Victorian Mesmerism

Victorian-hypnotist-at-work

Myth suggests that Victorians were highly moralistic, sober, earnest and straight-laced. Yet, a cache of recently unearthed posters shows that those living during the mid-1830s until the turn of the century had other things in mind. Mesmerism was quite the rage, apparently. Oh, what would her majesty, Queen Victoria, have thought.

See more of these curious posters here.

Image: Poster showing a Victorian hypnotist at work on a group of subjects. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

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Scary Chart. Scary Times

Chart-percent-able-to-pay-emergency-expense

A recent report by the US Federal Reserve examines the relative financial health of US households. It makes for very sober reading, highlighting the economic pain suffered by a large swathe of the population.

The report centers around one simple question put to households:

Can you come up with $400 in an emergency (say an unexpected medical bill) and pay for it either in cash or with a credit card whose bill you could pay off within a month?

The answer was jaw-dropping:

For people earning between $40,000 and $100,000 (i.e. not the very poorest), 44 percent said they could not come up with $400 in an emergency.

Even more astonishing, 27 percent of those making more than $100,000 also could not.

The report suggests that this is not poverty. So what on earth is going on?

One thing is clear, and it’s a disturbing message that we keep seeing in many of our neighborhoods and echoed in the media — the great middle-class is declining and income inequality continues to broaden. At the low-end of the economic spectrum, the number of households in or close to poverty is expanding — this, in the richest country in the history of the world. At the high-end, the 1 percent, and especially the richest 0.1 percent, hold an ever greater share of the income and wealth.

Image: Percent of respondents who would completely pay an emergency expense that costs $400 using cash or a credit card
that they pay off at the end of the month (by race/ethnicity and household income). Courtesy: Report on the Economic Well-Being
of U.S. Households in 2014, May 2015. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

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The Lines

Lineas_de_Nazca-Nazca_Peru_2015

In an earlier post I wrote about Star Axis, a land art form designed by artist Charles Ross. One of its main elements is an 11-story high Solar Pyramid, which marks the daily and seasonal movements of the sun across a Shadow Field. It’s not only a naked-eye astronomical observatory, it’s a work of art — on an immense scale.

This cast my mind back to the late 1980s, when I was lucky enough to visit Peru for the first time. My trek included the Sechura Desert, also known as the Nazca Desert, about 250 miles southeast of Lima. The Nazca Desert is home to many thousands of land art forms — massive geoglyphs carved into the earth of the arid plateau.

These are the Nazca Lines.

Many of the lines form simple geometric patterns. However, around a hundred or so feature immense stylized images of animals and plants, including a monkey, spider, condor, and hummingbird. The largest of these figures is about 600 ft across.

Archeologists believe the figures were carved into the desert by the Nazca culture, dating from 500 BCE to 500 BE. The purpose of the geoglyphs is still debated today; theories include: astronomical observatory and calendar, fertility symbols and religious rituals.

Interestingly enough, many can only be best appreciated from the air — and that’s where they become works of art. This extraordinary art gallery is now preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Image: Hummingbird, Nazca Lines, Nazca, Peru. Courtesy: Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 4.0.

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MondayMap: Beyond the Horizon

Map-beach-view

Andy Woodruff is a cartographer, he makes maps. His most recent construction is a series of whimsical maps that visualize what many off us at least once in our lives may have pondered.

When we are at the beach looking out to sea, casting our eyes to the distant horizon, we often wonder what lies beyond. If you could set off and walk in a straight line from your small plot of sand (or rock) across the vast ocean where would you first make landfall? Andy Woodruff’s “Beyond the Sea” maps answer this question, and the results are surprising.

For instance, if you happen to be looking out from any beach on the US Eastern Seaboard — and your vision could bend and stretch over the horizon — you would see the Southern coastline of Australia. So, drop the boring atlas and Google Maps and go follow some more of Andy Woodruff’s fascinating great circles.

From NPR:

Ever stood on the coastline, gazing out over the horizon, and wondered what’s on the other side? Pondered where you’d end up if you could fly straight ahead until you hit land?

Turns out the answer might be surprising. And even if you pulled out an atlas — or, more realistically, your smartphone — you might have trouble figuring it out. Lines of latitude won’t help, and drawing a path on most maps will lead you astray.

Cartographer Andy Woodruff, who recently embarked on a project called Beyond the Sea to illustrate this puzzle, says there are two simple reasons why it’s harder than it seems to figure out which coast lies directly on the other side of the horizon.

First, coastlines are “wacky,” he writes on his blog. And second, well, the Earth is round.

The crookedness of the world’s coastlines means moving a few miles up or down the coast will leave you facing a different direction (assuming your gaze is straight out, perpendicular to the coast around you).

Read the entire story here.

Map: Beach view of Australia. Courtesy Andy Woodruff.

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Desert Earthworks and Cosmic Connections

Star Axis

Some timepieces are intimate, think Breitling or Rolex or your trusty Timex [does anyone wear a watch anymore?] Some timepieces are monumental — prime examples might include Big Ben in London, the astronomical clock in Prague and Munich’s Rathaus-Glockenspiel,.

But then, there are time-keeping instruments on an altogether different scale — ones that dominate a significant portion of the landscape. And, where better to find one such example than the stark, high desert of New Mexico.

From the Guardian:

Somewhere in the deserts of New Mexico, a nail is embedded into a type of flat-topped mountain known as a mesa. The positioning of this nail, shielded from the elements by a tin can, took days of trial and error, with astronomical measurements provided by the US Naval Observatory and the help of a surveyor. Finally, the correct spot was located: exactly in alignment with the axis of the Earth from the south pole to the north.

This nail – which I braved rattlesnakes to find, on a mountaintop strewn with slabs of granite – was fundamental to the success of Star Axis, an extraordinary naked-eye observatory that is the brainchild of artist Charles Ross. Only when Ross was sure he had the orientation precisely correct could he begin to build the structure he had dreamed about – an obsession that has consumed him since 1971.

Star Axis is one of the world’s defining earthworks, otherwise known as land art. In the late 60s, a generation of young, New York-based artists, inspired by the space race but also by the turmoil of Vietnam, decided that galleries weren’t big enough to house their visions. So they struck out, choosing instead to make works on an epic scale, sculpted from the elements, in the astounding desert landscapes of the US south-west.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Star Axis. Courtesy: Star Axis / Charles Ross.

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Farm in a Box

Freight-FarmsIf you’ve read my blog for a while you undoubtedly know that I have a rather jaded view of tech startup culture — particularly with Silicon Valley’s myopic obsession for discovering the next multi-billion dollar mobile-consumer-facing-peer-to-peer-gig-economy-service-sharing-buzzword-laden-dating-platform-with-integrated-messaging-and-travel-meta-search app.

So, here’s something refreshing and different. A startup focused on reimagining the production and distribution of fresh food. The company is called Freight Farms, their product: a self-contained farm straight out of a box. Actually the farm is contained inside a box — a standard, repurposed 40 ft long shipping container. Each Leafy Green Machine, as it is called, comes fully equipped with a vertically-oriented growing environment, plant-optimized LED lighting, recirculating hydroponic plumbing and finger-tip climate control.

Freight Farms may not (yet) make a significant impact on the converging and accelerating global crises of population growth, climate change, ecological destruction and natural resource depletion. But the company offers a sound solution to tackling the increasing demand for locally grown and sustainably produced food, especially as the world becomes increasingly urbanized.

Please check out Freight Farms and spread the word.

Image: Freight Farms. Courtesy: Freight Farms.

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Your Brain on LSD

Brain-on-LSD

For the first time, researchers have peered inside the brain to study the realtime effect of the psychedelic drug LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). Yes, neuroscientists scanned the brains of subjects who volunteered to take a trip inside an MRI scanner, all in the name of science.

While the researchers did not seem to document the detailed subjective experiences of their volunteers, the findings suggest that they were experiencing intense dreamlike visions, effectively “seeing with their eyes shut”. Under the influence of LSD many areas of the brain that are usually compartmentalized showed far greater interconnection and intense activity.

