Wednesday, 26 December 2012

A wishlist (part one of many)

'Dr Who game list' by
Hopkinsii under a
CC license
The new year is just a few days away. That, gives us yet another chance to wish for and dream about, reflect on the recent past and decide on changes. I'm not sure how successful any of that turns out to be in the long run. But it 's unlikely to cause any harm, either.

Myself, I don't like lists much. Partly because I find of limited use to put wishes on paper (or any of the other modern alternatives - that's not the issue), partly because I find it strange to turn to lists in order to try to get me into doing things :-)

For the sake of the days, Ι'll play bold and make a wish; a Grand one, going beyond the usual (but always needed) health, happiness and peace on earth.

Let 2013 find us using our resources in a better, wiser way!

And by 'resources' I mean all kind of resources from water and energy to money and human capital. And by 'wiser' I mean wiser at all levels, scientific yet socially responsible, ambitious yet practical, locally-thought yet internationally-relevant. That's no easy feat - I admit - but after all that's what wishes are for!

My warmest wishes to all of you!


Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Wishes

'A wish runs through it' by
debairdâ„¢ under a CC license
A Merry Christmas to all of us!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Dinner table: Food for thought

'Dinner table settings'
by joeywan under a CC license
For the part of the world that is lucky enough to have secured a minimum amount of food on a daily basis, the dinner table may feel like the reasonable place to end the daily routine.

In fact, though, the dinner table is much more than that. It's the place to talk with family and friends. It's the place to listen to others. It's the place to get to know people. It's the place for all emotions, from sorrow to happiness and from anticipation to excitement. It's the place to secure a deal, explore arguments, brainstorm on ideas, announce plans and... well... eat.

The latter, quite rightfully, sounds like stating the obvious. However, what I'm really trying to say is that, food-wise, the dinner table is challenging in many different ways. While, normally, we tend to focus either on the social dimension of eating or on satisfying the physical need to eat, getting things in order for a dinner table (or any meal, in fact) is not that simple a process. Indicatively, consider the following elements:
  • General food safety; are the raw materials safe, has the food been handled properly, etc.
  • Food allergens; is the food OK for the people that will consume it with respect to allergens, does one of them has an allergy on one of the ingredients used, is it likely to have allergens present through contamination, etc.
  • Nutrition; does the meal provide what is needed for all its intended consumers, does it provide variety under the "balanced nutrition" rationale, etc.
  • Special dietary needs; are they known for each of those consuming the meal, are cultural or religious-based dietary needs also considered, are they properly addressed altogether, etc.
  • Acceptance; are the meal elements acceptable at the sensory level, i.e., do they look nice, do they have an appealing flavour and taste, etc.
  • Novelty; is the meal intriguing or interesting for those who will consume it (not necessarily in the sense of 'food innovation')?
'Table' by anthimeria
under a CC license
Don't consider that list as exhaustive. It's not. Not even close. What is interesting is that each of the points above is close to being a science on its own.  And what is challenging is that for each of the points above there is still much to investigate and learn (at the scientific level).

Most of you will argue that although we normally eat on a daily basis in our lives the food we consume rarely causes problems. That is a fair point. But:
  • The reaction of people to unsafe food depends on their overall health status and the factor that makes the food in question unsafe. Pathogens like listeria monocytogenes tends to be more of a concern for immunosuppressed individuals and pregnant women but there are food-borne pathogens that much more aggressive. Contaminants of chemical or biological nature may or may not lead to acute effects, depending on the type of agent, the amount consumed, etc. The impact of the consumption of unsafe food on human health and well-being in the long run is not always very easy to calculate. Besides that, most food-related incidents tend to be downplayed (e.g., an upset stomach or a single diarrhea incident is normally ignored) so the exact impact of non-safe food is likely under-estimated.
  • Food allergy is not that rare. It 's impact on the individual depends on the level of sensitisation for the allergen in question and the amount consumed but in some cases it can be life-threatening.
  • Good nutrition is a standing challenge. Nutrient needs vary depending on both genetic factors, age, health status, life-style choices and cultural background. Beyond that, there are people with special dietary needs, who need to abstain from certain ingredients or require more or less from specific ingredients. For instance, coeliacs must follow a gluten-free diet. To make things more complicated, the availability of each nutrient is a dish depends on several factors, including the nutrient form in the food, the food matrix (i.e., where is the nutrient contained), the presence of other ingredients (e.g., a nutrient may become partially "out of reach" to the digestive system in the presence of specific ingredients).
  • Acceptance for both "normal" and "novel" foods is a relatively new niche for studies under food science. There is still a lot to learn on how people make choices for food and towards what result. It is not always the question of whether the food smells, tastes and "feels" good, though. Cultural background, habit or past personal experiences, amongst others, can make people like or detest certain foodstuffs.
I'm not suggesting or implying that the person who cooks dinner should get a food science degree. I'm merely pointing out that there is really a lot to learn for something many of us normally take for granted.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Music; imagination with a cap

