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Meet the nano sapiens

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2016

Nano Sapiens

In a 1959 talk at Caltech titled There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, Richard Feynman outlined a new field of study in physics: nanotechnology. He argued there was much to be explored in the realm of the very small — information storage, more powerful microscopes, biological research, computing — and that that exploration would be enormously useful.

I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle. This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, “What are the strange particles?”) but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations. Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications.

In a reaction to Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars, David Galbraith suggests there might be plenty of room at the bottom for human civilization as well. Don’t colonize Mars, miniaturize humanity. Create nano sapiens.

If we think of this as a design problem, there is a much better solution. Instead of expanding our environment to another planet at massive cost, why wouldn’t we miniaturise ourselves so we can expand without increasing our habitat or energy requirements, but still maintain our ability to create culture and knowledge, via information exchange.

The history of information technology and the preservation of Moore’s law has been driven by exactly this phenomenon of miniaturization. So why shouldn’t the same apply to the post technological evolution of humankind as it approaches the hypothetical ‘singularity’ and the potential ability for us to be physically embodied in silicon rather than carbon form.

When humans get smaller, the world and its resources get bigger. We’d live in smaller houses, drive smaller cars that use less gas, eat less food, etc. It wouldn’t even take much to realize gains from a Honey, I Shrunk Humanity scheme: because of scaling laws, a height/weight proportional human maxing out at 3 feet tall would not use half the resources of a 6-foot human but would use somewhere between 1/4 and 1/8 of the resources, depending on whether the resource varied with volume or surface area. Six-inch-tall humans would potentially use 1728 times fewer resources.1

Galbraith also speculates about nano aliens as a possible explanation for the Fermi paradox:

Interestingly, the same rules of energy use and distance between planets and stars would apply to any extraterrestrial aliens, so one possible explanation for the Fermi paradox is that we all get smaller and less visible as we get more technologically advanced. Rather than favoring interstellar colonization with its mind boggling distances which are impossible to communicate across within the lifetimes of individuals (and therefore impossible to hold together in any meaningful way as a civilization) perhaps advanced civilizations stick to their home planets but just get more efficient to be sustainable.

Humans are explorers. Curiosity about new worlds and ideas is one of humanity’s defining traits. One of the most striking things about the Eames’ Powers of Ten video is how similar outer space and inner space look — vast distances punctuated occasionally by matter. What if, instead of using more and more energy exploring planets, stars, and galaxies across larger and larger distances (the first half of the Eames’ video), we went the other way and focused on using less energy to explore cells, molecules, and atoms across smaller and smaller distances. It wouldn’t be so much giving up human space exploration as it would be exchanging it for a very similar and more accessible exploration of the molecular and atomic realm. There is, after all, plenty of room down there.

Update: I knew the responses to this would be good. Galbraith’s idea has a name: the transcension hypothesis, formulated by the aptly named John Smart. Jason Silva explains in this video:

The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination. Transcension as a developmental destiny might also contribute to the solution to the Fermi paradox, the question of why we have not seen evidence of or received beacons from intelligent civilizations.

Before we get there, however, there are a few challenges we need to overcome, as Joe Hanson explains in The Small Problem With Shrinking Ourselves:

As it often seems in such matters, science follows science fiction here. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick (Amazon), the Chinese miniaturize themselves in response to the Earth’s decreasing resources.

In the meantime, Western civilization is nearing collapse as oil runs out, and the Chinese are making vast leaps forward by miniaturizing themselves and training groups of hundreds to think as one. Eventually, the miniaturization proceeds to the point that they become so small that they cause a plague among those who accidentally inhale them, ultimately destroying Western civilization beyond repair.

Blood Music by Greg Bear (Amazon) has a nano-civilization theme:

Through infection, conversion and assimilation of humans and other organisms the cells eventually aggregate most of the biosphere of North America into a region seven thousand kilometres wide. This civilization, which incorporates both the evolved noocytes and recently assimilated conventional humans, is eventually forced to abandon the normal plane of existence in favor of one in which thought does not require a physical substrate.

