Friday, November 13, 2009

Hoover Blanket, Inc., Launches

I've always wanted to write a manifesto, so here it is. This is what Hoover Blanket, Inc. sets out to accomplish. Hoover Blanket, by the way, refers to newspapers, which were all that some people had to keep themselves warm with back in the first Great Depression (this one's been "papered" over by newly minted electronic money, just as new Hoovervilles spring up all over again).

I'm lousy at memorizing things, but once you learn how to see something, you never can unlearn it. I think true learning forms a kind of permanent memory, which is helpful for people like me.

I sometimes wonder if a whole nation can learn anything. Surely if you wait long enough among people without historical memory, you can almost always pull the same stunts over and over, especially on folks sent to school for memorizing and training to be economic inputs!

When I was in school myself, I was apparently smart enough to pay attention to almost nothing that was being said. Not too much memory was required for passing multiple choice tests, and in the classes I liked it wasn't the saying that counted anyhow. So, I liked physics and math, and didn't pay a whole lot of attention to history. Literature was just intimidating, and those particular multiple choice questions had no connection whatsoever to what I thought I was reading.

Maybe I don't have all that much to unlearn about how stupid everybody else in the world is who's not American, and maybe I have yet to be convinced that partisan politics means democracy. Unlearning, as any teacher can tell you, is a lot harder than learning.

We got a lot of how stupid everyone else is in the naive anthropology of world culture and religion as it was taught. Somehow, though, I've retained a few principles about greed and robber barons and how rich folks always work things out to their ever more concentrated aggrandizement. Until everything crashes.

I also never did actually read the good stuff until college, because, well frankly the good stuff wasn't being advertised very well at school where facts and names were the focus. In college, the good stuff hit me rather like a ton of bricks, and so I had to drop out and back in several times before I hit my stride studying Chinese. Which involves lots and lots of memorization, so there you go.

And in China now, we like to call their form of market economics "capitalism" too, even though their one-party political system pretty much stretches to the point of breaking what we could possibly mean when we use that same term to describe outselves. Or are they really more similar than different, with our Coke and Pepsi parties who just make it seem like there's real choice being debated. Where the real choices get whittled right down to false alternatives among characterless compromises enforced on the party membership if they want to keep their seats.

Dad's losing his memory now. He reads and rereads the autobiographies that he's compiled. To be reminded of who he was and what he did. I guess you could call it dementia, but there is still a kind of shape to it, as he fades away and anon.

Maybe we should do the same with our own national history before we forget who we once thought we were. Questing for freedom, and away from aristocracy, we always said we wanted to give the least of us the same chances as the most powerful. Well, that's what we said anyhow.

I'm trying to establish a kind of credential here for your belief in what I want to say. I'm trying to whittle myself down to that little boy who points out that the Emperor is naked. I'm trying for something anybody could see, and I haven't got a mature voice yet. But I'll keep trying.

Among other things, Hooover Blanket hopes to bring back the news, so that we can stay warm in ways which don't require a Hooverville. We here at Hoover Blanket believe in ways to promote something other than the bottom feeding train wreck corporate press-release copy which passes for news reporting these days.

And we don't think it has to be inevitable that powers like Google can destroy what used to be a somewhat honorable dishonorable profession. Not that Google has any blood on its hands yet, except perhaps in their titanic grudge match against Microsoft. It's we who don't have time or won't pay for news that's fit to read. We're too busy driving, I guess, and it's not Google's job to pay reporters.

I learned about newspaper reporting over in Taiwan during martial law, back when America called them China. My Chinese professor had hooked me up with his sister (not that way - we didn't do that back then, or at least I didn't), the only woman reporter in Taiwan, and she in turn introduced me to these three old guys, who in turn invited me to drink down at the Temple of the City God.

I'd studied Taoism with a guy who converted from Jesuitical to Taoistic understandings right in those temple precincts, so I had a little sense ahead of time about what I would be doing there. Or wait, maybe I studied with him afterward. Hell, I can't remember.

I do know that the spirits we studied were made from sorghum, and tasted somewhere just this side of turpentine. After we were good and happy - me struggling to use Chinese - the cops would join us at our table, and then later on the local mafia.