'Rocketship music' by
mark sebastian under
a CC license.
One more post that has, really, nothing to do with food and very little - if any - with innovation.

The other day I came across an old post on Covered in Bees asking the question "How many songs are there?". The post tries to answer the question by calculating the number of bit value combinations that are possible within the total bit of a 5-minute song on a typical CD, which is sampled at 44.1 KHz at a 16-bit depth. The resulting number of combinations is 2211,680,000. That is a really a big, VERY big number. It is a number over 63 MILLION digits long. In comparison, as the post in Covered in Bees points out, the number of atoms that comprise Earth is a figure of some 50 digits in length.

The calculation above comes with several working hypotheses, such as sampling rate, sampling depth and duration. That makes calculation easy for digital recordings. For analogue recordings things would be a bit more complicated but, given that we humans do have practical thresholds in telling tones apart, the key outcome would be the same: The number of "compositions" lasting a finite amount of time is, practically, finite.

The number of "melodies", however, is debatable and is much, much smaller than the figure 2211,680,000. You see, that figure includes ANY combination of sounds with duration of 5 minutes: all music of all kinds ever conceived, discussions of any topic, sounds of nature, white noise, even silence. What the figure does NOT take into consideration is whether the outcome would sound like "music" to us, not to mention "pleasant music".

Well, at this point things become a bit more complicated. Obviously tastes in music vary. Age, character, culture, tradition, instruments and transmission media available are amongst factors that affect perception of what constitutes "pleasant music". A recent scientific paper (NJ Hudson, "Musical beauty and information compression: Complex to the ear but simple to the mind?", BMC Res Notes. 2011; 4: 9) argued that appealing music, regardless its complexity to the ear, is the one that in fact is simple to the min.

On the funnier side of things, Axis of Awesome suggest that major hits of our time have in fact been based on just 4 (four) chords. Yes, 4. No need to elaborate on that. Feel free to watch the corresponding video:




To be fair, the Axis of Awesome talk about the "pillars" of melody and NOT about the main melody itself. If you want to look closer to similarities between songs, go check out SoundsJustLike.com.

At any rate, however, regardless of the math involved, the hard truth is that the tunes we like are finite and - most probably - few. Which sort of explains why the same (or similar) music resurfaces from time to time, usually accompanied by different lyrics. Personally, I'm quite surprised that IPR lawyers and IPR trolls haven't heavily headed that way, yet. But, hey, for common people like us, the point of music is to have fun, make ourselves feel a bit better and - altogether - "talk to the soul", isn't it?

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Knock-knock

'cell phone' by
samantha celera under
a CC license
Despite being a Sunday today, I woke up early. It's one of the side effects of having to be at work at 07.30 on a daily basis, I guess.

I wasn't feeling particularly lazy so I had breakfast, did a bit of tidying-up (ouch!) and browsed the news. At about 11.30, I got in the mood picking up my mobile and catching up with friends.

So I try calling the first on the list.... no reply. OK. 11.30 might still be early for some. Another one came to my mind - and that was a phone call I had to do at some point during the day, regardless - but, again, no luck. Moving onto the third one, well, no luck there, as well. At that point I thought that, given the time of the day, I was really trying to get hold of the wrong kind of crowd. So I tried calling an uncle of mine and "volunteer" for an errand. And nope. Nobody there, too.

For some weird reason, knock-knock jokes started coming to my mind but I soon pulled myself together and went on with my day....

