Etech a Sketch, Part 4

by Daniel Smith

UPDATE: Lisa Rein has posted her Photos and Videos of Alan Kay's Presentation - Thanks Lisa!

Wrapping up my look back at the great experience that
was last week. I'll end up with some thoughts about
Eric Drexler's talk (sort of personal hero of mine,
ever since I read "Engines of Creation" some 10 years ago) - Any feedback
is welcome.

Tom Coates - UpMyStreet Conversations: Mapping Cyber To Space

(my recollections from jotted notes, laptop did
not make it to this session. Still, I wanted to mention
it, as it is an indicator of future services that
are relevant to very specific Locations and Times: bloggers
within 5 miles of me, local news within the last week,
local merchants, and so on -- dls)

See the PowerPoint Presentation is a UK web service
that allows a wide range of location-specific functions. Among them:

  • Can map unbounded/nearest places to a Post Code

  • Can search for who is the local mayor, council officials, schools, local politicians

  • Can conduct conversations local to your neighborhood

There are 1.7 million Post Codes in the UK. Each Post Code
covers an average of 14 houses. By comparison, the USA
has only 33,000 Zip Codes, with an average of 8,600 people
per Zip.

The message boards are designed to help you meet neighbors.
They're used to organize real world events (Mother & Baby
groups), gather local info, and for debating local politics.

Participants in a conversation never have their location shown to be
closer than 200 yards. This helps to address privacy concerns.

Conversation searches can cover varying amounts of time. Searches
on recent posts tend to cover a larger area. If you want to find
posts clustered closer to where you are, you would search over
a larger time range.

It's unfortunate that UpMyStreet is in the UK equivalent of Chapter 11
(administration) proceedings. It seems to be a very worthwhile, useful

Meg Hourihan - From the Margins of the Writable Web

I'll comment on a couple of things that Meg pointed
out. Two sets of notes: from Timothy Appnel, and the
HydraText version from Trevor Smith's site -- dls

Meg did some research on where she thought the edges of were
in the current weblog world. The first conclusion was: it's
hard to research the edges. It changes too fast.

On the writing side, we have 2nd generation tools such
as Moveable Type.
It has gotten much easier to publish. (this somehow
reminds me of Clay's Lament: we could have been doing this
8 years ago, but all we got was GeoCities!)

On the Reading side, it is hard to keep up with the blogs you know
about, much less find new ones. There's a 100,000 of them out there,
and more every day.

There is more than one Blogosphere. A few regions with lots
of activity are Dallas-Fort Worth, New York City, and Paris.
Meg spoke of one fellow in Chicago who doesn't bother
following some of the well-known writers. He is happy
to follow local blogs of his friends. (this is another
piece in the puzzle I'm starting to think about, the theme
of real world Location and Time mapped into what we do
online. There will be those that are not going to follow
specific blogs/other online material on a global scale, but rather, will
follow a variety of offerings that map more directly into
their physical area. -- dls)

A few things Meg mentioned about RSS Readers, what
she calls "anti-social software":

  • They can poll too much / greedy

  • There is a loss of personality. The text that you see is out of context, in that it is not being presented on the web page/blog it was written for.

  • Syndication is inconsistent. Sometimes you see only headlines, other times, full posts. Sometimes you see an excerpt.

Meg's take on this is that "it's good enough for now"

My take on it is that on the reading side, I love being able to see
what's new on 30 different sites. I drag links from href="">NetNewsWire to Safari,
always reading things in the context that the author intended. When I
write on my personal blog, I will usually take a moment to write an
excerpt. It's something that builds on the title.

I just scratched the surface here, so please check out the notes I've
linked to for more info.

Clay Shirky - Lazyweb As Sport (Birds of a Feather)

This was a fun session! In a nutshell, it was a large group
of people sitting in a circle, going around and voicing
their Emerging Tech "I want" ideas in 60 seconds.

Ideas I tossed out:

I miss the fact that years ago on Usenet, you
could zero in on what you were looking for by checking
a newsgroup or two. Now, there's a lot of what I call
"Islands of Information". I might have to look on 4
or 5 PHP message boards to find what I am after. I don't
like these islands. I want to see Virtual Newsgroups
that have a web front end, but which gateway into
Usenet. Ben
said "clouds". I think that's a code
word that leads down the path into
the Semantic Web, which I haven't wrapped my mind around yet.

Another want: A Private Email ISP. You pay a small fee each month,
and your outgoing email gets a time-limited, unique return address for
each address you send to. You use this to correspond with companies
you don't want to give your real email address to, and anyone else
where you want to ensure a temporary exchange. You would have control
over who/which domains could respond, could extend the lifetime, or
could cut it off at any point. Someone in the room thought this
was already being done (remind me who is, please)

Some notes from the LazyWeb session

K. Eric Drexler, Ph.D., Foresight Institute

Nanotechnology: Bringing Digital Control to Matter

Some notes on this talk are at Timothy Appnel's site

Eric gave his talk on the 50th anniversary of the identification of
the double helical structure of DNA. Very apropos.