LSD was first synthesized in 1938. Its profound psychological properties were studied from the mid-1940s to the early sixties. The substance was later banned — worldwide — after its adoption as a recreational drug.

This new study was conducted by researchers from Imperial College London and The Beckley Foundation, which researches psychoactive substances.

From Guardian:

The profound impact of LSD on the brain has been laid bare by the first modern scans of people high on the drug.

The images, taken from volunteers who agreed to take a trip in the name of science, have given researchers an unprecedented insight into the neural basis for effects produced by one of the most powerful drugs ever created.

A dose of the psychedelic substance – injected rather than dropped – unleashed a wave of changes that altered activity and connectivity across the brain. This has led scientists to new theories of visual hallucinations and the sense of oneness with the universe some users report.

The brain scans revealed that trippers experienced images through information drawn from many parts of their brains, and not just the visual cortex at the back of the head that normally processes visual information. Under the drug, regions once segregated spoke to one another.

Further images showed that other brain regions that usually form a network became more separated in a change that accompanied users’ feelings of oneness with the world, a loss of personal identity called “ego dissolution”.

David Nutt, the government’s former drugs advisor, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, and senior researcher on the study, said neuroscientists had waited 50 years for this moment. “This is to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle physics,” he said. “We didn’t know how these profound effects were produced. It was too difficult to do. Scientists were either scared or couldn’t be bothered to overcome the enormous hurdles to get this done.”

Read the entire story here.

Image: Different sections of the brain, either on placebo, or under the influence of LSD (lots of orange). Courtesy: Imperial College/Beckley Foundation.

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Made in America: Apple Pie and AR-15

AR-15 rifleThe United States lays claim to an amazing number of home-grown inventions that shaped history and became iconic reflections of modern American culture.  Thomas Edison’s lightbulb. Eastman’s film camera. Ford’s Model T car. Coca-cola. Big Mac. Microsoft Windows. iPhone. These are just a few of the hundreds of products and services that shaped America.

The horrific mass murder in Orlando, Florida, suggests that another key product should now make the iconic list — the AR-15 and its close imitators (the American mass murderer’s product of choice).

The AR-15 is easier to purchase than a cell phone, costs less than a 60-inch HDTV (around $500-700), and is simpler to use than your TV remote. Most importantly for the next, budding mass-murderer, the AR-15 is devastatingly optimized; with a few legal add-ons it can fire 800-900 rounds per minute. That’s a lot of wonderfully convenient killing.

Can someone pass me the .223 ammo with that whipped cream?

Image: AR-15 rifle. Courtesy: TheAlphaWolf – Derivative work of File:Stag2wi.jpg. Public Domain.

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The Story of the Default Coordinate: 38°N 97°W

Map-US-center

About 40 miles and 40 minutes north-east of Wichita, Kansas lies the small town of Potwin. The 2010 census put the official population of Potwin at 449.

Potwin would be an unremarkable town, situated in the Great Plains surrounded by vast farms and feedlots, if it were not for one unique fact. Potwin is home to a farmhouse with a Lat-Long location of 38°N 97°W.

You see, 38°N 97°W happens to coincide with the coordinates, incorrectly, chosen as the geographical center of the United States by a digital mapping company in 2002. Geographically the official center of the country is 39°50′ N (or 39.8333333), 98°35′ W (or -98.585522), which is a spot in northern Kansas near the Nebraska border.

But, back in 2002, a digital mapping company, called MaxMind, decided to round the actual, unwieldy Lat-Long coordinates to 38.0000, -97.0000. These coordinates would become the default point and de facto center of the United States.

Now, the internet uses a protocol (IP) to allow any device to connect with any other, via a unique IP address. This allows a message or webpage from one device, say a server, to find its way to another device, such as your computer. Every device connected to the internet has a unique IP address. Companies soon realized that having an IP address, in cyberspace, would be much more valuable — for technical maintenance or marketing purposes — if it could be tied to a physical location. So, companies like MaxMind came along to provide the digital mapping and location translation service.

However, for those IP addresses that could not be adequately resolved to a physical address, the company assigned the default coordinate — the center of the United States.

Unfortunately, there are now around 600 million IP addresses that point to this default location, 38°N 97°W, which also happens to be the farmhouse in Potwin.

This becomes rather problematic for the residents of 38°N 97°W because internet scammers, spammers,  cyber-thieves and other digitally-minded criminals typically like to hide their locations, which end up resolving to the default coordinate and the farmhouse in Potwin. As a result, the federal authorities have made quite a habit of visiting this unremarkable farmhouse in Potwin, and the residents now lead far from unremarkable lives.

Read more of this surreal story here.

Image: Potwin, Kansas. Courtesy: Google Maps.

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Zhoosh the Riah

Growing up in London of the 60s and 70s (yes, I’m that old, really), I had a rich exposure to the pig latin of teenagers and the cockney rhyming slang of adults. Rhyming slang provided a gorgeously poetic and subversive way of conversing with like-minded souls and hiding meaning from any outsiders.

I still have a soft spot for its words and phrases:

I don’t adam and eve it — believe
You’re always getting into barney rubble — trouble
I made another cadbury’s flake — mistake
Switch off the custard and jelly — telly (television)
I lost my dog and bone again — phone
My plates of meat are sore — feet
How are the dustbin lids? — kids
Drive down the frog and toad — road
I crashed my jam-jar — car
Use your loaf (short for loaf of bread) — head
Close your north and south when you’re eating — mouth
Rabbit (short for rabbit and pork) is cheap — talk
That was a great cup of rosie (short for Rosy Lee) — tea
Meet you at the rub-a-dub — pub
I’m short of sausage and mash — cash
How’s the trouble and strife? — wife

Rhyming slang like other cryptolectic languages is slowly dying out. Sadly, rich dialects and phrases from our subcultures are now increasingly subsumed by homogeneous corporate-speak.

So, it’s heart-warming to find this recent article reminding us of the forbidden corners of language by columnist Gary Nunn.

From the Guardian:

There are between 6,500 and 7,000 languages spoken worldwide. Include argots – the characteristic language of a particular group – and that number climbs ginormously.

Ginormous itself is argot, the portmanteau of gigantic and enormous to form a new blended word. It’s also hyperbole: gigantic is no longer deemed huge enough, so we blend and expand.

Groups of people form their own private lexicons because coded language is exclusive, exciting and defiant. Part of it is finding your community: the mystique of being in the “in group” carried over from school; the private joke you have to be in on to find funny. You find your tribe by mimicking the peculiarities of their diction. It creates a sense of belonging, expertise and solidarity.

But it can go beyond that. The coded nature of argot (from the French for slang) can be deliberately subversive because that particular group rejects the status quo, which they find unsatisfactory, unacceptable or oppressive. It can also help conceal criminal activity or frowned-upon behaviour, making it a cryptolect – a secretive language used to confuse and exclude others and affirm the character of a marginalised subculture.

For all those reasons, argot is my favourite part of language: it sits in the forbidden corners, between the gaps, underneath the rigidity of all the rules of grammar. It’s where creativity bubbles and thrives, shrouded by an enigmatic cloak of linguistic abandon.

Often, adopters of argot have common enemies to defy or hide from: traditional conservative society; the law; the police. Defying the authority and perceived supremacy of the dominant forces in society is empowering and essential to avoid detection. It’s why drug dealers and users employ female personification in their trade to euphemise and conceal. So having a dinner party with Tina, Gina and Molly would be less civilised than it sounds: you’d be taking, respectively, crystal meth, GHB and MDMA. Similarly, the patois used in hip-hop was originally used to defy the same enemies, the argot defined by clever puns, rapid rhyming couplets, blink-and-you-miss-it wordplay and don’t-give-a-toss attitude set to an insistent beat.

Youth slang is one of the most consistently refreshing of argots. The yoof want to feel cool, exclusive, quirky and not speak in the same manner as their ’rents, which is why they’ll say things like “Nek minnit I had mahoosive FOMO” – a combination of Jamaican patois hybrid, portmanteau, acronym and drama.