James Blish’s short story Surface Tension tells the tale of microscopic human colonists. (via @harryh, @mariosaldana, @EndlessForms, @vanjacosic, @chumunculus)

Update: For some years, director Alexander Payne has been working on a film called Downsizing:

“Downsizing,” after all, starts off in Norway and takes place in a not-too-distant future where humans are now able to shrink themselves to 1/8 their size as a means to battle over-consumption and the rapid depletion of earth’s natural resources, thanks to enlightened hippie-like Scandinavian scientists. “Smalls” get small, then become members of small cities (the main characters moves to a city called Leisureland) protected by large nets (keeps the bugs out) and built like Disney’s Celebration Town (all planned, all pre-fabricated). Small people cash-in their savings and retire small; 1 big dollar equals 500 small dollars. Smalls live on less food, less land, and produce less trash. As the story progresses, Americans are free to get small, but in Europe, where resources are beginning to truly run out, legislation arises suggesting 40% of the population get shrunk (whether they like it or not). For the big, the world grows smaller and scarier; for the small, the world grows bigger and scarier.

Word is that Matt Damon will play the lead role. Mr. Payne, consider a title change to “Nano Sapiens”? (via @stephenosberg)

Photo by Poy.

  1. This is not a straightforward matter however. The 6-inch human wouldn’t eat 1728 times less food…that would mean you could live on a Big Mac for a year. Small animals often eat a significant percentage of their body weights each day, which normal-sized humans never approach. For example, according to this chart a grey squirrel weighs about 21 oz and eats about 1.6 oz of food, the equivalent of a 180-pound human eating about 14 pounds of food a day.

We Work Remotely

The Web is 25 years old

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 12, 2014

The World Wide Web turns 25 this year…the “vague but exciting” proposal on which the Web is based was sent to his boss at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee on March 10, 1989.

In the following quarter-century, the Web has changed the world in ways that I never could have imagined. There have been many exciting advances. It has generated billions of dollars in economic growth, turned data into the gold of the 21st century, unleashed innovation in education and healthcare, whittled away geographic and social boundaries, revolutionised the media, and forced a reinvention of politics in many countries by enabling constant two-way dialogue between the rulers and the ruled.

There are a few principles which allowed the web, as a platform, to support such growth. By design, the Web is universal, royalty-free, open and decentralised. Thousands of people worked together to build the early Web in an amazing, non-national spirit of collaboration; tens of thousands more invented the applications and services that make it so useful to us today, and there is still room for each one of us to create new things on and through the Web. This is for everyone.

My friend David Galbraith continues his lonely quest to recognize and preserve the room in which the Web was invented (which is not where CERN officially recognizes it was invented.)

I wrote to Tim Berners-Lee after exploring CERN looking for the location where the web was invented. His replies regarding the exact locations are below.

There is a plaque in a corridor in building 2, but no specific offices are indicated and there is some ambiguity as to what happened where, in building 31. Thomas Madsen-Mygdal has a gallery showing locations in building 31 and 513, but there are very few places on the web documenting these places. I took photos of the plaque, such as the one here, with Creative Commons licenses, so that they could be used elsewhere.

The reason I’m interested in this is that recognizing the exact places involved in the birth of the web is a celebration of knowledge itself rather than belief, opinion or allegiance, both politically and spiritually neutral and something that everyone can potentially enjoy and feel a part of.

Secondly, many places of lesser importance are very carefully preserved. The place where the web was invented is arguably the most important place in 2 millennia of Swiss history and of global historical importance.

I was hoping one of the items on the anniversary site’s list of 25 things you probably didn’t know about the Web was that the Web was technically invented in France and not Switzerland, as Galbraith uncovered during his conversations with TBL.

How to invent things: edit your mess

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 10, 2013

In an essay that covers similar ground to Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, David Galbraith offers an interesting perspective on maximizing your creative potential.

I remember the very instant that I learned to be creative, to ‘invent’ things, to do things in an interesting and unusual way, and it happened by accident, literally.

I created mess around myself, the kind of chaos that would be very dangerous in an operating theater but which is synonymous with artists’ studios, and in that mess I edited the accidents. By increasing the amount of mess I had freed things up and increased the possibilities, I had maximised the adjacent possible and was able to create the appearance of inventing new things by editing the mistakes which appeared novel and interesting.

The adjacent possible is one of those ideas that, once you hear it, you want to apply to everything around you.

