Rational optimism and the apocalypse that wasn’t

The appointed hour came, but the heavens didn’t cooperate. End-times prophet Harold Camping may be disappointed, but he’s got his game face on. Now he’s saying that the world will actually end in October. Working in the software industry, I can appreciate this kind of thing. It happens all the time. It’s just a slip in the schedule. Somebody in Rapture Quality Control found a serious problem with the Fire and Brimstone Sequencer, and they just need another six months, okay? So just chill out people. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.

As a prophet with bad timing, the Reverend Camping can take comfort in one thing: he’s got plenty of company. During the mid-nineteenth century, America was riddled with End Timers and millennialists. The most prominent of these were the so-called Millerites, and when October 22nd, 1844 passed mildly into October 23rd, the result was known as the Great Disappointment. A curious name, considering the world didn’t end, but there you go.

It all put me in mind of a book I recently read called The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. In it, Ridley takes everything you’re worried about, global warming, peak oil, killer bees, toenail fungus, and lays out the case that the situation isn’t nearly as dire as you’ve been led to believe. In fact, it’s pretty good. I appreciate the fact that Ridley just goes for it. He doesn’t shuffle his feet or qualify his words. No, in a loud voice he says that irresponsible people are making you feel terrible because humans in general and journalists in particular have an insanely powerful negative bias. Bad news is good business. But if you look at the facts he’s assembled, a few things jump out: almost everything you can name is getting better and cheaper, we’re really terrible at predicting the future, and we are secretly thrilled by the thought that the world may end on our watch. If history is any guide, we do not live at a pivotal moment in history, even though it’s fun to think so.

The book is good, and I also enjoyed this conversation with Stewart Brand over at the Long Now Foundation. Ridley is not a crank, and he is often persuasive. I find it hard to believe that we shouldn’t be so worried about global warming, but Ridley can point to a long list of disasters that never happened. And in any event, his thesis is not that we shouldn’t try to solve the problems we face; rather we shouldn’t be so damned gloomy about our prospects.

Perhaps his influence will cause us to stop trumpeting about Peak Indium, Peak Platinum, and Peak Peanut Butter. Perhaps we are already Post Peak Peak.

Tumblr and Star Chambr

Information overload is an old story, but there’s plenty of good information out there and you still need a way to get at it and share it. The real question, the operational question, is what do you do every single day? What do you do after the novelty of this or that site has worn off? What do you persist in doing despite the sensation of information overload? After all, that feeling is never going to go away. Whether you’re swimming or drowning, you still need the water.

Do you check Facebook every day? I never got in the habit.
Do you use Twitter? I read Twitter regularly, but I don’t tweet very often. Twitter is one of best channels I have for discovering unexpected new stuff. At work I use a Twitter-like enterprise knockoff called Yammer.
Do you use a feed reader? I use Google Reader every day, but that’s pretty old-school at this point. I think feed readers are a dying breed. I’m worried that Google is going to shut down Google Reader.
Do you check individual blogs or news sites directly? I mostly use Google Reader instead, but with all the craziness in the news this year, I’ve been visiting CNN and NYTimes.com a lot.
I try to visit my Instapaper site regularly, because I’m always pushing stuff there with the magic “Read It Later” button. Instapaper is a kind of larder or anteroom where information that has already passed the audition is waiting to be consumed. The problem is that it tends to pile up.

I still like to blog, but there are so many ways to share information now that it makes you think a little more carefully about what and why you’re writing. Blogging feels like overkill for simple link sharing. That’s where Tumblr comes in. Tumblr (which was originally created by the same guy who does Instapaper) didn’t impress me when I first came across it, but they’ve done a very good job simplifying its usage model, and now I use it for storing links after I’ve verified that they’re good and worth keeping and distributing. So if you’re interested in seeing my cast off links that don’t merit a complete blog post, here’s where you go: Rambles Backyard.

Footnote: I was just downstairs reading Flipboard on the iPad, and I came across an item saying that Marco Arment, the Instapaper developer, is going to add blogging support to Instapaper. I tagged the article “Read Later”, came upstairs, opened Instapaper, and pasted the item here: Instapaper May Add Blogging Support. The ecosystem gets more tangled every day.

Wretches and Jabberers

My wife and I went to see Wretches and Jabberers the other day. Haven’t seen it? No? I’m not surprised. It’s a small independent film about two autistic men. It’s not on Netflix and it certainly hasn’t had very widespread distribution. But it’s a great movie, and more uplifting than you might suspect. The film drives home the point that the interior world of these men is rich and articulate. At the same time, it demonstrates how hard it is to turn off our judgments on their odd and alienating behavior.

Here’s the trailer.

I recommend reading something from Tracy’s blog, which he maintains on the movie site. If you’re like me, you’ll have a hard time believing those words came from the shambling, spastic man in the movie. But they did. It’s humbling to see how much we rely on appearance to form our opinions.

I was going to write more about the movie, but my wife Wendy wrote an extensive review, so I’m including it here.

Continue reading “Wretches and Jabberers”

Fixing the Space Shuttle engine

This is what it looks like to enter a Space Shuttle engine compartment. The pictures are great, but I really want to know what they’re talking about in there.

“When’s the last time you changed your oil?”
“A little duct tape and some aluminum foil and we’ll have you back on the road. You have any gum?”
“These damned squirrels have built another nest in here.”
“This baby’s got a lot of miles on it. Have you considered buying Russian?”
“Oh… there’s my gum.”

What do you think he’s saying?

Beating the price of free

A few weeks ago I wrote about how happy I am with Rhapsody, the subscription-based music service. For a cost per month of less than a music CD (what’s that?) I can listen to just about anything I can think of. At that cost, I lose any motivation to steal music. Whether or not you can sustain a music industry with those fees is a different matter, but I don’t mind paying Rhapsody’s fee. Put another way, Rhapsody has undercut the hidden costs of stealing music, which is a personality-dependent amalgam of nuisance and guilt.

I tried the Netflix streaming movie option too, but I was unimpressed with their selection. I’m not much of a movie person, but I reasoned that they would have all the old movies ready for me, and there are plenty of interesting old movies that I want to see. But sadly, even the old movies are largely missing from the streaming catalog, so I let the membership slip. But my Rhapsody experience taught me that it’s just a matter of building up a comprehensive enough catalog.

Some people are plenty happy with Netflix streaming already. Here, for example, is ReadWriteWeb’s Mike Melanson: How Netflix Stole my Eyepatch & I Stopped Stealing Movies. The commentary on ReadWriteWeb pointed me to a short piece at TorrentFreak that starts like this:

Something’s not right in the United States. Increasingly people start to pay for Netflix subscriptions so they can stream movies on demand.

In the States Netflix nearly doubled the number of new subscribers in the first quarter of 2010, from 1.7 to 3.3 million. … It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that Netflix’ popularity has a negative effect on the movie piracy rates in the US.

I love the hand-wringing spin he puts on it. Piracy is being wiped out in America unless we work together to do something about it! What’s really going on is that Netflix found the money floor, the price that beats free. Stealing movies is even more of a pain than stealing music. Which is to say, not that much, but enough to justify a few bucks every month. Once your music and movies are online, you can say goodbye to that wretched experience of finding the jewel box you were looking for, opening it up, and only then discovering the #$% box is empty. Agggghhh!