As fresh as argot can feel, it can also become redundant, incumbent or mainstream. Cockney rhyming slang, for example, is a casualty of sweeping gentrification. Some of it has become mainstream – we all know what “apples and pears” means. But it retains its linguistic creativity: one’s Aris means “arse”; an abbreviation of Aristotle, which rhymes with bottle-and-glass. Genius.

Read the entire story here.

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Peak Tech Bubble

Nelsons-Column-Great-Smog-London-1952The following story is surely a sign of the impending implosion of the next tech bubble — too much easy money flowing to too many bad and lazy ideas.

While an increasing number of people dream of a future built on renewable, clean energy, some entrepreneurs are defining ways to make gasoline (petrol) consumption even more convenient for consumers. Welcome to Uber-style, gas delivery on-demand.

This casts my mind back to the mid-1960s, recalling the deliveries of black, sooty coal to our cellar (basement) coal bunker. Thankfully, the UK’s Clean Air Acts of the 1950s and 60s finally paved the way for cleaner fuel and cleared the skies of unhealthy, mid-century London smog.

Surely, these modern day counterparts are heading in the wrong direction just to make a quick buck.

From the Guardian:

It is hard to imagine a less hospitable niche for a startup to enter than gasoline – a combustible commodity that is (one hopes) being innovated into obsolescence.

And yet, over the past 18 months, at least six startups have launched some variation on the theme of “Uber for gas” – your car’s tank gets refilled while it is parked somewhere.

The gas delivery startup founders all share similar stories of discovering the wannabe entrepreneur’s holy grail: a point of friction that can be translated into an app.

“David, one of the co-founders, basically said, ‘I hate going to the gas station’,” said Nick Alexander, the other co-founder of Yoshi, of their company’s origins. “I think he had run out of gas recently, so he said, ‘What about an idea where someone comes and fills your car up?’”

For Ale Donzis, co-founder of WeFuel, the moment came when he was trying to get gas in the middle of winter in upstate New York and realized he had forgotten his gloves. For Frank Mycroft, founder and CEO of Booster Fuels, it was during his wife’s pregnancy when he started refueling her car as well as his own.

“It wore on me,” Mycroft said. “I didn’t like doing it.”

The tales of gas station woe are the kind of first-world problems that have inspired a thousand parodies of startup culture. (A customer testimonial on the website of Purple, another gas delivery service, reads: “I live across the street from a gas station, but I don’t always have time to make the stop.”)

But delivering large quantities of a toxic and flammable liquid is significantly more complicated – and regulated – than delivering sandwiches. The companies generally source their gasoline from the same distributors that supply 10,000-gallon tankers to retail gas stations. But the app companies put the fuel into the back of pickup trucks or specially designed mini-tankers. Booster Fuels only services cars in open air, corporate parking lots on private property, but other companies offer to refill your car wherever it’s parked.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of London, 1952. Courtesy: By N T Stobbs, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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A Tale of Frolicsome Engines

Al-Jazari-peacock-foundation

From the Public Domain Review comes a fascinating tale of hydraulic automata, mechanical monkeys, automatic organs and a host of other beautiful robotic inventions predating our current technological revolution by hundreds of years. These wonderful contraptions span the siphonic inventions of 1st-century-AD engineer Hero of Alexandria to the speaking machines and the chess playing mechanical Turk of Hungarian engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen from the late-1700s.

My favorite is the infamous “Defecating Duck”. Designed in the mid-18th century by Frenchman Jacques Vaucanson, the duck was one of the first simulative automata. The mechanical duck flapped its wings and moved much like its real world cousin, but its claim to fame was its ability to peck and swallow bits of food and excrete “droppings”.

More from Public Domain Review:

How old are the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence? Many might trace their origins to the mid-twentieth century, and the work of people such as Alan Turing, who wrote about the possibility of machine intelligence in the ‘40s and ‘50s, or the MIT engineer Norbert Wiener, a founder of cybernetics. But these fields have prehistories — traditions of machines that imitate living and intelligent processes — stretching back centuries and, depending how you count, even millennia.

The word “robot” made its first appearance in a 1920 play by the Czech writer Karel ?apek entitled R.U.R., for Rossum’s Universal Robots. Deriving his neologism from the Czech word “robota,” meaning “drudgery” or “servitude,” ?apek used “robot” to refer to a race of artificial humans who replace human workers in a futurist dystopia. (In fact, the artificial humans in the play are more like clones than what we would consider robots, grown in vats rather than built from parts.)

There was, however, an earlier word for artificial humans and animals, “automaton”, stemming from Greek roots meaning “self-moving”. This etymology was in keeping with Aristotle’s definition of living beings as those things that could move themselves at will. Self-moving machines were inanimate objects that seemed to borrow the defining feature of living creatures: self-motion. The first-century-AD engineer Hero of Alexandria described lots of automata. Many involved elaborate networks of siphons that activated various actions as the water passed through them, especially figures of birds drinking, fluttering, and chirping.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Illustration of the peacock fountain, from a 14th-century edition of Al-Jazari’s Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Courtesy: Public Domain Review.

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Beware. Your Teaching Assistant May Be a Robot

RobotsMODO

All college level students have at some point wondered if one or more of their professorial teaching assistants was from planet Earth. If you fall into this category — as I once did — your skepticism and paranoia are completely justified. You see, some assistants aren’t even human.

So, here’s my first tip to any students wondering how to tell if their assistant is an alien entity: be skeptical if her or his last name is Watson.

From WSJ:

One day in January, Eric Wilson dashed off a message to the teaching assistants for an online course at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“I really feel like I missed the mark in giving the correct amount of feedback,” he wrote, pleading to revise an assignment.

Thirteen minutes later, the TA responded. “Unfortunately, there is not a way to edit submitted feedback,” wrote Jill Watson, one of nine assistants for the 300-plus students.

Last week, Mr. Wilson found out he had been seeking guidance from a computer.

Since January, “Jill,” as she was known to the artificial-intelligence class, had been helping graduate students design programs that allow computers to solve certain problems, like choosing an image to complete a logical sequence.

“She was the person—well, the teaching assistant—who would remind us of due dates and post questions in the middle of the week to spark conversations,” said student Jennifer Gavin.

Ms. Watson—so named because she’s powered by International Business Machines Inc. ’s Watson analytics system—wrote things like “Yep!” and “we’d love to,” speaking on behalf of her fellow TAs, in the online forum where students discussed coursework and submitted projects.

“It seemed very much like a normal conversation with a human being,” Ms. Gavin said.

Shreyas Vidyarthi, another student, ascribed human attributes to the TA—imagining her as a friendly Caucasian 20-something on her way to a Ph.D.

Students were told of their guinea-pig status last month. “I was flabbergasted,” said Mr. Vidyarthi.

Read the whole story here.

Image: Toy robots on display at the Museo del Objeto del Objeto in Mexico City, 2011. Courtesy: Alejandro Linares Garcia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

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MondayMap: Connectography

21st-century-silk-road

I have had a peculiar affinity for luscious atlases and maps since childhood. They held promises of future explorations and adventures over ancient peaks, within new cultures, beyond borders. I also have a strange fascination for data, patterns in data, trends, probabilities, statistics (though I’m no mathematician).

So when I see someone combining maps and data, especially in fundamentally new ways, I have to take notice. Enter stage left: Parag Khanna. He’s a global strategist, author and a true cartophile. His new book “Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization,” uses grand cartographic visualizations to show how the world is steadily integrating.

Even for a reasonably geo-savvy person like me it’s eye-opening to see maps being used in insightful new ways — especially to draw attention to our global neighborhood and its common challenges.

One striking example shows the ties of railways, cables, pipelines and trade that further bind nations rather than the borders, often arbitrarily drawn, that once divided.

Dive into are recent interview with Parag Khanna here.