A short history of image bookmarking

posted by Jason Kottke   May 29, 2012

In a pair of articles at GigaOM, David Galbraith shares some lessons from building Wists, a visual bookmarking site that was a precursor to Pinterest. In part one, he describes how the site came about:

I get too much credit for RSS and for Yelp, but the one thing that I can unashamedly claim to have invented is visual bookmarking, and more specifically the “choose images to thumbnail via a bookmarklet” method that Pinterest is based on. It’s not much of an “invention” per se. It’s a moronically simple thing, but it’s the right moronically simple thing. And given that more than one billion dollars rests on the idea, maybe it’s worth looking back at its history.

In part two, he talks about the rise of grid sites:

Although a seemingly trivial distinction, grid sites have their distinct advantages and disadvantages over linear ones. They look pretty, but require scanning in two directions. This is not good for news, where you need to understand the timeline at a glance. However, for scanning thumbnails, a grid is particularly efficient. But even then, the success of such image-rich sites as Tumblr made people think that the river worked for everything. I suspect the key UX component of Tumblr’s success is the ease of sharing or reblogging. Also, in such a heterogeneous text/image environment, you can’t just have a grid.

I disagree strenuously with David about the importance and utility of grids for visual sites…using Pinterest for more than a few seconds makes me want to smash things.

The web was invented in France, not Switzerland

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2012

David Galbraith updated his post on where the web was invented (which includes an interview with Tim Berners-Lee) to include the juicy tidbit that the building in which TBL invented the web is in France, not Switzerland.

I’ll bet if you asked every French politician where the web was invented not a single one would know this. The Franco-Swiss border runs through the CERN campus and building 31 is literally just a few feet into France. However, there is no explicit border within CERN and the main entrance is in Switzerland, so the situation of which country it was invented in is actually quite a tricky one. The current commemorative plaque, which is outside a row of offices where people other than Tim Berners-Lee worked on the web, is in Switzerland. To add to the confusion, in case Tim thought of the web at home, his home was in France but he temporarily moved to rented accommodation in Switzerland, just around the time the web was developed. So although, strictly speaking, France is the birthplace of the web it would be fair to say that it happened in building 31 at CERN but not in any particular country! How delightfully appropriate for an invention which breaks down physical borders.

Steve Jobs and Norman Foster

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2011

There’s been a lot written about Steve Jobs in the past week, a lot of it worthy of reading, but one piece you probably didn’t see is David Galbraith’s piece on Jobs’ similarity to architect Norman Foster. The essay is a bit all over the place, which replicates the experience of talking to David in person, but it’s littered with insight and goodness (ditto).

The answer is what might be called the sand pile model and it operated at Apple and Fosters, the boss sits independently from the structural hierarchy, to some extent, and can descend at random on a specific element at will. The boss maintains control of the overall house style by cleaning up the edges at the same time as having a vision for the whole, like trying to maintain a sand pile by scooping up the bits that fall off as it erodes in the wind. This is the hidden secret of design firms or prolific artists, the ones where journalists or historians agonize whether a change in design means some new direction when it just means that there was a slip up in maintaining the sand pile.

And I love this paragraph, which integrates Foster, Jobs, the Soviet Union, Porsche, Andy Warhol, Lady Gaga, and even an unspoken Coca-Cola into an extended analogy:

Perfecting the model of selling design that is compatible with big business, Foster simultaneously grew one of the largest architecture practices in the world while still winning awards for design excellence. The secret was to design buildings like the limited edition, invite only Porsches that Foster drove and fellow Porsche drivers would commission them. Jobs went further, however, he managed to create products that were designed like Porsches and made them available to everyone, via High Tech that transcended stylistic elements. An Apple product really was high technology and its form followed function, it went beyond the Porsche analogy by being truly fit for purpose in a way that a Porsche couldn’t, being a car designed for a speed that you weren’t allowed to drive. Silicon Valley capitalism had arguably delivered what the Soviets had dreamed of and failed, modernism for the masses. An iPhone really is the best phone you can buy at any price. To paraphrase Andy Warhol: Lady Gaga uses an iPhone, and just think, you can have an iPhone too. An iPhone is an iPhone and no amount of money can get you a better phone. This was what American modernism was about.

Debating The Hangover

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 25, 2011

The timeline of events goes like this:

Last night, I posted the trailer for the sequel to The Hangover.

This morning, my friend David posts the following on Twitter:

Poleaxed by indication that pop culture aesthete @jkottke might actually like Hangover, the execrable frat boy flick

To which I replied a few hours later:

@daveg Are you kidding? That movie is hilarious.

