would be interesting indeed.

But going off at half-cock like this is not a good idea. Don't be evil: don't be wimpy.

Wednesday 26/1/2005

The Eternal September has finally ended, twelve years after it began. To be sure, it probably won't make much difference now -- but it's a piece of early Net history that shouldn't go unmarked.

Before 1993, one of the only places on the Internet to go for a discussion was Usenet, the global distributed conferencing system that had been running since 1980. Since there were practically no public access ISPs back then, the Usenet denizens were overwhelmingly academic -- researchers, students, and the like. And, hard as it is to imagine in the rabble-soaked 21st century, there were certain standards of deportment and decorum online.

Just not in September. Every time a new influx of students started their first year at university and stumbled into Usenet, there was a month long period while they found their feet, misbehaved by accident or design and generally behaved like the freshers they were. A month was reckoned just long enough to civilise those who could take it and ostracise those who couldn't: October saw a return to the civilities and structures of the other eleven months of the year.

Until 1993. That was the year that AOL with its countless hordes of real people decided to give them all Usenet access -- and continued to recruit new bodies at a rate of millions thereafter. The newsgroups (as Usenet conferences are called) were rocked by an inrush of newbies that devastated the delicate island ecosystem, and so September 1993 became known as the September that never ended.

But now it has. Citing lack of use (under a thousand people, says the company) and the availability of alternatives such as Google's Group access, AOL has disconnected from Usenet. It's not alone: Easynet is doing the same thing. Usenet is quite expensive to provide as it's also one of the main conduits for illicit music and warez, which suck up huge amounts of bandwidth and disk space: expect others to do the same.

Nonetheless, the 26th of January 2005 is now 1st October 1993. Which means Take That is back -- please, AOL, reconnect that feed.

Thursday 27/1/2005

Young Graeme -- young, newly ennobled News Editor Graeme, who we can't call Scoop any more -- went along last night to the ISPA Forum on Content Regulation at Westminster. Ofcom has been making some worrying noises that its fat finger might be heading pieward to take on the mighty task of keeping Internet content from the eyes of impressionable kiddies. Which might mean terrifying ideas like blocking video streaming before watersheds, preventing certain classes of video being available at all, and so on.

The ISPs are not liking the sound of this at all, considering as they do that they've managed to self-regulate quite well over really nasty stuff such as kiddy porn. As for stuff being available on demand without watershed limits -- so far, world not ended, sky not fallen, streets not filled with rutting teenagers clutching chainsaws. Apart from Saffron Walden, of course.

To demonstrate that there really wasn't a problem begging to be solved, Richard Ayres of Tiscali asked for a hands-up of who's on the Internet at home while giving a speech at said Forum. The audience was composed of the usual suspects from the DTI, journos, Home Office and so on, and all the hands went up.

"Keep your hands up if you watch video over the Internet" commanded Ayres.

Most stayed aloft, but there was a faint blush of red faces here and there. We know what they were thinking. You're thinking it too.

"And who pays for video?" he continued.

Three hands left, amid much giggling.

"There!" said Ayres. "Online video isn't that important -- it's really just a toy." "The only people using it are City bankers…" he paused. "And that's not meant to be rhyming slang."

And all this at half past six in the evening -- well before the watershed. They should be careful. Friday 28/1/2005

OK, I was wrong. I said that podcasting was the devil's own way of pouring aural concrete over the pristine grassy uplands of your iPod's hard disk. That it was yet another way for wannabe broadcasters to bypass the necessary filters of hassle and get straight onto the digital air whether it was a good idea or not. That adding a binary attachment to an RSS feed was not the sort of rocket science which gets you a Nobel Prize, the adoration of beautiful people and statues erected by global subscription.

Now here I am, consuming podcast on the London Underground. It tastes slightly of crow. Only slightly, mind: I remain unmoved by most of the stuff out there, which I consider more than justifies my initial skepticism. Sturgeon's Law, that 90 percent of everything is dreck, more than applies.

But my very favourite music radio station, WFMU, has just entered the pod. So far, it's not doing nearly enough because of those dratted IP issues -- one of the few available is devoted to out of copyright antique recordings of wax cylinders from the Edison Laboratory archives. While it is charmingly ironic to listen to some Edwardian music hall xylophone player through a century-long chain of technology that goes xylophone-cylinder-computer-internet-computer-iPod, it's still a freaking xylophone and you will go crazy after thirty seconds. Let alone an hour.

Most of the rest are talk shows, phone-ins and so on. Which, this being WFMU, are miles better than normal, but they're still not the hard core of whacked-out beautiful music that you can't get anywhere else. There is one show, Advanced D and D with Donna Summer, that has the noise. It's nothing to do with gold pieces or disco divas: breakcore from the sewers is more like it. But lots of it is music made by listeners or unsigned hopefuls, which I presume lightens the licensing load.

I don't see why licensing should be a problem. It's easy enough to record stuff from Internet streams these days even if the broadcaster doesn't specifically support it, and the podcasts are no easier to edit down to individual tracks than any other programming. Just another new format on the plate of a music industry that's still suffering massive indigestion from too much innovation not to its taste.

And perhaps I'm just too much of a cyborg. As Wired says, "According to Giesler's preliminary research, the iPod isn't simply an updated Walkman. It's an entirely new beast: a revolutionary device that transforms listeners into 'cyborgs' through a process he calls 'technotranscendence'. Unlike the Walkman, the iPod taps into a 'hybrid entertainment matrix', in which functions like random shuffle are a key construct, not just a cute marketing device. 'iPod and user form a cybernetic unit,' said Giesler. 'We're always talking about cyborgs in the context of cultural theory and sci-fi literature, but this is an excellent example that they're out there in the marketplace... I have seen the future, and it is called the cyborg consumer.' The cyborg consumer, Giesler said, is one that uses several different technologies -- from cell phones to Viagra -- and is highly connected, technically and socially."

That's high something, certainly.

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