These were the guys who knew what was really going on, and I think they had to drink hard at night just so they could publish all the happy horseshit which was all that was allowed in a place where telling the truth could get you pretty quickly killed.

Now that we've disgraced poor Dan Rather, our original Million Dollar Man, who must have been radicalized over there in Afghanistan just like Osama, all we seem to get any more is happy horseshit too.

Oh sure, we pay lots of attention when they expose scumbags, and over at Fox they've raised that to an art, where absolutely everybody is a scumbag except the person pointing fingers and shouting.

I think back in kindergarten they taught us about how many fingers point back to yourself when we're calling names. But I wouldn't remember.

The point is that there is too much money in shilling a bunch of corporate orthodoxy, and not nearly enough to staff the smoky back rooms where the real stuff might get written. And plenty of money in providing hits to your logo-ridden heart, which craves its news just as greasy as MacDonalds fries. Hits to your insecure ego, which likes to think itself that much better than those scumbags who run things.

The trouble being, of course, that the scumbags being pointed at and shouted about are only diversionary creatures to make sure you don't understand who's really distorting your world-view.

So, how is Hoover Blanket going to accomplish this on our wing and our prayer?

Very simply because we know something the big guys don't know. First of all we take it as an article of faith - it's right in our manifesto (the real one) - that computers make a lousy analog for how minds actually work.

There will be no artificial intelligence, ever, and so it looks to us like a colossal and somewhat dangerous waste of time, money and power, for corporate giants like Google to catalog and cache and data-mine the entire Internet. Which, if you were to try it at home using your really really fast broadband connection would take maybe 65 years and several petabytes worth of storage just to list the pages by their url. (I read that somewhere on the Internet, so it must be true.)

But there is no intelligence in any of that data. There is power, though, for so long as Google is getting most of the clicks when you go searching for stuff. They can hand you up what you want, prearranged according to how everyone else is searching (like someone rearranging your refrigerator the same way they arrange stuff on the shelves over at Wegman's, putting the high-paying stuff right at your sweet spot) and then serving up some nicely targeted ads, in case you weren't aware of something out there you might just like to buy.

I'm not saying, by the way, that they are really doing what Wegman's does (and Wegman's is the nicest supermarket in the nation, so I pick them on purpose here). They have their code of honor. No-one can pay them for search results to make it to the top. And they don't mix in the paid ads with the other search results the way that Yahoo! and Bing do (well, OK, so there's a new distinction without a difference - they've merged, surprise, surprise! - and we might be the collateral damage in those cloud wars).

But there is a kind of simple vicious cycle which happens here, since by promoting what everyone else is looking at they are, indirectly, bringing all the logoware right up front, and letting other things disappear somewhere down in among those bejillions of other hits on pages etcetera. There's lots and lots of money involved in all this indirection.

Let's say you're a crazy guy like me, and you want to find the five or six other people on the planet who think like you do, so that they will buy your book. (I still don't get why people only buy books they agree with though)

You pay Google to pop up an ad to those folks who use your words while emailing their sweetheart, say, and it really really works. You get a sale for maybe $20 and Google automagically calibrates the click rate so that it will be worth it for you to keep paying out maybe $19 for every sale. But that's better than nothing, since you aren't even paying for paper. Except that Google's getting a pretty darned good commission. Unless you're the size of the New York Times, in which case your commission is pretty small. You get how this can work.

Well, my buddy, the brains behind Hoover Blanket (I couldn't code to save my life, well OK, I exaggerate, but not by much) got an actual bona-fide Ph.D. (I tried several times, but I just don't have the patience for it) devising ways to model living tissue for virtual reality palpations of the body.

You can't do this by old fashioned engineering means. Living tissue is just way complex compared to bridges and skyscrapers and spaceships and other things at the limits of our computing power to model. And even some of these come crashing down in ways we never could have predicted.

Living tissue - and I have to apologize here because my buddy needs to stay in the closet a little while longer, so I might be getting some of this wrong - living tissue has to be modeled in the way that cellular automata get modeled.

Think of flocks of birds or schools of fish, which seem to move as if they were one mind, but really only relate to the one next to them, in some kind of overall similar context they can all relate to.

Cellular automata are little computer googlies which only know how to react to the ones nearby, and they end up moving around like schools of fish, as if they had a mind to, too. It makes me think of those fractal creations, which look so much like living patterns, except they depend on diminutive and trivial little formulas for their computation.