Anil suggested a debate:

@jkottke @daveg I will pay you guys for an Oxford debate about the Hangover’s merits, or lack thereof.

And Michael Sippey went there and posted a video of an animated David and an animated me having a debate about The Hangover:

I thought you were a pop culture aesthete.

No, I’m from the Midwest.

You live in Manhattan.

But I grew up eating hot dogs.

But you write about expensive conceptual restaurants and post pictures of contemporary art like that thing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where the woman sat at the table all summer.

That’s a pretty accurate five-line bio of me.

Bieber, Gaga, and Netflix: Internet heavyweights

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 26, 2010

Justin Bieber uses 3% of Twitter’s infrastructure. Netflix Instant accounts for 20% of all non-mobile internet usage in the US during prime time. Now David Galbraith has done some back-of-the-envelope calculations that show Lady Gaga racking up a big bandwidth bill for Google:

My rough estimate: Lady Gaga has cost Google 10 petabytes in bandwidth same as 10,000 text messages for everyone on earth. If Lady Gaga’s Google bandwidth was charged at what ATT charges for SMS, it would have cost: 10.5 trillion dollars.

The rate for SMS messaging is obscene but the real money is in ink cartridges, right? Apparently not. HP’s basic black inkjet cartridge is available at Amazon for the astounding price of $29 and will print 495 pages. Assuming 250 words per page and six characters per word (five char/word + one space), 10 petabytes of text messages would cost only $503 billion to print out (excluding paper costs, which would add ~$89 billion to the total). Who knew that texting was more expensive than inkjet printing by a factor of 20?

The birthplace of the web found

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 08, 2010

David Galbraith tracked down the birthplace of the web and confirmed the location with Tim Berners-Lee.

The reason I’m interested in this is that recognizing the exact places involved in the birth of the web is a celebration of knowledge itself rather than belief, opinion or allegiance, both politically and spiritually neutral and something that everyone can potentially enjoy and feel a part of.

Secondly, many places of lesser importance are very carefully preserved. The place where the web was invented is arguably the most important place in 2 millennia of Swiss history and of global historical importance.

The rise and fall and rise of the Roman Empire

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 22, 2009

David Galbraith graphs the population of Rome from 300 BC to the present.

The population [of Rome] during the Renaissance was miniscule (yet it was still a global center), when Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel it was considerably smaller than a town like Palo Alto is today (60K); Rome at its nadir was about the size of Google (20K employees); the growth of Rome during the Industrial era is much greater than the rise of Ancient Rome.

David, you should check out The Inheritance of Rome; I’m about 100 pages in and pretty interesting so far. Also, it would be instructive to do the same graph but Rome’s population as a percentage of world population.

Why are famous paintings worth more than famous houses?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2009

David Galbraith calculates that if buildings by famous architects were priced like paintings, a Le Corbusier building would be worth more than the entire US GDP.

The top floor of Corbusier’s Villa Stein (one of perhaps the top 500 most important houses of the late 19th/early 20th centuries - i.e. a Van Gogh of houses) is for sale for the same price per sq.ft. (approx $1400) as buildings in the same area of suburban Paris, designed by nobody in particular. Meanwhile, Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for an inflation adjusted price of $136 million yet a poster of similar square footage and style costs around $10.

In terms of signaling, it’s difficult to hang a house on one’s parlor wall…buying a Corbusier means living in it wherever it happens to be located, at least part of the year.

Bye bye Dubai

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 16, 2009

I didn’t watch the clip he links to but I can’t imagine anything is more entertaining than David Galbraith’s scathing goodbye to Dubai. He opens with:

Short of opening a Radio Shack in an Amish town, Dubai is the world’s worst business idea, and there isn’t even any oil. Imagine proposing to build Vegas in a place where sex and drugs and rock and roll are an anathema. This is effectively the proposition that created Dubai - it was a stupid idea before the crash, and now it is dangerous.

What’s the biggest problem with Dubai? It doesn’t have the cultural bedrock needed to support a destination city.

It looks like Manhattan except that it isn’t the place that made Mingus or Van Allen or Kerouac or Wolf or Warhol or Reed or Bernstein or any one of the 1001 other cultural icons from Bob Dylan to Dylan Thomas that form the core spirit of what is needed, in the absence of extreme toleration of vice, to infuse such edifices with purpose and create a self-sustaining culture that will prevent them crumbling into the empty desert that surrounds them.

