Archive for the 'Boston' Category

Global Neural Network Online Now


Last night we attended a lecture at MIT which once again reminded us why we keep returning to Cambridge after 40 years despite the weather. The event featured Wadah Khanfar, until recently head of the Al Jazeera network, and a panel composed of Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, Mohamed Nanabhay, head of online at Al Jazeera English, and Joi Ito, the ubiquitous internet wag and champion of open netways. As advertised, they talked about the Arab Spring a year after the precipitating events in Egypt, but the discussion soon zoomed into the areas of new media, social media, citizen journalism, and how its all changing fast, before our eyes.

We felt lucky to be there. We only found out about the event that day; fortunately, right now we have a cadre of eight Saudi students who are bright, open-minded, and obviously taking advantage of their time in Boston. Thanks for the head’s up, guys.

One part of the discussion got me thinking, which is why we go to these things in the first place. Mr. Kanfar was speaking about the moments during the day of January 25th, 2011, when the world’s attention turned to Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, and everything changed.

Al Jazeera, he said, was in the middle of a long-planned, meticulously researched, intensively promoted 4-day special series title “The Palestine Papers”. They had a lot of money invested in it. It led their hourly newscasts and was the top story on their popular online sites. They had a few reporters in Tahrir, but as Mr. Kanfar said, there had been a series of protest in that and other public places in Cairo, and they were not expecting anything dramatic. The Egyptian story was fourth or fifth on the website, and drawing hit accordingly.

However, during the afternoon Al Jazeera web traffic monitors (another telling emergent phenomena) noticed something interesting. The hits on the Tahrir Square story were shooting up, and within minutes they had shot past the Palestine Papers. And kept going up.

Al Jazeera, behind Mr. Kanfar, immediately realized they had a major, historic story breaking in their own backyard. They seized the moment and ran with it. Within days the brushfire lit by events in Cairo and across Egypt had spread to a half-dozen countries in the region and every major news organization on the planet was covering it.

But the people who saw it first, all those millions of viewers who clicked through to the story on Al Jazeera’s web site looking for more infomation, how did they find out about it? Two words – Social Media. Twitter and Facebook. Smart phones. Regular, ordinary people had twisted the neck of a major network , shouting, “What’s going on over there?” And the whole world looked.

It has been clear for a while that there is a white-hot spotlight of global media focus that sweeps the planet looking for the three or four stories which occupy the extremely limited planetary attention span for a few days, before fading into the background buzz. Successful stories often feature photogenic famous people, photogenic disasters, or royalty, photogenic or not, and sex, preferably in some combination. But up until now, the focus of the spotlight seems to have been directed by a shadowy cabal of major media groups.

Something new is happening here. Maybe not a revolution, but an accelerated evolution. It seems to us that we are watching the emergence of the first effective Global Neural Network. By that I mean that for the first time, multiple human brains, in fact millions of human brains, can be linked in near instantaneous networks, simultaneously in series and in parallel, so that they are able to process the same information at the same time, voice, video or text, and cogitate over the same questions. No one can say to what extent they will arrive at the same answers.

This is not a completely new phenomena. A spectral precursor to the global neural network has existed as long as humans have been using language. For millennia humans myriad individual consciousnesses were linked by the structure of the languages they spoke and the oral histories they wove and repeated down through their generations. But interlinking of networks depended on physical travel by one of the nodes, a human brain, and this was a difficult and dangerous endeavor until quite recently.

With the popularization of the printed world, the neural network took a great leap forward. Suddenly ideas, memes, modes of inquiry, could reach across the furthest distances, stand the tests of time, form a base to be built upon and allow for collective decision making on a far larger scale. But the transmission of ideas was agonizingly slow, at least from a modern viewpoint, like playing a game of chess via transatlantic schooner. Hard to imagine a global consciousness arising form such glacial cognition.

But now, just in the past five years, it has become possible for ideas, words, pictures and moving images to pass from one mind to another in seconds. From when one isolated consciousness views something in his or her immediate reality, it can be transferred to a million other minds in two or three seconds. Less time than is needed to explain it to someone standing next to you. All you need is a smartphone, which is standard equipment for almost half of the human population right now.

It was a fortuitous combination of hardware, software and wetware. Smartphones provide the neural network hardware , Twitter and Facebook provide the software, and we provide the wetware. If Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckenberg hadn’t done it someone else would have; it was a change waiting to happen and we were waiting for it to happen to us.

