For Love of Information

An analog thread in the digital world

I’m a little bit of an information pack rat.  I started blogging before there were blogs, from UGCS.  It seemed mildly neurotic and self involved and exhibitionist at the time.  I mostly did it for my mom as a way to keep in touch without having to e-mail all the time.  I’ve lost information here and there, even digital information (which seems kind of unforgivable), but analog too.  Actually, I think more I just didn’t create much analog information.  Five intense months of life, bicycling across Europe in 1994.  Maybe 2 rolls of film total?  Almost no photos from my summer in Russia.  Both my parents were avid photographers.  My dad professionally (though eventually he tired of the weddings and quinceañeras, and retreated to a steady stream of passport and similar photos… para las micas rosas, y para amnestia…) and my mom (so far as I can tell) more personally.  Family pictures, documentarian style, wildflowers, and some prizes in the Fresno County Fair.  But I never got into it, until I got a digital camera in 1999.  My first piece of digital film was a 64 MB compact-flash card (incredibly, several times larger than the 20 MB hard disk in my first computer, which I got in 1993).  It cost about $100.  The camera was a Nikon Coolpix 700, with 2.1 MP sensor and no zoom.  I bought it in an online auction (at Yahoo!) for $425, but had the seller leave me feedback at eBay (you could leave anyone feedback for anything back then).  I mailed the check, and he mailed the camera, simultaneously, trusting each other.  I still have our e-mails.  The pictures could go directly to the web… via the web server I had running in my bedroom in Santa Cruz.  I still have those pictures.  No developing.  No cost-per-click of the shutter.  Kayaking through Southeast Alaska with Becky in the summer of 2000 I had to limit the resolution to 640 x 480 to avoid running out of space over 3 months, and I couldn’t use the LCD lest I run out of batteries, but at least I took the pictures, and kept them.

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Does this look Freegan to you?

Why are labels so attractive?  One word shortcuts for frugal thinkers.  Am I a freegan?  What would that mean exactly?  Who curates the definitions of our cultural -isms?

Do we look like freegans?

Reading through the Wikipedia article on Freeganism (which is as close to a cultural consensus on anything as I think we get these days), it seems like I’m close.  Except that I’m not fundamentally opposed to eating meat (it’s the environmental degradation, antibiotics resistance, health detriments, and massive resource consumption involved in meat production that get to me… but a little free meat from the dumpster?  Tasty!).  I also have a soft spot for shiny new laptops and other information technologies, and I believe in the greed based toolkit of money, markets, and open competition as a way to foster innovation.  But I also love composting, and creative re-use, and free non-materialist forms of entertainment and recreation like reading, and writing, and cooking from scratch, and I believe that unmitigated greed, and thus so-called laissez-faire (or perhaps in many cases more accurately crony) capitalism, left unchecked, are in the end destructive forces.  Greed and self-interest are kind of like dynamite: the right amount in the right place is a wonderful tool.  Too much, or even small amounts in bad places, and you’ve got a mess.  So how do I respond to an e-mail like this:

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Shared Links for May 5th

  • How David Beats Goliath – When the rules are stacked against you, the intelligent thing to do is break them. (tagged: strategy law war insurgency guerilla gametheory basketball lawrenceofarabia )
  • Continuous bankruptcy – Bankruptcy as it stands now is a discontinuous process. Your legal solvency is binary: either you are bankrupt, or you are not. It doesn't have to be that way, and I think you can make a good argument that it's better if it isn't. Continuous processes work themselves out in small steps, with lots of information flow along the way. Discontinuous ones are like explosions. It's easier to muster resistance to an explosion once you see it coming, and delay it. But how much better to start getting signals early on, and avert it altogether? (tagged: finance policy economics bailout banks bankruptcy discrete continuous )
  • Digital Recovery of Moon Images – Ahh, NASA. Your data management has improved over the years, but that's not saying much. 20 tons of magnetic tape in an abandoned McDonalds houses the only extant copy of the pre-Apollo analog imaging of the Moon (still the highest resolution available in most places). It can only be read by one machine on Earth, which was recently rescued from a chicken coop, and refurbished by a man who is about to die. You can't make this stuff up. (tagged: information technology space nasa archive data moon )
  • Will the Future Be Geo-Engineered? – The future is already geo-engineered, and has been ever since we started burning coal on a large scale more than 200 years ago. The question now is whether we back off, and try to let the system return to the quasi-equilibrium that allowed our civilization to arise, or introduce new and exciting perturbations, with completely unpredictable non-linear effects. I know which one I'm hoping for. (tagged: geoengineering technology non-linear climate policy environment )
  • Hacking Scalia – Law professor gives class an assignment to dig up as much "private" info as possible on Justice Scalia, a notable anti-privacy force on the SCOTUS. This irritates Scalia. Exactly! (tagged: law privacy scalia scotus )
  • No new coal: what real direct action looks like – The $10 million spent on violently policing the "climate camp" protest outside Kingsnorth is absurd, given that a single motivated saboteur, capable of advance planning and actually willing to risk arrest and injury, can walk into the power plant and shut down 500MW of coal fired power generation. If governments fail to deal with greenhouse gas emissions effectively, and remain in thrall to the carbon lobbies, it seems likely that soon this kind of action will become more common, and truly disruptive. All it takes is a few thousand people who actually care, and our infrastructure can be brought to its knees. (tagged: energy environment green coal climate protest kingsnorth directaction )

The Time Value of Information and Material Wealth

Conventional economics says money today is worth more than money in the future.  This is why people are willing to agree to pay interest on a loan (and why a creditor requires it).  How much more money is worth today than in the future is determined by the discount or interest rate (depending on what kind of calculation you’re doing).  This would hold true, say the economists, even if we lived in a hard money world (e.g. silver and gold), and even after accounting for the risk of default by the debtor, because of opportunity costs.  Creditors and investors presumably have a choice as to what they do with their money.  Sitting on your pile of treasure in a vault ensures that it doesn’t get smaller, but it also doesn’t get bigger.  When they choose to make a loan or invest in an enterprise, they are, it is assumed, seeking the best possible (risk adjusted) return, and so the value of a given present pile of money at some time in the future is the principal invested plus the return earned between now and then.  If you can make 10% per year on some investment, and you have $100, and someone offers to give you $105 a year from now in exchange for your $100 now, all else being equal, you refuse, invest at 10%, and end up with $110 next year instead.

This conception of money is somewhat problematic, as it tends to render everything in the time and world of your grandchildren essentially worthless in the present.  Even at a modest 5% discount rate, $100 a century from now is only worth $0.59 today.  I think the problem comes largely from the convolution of informational and material wealth, and our habit of representing both of them with the same currency.

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Not All Capital is Fungible

There are only two real pools of capital: alternatively natural or human, external or internal, material or informational.

Natural (external, material) capital is the pre-existing wealth of the world, which was not dependent on our organization or existence: the metals we mine, the trees, the fresh water, the fisheries, solar energy, the fossil fuels, the potential for agricultural produce (as a co-location of soil, water, and climate).  Human (internal, informational) capital is the value inherent in technology, skill, organization, understanding, and knowledge.

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