So, the key messages of today's experience are:
  • Sunday mornings can be very quiet if you happen to wake up early.
  • Sunday mornings can be very noisy, if you happen to choose to stay in bed but have a friend who tends to wake up early.
  • Sunday mornings is the ideal time to be anti-social. Most likely, nobody will disturb you but, even if somebody does, you can just ignore them and they'll be OK with it.
  • Still, Sunday mornings are waaaay better than Sunday evenings, with the exception of those Sunday evenings that are followed by a bank holiday Monday.

Note: I re-tried calling those people in the afternoon and, that time, my success rate was significantly higher.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Stuff happens

'New Outhouse'
by andyarthur under
a CC license
Yes, it does.

I've been the proud owner of a humble Android tablet for quite some months now. Not the most mission-critical hardware I have but, still, a fully respectable gadget.

Yesterday, the YouTube app wanted to have it updated. Blindly, I obeyed. The new version kept crashing on start. Then another app crashed. And then another. And then the entire system froze. You know, the point where you restart the thing and hope for the best.

The restart took ages. A few things were missing but, most importantly, no app could start without crashing. They all had to be un-installed and re-installed. One-by-one. Yes, I tried clearing the dalvik cache before that. Yes, I double checked that there is enough space left. Yes, I got rid of things I didn't really need, just in case. Nothing really made a difference.

I ended up wiping the entire thing up and starting fresh with the initial factory version. Let me just say that this one is not a crystal clear process if you don't have a functional device. There is a start-up key combination that takes you to a pre-boot Android menu but that's not easy to assume. You can google for it, of course, and it comes up easily. But, still, you need access to the internet for that.

Getting things back to where they were (well, to approximately where they were before stuff happened) took about 3-4 hours and a good amount of cursing. Having survived that I can come up with a list of nice and bad things).

The nice things:
  • Since most of the apps come from the Android market, Google may remember, right after the fresh installation, which ones the user bought and offer to install them (one by one) again. For some reason, that happens for some only for-pay apps.
  • Google play remembers all the apps the user bought. So in the case Android doesn't remember the apps already bought, if the user searches for them, Google play will offer to install them without having to buy them again.
  • E-mails, contacts, photos and anything that is stored on the Google cloud will be easily accessible after the wiping/ re-installation process.
  • To be fair, the whole re-installation process is dramatically faster than what would be needed for a PC. Then again, I'm only talking about what I think was caused by a software glitch, not a hardware failure. Had that been the case, the only option for the tablet would have been a trip to the manufacturer's service (i.e., weeeeks of waiting).

The bad things:
  • All the good things above can happen only if the user has access to his/her Google account. Being locked out or without internet access is very bad news in that case. In fact, internet access is really needed for things a user would normally do with a tablet.
  • Google play won't remember the list of free apps the user has installed. Those apps have to be located and installed manually, one-by-one (unless the user kept a backup - there are special apps for that).
  • Device settings, widget configuration, notes, calendar entries, documents and any other kind of files, etc. are all lost (unless the user kept a backup).
Moral lines of the story:
  • Tablets occasionally fail. Take backups (yeah right!) both using cloud services and local media.
  • If you rely on access to specific data or applications, have a backup device at hand that can hold and process the data you want. That could be your laptop/ netbook/ etc. As a bonus, you get something that will help you find your way in making the tablet operational again in case you get stuck (yes, Google is your friend but you need something to access it from.
That's all folks.

It wasn't in the plan to write about that. But I'm afraid that those pieces on gluten and crisis management will have to wait for a few more days. After all, stuff happens....

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Hiatus; end of...

'February 2010-National
Margarita Day
' by cmiked
under a CC license
It has been months since I last had the chance to post something on this blog. It wasn't planned. I admit I've missed it a bit. But now I'm back and, since September is the second best time of the year for personal resolutions, I 've promised myself to stick a convenient, yet steady, pace. Of course, promises are to be broken but, for the time being, this hiatus is over.

(Having said that, I subconsciously look back to all those things that I 've been absolutely determined to do but never did. And keeping a blog-posting schedule clearly doesn't rank high up compared to other targets I 've set - at times - and then put aside.)