So, my buddy tells me, that's how you can model living tissue. You give properties to its parts - some being more dense and some more elastic - and then you put those parts into relation with one another, and eventually the doctor at the far end of the wire can actually palpate the virtually real body and find the tumor. Cool!

So that's how the Hoover Blanket brand of search is going to work. You don't need to store the whole darned internet. You only need to store the urls and the connections to the ones nearby, and then you let the people catalog them by their clicks.

I know it sounds real simple, but trust me if it were, all those smart folks over at Google would have come up with it by now. Well, unless they're just making too much money by leaving things alone.

Fact is, I think they just can't see it, because they're so blinded by their power. I think it's pretty much exactly like Columbus' ship on the horizon being invisible to the unschooled natives on their once pristine shores. They didn't have any categories for it, and so it was just an hallucination on the horizon, along with so many others they might have still known how to see.

There is actually no need to catalog the Internet, or any very large data set. You only have to look at things in their contexts, and the magic of degrees of separation will get you very quickly to where you want to be.

So long as the degrees of separation are defined by human discernment and not by machine extractions, you will reliably find what you're looking for not because someone else has been looking for the same thing, but because you will guide the search yourself according to paths which can reveal themselves among the forest of keywords.

We have a prototype up, and it works beyond your wildest dreams. But, built on bubblegum and paperclips, it won't exactly take your load, and is depending on someone else's keyword store. But it works. It's trivial.

We also have a way to distinguish people from computers which doesn't depend on fuzzing up letters for you to type. It depends, very simply, on people making things which only other people will recognize, and then letting people type the simple recognition.

Like how you know your friend at 100 paces in Beijing, say, even though you can't believe he's there. But your attention was pulled, first, since he stuck out from all the non-milk drinkers, and second, by the recognition, and third, yep sure is. Wow.

I know homeland security and probably the NSA think that computers can do that better than us, but they also end up profiling my Mom when she crosses the Peace Bridge, just like they tried not to do with that poor Muslim down at Fort Hood. Computers can be really stupid, unless it's the people behind them.

But sure, so called Artificial Intelligence can give you a leg up, just like all those cool spy movies, for sorting among all sorts of noise, or zooming in to the right spot if you have really high resolution cameras. And even just the threat of that can keep people honest if you put cameras up on street corners.

But it doesn't do so well at keeping out all the spam, which now overwhelms legitimate email by something like an order of magnitude. Making it that much harder for Google to give you what you want. Although, for sure, they do a pretty darned good job.

Some of us might be fine with only allowing people who could actually read a CAPTCHA (those squiggly thingies to slow down "bots" on forms) to send us email instead of the mass-emailing machines which do.

Gamers of any system, mortgage derivatives, gambling, spamming, voting, any of that stuff, will always be working a flim-flam against your trust. The Internet makes it trivial now to try it out on millions of people, and you only need one to click. Your grandma, maybe, who doesn't know any better.

Yeah, OK, another quick digression, about my other friend who knew signal noise like no-one's business, working on radar in lead shielded offices over lead shielded wire, who tried to turn his considerable prowess against the stock market, as so many before him have done. "It's all noise, Rick. All noise."

But it's not noise if you can game it. You know, like sending spam around which is guaranteed to spike some stupid little stock, and so the people who get the spam can know that it will be a spike, even though they know it's spam. They just try to buy it quicker than the next guy. Or if you hide authorship and get your news to seem legitimate. Or if you blow into the balloon, and keep quiet about its limits because then you'll get accused as the one who popped it. Even Greenspan had to eat some crow this time.

You're being gamed, folks. There isn't only one way for history to play out. There really aren't technical solutions to all our people problems. There really isn't only one reliable source for all your news.

We here at Hoover Blanket aim to make sure that the little stuff also makes it to your top. If it's real and true and nicely peer reviewed. Because we have it on good authority that there are only maybe 2% of you out there who have no conscience. And that the rest of you, whether you are corporate titans or pornshop lowlifes, would love the chance to make your livings more honestly.

We don't think things have to be organized the way they are. And we're not about ready to allow the planet to run on autopilot.

There, that's my manifesto. I hope I don't get in trouble with the boss over this.

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