We must confess, we are a fan of neither Facebook nor Twitter. Facebook violates our deep instinct for anonymity and we only joined because we had agreed to address a big conference on Using Social Media in the Classroom. Now we are constantly denying friend requests from ex-students. Our history with Twittter is even worse. We got the Twitter pitch back at the Berkman Bloggers Group before it was even in beta, and my dismissive comment at the time was, “Most of my favorite sentences have more than 140 characters”. We forgot the fact that even the most complex mosaic is composed of disparate bits. Which can be crowd-sourced.

It is hard to imagine how the global neural network can get much more immediate until, inevitable, we all get cerebral implants to facilitate direct brain-to-brain transmission of ideas. There will be incremental improvements, for sure. The recently announced Google Glasses heads up display, for example. Envision a citizen journalist in the next Tahrir Square who can transmit exactly what they are seeing from their eyes directly into the eyes of millions of Glasses-wearing viewers around the globe. With the surround-sound earphones on, it would be like the whole world was there.

Beware. Be aware. Everything is changing. We will see it in our lifetimes. Stay tuned.

Turning your Blog into a Book


Back at BarCamp, another drizzly morning, perfect for brunch in bed or a bracing geek-fest brunch, which consists this morning of complementary Starbucks coffee, Skittles, pretzel sticks and Eden Garden Salty ‘n Sweet Snack Bars.

First session up is a woman named Claudia Gere, telling us that getting a traditional publisher for your book is harder and harder these days.  We feel a pitch for self-publishing coming up.

We may not last as long today at the conference today, but let’s see what surprises the day will bring……

Bumpkin Country


The Dowbrigade uses an icebreaking exercise with groups of recently arrived students in which one of the categories for discussion is “One thing you really want to do before you leave Boston”. When our turn came we always list visiting the Harbor Islands, something we have yet to do 37 years after we first came to live in the Boston area. This may be our chance.

from the Boston Globe

Bumpkin Island

Take the ferry to Bumpkin Island this weekend, and you may come across a woman lurking in the underbrush, wearing burlap covered with leaves. Don’t be alarmed: She’s not a kook. She’s an artist.

So are the men in kimonos staging lectures and the folks who may invite you to chat with them via tin-can telephone.

About 40 artists have spread out across the Boston Harbor Island for Labor Day weekend as part of a special event called the Bumpkin Island Art Encampment, featuring 10 art installations, sculptures, and performances.

It’s free and open to the public today through Monday; ferries are available to the island from various locations.

Some of the artists are exploring the idea of home. With “Survival Kit,” Gabe Moylan and Rachel Roberts are trying to create a space of domestic tranquility using only a Federal Emergency Management Association survival kit and what is available on the island.

Other pieces have been sparked by 19th century history. “Astrodime Transit Authority,” the tin-can project, commemorates the 150th anniversary of the first official use of the trans-Atlantic cable – an 1858 telegram to President James Buchanan from Britain’s Queen Victoria.

At low tide, when it’s possible to wade to the mainland, a group plans to set up a tin-can call from Bumpkin Island to nearby Hull. They will invite visitors to join in a reenactment, playing an extended game of telephone.

Boston Rules and Resistance is Futile


mvp2.pngYesterday the Dowbrigade and his son and cameraman Gabriel joined half a million other Boston sports fans to celebrate the latest World Championship by a local sports team. Yawn. Then we stopped for Brazilian Bar-B-Q on the way home. Ho hum.

How jaded we have become, here in the Hub! Somehow life seems empty if one of the local teams isn’t playing for a cup, or trophy, or title. What we have here is a unique and unprecedented confluence of statistical, psychic and socio-cultural factors, bringing championships to Boston by the bandwagon.

We have already taken credit for the Major Mojo behind this run of competitive success. However, it occurs to us that most people may not be aware of how deep and widespread this reign of triumph currently is.

For example, how many readers are aware that the Walpole, MA Little League team was declared the default 2007 Little League World Series winner, due to the retroactive age-related disqualifications of players from the Macon, Georgia and Osaka, Japan teams which finished ahead of them?

And how about the news that the Boston team at the National Conference of Mayors won the annual City Government Softball Tournament final 17-6 after cleanup hitter Tom Tom Menino pointed to the left field wall, mumbled something unintelligible and smashed the crap out of an 0-2 knuckleball from Michael Bloomberg.

While the “Big Three” of Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox grab all the headlines, true sports fans are aware that there are other champions in town. The New England Revolution have been to the MLS finals three years in a row, earning the unfortunate sobrioquet “Buffalo Bills of the MLS”.

