This diagram of a packet-switching network appears in the 1974 paper by Vint Cerf

What’s troubling Vint Cerf? Five-hundred year old WordPerfect files and a fifty-year trip to the cosmos, that’s what.

Vint Cerf has a problem: the star Alpha Centauri is too far away. He wants to get a good look at it, but at 4.37 light years from the sun, it might take a while. He’s not too worried, though, because he’s designing an interplanetary internet with Google. On Thursday in Washington, D.C., Mr. Cerf described the outer-space-net and some other personal projects to an assembly at Georgetown University, part of the National Medals Foundation’s “An Evening With” series. Mr. Cerf has been awarded more medals than he probably knows what to do with. I guess that happens when you get credit for inventing the internet – in 1974, Cerf and Robert Kahn co-authored a paper for the IEEE titled “A protocol for packet network intercommunication.” Forty-some years later, four billion humans are piggybacking their idea into five billion daily YouTube views, a three-hundred-billion dollar digital advertising market, and a …

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Magic and Loss

Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan My rating: 3 of 5 stars I decided to read this after hearing the author on the Recode Media podcast and reading some of her shorter pieces in the Times over the years. There’s a lot to think about in Magic & Loss – I enjoyed the lucid language and often insightful commentary. The homage to the death of the telephone was wonderful, and the quick take on ‘science’ writing in the mainstream media was funny – but there were also a share of flimsy moments (did she really just try to summarize a billion photographs on Flickr by talking about the style of two users?) I found myself occasionally waiting for more substantive technical discussion (maybe I’m conditioned to expect it in any writing about the internet) but I guess the ‘internet as art’ premise doesn’t leave room for …

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on ‘The End of Absence’

“I fear we are the last of the daydreamers. I fear our children will lose lack, lose absence, and never comprehend its quiet, immeasurable value.”  –  The End of Absence Many children this winter, especially in Boston, are having days off from school because of the weather. They’re being ‘absent.’ I used to love being ‘absent,’ on snow days. There was a peculiar isolation in it, a kind of detachment that’s almost impossible to reproduce now. This winter, those kids in Boston are having an entirely different ‘absence.’ They’re not absent in the way that I used to be absent. The End of Absence by Michael Harris is another book about the internet and how modern technology is changing the human experience. I keep reading books like this. Most of them have a pessimistic take on what it all means, and the fact that I spend many evenings reading stuff like this …

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Two Documentaries on ‘Hacking’

BBC – How Hackers Changed the World While Anonymous was given most of the treatment in this piece, I didn’t feel like their story was the strongest thread in the overall hacker narrative. Lulzsec appears to be the group that did the most actual damage, while WikiLeaks is the most ethically challenging. Anonymous comes across as a bunch of people posting on message boards who all showed up to protest the Church of Scientology once. Occasionally they were able to DDoS some government websites. They are presented as being large and formidable because allegedly ten thousand people participated in the Scientology demonstrations – but 10k isn’t that much, in the grand scheme. Ten thousand people shop at the Gap, ride the metro, buy a hot dog, blah blah every day. Boring and mundane stuff also attracts many people. Crowds don’t predicate meaning or importance. Lulzsec on the other hand appeared …

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Two Bloggers Blogging

I stumbled twice today on articles by bloggers, about blogging. First, in the Washington Post, Barry Ritholtz celebrated his 30,000th blog post. Yes, thirty thousand. If you’re having trouble comprehending that volume, you aren’t alone. He writes about finance in his personal blog and also contributes to several papers. Today was the first time I’ve ever read anything by him. Anyway, it’s taken me seven years to amass a paltry 172 entries in Brian Writing. At my current output, it will take me ONE THOUSAND two-hundred and fifty years (1,250 years) to catch up with Mr. Ritholtz. I better get going. Secondly, my LinkedIn feed promoted a post by Richard Branson on his blogging tendencies. Instead of celebrating the milestone of an umpteen-thousandth post, Mr. Branson offers a general treatise on writing habit. The Virgin Galactic founder says that topics can be found in anything (I agree) and also praises the art of delegation – although he insists his …