Why would you want to live in

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2008

Why would you want to live in Park Slope with children? So ponders David Galbraith, who notes that Brooklyn schools look like prisons.

This is the local elementary school — which looks like a Northern Irish prison, before the ceasefire, with a sarcastic multi colored sign by Banksy.

A recent study shows that the human

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2008

A recent study shows that the human brain reacts differently to people that seem like us than to those who don’t.

The experimenters used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of Harvard and other Boston-area students while showing them pictures of other college-age people whom the researchers randomly described as either liberal northeastern students or conservative Midwest fundamentalist Christian students.

The study concludes that the secret to getting along with someone that you perceive as an outsider is to find some common ground so that your brain will accept them as someone with similar circumstances.

This is not new advice. Yet it is heartening to see that it is firmly grounded in distinct patterns of neural activity. There may be a brain basis for reacting with prejudices for those that seem different. But there’s also a brain basis for overriding those differences and seeing outsiders as more like us.

David Galbraith expands upon what this means for society at large:

In other words, a civilized society depends not on the people who are currently the most civilized, but those who are most willing to accept change, as social or cultural groupings change, split or coalesce. Inevitably this means reasonable people rather than faithful people.

In discussing a popular conspiracy theory film (

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2007

In discussing a popular conspiracy theory film (Zeitgeist), David Galbraith coins a new acronym: FEBL for Fucking Entertaining Big Lie.

FEBL media usually means nothing and is patently false but incredibly seductive. It is the perfect scaffold to hang propaganda and acts like a bit-borne, pernicious narcotic. Although films like Zeitgeist are mildly entertaining, due to their unbelievable popularity (more than 5 Million people have watched it on YouTube), they must be taken seriously. I suspect they might actually be dangerous, and therefore, as someone who does not believe in censorship it is important to make fun of Zeitgeist as the tired piece of po-faced, visually illiterate, polemically challenged, pornographic bullshit that it is.

(thx, bbj)

My friend David Galbraith just launched a

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2007

My friend David Galbraith just launched a gadget site called Oobject. The gadgets are organized into hierarchically ordered collections and you can vote on the position of a particular gadget within the collection. Two of my favorite collections are the iPod knock-offs and revolting gold gadgets (it’s interesting that gold makes technology look vulgar and therefore cheap).

Oh, and David’s Smashing Telly is still cranking along nicely. I wish I had time to watch all the shows featured recently.

Smashing Telly is aggregating good televsion shows

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2007

Smashing Telly is aggregating good televsion shows that are available on the web. Bottom line: you can watch television at work!

David echoes my reaction to seeing a

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2006

David echoes my reaction to seeing a Zune in person for the first time this weekend: “I just saw a Zune, and guess what? Its a piece of shit.” I usually give people a hard time for making snap judgments about technology that takes time to get to know (comments like “this interface sucks” after 20 seconds of use make my eyes go rolling), but the Zune…it’s like the story of the Getty’s Greek kouros that Gladwell tells in Blink: one look and you know it’s wrong. Andre has been trying a Zune out for the last couple of weeks and doesn’t mind it even though he’s giving up on it.

It’s sad that the Silicon Valley tech

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 26, 2006

It’s sad that the Silicon Valley tech scene and press is so fixated on building companies to flip that people need to write about sustainable companies as “a new and better model for Internet startups”. Good luck, Ev and company, in finding success on your own terms.

David Galbraith notes that several of the

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2006

David Galbraith notes that several of the top sites on the web don’t validate: Yahoo, Ebay, Amazon, Google, and even “Web 2.0” newcomers Flickr, Digg, and Del.icio.us. “Are all these companies wrong, or is there something wrong with current accessibility standards?”

If you want to sell your web

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2005

If you want to sell your web startup, don’t take that much money from VCs or bootstrap the whole thing yourself. Too much money invested means that no one wants to buy your company for what your VCs require you to sell it for…especially if your business has limited prospects to begin with.

In addition to weblogs.com, Verisign’s acquisition

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2005

In addition to weblogs.com, Verisign’s acquisition of Moreover was also announced this week. Two of the companies founders, Nick Denton and David Galbraith, have thoughts. Nick reveals that Moreover almost bought Pyra once upon a time, a little tidbit I didn’t reveal in my piece on Moreover from a couple years ago.