Changing the past

I love e-books, especially on my Kindle, but Nicholas Carr or the Wall Street Journal has some interesting ideas on the danger of e-books.

[A]s is often the case with digitization, the boon carries a bane. The ability to alter the contents of a book will be easy to abuse. School boards may come to exert even greater influence over what students read. They’ll be able to edit textbooks that don’t fit with local biases. Authoritarian governments will be able to tweak books to suit their political interests. And the edits can ripple backward. Because e-readers connect to the Internet, the works they contain can be revised remotely, just as software programs are updated today. Movable text makes a lousy preservative.

This is not an impossible problem to overcome. It is not difficult to compare versions of documents. In the digital age, version control is even easier than when monks copied out books by hand one by one.

Carr goes on to eulogize the death of the solidity of books.

Not long before he died, John Updike spoke eloquently of a book’s “edges,” the boundaries that give shape and integrity to a literary work and that for centuries have found their outward expression in the indelibility of printed pages. It’s those edges that give a book its solidity, allowing it to stand up to the vagaries of fashion and the erosions of time. And it’s those edges that seem fated to blur as the words of books go from being stamped permanently on sheets of paper to being rendered temporarily on flickering screens.

But really, what is a book before you read it? After you read it? It only is what it is as you are consuming its content.

The real egalitarians are not the people who want to redistribute wealth to the poor, but those who want to extend to the poor the ability to create their own wealth, to lift themselves up, instead of trying to tear others down. Earning respect, including self-respect, is better than being a parasite.

The greatest invention

Tom Standage argues that writing is the greatest invention.

The greatest invention of all must surely be writing. It is not just one of the foundations of civilisation: it underpins the steady accumulation of intellectual achievement. By capturing ideas in physical form, it allows them to travel across space and time without distortion, and thus slip the bonds of human memory and oral transmission, not to mention the whims of tyrants and the vicissitudes of history.

Many of the great inventions since (e.g. the printing press, email, the internet, social networks) are powerful because of the way they efficiently transmit the written word. The great inventions since writing have been better ways to spread writing, iterations on a central idea.

Writing today is ubiquitous and everyone learns it in school, but it wasn’t always like that.

The amazing thing about writing, given how complicated its early systems were, is that anyone learned it at all. The reason they did is revealed in the ancient Egyptian scribal-training texts, which emphasise the superiority of being a scribe over all other career choices, with titles like “Do Not Be Soldier, Priest or Baker”, “Do Not Be a Husbandman” and “Do Not Be a Charioteer”. This last text begins: “Set thine heart on being a scribe, that thou mayest direct the whole earth.” The earliest scribes understood that literacy was power – a power that now extends to most of humanity, and has done more for human progress than any other invention.

The public domain needs Mickey Mouse

Kevin Kelley points out the value of the public domain.

It is in the interest of culture to have a large and dynamic public domain. The greatest classics of Disney were all based on stories in the public domain, and Walt Disney showed how public domain ideas and characters could be leveraged by others to bring enjoyment and money. But ironically, after Walt died, the Disney corporation became the major backer of the extended copyright laws, in order to keep the very few original ideas they had — like Mickey Mouse — from going into the public domain. Also ironically, just as Disney was smothering the public domain, their own great fortunes waned because they were strangling the main source of their own creativity, which was public domain material. They were unable to generate their own new material, so they had to buy Pixar.

Just imagine the amazing things that could happen if the copyright on the Star Wars saga, Harry Potter, and the Chronicles or Narnia expired and those works entered the public domain. There are already imaginative remixes of all those works out there, but they ride the fine line between fair use and copyright infringement.

What could artists using modern mediums create without worrying about being sued?

What’s different about this tech bubble?

Bussinessweek’s Ashlee Vance explores some of the unique aspects of the current tech bubble in her article, This Tech Bubble Is Different. The biggest problem is the vast amount of wasted talent.

[Jeff] Hammerbacher looked around Silicon Valley at companies like his own, Google (GOOG), and Twitter, and saw his peers wasting their talents. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” he says. “That sucks.”

The other fear is that the tech industry just becomes the new TV/Hollywood.

“My fear is that Silicon Valley has become more like Hollywood,” says Glenn Kelman, chief executive officer of online real estate brokerage Redfin, who has been a software executive for 20 years. “An entertainment-oriented, hit-driven business that doesn’t fundamentally increase American competitiveness.”

But there is reason to hope. There are many tech companies that are working to solve big problems.

Eric Schadt, the chief scientific officer at Pacific Biosciences, a maker of genome sequencing machines, says new-drug discovery and cancer cures depend on analytical tools. […] The scientists have struggled to build the analytical tools needed to perform this work and are looking to Silicon Valley for help. “It won’t be old school biologists that drive the next leaps in pharma,” says Schadt. “It will be guys like Jeff who understand what to do with big data.”