25 May 2011

Killing Whales & Freezing to Death

Gerry threw the orange into the water and slapped his hand against the gunwale in frustration.
“They can’t have thought that! That’s what we think now. They didn’t have the bloody scientific apparatus to magnify something that much.”
The Berg shifted slightly, voice amused: “So if you went and asked some stupid bogan what the surface of an orange would look like if you were one hundredth of a millimeter tall, what would they say? They don’t have the scientific apparatus either.”
“As a culture they do. They may not have ever used a scanning electron microscope, but they’ve seen enough trippy animation at the start of movies to know that things aren’t just… I don’t know, smooth.”
“Who says the ancient Greeks, or any primitive culture, saw the very small as smooth?”
“Well they can’t have seen it as bloody molecular, or atomic!”
“The Greeks saw it as atomic.”
“That was just a theory, an extension of Plato’s perfect forms. If they cut the skin of an orange smaller and smaller they wouldn’t get structure, cells walls, amino acids – they’d get tiny orange spheres. Ancient Greek atoms.”
“But that’s what we get now. It’s just a difference in how we get there.”
“Tiny orange spheres?”
“When you use your imagination to zoom in on this orange, down through cells walls and such, what do your atoms look like?"
“OK, coloured spheres.”
“Not electron clouds surrounding subatomic particles that are best described as probability densities?”
“OK! OK!” Gerry turned away and looked out across the grey ocean. There was a slight chop and the wind had turned even colder. The Berg loomed behind him, waves slapping against its base with a fractured, hollow sound.
“All I’m bloody saying,” he said, turning back to the wall of ice, “is that it would be interesting to know how ancient cultures imagined the very small, given that, although some of them may have possessed the philosophical idea of the atom, the vast majority did not. None of them had a microscope, and so would have been totally unaware of the minute complexity of everyday objects.”
The Berg rumbled in appreciation. “Well put. Yes, that’s an interesting thought. Personally I have no idea how they imagined such things. Nobody really got down here much except in the last one hundred years or so and they were all too busy killing whales and freezing to death to stop and chat.”

23 May 2011

Toiling in the Satanic Mills

The clever quote doing the rounds at present was posted on MetaFilter by blue_beetle on August 26, 2010:
If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold.”

What blue_beetle does so nicely with this elegantly worded statement is make you think about your place in the digital economy. I want to think about that, but specifically about myself as a cog in the two largest machines in town – Google and Facebook.

Examining Facebook in economic terms is difficult, as it’s still a private company and so therefore can keep its finances to itself. It does like to boast though, so we know in 2010 it had advertising revenues of $1.86 billion, and about 500 million active users. Divide one by the other and you can see that a single one of the products made by Facebook (e.g. me) provide them with an annual revenue of $3.72 – maybe time for Zuckerberg to crack the fucking whip?

Google’s a bit easier in some respects because as a public company it has to produce an annual report for shareholders. From this we can see it had revenues in 2010 of $29.321 billion, but expenses incurred in obtaining that revenue of $18.94 billion, so a net revenue of $10.381 billion. Of course Google is a more diverse company than Facebook, so these revenues are from more than just advertising. Still, without products such as yours truly running Chrome as their browser and deriding Bing at any opportunity, Google wouldn’t exist at all. So let’s be generous and divide things up equally - 85% of the world’s 2 billion internet users use Google, so each is responsible for one one-hundred and seventy millionth of the revenue. This works out at $6.11 per person.

Looking at the quote again we can see we’re not really a product - that just sounds cool. Google couldn’t sell us, because who’d buy? As always, we’re human capital, toiling away not only for our own boss, but also for Zuckerberg and the worthy shareholders at Google. We make them money (nearly $10 a year) and in return we can look up stuff, have somewhere to put this blog; have somewhere to organise a party, then show pictures from it. I’m not a product, I’m a sharecropper.

12 May 2011

How I Met Your Mother

Looking at the ‘Stats’ section of this blog I can see that by far the most viewed post is ‘How Loud is the Sun?’ Amazingly, any overly curious individual who types this into Google (or even Bing – God, do I even want that audience?) gets my blog as the first hit.

Being momentarily bereft of ideas for a new post I thought I’d bow to the collective will of humanity as expressed through Google (a sentence that may hopefully be used to describe some sort of internet-based fascist regime that could emerge in the near future). Typing ‘How’ into Google and letting it (via ‘Google Instant’) finish the thought for you gives, alarmingly, a suggestion of ‘How I Met Your Mother.’ Thankfully I’ve managed to insulate myself from the dregs of popular culture to the extent that, although I know this is a comedy TV show, that’s all I know. Never watched an episode. Don’t know who’s in it. No idea what the premise is.

I’d planned to move on to some of the other popular suggestions that Google offers when presented with the beginning of a question, such as “Do… Not Call Register,” “Can… You Run It,” “How… To Make Pancakes,” “How… Do You Print Screen?” etc. but as you can see they’re all quite fantastically boring. Worse still, those examples are the more interesting ones. Letting Google finish your thoughts for you reveals an obsession with crap TV, song lyrics, computers, basic science and elementary Christianity. This may mean one of three things: 1) humanity is obsessed with this sort of tedious rubbish; 2) the subsection of humanity Googling things often enough to effect Google Instant is obsessed with this sort of tedious rubbish; or 3) Google is showing the beginnings of sentience, but rather than an artificial intelligence such as Terminator’s Skynet, intent on wiping out humanity, it is an idiot intent on buying the 8th season (Eight?) of ‘Two and a Half Men’ and finding the lyrics to ‘Do It Like A Dude.’

The only interesting thing revealed by all this is Google’s continuing fascination with the Sun – perhaps it is evil, and questions like “How Big Is The Sun?” and “How Hot Is The Sun?” are preludes to “How To Extinguish The Sun” or “How To Plunge The Earth Into The Sun.” With luck, my blog will help it formulate its evil plans, and I will be rewarded in some sort of virtual paradise.