He started with the observation that the largest amount of
storage space tucked away on our laptop computers is in bacteria.
There are terabytes of data there!

As an overview, Eric made some comments on "What Nanotech can be",
from the perspectives of different fields. The sweeping, general
overview is this:

"If something exists, then things like that are possible"


  • Molecular machine systems take sunlight, CO2 to make complex structures. This illustrates that it can be done cleanly, cheaply, and with molecular precision.

  • Nanotech should use the principles that biology demonstrates.


  • The range of things that can be made is wider than that of biology.

  • It can be extended to a wider range of materials than what we use today.

  • The full range of arrangement & structures that can be supported is bounded by physical constraints.

Mechanical Engineering

  • With nanotech, we can make components in nanometer scale

  • gears/levers/pulleys can be made of small clumps of atoms

  • The systems made will be comparable in size to living cells

Computer Science

  • small elements in the system will be the bits that need a threshold of 1 or 0.

  • can have systems that are general purpose, and much faster

Eric then went on to say that the body is made of molecular machines,
and that nanotech will provide a means of Surgical Repair at a molecular level.

A big source of interest in NanoTech is coming from the military.


There is a so-called "Grey Goo Problem", in which molecular machines
will reproduce, uncontrolled, taking over the Biosphere in short
order. Eric thinks it would take a lot of research and effort
to produce something like that. One way to approach the problem
is to specify the types of things that can be made, as opposed
to trying blacklist the things that can't be made.

I have no formal education in this area, but my gut feeling (or fear) is that
some equivalent of a NanoCracker will try to do the sorts of things
with NanoTech that we see happening with worms and viruses. I recall
the Morris Worm,
which in 1988 brought down large portions of the much smaller Internet
we had back then. It was something written as an experiment, which
quickly spiraled out of control for half a day. In Neal Stephenson's sci-fi book "The Diamond Age", clouds of molecular guards surround the equivalent of
gated communities, keeping all of the unwanted nano-materials out.
(see pages 49-52, hardcover edition) What sounds like sci-fi now
may become a necessity of sorts - there may be a need to deploy
nano-machines which can disable others that are not on some
sort of Nano WhiteList.

Back To Computing...

Eric has been watching href="">Moores
for a long time. He thinks that a mechanical computer in a
cubic micron, with 1 ghz per processor, could yield 10^18th ops/sec.

Analogy To Space

When one thinks of the history of space flight, Eric believes that we are before point of first satellite launch. He makes the analogy that we
are in the stage where we think Space Tech is cool. He also thinks
that some of the people working on NanoTech are in a sort of denial:
they don't want to admit that their work can lead to the space age
equivalent of war missiles, or the ability to fly to the moon. It's
akin to how people were thinking about space in the 30's and 40's.
There are people in the scientific leadership community that are
misrepresenting NanoTech, by saying it won't work, because
mechanical fingers that will manipulate atoms won't have enough space
to carry out their operations. Eric strongly disagrees with the

Three Boxes Story

Eric illustrated some advances that have previously been made
in 1, 2, and 3 dimensional space:

  • 1 dimension: It used to be that if you wanted to hear a flute, you needed a flute, and a flute player. Now we have universal sound in the form of CDs and CD Players

  • 2 dimensions: If you wanted to print the letter 'A', you needed a typesetter with a big metal press. This was very expensive at first. Now we have all manner of systems that can control printers with high precision, at an affordable price

  • 3 dimensions: If you wanted to sculpt metal, you needed a lathe, a drill press, and some other tools. To some extent, we now have computer controlled machines that can work with metal.

Some points about this:

  • A universal sound player (such as a CD Player) can produce any sound, but cannot produce another universal sound player

  • Printers cannot produce other printers

  • A Molecular Desktop Machine could produce other MDM's, perfectly. You could ask a MDM to produce a device that has billions of CPUs, that could download a pill to cure a given disease, or to make another desktop box that can make desktop boxes

Finishing up, Eric states that it is hard to wrap the mind around the
implications of NanoTech. He thinks it is clear that the future of
digital systems is molecular, and that the future of the material
world is digital. He thinks that the main surprise in the
last 5 years has been cultural (akin to old feelings about
the coming Space Age).

For me, this was a completely fascinating talk. NanoTech is
a seemingly sci-fi topic. It's one I am not comfortable trying to explain to folks that don't understand technology
and its implications. I think it will bring about larger changes
in our everyday lives than all of the other topics of the Emerging
Technology Conference put together.

What are the themes from last week's conference that still have you buzzing?