In my defense, many small or not-so-small things have happened since April that kept me either busy or distracted. One is for sure, it hasn't been holidays. In that sense, the margarita on the left is purely wishful thinking.

At any rate, let's see how this new effort goes....


Sunday, 29 April 2012

Bugs: Coming soon in an ice-cream near you!

Ice cream balls in a bowl-photo
'Nanners and Rummy Raisin
Ice Cream"' by ulterior epicure
under a CC license
Within a few days after our birth our intestines get populated by numerous bacteria. Such bacteria will, normally, keep us company until the end of our lives. With them, we are connected by a bit more than a mere co-existence. Current knowledge describes our relationship with plenty of the gut flora microorganisms as "symbiotic": we feed them, provide warmth and shelter to them and in return the keep our guts safe from pathogens, train our immune systems and release metabolites of theirs, some of which are necessary for us. Well, that relationship does go pear-shaped occasionally, but life is full of messy stuff, isn't it?

The interesting thing is that the more we look into our intestinal population the more links we find between their existence and our lives. Yesterday, the New Scientist was highlighting research findings on rats, which suggest that the composition of the gut flora has an effect on appetite, initially, and, later on, changes in the body weight: Changing the gut flora of obesity-resistant rats to that of the obesity-inclined one increased the appetite, firstly, and the weight, secondly, of the former.

Weight changes and the composition of the gut flora is nothing new. In 2006, the New Scientist featured a corresponding article. It was based again on research carried out on mice. That time they compared normal μmice with ones that had been living in sterile conditions and, thus, had no microorganisms within their digestive track. Those mice tended to stay slim. Having their gut populated by the flora of the normal mice lead to a body weight increase of about 25%. If the flora used was similar to that of obese mice, the weight gain was much higher. That observation was attributed to the effect of the gut flora on the food that passes via the intestines; the microorganisms living there help metabolize it more efficiently, thus producing more energy the mass unit than without their intervention. The more efficient the microorganisms are, the higher the weight gain for mice.

Combining the two observations there are several questions that come to mind:
  • Let's assume that gut flora that is more efficient in processing the food we normally eat leads to us getting more calories out the food. Temporarily, that will lead to weight increase unless we either reduce our food intake or increase our physical activity. However, it is suggested in the 2012 article that the appetite (of rats) is enhanced. Does this mean that the flora microorganisms mess with the energy intake - appetite mechanism of the host? And if yes, is that a temporary effect? What pathway does it messes up with?
  • Since the gut flora lives on what food we consume and on the metabolites secreted by our cells, locally, do they have any mechanism to "encourage" us to eat the food that is most nutritious to them? I don't necessarily refer to "mind-control" but to any pleasant or unpleasant symptom that may encourage or discourage us from eating stuff that "tastes" nice or not-so nice, respectively, to our intestinal guests.
  • Is it possible to sustainably change one's gut flora in such a way that it will lead to better weight control? Can this be done in a safe way? What will be the catches (because, surely, there will be at least one downside!)?
The last point carries particular weight for the food industry. Foodstuffs with probiotic content have been consumed practically since the beginning of civilisation; fermented dairy products being a common example. Recently, the trend has expanded and, for some time, probiotics (and prebiotics) became central to what is typically referred to as "functional food".

Strawberry-topped yoghurt-based desert/ photo
'Strawberry Panna Cotta'
by Matthew S. Cain under
a CC license
If probiotic microorganisms can indeed help maintain a healthy body weight, without negative side effects, they could become particularly interesting for foods that tend to be tempting and are often responsible for making a weight-loss diet feel particularly punishing.

Ice-cream is a good example. The idea has been explored a few years ago and there seems to be little concern for technological limitations. Household-oriented recipes have also been available for - say - yoghurt ice-cream or more exotic stuff, such as kefir-based chocolate ice-cream.

Having said that, I find the path of "slimming" foods to be a potentially slippery one. Regardless of how pleasant the thought is of devouring tons of yummy ice-cream and, still, lose weight, the wise thing to do is seek for a healthy, balanced diet and live a life with plenty of physical activity. And then, why not, enjoy the occasional scoop or two of our favourite dairy vice....