But further down the food chain of professional sports, who knew that the Boston Tea Bags recently finished first in the Gay Para Olympics. Or that the Boston Bonsais of the Professional Flower Arranging League last year won the Bouquet Bowl?It is a shame only the Bay Windows weekly rag reported that the Boston Stylistics captured the American Stylists 2008 Coiff-Off held recently in Las Vegas. They Blow!

Among female competitors, local teams at the top of their respective sports include the Boston Ballbreakers of the Womens Amateur Rugby Association and the New England Nannies who recently triumphed in the World Child Care Olympics in Manchester, England.

And who could forget the Boston Blueballs, who traveled to Fugloysund, Norway for the Competitive Ice-Swimming Team Championship and won! Go Blueballs!

But Boston’s good fortune has not been limited to nominal grown-ups. Our many excellent college teams have also been bringing home titles at a rate that has the laurel leaves falling faster than foliage in the fall. Why, just during the past academic year, MIT took home both the US Collegiate Chess Championship and the NCAA Robot Rhythmic Gymnastics Cup. In between Harvard won the Super-Ego Bowl.

Speaking of bowls, BC triumphed in the 2008 GE College Bowl as well as the Champs Sports Bowl, and Northeastern staggered home with the 2008 Beer Pong title. Brandeis took the team title at the Maccabee Games and a Bentley won the Paris-Dakar Road Rally. In a major upset, BU won the Division 3 Football Championship, even though they haven’t had a football team for ten years.

Flipping through the cable lineup we also note that New Englanders have been on a competitive reality show tear, having recently won America’s Top Model, Celebrity Chef Cookoff, American Idle (a slacker spin-off), Dancing with the Stars, Big Brother, I Survived a Japanese Game Show, America Gladiator, The Great Race, Fear Factor, Top Design, America’s Got Talent, The Biggest Loser and The Apprentice.

The popularity of Boston has been noted and rewarded by a plethora of national publications and professional associations which have recently named our fair city, among other things, America’s Voted Most Livable City, Best Sports Bars, Top Singles Scene, Best Managed City, Most Scenic Urban Area, Best Educated City, Best Junk Food, Most Interesting Eccentrics, America’s Friendliest Citizens and, in an incredible coup, Best Weather in the Continental United States.

In addition to a continuing cavalcade of championships, we can look forward to an accelerating parade of world-class events. Boston has been recently selected to host the 2010 Miss Universe Pageant, the 2016 Summer Olympics and the 2020 World Cup. In 2012 both the Democrats and the Republicans plan to have their nominating conventions here.

So enjoy it while it lasts, boys and girls, but be ready to relocate for a while. When the party ends, there’ll be the devil to pay. Balancing the karmic books can be a bitch.

Watch the video we shot yesterday

Live from Bar Camp Boston



The Dowbrigade News is coming to you live this morning from BarCamp Boston, at Marignon High School in Cambridge. This is the third Bar Camp in as many years, and the success of the idea is seen in the increasing attendance, interest and sponsorship at each successive event. So what is Bar Camp?

Billed as the “unconference” it is a sort of on-the-fly mash-up of a technology conference, an almost tribal gathering of geeks, software developers, newtech entrepreneurs, code slingers, mad geniuses and electronic eccentrics who come together to bounce ideas off the walls and each other, demo prototypes and alpha versions of new ideas, discuss issues of interest to the community and socialize in that endearingly verklumft camaraderie of the socially challenged.

After brief introduction to the concept and modality of Bar Camp by Shimon Rura, some caustic comments from organizer Mike Walsh we gave 30 second intros by the crowd, which took awhile as there were well over a hundred geeks by this point, and featured areas of interest like, Drupal, Python, Ruby on Rails, heuristics, cloud computing and making money.

The intros are now over, and there is an amorphous hour during which the conference schedule is supposed to coalesce and congeal from the fecund soup of so many supposedly smart people milling around. There is a large wall in a lobby outside the cafeteria we are using for the plenary where concensus, popular and ad-hoc sessions are magic-markered into a blank conference schedule. This is known as the “schedule wall” and is the official program of the unconference. On a bulletin board opposite index cards are posted with ideas, requests for sessions, “Anybody interested in….?” queries and half-formed proposals waiting to develop into full-fledged session ideas.

Sounds extremely sketchy, no? But it has proven effective and successful at past Bar Camps, and so your trusty correspondent will now sign off to observe the creative process first-hand and inspect the resulting program to see if there is anything we could possibly understand.

More later…..