Eg er Island

Eyjafjallajokull

A couple of days after “Brexit” — Britain’s move to pull out of the European Union — an enormous self-inflicted wound perpetrated by narrow-minded xenophobes and scare-mongering political opportunists, Britain got it just deserts. Iceland kicked England out of Euro 2016 — the Europe-wide football (soccer) tournament.

How significant? Well, let’s put this in some perspective. Iceland is a country of only ~330,000 souls, the size of several small London suburbs. It has never fielded a team in a major tournament. It’s national coach is a dentist. The combined income of the entire Icelandic team is less than 5 percent of the average salary earned by just one of England’s players.

The United States offers no giant-killing parallels; however, I suspect, Iceland’s 2-1 win over England would be akin to a high school football (American football) team drubbing the NFL’s Broncos or Patriots.

So, while I was born and raised in London, today I am Iceland, “Ég er Island”.

Image: Eyjafjallajökull glacier, one of the smallest glaciers in Iceland. Courtesy: Andreas Tille – Own work.

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First, Order a Pizza. Second, World Domination

Google-search-pizza

Tech startups that plan to envelope the globe with their never-thought-of-before-but-cannot-do-without technologies and services have to begin somewhere. Usually, the path to worldwide domination begins with pizza.

From the Washington Post:

In an ordinary conference room in this city of start-ups, a group of engineers sat down to order pizza in an entirely new way.

“Get me a pizza from Pizz’a Chicago near my office,” one of the engineers said into his smartphone. It was their first real test of Viv, the artificial-intelligence technology that the team had been quietly building for more than a year. Everyone was a little nervous. Then, a text from Viv piped up: “Would you like toppings with that?”

The engineers, eight in all, started jumping in: “Pepperoni.” “Half cheese.” “Caesar salad.” Emboldened by the result, they peppered Viv with more commands: Add more toppings. Remove toppings. Change medium size to large.

About 40 minutes later — and after a few hiccups when Viv confused the office address — a Pizz’a Chicago driver showed up with four made-to-order pizzas.

The engineers erupted in cheers as the pizzas arrived. They had ordered pizza, from start to finish, without placing a single phone call and without doing a Google search — without any typing at all, actually. Moreover, they did it without downloading an app from Domino’s or Grubhub.

Of course, a pizza is just a pizza. But for Silicon Valley, a seemingly small change in consumer behavior or design can mean a tectonic shift in the commercial order, with ripple effects across an entire economy. Engineers here have long been animated by the quest to achieve the path of least friction — to use the parlance of the tech world — to the proverbial pizza.

The stealthy, four-year-old Viv is among the furthest along in an endeavor that many in Silicon Valley believe heralds that next big shift in computing — and digital commerce itself. Over the next five years, that transition will turn smartphones — and perhaps smart homes and cars and other devices — into virtual assistants with supercharged conversational capabilities, said Julie Ask, an expert in mobile commerce at Forrester.

Powered by artificial intelligence and unprecedented volumes of data, they could become the portal through which billions of people connect to every service and business on the Internet. It’s a world in which you can order a taxi, make a restaurant reservation and buy movie tickets in one long unbroken conversation — no more typing, searching or even clicking.

Viv, which will be publicly demonstrated for the first time at a major industry conference on Monday, is one of the most highly anticipated technologies expected to come out of a start-up this year. But Viv is by no means alone in this effort. The quest to define the next generation of artificial-intelligence technology has sparked an arms race among the five major tech giants: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon.com have all announced major investments in virtual-assistant software over the past year.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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