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The "WE" Individuals of the Digital Era

Bee hive photo
'Bee hive 2' by Botters
under a CC license
Knowledge has always been a valuable thing. A lot of resources are invested in getting it, being studies or just hiring the right people. And there are tools available to transmit it (books, schools, the media, etc.) as well as the means to protect it (intellectual property laws, non-disclosure agreements, information concealing technologies, etc.).

Information technologies have considerably changed the knowledge landscape, though. Information tends to be better distributed or - at least - more accessible. With a bit of exaggeration, one could support that it is getting increasingly easier to become "an expert" on something.

As usual, however, there is a catch. Well, in fact, many catches:
 Reliability; Accuracy;Suitability;Completeness... and that is just to name a few.

The interesting point is that those same catches also apply to several of the traditional means of knowledge dissemination, such as books. The difference, however, is that the perception of reliability, accuracy, etc., of what we find online tends to be favourably biased. I don't know why. Maybe because when we look something up on the internet we want to get somewhere quickly and easily.

The bottom line is that the people of the digital era are no longer isolated knowledge-islands but, rather, autonomous nodes of a network: they have access to "collective knowledge" and, sometimes, contribute to it. Individuals are (digitally) backed up by many others, although the process often happens unconsciously, well hidden in the background.

At any rate, in the modern business world, that brings up to the scene some new facts.

Firstly, the "layman" should now be considered as one with access to a lot of information, possibly unfiltered, possibly biased, possibly incomprehensible to him/ her, maybe even wrong but, at any rate, information.

Secondly, the expectations from an "expert" should now be somewhat different: having some knowledge on his/ her field is just not enough anymore. Experts should be able to go much beyond the layman of today and considerably beyond the well-informed professional that hires him/ her.

I have the feeling that we are now in a transitional period, where the new and old types of common people/ experts co-exist. Understandably, that leads to confusion, especially when our expectations of the others are not matched in reality.

Daniel Gulati, a New York entrepreneur, has gone as far as to advise us: "Beware of the everyday expert" in his article in Harvard Business Review. I understand his concerns. But, on the brighter side of things, today, business people may be able to do much more on their own than what was normally possible a few years ago. That is particularly helpful for entrepreneurs, I guess, although the audience they are addressing has also become more demanding.

To me, the real challenge is how we use this potential to make our lives better, at the professional but also at the personal (societal) level.

P.S. (1) And, just to be fair, a lot of focus has been falling lately on the  knowledge-based economy and the society of knowledge. The niche of this post is really tiny and has to do with everyday people in their everyday lives. In other words, please don't extrapolate to the world economy level :-)

P.S. (2) Just because we have access to information that many others have provided, we are not necessarily less "individual" than we used to. No, we haven't reached the Borg stage, yet. Surely, many people will feel handicapped if google (or bing) goes offline but it's the access to information that will be what they'll be missing, not the people behind it :-)

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Snow Hill

'Neko harbour' by Rita Willaert
under a CC license
In response to the words "work environment" many people will bring to their minds images of urban crowded office spaces, sounds of ringing telephones and working printers and - good or bad - feelings such as those often deriving from the interaction with colleagues. But as most people imagine - and as few people really know - it's not always like that.

Take rail-crossing guards and - several decades ago - lighthouse keepers for instance. Both those jobs have the aura of solitude. Electricity and technology, in general, have made many such jobs obsolete, giving the possibility for things to be done or checked remotely on a regular basis.

Having that in mind, imagine my surprise, the other day, when I came across "A" Net Station, an internet radio station based on Snow Hill island, Antarctica. Yes, Antarctica.

My 5'-minute Google search didn't reveal too much on the island, I have to admit. It was easy to find its position on the globe (I understand that the land there is claimed by Great Britain, Argentina and Chile; of course, as all land there, it is administered under the Antarctic Treaty System). Still though, there is a YouTube video showing a group of tourists visiting a refuge hut built on the island in 1902 by a Swedish expedition:


To be honest, I can't verify that there is actually somebody streaming music from that point of the world on a daily basis. But even if that's just a hobby of somebody from the research bases of the continent (not necessarily on the island 24/7), it still feels exciting to listen to music coming from that far away, from a place where normally the only sounds heard should be the wind, the sea and, possibly, the sounds of penguins...