Map: The emerging silk roads of commerce interlinking 60 Asian nations. Courtesy: Parag Khanna, “Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization”.

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Venture Capital and (Ping-Pong) Balls

Google-search-ping-pong-balls

If you’re even slightly interested in protecting your retirement savings from the bursting of the next tech bubble and subsequent stock market crash look no further than sales of ping-pong tables and Pot-A-Shot indoor basketball. It turns out that there is a direct correlation between the sale of indoor recreational gear and the flow of venture capital to Silicon Valley’s next trillion dollar babies (ie., those saving humanity or building the next cool dating app).

From WSJ:

Twitter ’s gloomy quarterly report last week unsettled investors. They might have anticipated trouble more than a year ago had they noticed one key indicator.

Until late 2014, Twitter was regularly ordering ping-pong tables from Billiard Wholesale, a store in San Jose, Calif. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t.

The store’s owner, Simon Ng, figured it either ran out of space “or they’re having company problems.”

Twitter Inc.’s slowing user growth has been unsettling analysts, and the company’s revenue growth was unexpectedly weak in last week’s report. Asked why Twitter stopped buying tables, spokesman Jim Prosser says: “I guess we bought really sturdy ones.” Twitter spokeswoman Natalie Miyake says: “Honestly, we’re more of a Pop-A-Shot company now,” referring to an indoor basketball game.

Is the tech bubble popping? Ping pong offers an answer, and the tables are turning.

“Last year, the first quarter was hot” for tables, says Mr. Ng, who thinks sales track the tech economy. Now “there’s a general slowdown.”

In the first quarter of 2016, his table sales to companies fell 50% from the prior quarter. In that period, U.S. startup funding dropped 25%, says Dow Jones VentureSource, which tracks venture financing.

The table-tennis indicator is a peek into Silicon Valley culture, in which the right to play ping pong on the job is sacrosanct.

“If you don’t have a ping-pong table, you’re not a tech company,” says Sunil Rajasekar, chief technology officer at Lithium Technologies, a San Francisco software startup.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Your New Job in Academia

university-title-1Many of us would probably jump at the chance to secure a life-long position as a tenured professor at a prestigious college. Few disadvantages and lots of benefits: great salary, job for life, long vacations, post-docs to do all your hard work, teaching assistants to do all your easy work. But, most of us don’t have the academic chops to reach the rarefied atmosphere of our great institutions of learning.

university-title-2So, here’s the next best thing. Visit universitytitlegenerator.com and award yourself a lesser title. While most of these algorithmically designed titles are randomly generated and confusingly obtuse, you just have to believe that they really do exist, and that the positions pay rather well.

university-title-3

Images courtesy of universitytitlegenerator.com. Courtesy: CU-Boulder grad students.

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Litigation Financing

Have some loose change under your mattress? If so, and the loose change comes in the millions of dollars, you may want to consider investing it. But, not in a paltry savings account or the stock market. You should consider investing it in litigation. Yes, there are funds, run by money managers and lawyers, that do nothing but sue for financial gain. And, if that so-called “litigation fund” happens to be suing for a cause that you believe in, then you’ll reap a two-fold reward: you’ll collect a handsome investment return, and you’ll get the pleasure of ruining your legal adversary in the process.

Here’s just one example. Burford Capital, a British litigation investment company, has recorded an almost 400 percent growth in profits over the last five years. The firm reported recent profits of $77 million and declared a staggering 70 percent net return on its investments.

So, perhaps you should ditch the notion of becoming the next Warren Buffet; trash the thought of investing in companies that innovate, create and build, and pour your retirement funds in companies that sue and litigate. Furthermore, if you seek a really stellar return on your hard-earned cash, then you should consider investing in litigation funds that sue media companies over the first amendment — that’s where the action and the money is today, and that’s where the next part of this ethically questionable story leads.

From Wired:

The revelation that Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel bankrolled Hulk Hogan’s sex tape lawsuit against Gawker sent shockwaves through the media industry. Commentators had barely recovered from the $140 million in damages awarded to Hogan. Now they were grappling with a bigger question: Is this kind of financial arrangement even legal? Could it happen to them?

The short answer to both is yes—picking up the tab on someone else’s lawsuit is now perfectly legal (it wasn’t always), and people who do it aren’t required to reveal that they’re doing it or why. The practice is reviled by the business community, and yet Thiel, a staunch pro-business libertarian, has shown billionaires everywhere that it’s possible to not only sue a media company indirectly for revenge but to make money doing it. Now that the message is out, there’s nothing to stop other billionaires from following his lead.

“This [case] could really change the landscape, because everyone who has gripes about what the media has done is going to start thinking about dollars and cents and running to their lawyers,” says Thomas Julin, a partner at Miami-based law firm Hunton and Williams who focuses on First Amendment litigation.

“And it’s going to get lawyers thinking, ‘Maybe I should be more willing to represent other individuals against the media.’”

Regardless of how you feel about Gawker, Hogan, or Thiel, this financial arrangement sets a dangerous precedent for anyone running a business—especially a media business. Litigation finance is a booming industry, and Thiel’s success likely makes the entire media industry vulnerable to professional litigation financiers willing to fund other vendettas.

“Litigation financing is really dangerous,” says Bryan Quigley from the Institute for Legal Reform, the civil justice arm of the US. Chamber of Commerce, an advocate for American businesses. “There’s no doubt it’s going to create more litigation in general.”

Read the entire story here.

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Mind-Bending Mixed Reality is Coming

Magic-Leap-screenshot

Wired profiles a stealthy startup tech company that garnered lots of insider interest and piles of funding. The company is called Magic Leap. It’s raked in $1.4 billion in venture funds from industry luminaries including Google, Qualcomm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, Vulcan Capital, and Andreessen Horowitz.

Like several hundred other companies Magic Leap is developing a virtual reality (VR) system. But what sets Magic Leap apart from many of its competitors is its focus on mixed reality (MR). Mixed reality overlays VR onto the real world. This allows synthetic constructions of VR to be superimposed over actual visual surroundings.

VR technologists agree that MR systems are much more difficult to construct than fully immersive VR, but provide much richer and compelling user experiences. Magic Leap calls their technology Cinematic Reality. That’s where the story of Magic Leap begins.

In the company’s own words:

Using our Dynamic Digitized Lightfield Signal™, imagine being able to generate images indistinguishable from real objects and then being able to place those images seamlessly into the real world.

From Wired:

There is something special happening in a generic office park in an uninspiring suburb near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Inside, amid the low gray cubicles, clustered desks, and empty swivel chairs, an impossible 8-inch robot drone from an alien planet hovers chest-high in front of a row of potted plants. It is steampunk-cute, minutely detailed. I can walk around it and examine it from any angle. I can squat to look at its ornate underside. Bending closer, I bring my face to within inches of it to inspect its tiny pipes and protruding armatures. I can see polishing swirls where the metallic surface was “milled.” When I raise a hand, it approaches and extends a glowing appendage to touch my fingertip. I reach out and move it around. I step back across the room to view it from afar. All the while it hums and slowly rotates above a desk. It looks as real as the lamps and computer monitors around it. It’s not. I’m seeing all this through a synthetic-reality headset. Intellectually, I know this drone is an elaborate simulation, but as far as my eyes are concerned it’s really there, in that ordinary office. It is a virtual object, but there is no evidence of pixels or digital artifacts in its three-dimensional fullness.

If I reposition my head just so, I can get the virtual drone to line up in front of a bright office lamp and perceive that it is faintly transparent, but that hint does not impede the strong sense of it being present. This, of course, is one of the great promises of artificial reality—either you get teleported to magical places or magical things get teleported to you. And in this prototype headset, created by the much speculated about, ultrasecretive company called Magic Leap, this alien drone certainly does seem to be transported to this office in Florida—and its reality is stronger than I thought possible.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Magic Leap MR screenshot. The hands live in the real world, the miniature elephant lives in a digitized VR world.

