Archives for the month of: July, 2013
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with some fava beans and a fine chianti

Prometheus, the Titan, was a big fan of mankind. He liked us hairless apes so much that he stole fire from the gods and gave it to men. That selfless act was his undoing – Prometheus angered Zeus who, as punishment, chained him to a rock on the Caucasus where an eagle would feast on his ever regenerating liver daily. Technically, he’s still there, pondering the unintended consequences of his act (let’s not even go into the whole Pandora thing, which was also his fault).

Edward, the IT guy, was also a big fan of mankind. He liked us hairless apes so much that he quit his cushy $200K a year NSA job in Hawaii and stole a bunch of shitty looking powerpoint presentations about how Obama is reading your email. This selfless act was his undoing. He angered a bunch of people in the U.S. government, who are trying to get him in extradited back to America so he can face the music.

But here’s the thing – the U.S. government may be powerful, but it’s no Zeus. Snowden has managed to evade capture so far, avoiding the wrath of the American olympus. Here’s how he’s done it: cunning like a fox, our modern Prometheus spent the past two weeks holed up in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, waiting for offers of political asylum, which have just materialized – from Venezuela and Bolivia.

Something tells this correspondent that old, classic Prometheus, given the choice of having his liver eaten by an eagle ad aeternum versus spending a couple of weeks in a Russian airport and the next two decades in Caracas,  wouldn’t have hesitated: chain me to the rock and call the bird.

Our new Prometheus probably sees the latter option as a crowning achievement. There’s no glory in martyrdom these days.

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Of course we take it for granted.

It was the final days of World War II. Victory in Europe was achieved, but war still raged in the Pacific. Vannevar Bush looked back at the frantic scientific activity during wartime and tried to make sense of what should be the next frontier in managing and distributing knowledge.

The philosopher Ted Nelson read Bush’s writings and had utopian dreams of Xanadu, an endless information space. A fabric woven with a new thread he called hypermedia.

The engineer Douglas Engelbart also read Bush’s writings (while serving the Navy in the Philippines as a radar technician) and thought of tools that would augment the human intellect. And he created things like the computer mouse and what’s considered the precursor to the the graphical user interface. He also showed how collaboration and communication over computer networks could work and blew everybody’s mind.

Douglas Engelbart, a member of the holy trinity of the web together with Bush and Nelson, died this Tuesday, July 2nd, at 88 years of age.

Today, when our brightest engineering minds are solving the critical challenge of serving more relevant ads by amassing and crunching ridiculous amounts of personal data, let’s think back on a time when we thought, honestly, without a trace of irony, that technology could “augment the human intellect”.

R.I.P. Douglas Engelbart. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Update: The Hut Where the Internet Began – this article (at The Atlantic, where else) tells the story about how Vannevar Bush’s article made its way from the pages the magazine all the way to a hut in the Philippines.