According to their "A"Net Station's website, the web-radio station is not a new story. And, by the way, they have made an interesting selection of relaxing music from independent artists. If you are on the move but have an Android device or an Ipad you could try the TuneIn app - it allows you to search for web radio stations geographically; you'll find "A" Net Station under "Antarctica" - of course.


Well done, people there!  You've made something cool!


Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Nomads

'Formationsflug' by loop_oh
under a CC license
I've been tempted many times to write on the current financial mess the world is in. I am by no means an expert on financial issues, let alone world financial issues, but I sort of feel part of the equation. To be frank, living in Greece today and having spent the last decade or so in the country, I believe that most people in the world think that finances are merely stand alone - but of extreme importance - math formulas, with a vague, not necessarily clear connection to the real world.
Well, yes, there is math involved but - here is the catch - not only. And, yes, they have a huge impact on how the real world works.

I won't go on with this topic, though. Too many people, professionals of all sorts, as well as individuals have reported, analysed, commented, reviewed and - at any rate - written too many words on the issue from many different vantage points. The chances are that they will continue doing that and, also, that I will continue following them up. However, I need to express a question: Do we (mankind) know how wealth and society interact with each other?

Seriously.

I don't mean whether we have socio-economic theories and models available and in practice. That, we do. (and, currently, it is clear that they need a bit of tweaking to keep us on a sustainable path).  I'm wondering whether we know how the various societal elements interact with the wealth-generating mechanisms. I do understand that this is no easy thing; in my mind it sounds a bit like asking for the single, all-inclusive math model that is capable of correlating the reduction in the production of feta-cheese in Greece to the change of the rate of oil exploration in the Arctic circle and quantify the effect of that correlation to the (im)migration of early-career civil engineers from south Chile to Norway. [btw., this is a purely fictitious example!]

I am sure that, as you read these lines, there are scholars around the world that are trying to connect the dots, refining formulas, adapting theories, etc. By the way, immigration is a topic that has been receiving a lot of attention the last few decades. Mathematical models do exist and work on those still continues.

For societal stakeholders the challenge goes above and beyond merely producing a formula that manages to model the phenomena we witness. In fact, with or without such formula the critical question is how to manage change in the most "productive", "civilized" and "sustainable" way. I used quotation marks because, really, those three words have been assigned a wide range of meanings so far. What I'm trying to say is that we need to find out how to use the advantages of any change, regardless of how minor those may be, in order to mitigate, completely negate or even exceed the associated disadvantages.

Immigration is a nice example. Whenever we hear the word, we tend of thinking of working hands with no or little qualifications. Often, the word is associated with discussions on unemployment, violence and crime, burden to the social system, etc. Sometimes, brain-drain gets attention, as well. But, as you imagine, there is an other side, too: increase of the available workforce, widening of the tax-basis, cultural (and other) diversity, strengthening of the intra-societal dialogue potential, expansion of the internal market, enrichment of the skills pool, transfer of innovation, etc. The rule of thumb is that you can't have all the pros without any cons but there have been plenty of examples of countries that managed quite well by receiving and integrating immigrants (the US, Germany and Australia being just a few strong examples), both with low and high skills and qualifications.

Going a bit beyond that, mobility is strongly explored as a way to boost innovation. The Marie Curie Actions (implemented by the European Commission) have led to numerous success stories. Of course, researcher mobility and immigration of the general population are neither synonyms nor equivalents but they do share some common elements.

Some express views where immigration contributes to local communities in the same way that genetic diversity contributes to the survival and expansion of a species (similar thinking has been expressed for cultural diversity). I wouldn't go that far, though. To what I perceive, migration, be it within borders or cross-border, has led to variety in life and has come hand-in-hand with internationalisation (again, a word with more than one faces). If I stick to simple things, the languages with speak, the way we think, the foods we taste, the way we work, the fashion we follow, have been shaped through numerous "exchanges" with groups of people from "somewhere else". That doesn't mean that immigration shouldn't be carefully thought of by the states. But, nevertheless, it can also lead to better thinking, which sometimes is really, really needed...