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Divergence

chart-income-and-wealth-inequality

Columnist Thomas B. Edsall over at the NYT offers an incisive article on the diverging fortunes and misfortunes of Americans in the top and bottom fifths of the population as measured by income. We’ve all become accustomed to hearing about the concentration of wealth and power by the 0.1 percent and even the 1 percent. But the separation between the top 10-20 percent and bottom 10-20 percent is no less stark. This separation in income and wealth is now increasingly fracturing the United States along various fault lines: geography, educational attainment, health care access, race and class.

From NYT:

For years now, people have been talking about the insulated world of the top 1 percent of Americans, but the top 20 percent of the income distribution is also steadily separating itself — by geography and by education as well as by income.

This self-segregation of a privileged fifth of the population is changing the American social order and the American political system, creating a self-perpetuating class at the top, which is ever more difficult to break into.

The accompanying chart, taken from “The Continuing Increase in Income Segregation,” a March 2016 paper by Sean F. Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford, and Kendra Bischoff, a professor of sociology at Cornell, demonstrates the accelerating geographic isolation of the well-to-do — the upper middle and upper classes (a pattern of isolation that also applies to the poor, with devastating effect).

In hard numbers, the percentage of families with children living in very affluent neighborhoods more than doubled between 1970 and 2012, from 6.6 percent to 15.7 percent.

At the same time, the percentage of families with children living in traditional middle class neighborhoods with median incomes between 80 and 125 percent of the surrounding metropolitan area fell from 64.7 percent in 1970 to 40.5 percent.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Chart showing income and wealth inequality, 1913?2014, from “The Continuing Increase in Income Segregation”, March 2016. Courtesy: Sean F. Reardon and Kendra Bischoff.

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Practice May Make You Perfect, But Not Creative

Practice will help you improve in a field with well-defined and well-developed tasks, processes and rules. This includes areas like sports and musicianship. Though, keep in mind that it may indeed take some accident of genetics to be really good at one of these disciplines in the first place.

But, don’t expect practice to make you better in all areas of life, particularly in creative endeavors. Creativity stems from original thought not replicable behavior. Scott Kaufman director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania reminds us of this in a recent book review.” The authors of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, psychologist Anders Ericsson and journalist Robert Pool, review a swath of research on human learning and skill acquisition and conclude that deliberate, well-structured practice can help anyone master new skills. I think we can all agree with this conclusion.

But like Kaufman I believe that many creative “skills” lie in an area of human endeavor that is firmly beyond the assistance of practice. Most certainly practice will help an artist hone and improve her brushstrokes; but practice alone will not bring forth her masterpiece. So, here is a brief summary of 12 key elements that Kaufman distilled from over 50 years of research studies into creativity:

Excerpts from Creativity Is Much More Than 10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice by Scott Kaufman:

  1. Creativity is often blind. If only creativity was all about deliberate practice… in reality, it’s impossible for creators to know completely whether their new idea or product will be well received.
  2. Creative people often have messy processes. While expertise is characterized by consistency and reliability, creativity is characterized by many false starts and lots and lots of trial-and-error.
  3. Creators rarely receive helpful feedback. When creators put something novel out into the world, the reactions are typically either acclaim or rejection
  4. The “10-Year Rule” is not a rule. The idea that it takes 10 years to become a world-class expert in any domain is not a rule. [This is the so-called Ericsson rule from his original paper on deliberate practice amongst musicians.]
  5. Talent is relevant to creative accomplishment. If we define talent as simply the rate at which a person acquires expertise, then talent undeniably matters for creativity.
  6. Personality is relevant. Not only does the speed of expertise acquisition matter, but so do a whole host of other traits. People differ from one another in a multitude of ways… At the very least, research has shown that creative people do tend to have a greater inclination toward nonconformity, unconventionality, independence, openness to experience, ego strength, risk taking, and even mild forms of psychopathology.
  7. Genes are relevant. [M]odern behavioral genetics has discovered that virtually every single psychological trait — including the inclination and willingness to practice — is influenced by innate genetic endowment.
  8. Environmental experiences also matter. [R]esearchers have found that many other environmental experiences substantially affect creativity– including socioeconomic origins, and the sociocultural, political, and economic context in which one is raised.
  9. Creative people have broad interests. While the deliberate practice approach tends to focus on highly specialized training… creative experts tend to have broader interests and greater versatility compared to their less creative expert colleagues.
  10. Too much expertise can be detrimental to creative greatness. The deliberate practice approach assumes that performance is a linear function of practice. Some knowledge is good, but too much knowledge can impair flexibility.
  11. Outsiders often have a creative advantage. If creativity were all about deliberate practice, then outsiders who lack the requisite expertise shouldn’t be very creative. But many highly innovative individuals were outsiders to the field in which they contributed. Many marginalized people throughout history — including immigrants — came up with highly creative ideas not in spite of their experiences as an outsider, but because of their experiences as an outsider.
  12. Sometimes the creator needs to create a new path for others to deliberately practice. Creative people are not just good at solving problems, however. They are also good at finding problems.

In my view the most salient of Kaufman’s dozen ingredients for creativity are #11 and #12 — and I can personally attest to their importance: fresh ideas are more likely to come from outsiders; and, creativeness in one domain often stems from experiences in another, unrelated, realm.

Read Kaufman’s enlightening article in full here.

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PhotoMash: CEO Pay For Failure Versus CEO Pay For Success

Photomash-Mayer-vs-SorrellToday’s PhotoMash is a stark reminder that many corporate CEOs live by different rules, which they tend to conjure up themselves.

The PhotoMash comes courtesy of the Guardian on April 19, 2016.

On the one hand we see Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo since 2012. She has presided over the demise of Yahoo — loss of search business to Google, loss of ad share to Facebook, failed investments in new business ventures in the billions of dollars. Yet, since taking over Yahoo Meyer has taken home around $78 million. Further, she’s on the hook to collect another $59 million should Yahoo’s takeover spark her dismissal. Admittedly, Yahoo’s stock price has rallied in recent years, but most analysts attribute this solely to Yahoo’s stake in China’s Alibaba.

One the other hand we have Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP. Over the last 30 years he’s built WPP from a small UK-based wire and plastics manufacturer, which he used as a shell company, into the world’s leading marketing and advertising services company. By current estimates WPP is valued at around $30 billion. Of late he’s been defending his latest compensation package estimated at $100 million.

Both Meyer and Sorrell tell us they’re worth every penny of remuneration to their companies and shareholders. But while it could be argued that both are earning rather too much compared with the 99.999 percent, only one is deserving. And, that shows the crux of the issue — regardless of success or failure, most CEOs will always win.

Image: Screen shot from the Guardian, April 19, 2016.

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Climate Change Equals Less Weather Predictability

NASA-Icemelt1

Severe weather often leads to human tragedy, and of course our crops, pets and property suffer too, as well as untold damage to numerous ecosystems. But whenever I see or read about a weather-induced catastrophe — local flooding or a super-typhoon halfway around the world — one thought always comes to mind: what kind of weather will my children face as long-term climate change takes hold.

Climate science offers continued predictions of doom and gloom: rising ocean levels, disappearing glaciers, stronger storms, longer droughts, more extreme weather.

But climate science also tells us that long-term climate change will make for generally less predictable weather. Our present day meteorologists armed with powerful computational climate models have become rather good at forecasting weather on local and global levels. Generally, we have a reasonably good idea of what our local weather will be tomorrow or next week or next month.

But a warming and changing climate adds much more uncertainty. William B. Gail, founder of the Global Weather Corporation and past president of the American Meteorological Society, cautions: there is a growing likelihood of increased unpredictability of our weather systems. Indeed, he predicts a new dark age, where climate change destroys our current understanding of weather patterns and undermines all our current, predictive weather models and forecasts. This is a huge problem for those of us who depend on accurate weather analytics for our livelihoods, especially farmers, fishing industries, aviation, ground transportation, and construction.

From NYT:

Imagine a future in which humanity’s accumulated wisdom about Earth — our vast experience with weather trends, fish spawning and migration patterns, plant pollination and much more — turns increasingly obsolete. As each decade passes, knowledge of Earth’s past becomes progressively less effective as a guide to the future. Civilization enters a dark age in its practical understanding of our planet.