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on Walter White and ‘Offline’ Identity

I’m apologetically writing this well after it originally aired, but I’ve been watching Breaking Bad for the first time. (Spoilers will be small and few, out of respect for the uninitiated.) Instead of offering my own full-bootlicking about how amazing the show actually is, I’ll simply quote from, and agree with, these words from the AV Club’s review of the episodes ‘ABQ’ and ‘Full Measures’ – “…this show has been one of serialized drama’s greatest accomplishments.  Television itself suddenly seems to have an expanded horizon of possibilities — for characterization, for juxtaposition, for thematic depth.  Whatever happens from this hellish moment, the long descent to this point, with all its false dawns and sudden crashes, was singularly awe-inspiring, uniquely cathartic. People living through a golden age often don’t know it.” “Extraordinary flowerings of art, technology, culture, or knowledge are obscured by intractable problems, crises, declines in other parts of the society… It’s easy to look at television, …

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In Reality, Googling

Q&A With Google’s Eric Schmidt The line of audience members queuing up for their turn to throw a question at Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, seemed oddly like an inefficient search engine. There were so many things un-Googley about it, like having to wait for someone else to finish before I could ask a question, and having to get up out of my seat to get in line. Otherwise, the hour that Schmidt spent discussing his latest book “The New Digital Age,” with co-author Jared Cohen, covered much ground and put a human face on a company that often seems much more robotic than peopled. The book was just released in paperback and plastered with glowing reviews from statesmen including Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair and the like. In it, the authors Cohen and Schmidt attempt to map out a future which they label as humanity’s greatest experiment to …

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on Efficiency, Depression, Happiness, and Beer

The Google Ngram viewer charts the incidence of terms in 5.2 million books dating back centuries. It’s a pretty amazing tool. Choosing the words ‘efficiency‘ and ‘depression‘ I graphed their usage over the last 500 years. I found a close correlation between the terms, with both beginning to rise around 1750 and sharply peaking around 1925. As a control variable I also included ‘weather’, which showed little correlation to either efficiency or depression. Something to think about as we continue to make ourselves faster, better, and stronger! ****EDIT**** To avoid being too much of a downer on a Friday, I want to also include my findings on the relationship between happiness and beer. If this doesn’t demonstrate true progress, I don’t know what will – we’ve almost reached equilibrium! I don’t expect to break any ground with these findings, I just wanted to share what is a very fun set …

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Three Books About Computers

I’ve been reading some more essays on software engineering and computer programming lately, from the three following books. Here’s a brief synopsis and some of my thoughts on each: Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age – Douglas Rushkoff The back jacket of this book describes Douglas Rushkoff as an author and media theorist – not as a programmer, which should be a yellow flag for anyone coming to this text looking for pragmatic programming advice. That said, he offers an easily digestible summary of trends in internet technology, and where he thinks society as a whole would benefit most if certain standards of thought were subscribed to in the future. Many of his concepts are agreeable, if a little alarmist. (Which is okay, because I think I might be turning into a bit of an alarmist myself.) I think the most important message Rushkoff is trying …

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the Fictionalizations of ‘the Google’

I had a colleague a few years ago who joked about how his aging parents always referred to Google, the search engine, as “the Google,” as if the internet giant had become an entity of such massive, generic proportion that it deserved its own “the..”, like “the city,” or “the ocean,” or “the internet.” The Google. Popular culture has been producing fictionalized narratives about what life at Google might be like, to complement the hordes of reportage documenting the reality of the company. For an account of how it came to be, and an outsider’s view of the founders, Ken Auletta’s non-fiction book “Googled” tells a fascinating story. But the real story of Google is about the people who work there, and what they are trying to accomplish. There are plenty of imaginary guesses as to what that’s like – in ‘The Internship,’ actors Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn actually …

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