Saturday, 11 February 2012

Pitch Black

'Natural Satellites' by Pedro
Moura Pinheiro under
a CC license
(this first 2012 post of mine is a bit off my usual fields - please bear with me until the 2nd one :-)

The Internet is a strange world. We ofter forget is the the result of adding up diverse creations of human beings. Be it like that, the internet is no perfect thing and - for sure - not a being, itself, at least not one with any of the human qualities.

Back in the '60s, when ARPANET was being expanded one network at a time, I doubt that anyone of those involved could ever have imagined that they were adding the first small bits of what we now know as "the web" (or "the internet" - although the two are not really the same thing). Back then, exchanging data and perhaps exchanging a few words with colleagues was a big step forward and that was, really, all it mattered. Now, especially for the newer generations, google, youtube, facebook and their likes are facts of life. Seriously, I bet that in big cities kids see and use google/ youtube/ facebook/ etc. years before they actually come across a living cow...

Don't get me wrong. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Those services and many, many, many others have completely transformed our lives, enabling us to do (often for free) things that would have been tedious or even technically challenging. Call them tools of creativity, business infrastructure, fun or whatever else.... Being around with the internet of today is cool and that is in-large because of those things.

BUT.....

With all good things, high expectations come, too. Think of content, for instance. There's a lot of stuff around the web. Is it of good quality? Let's - for the shake of the argument - say it is. Who maintains it? Mostly people (and in some cases, scripted robots - but that's another story). Some, because they make a living out of it, others because it is associated with their job, others because they feel it as a way to create or offer something to the masses, others because it happens to be what their circle does and others simply because they find it fun. To put it in other words, there is a huge diversity of agendas and - thus - of commitment behind each content item available on the web.

Within the last 4-5 months, 4 of the blogs I normally visited at least a few times a week have stayed inactive. Myself, I have been unable to put together a half-descent post for quite a while now...

What's the big deal, you 'll ask? Well, there is no big deal, unless you actually start counting on such small things or things affected start being not-so-small. You see, in my case with those 4 blogs I used to visit, they were something like the Sunday newspaper: It was not so much what they wrote, it was the ritual of reading them; the power of Habit! No huge loss but, plainly, an unnecessary change :( And, please, don't get me wrong, but I'll avoid describing questions, such as, "what may have happened to the people behind those blogs; are they all right?", not because such questions are invalid or irrelevant but because they are something I'd prefer to handle in a future post....

Now take the example a bit further. Imagine that something you really rely on (on the Web) vanishes. Take Gmail out the equation for a second or - even better - take Gmail AND Yahoo Mail AND Hotmail out of the equation. How does this feel? "It's not the same" you 'll reply. True! It's not exactly the same because many, many people rely on those services to run businesses or at least facilitate business tasks. But on top of those people there are others, who have their entire digital lives somewhere on those services. And in such cases, the loss wouldn't just be a question of money....

So here are the questions for you:
  • How do we stop the part of the Web we like/ use/ ... from turning pitch black?
  • If not (and I suspect we can't), how to we take the minimum possible loss/ frustration?
  • How can we improve stability on the Web, without hindering progress?
The Internet Archive is a modest such effort of preserving content in a fashion very similar to a library. Is it a useful thing? Well, maybe. For sure it may prove useful to historians at some point, regardless of the fact that most of the content it salvages is of little practical use.

From the practical side of things, at least when it comes to our personal content on the web, the only practical solution is mirroring across different service providers or devices. It's no small feat if you have a couple of decades of digital luggage there but it's a feasible and low cost (or no cost) thing to do.

At times, there are visionaries putting together new tools to manage our digital presence and preserve it across the decades of our lives. But I can't see any solution to having the digital universe around us stay as stable as possible.

Experience suggests that digital neighbourhoods are volatile. Evolving, if you prefer. As are our real neighbourhoods, although at a much slower rate. Unlike reality, which we have learned to process, the digital change feels harder handle - especially for those old enough to have their fixed points of reference in life :)

So how about I change those questions above to something like this:
  • How do we make change in the internet manageable? In what way should technologies evolve so that facing the novel we feel we experience continuity instead of the unfriendly pitch black void?
It is not a question with a single answer, I'm sure. User interfaces, functionality,  devices, education, business models, the law, personal finances, etc., they all are pieces of the same jigsaw puzzle. So, let's see if evolution will take us that way....