To comprehend how this could occur, picture yourself in our grandchildren’s time, a century hence. Significant global warming has occurred, as scientists predicted. Nature’s longstanding, repeatable patterns — relied on for millenniums by humanity to plan everything from infrastructure to agriculture — are no longer so reliable. Cycles that have been largely unwavering during modern human history are disrupted by substantial changes in temperature and precipitation.

As Earth’s warming stabilizes, new patterns begin to appear. At first, they are confusing and hard to identify. Scientists note similarities to Earth’s emergence from the last ice age. These new patterns need many years — sometimes decades or more — to reveal themselves fully, even when monitored with our sophisticated observing systems. Until then, farmers will struggle to reliably predict new seasonal patterns and regularly plant the wrong crops. Early signs of major drought will go unrecognized, so costly irrigation will be built in the wrong places. Disruptive societal impacts will be widespread.

Such a dark age is a growing possibility. In a recent report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that human-caused global warming was already altering patterns of some extreme weather events. But the report did not address the broader implication — that disrupting nature’s patterns could extend well beyond extreme weather, with far more pervasive impacts.

Our foundation of Earth knowledge, largely derived from historically observed patterns, has been central to society’s progress. Early cultures kept track of nature’s ebb and flow, passing improved knowledge about hunting and agriculture to each new generation. Science has accelerated this learning process through advanced observation methods and pattern discovery techniques. These allow us to anticipate the future with a consistency unimaginable to our ancestors.

But as Earth warms, our historical understanding will turn obsolete faster than we can replace it with new knowledge. Some patterns will change significantly; others will be largely unaffected, though it will be difficult to say what will change, by how much, and when.

The list of possible disruptions is long and alarming. We could see changes to the prevalence of crop and human pests, like locust plagues set off by drought conditions; forest fire frequency; the dynamics of the predator-prey food chain; the identification and productivity of reliably arable land, and the predictability of agriculture output.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Image pair of Muir Glacier and melt, Alaska. Left photo taken in 1882, by G.D. Hazard; Right photo taken in 2005 by Bruce F. Molnia. Courtesy: Glacier Photograph Collection, National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology. NASA.

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MondayMap: A is Blue; B is Red

MPK1-426_Sykes_Picot_Agreement_Map_signed_8_May_1916

A hundred years ago the first two letters of the alphabet and a somewhat arbitrary line drawn on a map changed the Earth’s geopolitical axis. The ramifications continue to be felt across the globe to this day.

The waning days of WWI finally precipitated the decline of the once vast Ottoman Empire. During this period the eventual victors, the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, and Russia, began secretly planning how they would carve up the spoils, which covered much of the Middle East. With Russia then succumbing to its own revolution, Britain and France were free to delineate their own “spheres of influence”, allocating huge areas of territory (and peoples) to themselves and their appointed heirs. “A” was to be blue and would belong to France; the region covered what is now Syria, Lebanon, northern Iraq and parts of Turkey. “B” was to be red and would be administered by the British; it covered modern-day Jordan, southern Iraq and parts of what is now Israel.

The agreement and the new map were negotiated in 1915-16 by the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, respectively. It was signed on May 16, 1916, and became known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The secret deal reneged on numerous promises and assurances made to leaders in the region, and subsequently disenfranchised entire populations for generations.

Read more about the map, the secret deal and the hundred years of turbulent and bloody consequence in David Fromkin’s book, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (1989).

Map: Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Courtesy: Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 16 May 1916.

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Coffee Grounds, Gigs and Gentrification

Istanbul_cafe

There are around 55,000 coffee shops in the United States. Almost a quarter of this number (11,600) belongs to the Starbucks chain. That’s an awful lot of lattes and frappuccinos. My home town, Boulder, has around 250, which for a small city of 100,000 is a substantial number, and luckily, for the most part, they’re gloriously independent and funky.

Coffee shops, coffeehouses and cafés now encircle the globe like rampant dandelions. But before the increasingly homogenizing effect of chains like Starbucks (in the US) and Costa Coffee (in the UK) coffee shops played a key role in the social fabric of our urban jungles. For hundreds of years coffee shops have been places to read, meet and discuss issues of the day.

Records show the first coffeehouses appeared in Damascus and Egypt in the early-16th century. Patrons gathered there to discuss politics, to listen to their local storytellers and musicians, and, of course, to drink coffee. While coffee shops are often denigrated as symptoms of urban gentrification or as remote office locations for armies of gig economy workers, others call them home — they’re still, after all, places for refuge, conversation and real social interaction. Save me a skinny latte!

From the Guardian:

It’s a bright February morning at the Proud Archivist (now the Proud East), a coffee shop facing the canal just off Kingsland Road in London, and regular Matthew Green is greeting the manager as if they’re old friends. Their cheerful interaction rises above the low din of the subdued crowd, some of whom are chatting, most of whom are typing away on laptops.

The fact that the Proud East is one of about five similar cafes within a five-minute walk in this Dalston neighbourhood brings to mind the fact that, in the past decade or so, the words: “There are a lot of coffee shops opening up around there” has become a precursor for: “There goes the neighbourhood.”

But if Green – who as well as being a regular is also a coffee historian, earned his PhD from Oxford and leads historical coffee tours around London – had his way, coffee houses like the Proud East would help facilitate something entirely different than gentrification: meaningful interaction.

One can almost imagine Green walking into a late 17th-century London coffee house and uttering the salutation that, he says, was de rigueur: “What news have you?” Today, it’s fair to say that’s been replaced by a more modern (and loathed) version: “What’s the WiFi password?”

However, as the coffee shop has become a byword for what everyone hates about urban change and gentrification – first come the creatives and their coffee shops, then the young professionals, then the luxury high-rises and corporate chains that push out original residents – it’s worth asking if that charge is fair. As the function of the coffee house in London has evolved over time, was its early iteration so radically different than the ones many of us type and sip away in today?

To hear Green tell it, there have been three major spikes in speciality coffee culture in the UK over the past 350 years. The first began when a Greek man, Pasqua Rosée, opened the first coffee house in 1652 against the stone wall of St Michael’s churchyard near Cornhill in London. That sludge-like coffee, Green says, was in keeping with the Turkish proverb: “Black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love.”

Over the next 50 years, as the coffee house became a popular alternative to taverns and alehouses, they also became something else: a place for London’s “coffee house politicians” to air their grievances. One could argue that these intelligentsia and knowledge economy workers – Samuel Peyps and Sir Isaac Newton were regulars – were not too dissimilar to the types of freelancers and creative class workers we find in places like The Proud East today. But instead of ranting on Twitter or in the comments section of newspapers, Green says patrons of London’s early coffee houses revelled in the novelty of boisterously voicing their opinions to their (almost exclusively male) companions.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Istanbul cafe, watercolor, created 1850-1882. Courtesy: Amedeo Preziosi / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Facebook’s Growing Filter Bubble

I’ve been writing about the filter bubble for quite sometime. The filter bubble refers to the tendency for online search tools, and now social media, to screen and deliver results that fit our online history and profile thereby returning only results that are deemed relevant. Eli Pariser coined the term in his book The Filter Bubble, published in 2011.

The filter bubble presents us with a clear faustian bargain: give up knowledge and serendipitous discovery of the wider world for narrow, personalized news and information that matches our immediate needs and agrees with our profile.

The great irony is that our technologies promise a limitless, interconnected web of data and information, but these same technologies ensure that we will see only the small sliver of information that passes through our personal, and social, filters. This consigns us to live inside our very own personal echo chambers, separated from disagreeable information that does not pass criteria in our profiles or measures gleaned across our social networks.

So, we should all be concerned as Facebook turns its attention to delivering and filtering news, and curating it in a quest for a more profitable return. Without question we are in the early stages of the reinvention of journalism as a whole and digital news in particular. The logical conclusion of this evolution has yet to be written, but it is certainly clear that handing so much power over the dissemination of news and information to one company cannot be in our long-term interests. If Mr. Zuckerberg and team deem certain political news to be personally distasteful or contrary to their corporate mission, should we sit back and allow them to filter it for us? I think not.

From Wired:

When Facebook News Feed guru Will Cathcart took the stage at F8 to talk about news, the audience was packed. Some followed along on Twitter. Others streamed the session online. Journalists, developers, and media types all clamored to catch a glimpse of “Creating Value for News Publishers and Readers on Facebook”—value that has become the most coveted asset in the news business as Facebook becomes a primary way the public finds and shares news.

As Cathcart kicked off the session, he took the captive audience to a Syrian refugee camp via Facebook’s new, innovative, and immersive 360 video experience. He didn’t say much about where the camp was (“I believe in Greece?”), nor anything about the camp situation. He didn’t offer the audio of the journalist describing the scene. No matter!

The refugee camp is a placeholder. A placeholder, in fact, that has become so overused that it was actually the second time yesterday that Facebook execs waved their hands about the importance of media before playing a video clip of refugees. It could have been a tour of the White House, the Boston bombing, Coachella. It could have been anything to Facebook. It’s “content.” It’s a commodity. What matters to Facebook is the product it’s selling—and who’s buying is you and the news industry.

What Facebook is selling you is pretty simple. It’s selling an experience, part of which includes news. That experience is dependent on content creators—you know, journalists and newsrooms—who come up with ideas, use their own resources to realize them, and then put them out into the world. All of which takes time, money, and skill. For its “media partners” (the CNNs, BuzzFeeds, and WIREDs of the world), Facebook is selling a promise that their future will be bright if they use Facebook’s latest news products to distribute those new, innovative, and immersive stories to Facebook’s giant audience.

The only problem is that Facebook’s promise isn’t a real one. It’s false hope; or at its worst, a threat.

Read the entire article here.

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Dishonesty and Intelligence

Another day, another survey. This time it’s one that links honesty and intelligence. Apparently, the more intelligent you are — as measured by a quick intelligence test — the less likely you’ll be to lie. Fascinatingly, the survey also shows that those who do lie from the small subgroup of the most intelligent tell smaller whoppers; people in the less intelligent subgroup tell bigger lies, for a bigger payoff.

From Washington Post:

Last summer, a couple of researchers ran a funny experiment about honesty. They went to an Israeli shopping mall and recruited people, one-by-one, into a private booth. Alone inside the booth, each subject rolled a six-sided die. Then they stepped out and reported the number that came up.

There was an incentive to lie. The higher the number, the more money people received. If they rolled a one, they got a bonus of about $2.50. If they rolled a two, they got a bonus of $5, and so on. If they rolled a six, the bonus was about $15. (Everyone also received $5 just for participating.)

Before I reveal the results, think about what you would do in that situation. Someone comes up to you at the mall and offers you free money to roll a die. If you wanted to make a few extra bucks, you could lie about what you rolled. Nobody would know, and nobody would be harmed.

Imagine you went into that booth and rolled a 1. What would you do? Would you be dishonest? Would you say you rolled a six, just to get the largest payout?

The researchers, Bradley Ruffle of Wilfrid Laurier University and Yossef Tobol, of the Jerusalem College of Technology, wanted to know what kinds of people would lie in this situation. So they asked everyone about their backgrounds, whether they considered themselves honest, whether they thought honesty was important. They asked whether people were employed, how much money they earned, and whether they were religious. They also gave people a quick intelligence test.

Out of all those attributes, brainpower stood out. Smarter people were less likely to lie about the number they rolled.

It didn’t matter whether they claimed they were honest or not; it didn’t matter whether they were religious, whether they were male or female, or whether they lived in a city. Money didn’t seem to be a factor either. Even after controlling for incomes, the researchers found that the most honest people were the ones who scored highest on the intelligence test.

Read the entire article here.

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Man Sues God

Europe-a-Prophecy

A quick accounting shows that there are around 1.3 million lawyers in the US, so it’s no surprise that we are constantly surrounded by stories of thoroughly ridiculous lawsuits. Just a few to whet your appetite:

Animal rights group sues on behalf of monkey for ownership of selfies.

Bank robber gets shot by deputy; sues city for $6.3 million in medical bills.

Prison inmate suing the NFL for $88 billion over the 2015 cowboy’s playoff loss.

And, how can we forget the seemingly annual occurrence of a coffeeshop patron suing for $millions over a coffee spill.

So, please forgive me for initially thinking that the following lawsuit was instigated by a blasphemous American and his or her posse of attorneys.

Though, it does seem a little odd that we humans — those who believe in the supreme deity — haven’t sued before, but for more substantial contractual breaches: failing to stop cycles of genocide; aiding in the environmental destruction of creation; instilling hatred and intolerance in humanity; allowing inequality and injustice to thrive, and so on.

From the Independent:

An Israeli man has petitioned for a restraining order against God, claiming the almighty has been particularly unkind to him over the years and that the police are unable to do anything.

The man, named by Israeli news site NRG as David Shoshan, represented himself at a court hearing in Haifa, a port city in the north of Israel. The report noted that God was not present to defend himself.

The court heard God had been particularly unkind to Mr Shoshan, treating him “harshly and not nicely”, though no specific details were given about what exactly had happened to make him feel this way.

Mr Shoshan claimed he made several attempts to contact police to report God’s alleged crimes, and that patrol cars had been sent to his house on 10 occasions.

However, the measure was ineffective against the deity and police advised him to take out a restraining order.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Europe a Prophesy. The Ancient of Days (1794). Watercolor etching by William Blake. Courtesy: William Blake Archive. Public Domain.

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Meet the Chatbot Speech Artist

While speech recognition technology has been in the public sphere for several decades, Silicon Valley has re-discovered it with a renewed fervor. Companies from the tech giants, such as Facebook and Amazon, down to dozens of start-ups and their VC handlers have declared the next few years those of the chatbot; natural language-based messaging is the next big thing.

Thanks to Apple the most widespread incarnation of the chatbot is of course Siri — a personalized digital assistant capable of interacting with a user through a natural language conversation (well, almost). But while the parsing and understanding of human conversation, and the construction of chatbot responses, is all done via software — the vocalizations themselves are human. As a result, a new career field is opening up for enterprising speech artists.

From Washington Post:

Until recently, Robyn Ewing was a writer in Hollywood, developing TV scripts and pitching pilots to film studios.

Now she’s applying her creative talents toward building the personality of a different type of character — a virtual assistant, animated by artifical intelligence, that interacts with sick patients.

Ewing works with engineers on the software program, called Sophie, which can be downloaded to a smartphone. The virtual nurse gently reminds users to check their medication, asks them how they are feeling or if they are in pain, and then sends the data to a real doctor.

As tech behemoths and a wave of start-ups double down on virtual assistants that can chat with human beings, writing for AI is becoming a hot job in Silicon Valley. Behind Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are not just software engineers. Increasingly, there are poets, comedians, fiction writers, and other artistic types charged with engineering the personalities for a fast-growing crop of artificial intelligence tools.

“Maybe this will help pay back all the student loans,” joked Ewing, who has master’s degrees from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and film school.

Unlike the fictional characters that Ewing developed in Hollywood, who are put through adventures, personal trials and plot twists, most virtual assistants today are designed to perform largely prosaic tasks, such as reading through email, sending meetings reminders or turning off the lights as you shout across the room.

But a new crop of virtual assistant start-ups, whose products will soon flood the market, have in mind more ambitious bots that can interact seamlessly with human beings.

Because this wave of technology is distinguished by the ability to chat, writers for AI must focus on making the conversation feel natural. Designers for Amazon’s Alexa have built humanizing “hmms” and “ums” into her responses to questions. Apple’s Siri assistant is known for her wry jokes, as well as her ability to beatbox upon request.

As in fiction, the AI writers for virtual assistants dream up a life story for their bots. Writers for medical and productivity apps make character decisions such as whether bots should be workaholics, eager beavers or self-effacing. “You have to develop an entire backstory — even if you never use it,” Ewing said.

Even mundane tasks demand creative effort, as writers try to build personality quirks into the most rote activities. At the start-up x.ai, a Harvard theater graduate is tasked with deciding whether its scheduling bots, Amy and Andrew, should use emojis or address people by first names. “We don’t want people saying, ‘Your assistant is too casual — or too much,’?” said Anna Kelsey, whose title is AI interaction designer. “We don’t want her to be one of those crazy people who uses 15 million exclamation points.”

Virtual assistant start-ups garnered at least $35 million in investment over the past year, according to CBInsights and Washington Post research (This figure doesn’t count the many millions spent by tech giants Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft).

The surge of investor interest in virtual assistants that can converse has been fueled in part by the popularity of messaging apps, such as WeChat, WhatsApp, and Facebook’s Messenger, which are among the most widely downloaded smartphone applications. Investors see that users are increasingly drawn to conversational platforms, and hope to build additional features into them.

Read the entire story here.

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The Case For Planet Nine

Planet_nine_artistic-impression

First, let me say that Pluto should never have been downgraded to the status of “dwarf planet”. The recent (and ongoing) discoveries by NASA’s New Horizons probe show Pluto’s full, planetary glory: kilometer high mountains, flowing glaciers, atmospheric haze, organic compounds, complex and colorful landforms. So, in my mind Pluto still remains as the ninth planet in our beautiful solar system.

However, many astronomers have moved on and are getting excited over the possibility of a new Planet Nine. The evidence for its existence is mounting and comes mostly from models that infer the presence of a massive object far-beyond Pluto, which is influencing the orbits of asteroids and even some of the outer planets.

From Scientific American:

The hunt is on to find “Planet Nine”—a large undiscovered world, perhaps 10 times as massive as Earth and four times its size—that scientists think could be lurking in the outer solar system. After Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, two planetary scientists from the California Institute of Technology, presented evidence for its existence this January, other teams have searched for further proof by analyzing archived images and proposing new observations to find it with the world’s largest telescopes.

Just this month, evidence from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn helped close in on the missing planet. Many experts suspect that within as little as a year someone will spot the unseen world, which would be a monumental discovery that changes the way we view our solar system and our place in the cosmos. “Evidence is mounting that something unusual is out there—there’s a story that’s hard to explain with just the standard picture,” says David Gerdes, a cosmologist at the University of Michigan who never expected to find himself working on Planet Nine. He is just one of many scientists who leapt at the chance to prove—or disprove—the team’s careful calculations.

Batygin and Brown made the case for Planet Nine’s existence based on its gravitational effect on several Kuiper Belt objects—icy bodies that circle the sun beyond Neptune’s orbit. Theoretically, though, its gravity should also tug slightly on the planets.* With this in mind, Agnès Fienga at the Côte d’Azur Observatory in France and her colleagues checked whether a theoretical model (one that they have been perfecting for over a decade) with the new addition of Planet Nine could better explain slight perturbations seen in Saturn’s orbit as observed by Cassini.* Without it, the other seven planets in the solar system, 200 asteroids and five of the most massive Kuiper Belt objects cannot perfectly account for it.* The missing puzzle piece might just be a ninth planet.

So Fienga and her colleagues compared the updated model, which placed Planet Nine at various points in its hypothetical orbit, with the data. They found a sweet spot—with Planet Nine 600 astronomical units (about 90 billion kilometers) away toward the constellation Cetus—that can explain Saturn’s orbit quite well.* Although Fienga is not yet convinced that she has found the culprit for the planet’s odd movements, most outside experts are blown away.* “It’s a brilliant analysis,” says Greg Laughlin, an astronomer at Lick Observatory, who was not involved in the study. “It’s completely amazing that they were able to do that so quickly.” Gerdes agrees: “That’s a beautiful paper.”

The good news does not end there. If Planet Nine is located toward the constellation Cetus, then it could be picked up by the Dark Energy Survey, a Southern Hemisphere observation project designed to probe the acceleration of the universe. “It turns out fortuitously that the favored region from Cassini’s data is smack dab in the middle of our survey footprint,” says Gerdes, who is working on the cosmology survey.* “We could not have designed our survey any better.” Although the survey was not planned to search for solar system objects, Gerdes has discovered some (including one of the icy objects that led Batygin and Brown to conclude Planet Nine exists in the first place).

Read the entire article here.

Image: Artist’s impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Neptune’s orbit is shown as a small ellipse around the Sun. Courtesy: Tomruen, nagualdesign / Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

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The Rembrandt Algorithm

new-rembrandt

Over the last few decades robots have been steadily replacing humans in industrial and manufacturing sectors. Increasingly, robots are appearing in a broader array of service sectors; they’re stocking shelves, cleaning hotels, buffing windows, tending bar, dispensing cash.

Nowadays you’re likely to be the recipient of news articles filtered, and in some cases written, by pieces of code and business algorithms. Indeed, many boilerplate financial reports are now “written” by “analysts” who reside, not as flesh-and-bones, but virtually, inside server-farms. Just recently a collection of circuitry and software trounced a human being at the strategic board game, Go.

So, can computers progress from repetitive, mechanical and programmatic roles to more creative, free-wheeling vocations? Can computers become artists?

A group of data scientists, computer engineers, software developers and art historians set out to answer the question.

Jonathan Jones over at the Guardian has a few choice words on the result:

I’ve been away for a few days and missed the April Fool stories in Friday’s papers – until I spotted the one about a team of Dutch “data analysts, developers, engineers and art historians” creating a new painting using digital technology: a virtual Rembrandt painted by a Rembrandt app. Hilarious! But wait, this was too late to be an April Fool’s joke. This is a real thing that is actually happening.

What a horrible, tasteless, insensitive and soulless travesty of all that is creative in human nature. What a vile product of our strange time when the best brains dedicate themselves to the stupidest “challenges”, when technology is used for things it should never be used for and everybody feels obliged to applaud the heartless results because we so revere everything digital.

Hey, they’ve replaced the most poetic and searching portrait painter in history with a machine. When are we going to get Shakespeare’s plays and Bach’s St Matthew Passion rebooted by computers? I cannot wait for Love’s Labours Have Been Successfully Functionalised by William Shakesbot.

You cannot, I repeat, cannot, replicate the genius of Rembrandt van Rijn. His art is not a set of algorithms or stylistic tics that can be recreated by a human or mechanical imitator. He can only be faked – and a fake is a dead, dull thing with none of the life of the original. What these silly people have done is to invent a new way to mock art. Bravo to them! But the Dutch art historians and museums who appear to have lent their authority to such a venture are fools.

Rembrandt lived from 1606 to 1669. His art only has meaning as a historical record of his encounters with the people, beliefs and anguishes of his time. Its universality is the consequence of the depth and profundity with which it does so. Looking into the eyes of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, I am looking at time itself: the time he has lived, and the time since he lived. A man who stared, hard, at himself in his 17th-century mirror now looks back at me, at you, his gaze so deep his mottled flesh is just the surface of what we see.

We glimpse his very soul. It’s not style and surface effects that make his paintings so great but the artist’s capacity to reveal his inner life and make us aware in turn of our own interiority – to experience an uncanny contact, soul to soul. Let’s call it the Rembrandt Shudder, that feeling I long for – and get – in front of every true Rembrandt masterpiece..

Is that a mystical claim? The implication of the digital Rembrandt is that we get too sentimental and moist-eyed about art, that great art is just a set of mannerisms that can be digitised. I disagree. If it’s mystical to see Rembrandt as a special and unique human being who created unrepeatable, inexhaustible masterpieces of perception and intuition then count me a mystic.

Read the entire story here.

Image: The Next Rembrandt (based on 168,263 Rembrandt painting fragments). Courtesy: Microsoft, Delft University of Technology,  Mauritshuis (Hague), Rembrandt House Museum (Amsterdam).

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