Vol 2 | #12 | 03.22.19

Vol. 2 | #12 | 03.22.19


Salesforce at 20

Long before there was a Salesforce Tower, there was a tiny apartment next to Marc Benioff’s San Francisco home. There, on March 8, 1999, the three coders Marc had convinced to join him began writing the code that would become Salesforce.com. Since then, Benioff is as much known for his outsized philanthropy (estimated at over $500 million given by he and his wife) as he is for his $120 billion dollar cloud software giant.

2Why AI Is Doing Learning All Wrong

At least, they’re all doing it wrong if attaining real intelligence is the goal, says Boris Katz … the man who basically invented the ability for computers to process and understand natural language. Katz’s ideas were the brains behind IBM’s Watson defeating Jeopardy’s two greatest champions in 2011, and his work was the inspiration behind Apple’s Siri.

In language processing, like in other fields, progress was made by training models on huge amounts of data—many millions of sentences. But the human brain would not be able to learn language using this paradigm. We don’t leave our babies with an encyclopedia in the crib, expecting them to master the language.

When we see something, we describe it in language; when we hear someone talk about something, we imagine what the described objects and events look like in the world. Humans live in a physical environment, filled with visual, tactile, and linguistic sensory inputs, and the redundant and complementary nature of these inputs makes it possible for human children to make sense out of the world, and to learn language at the same time. Perhaps by studying these modalities in isolation, we have made the problem harder rather than easier?

3If an Asteroid Slammed into Earth and Nobody Heard It

The 2nd largest projectile to hit Earth in the last 30 years did so back in December, exploding in the sky over the Bering Sea closest to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The rock, believed to have been “several meters in size,” detonated about 25 km above the surface, with an explosive force of 173 kt (1 kt = 1 kiloton = 1000 tons of TNT). To put that into perspective, that puts the blast at roughly 11.5 times the explosive force of “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima.


4The United City-States of America

What would the map look like if political subdivisions were drawn around the 100 largest population centers in America instead of the state boundaries we currently have? A city planner used GIS data to draw up the possibility and explore how those new boundaries would’ve effected political outcomes. With all the current talk about doing away with the Electoral College vs explaining why the EC exists in the first place (and no, it wasn’t a tool designed to preserve slavery), this is certainly a timely, thought-provoking use of data and data-visualization tools.


5The Deadly Problems of the 737 MAX 8

By now, you’ve no doubt heard of the two deadly crashes of Boeing 737 MAX 8 airliners that have occurred in the last 6 months:

  • 10/29/18: Lion Air Flt 610 (Indonesia) — all 189 passengers and crew killed
  • 3/10/19: Ethiopian Airlines Flt 302 — all 157 passengers and crew killed

Both flights crashed a few minutes after takeoff, due to similar malfunctions of the jet’s MCAS system. As a result, the jet has been grounded by countries all over the world.

This article by the Seattle Times (home of Boeing) provides a detailed account of the regulatory enforcement issues (to put it mildly) that contributed to systemic failure to uncover the design and training flaws with Boeing’s new jet design.

Meanwhile, this tweet-thread by a pilot and software engineer puts the failures into a larger, longer context of failures. As always with horrific system failures, there are usually dozens of opportunities for one different choice to alter the outcome.

Vol 2 | #11 | 03.15.19

Vol. 2 | #11 | 03.15.19



Companies like Uber, DoorDash and Instacart like to talk about the “gig economy” they’re creating as a force of liberation — the freedom to earn money whenever you want doing simple things like driving your car and delivering food. This piece in The Atlantic asks: is that really true, or is it just the story they’ve successfully told while pulling off something far more feudal?

Author Alexis Madrigal’s concluding paragraphs lay bare what he thinks:

What the combined efforts of the Uber-for-X companies created is a new form of servant, one distributed through complex markets to thousands of different people. It was Uber, after all, that launched with the idea of becoming “everyone’s private driver,” a chauffeur for all.

An unkind summary, then, of the past half decade of the consumer internet: Venture capitalists have subsidized the creation of platforms for low-paying work that deliver on-demand servant services to rich people, while subjecting all parties to increased surveillance.

2The Fraud of Forensic Evidence

Reading this story about the wrongful accusation and conviction of Julie Rea for the stabbing murder of her own 9-year-old son is heartbreaking. Reading it as a former prosecutor who has dealt with forensic evidence experts across the wide spectrum of competence and expertise legitimacy is maddening. The interpretation of blood spatter evidence has more in common with the interpretation of goat entrails and tea leaves than with the physics of hydro-dynamics. That this kind of evidence and little else could result in wrongly sending a mother to prison branded a perpetrator of filicide is an injustice of the highest order.

Once again, the folks at Pro Publica show what first class journalism looks like. Bravo to them.

3AI, Neural Networks, and the Nature of Art

Just a few weeks ago, I highlighted this article by a philosopher that asserts that computers can never create genuine art. While the tools of AI and neural networks may or may not be up to creating what we deem art, they are definitely going to be making an impact in what it means to do art … and redefining who gets the credit for doing it.

Here is Ganbreeder, the app at the center of this article. There’s no way for me to describe it. You just have to pay a visit for yourself. Pick an image, click on the family tree icon beneath it, and see that image’s “lineage.” It’s a weird, almost surreal way of thinking about digital images.


4The Practice of Breaking Ancient Egyptian Noses

From mixing digital imagery to make modern AI art to defacing ancient art to make a point. Why are the noses broken off and missing from so many ancient Egyptian sculptures and artifacts? You may have heard the story of the demise of the Great Sphinx’s nose: that it was taken off due to French cannoneer firing a wayward ball during Napoleon’s time. (I had, and thought that was the actual story until literally just now writing this, when I learned otherwise. Thanks Smithsonian!)

Julia Wolkoff of Artsy.net has the story behind the rest of those missing noses.

5Yo-Yo Moon

No, this isn’t photographic fakery. That’s really the moon’s silhouette passing in front of the sun, and then passing back in the other direction. There’s a perfectly sound explanation for this, and it has to do with the math of orbital mechanics and perspective.

(And yes, I thoroughly pleased myself with that punny headline.)


Vol. 2 | #10 | 03.08.19


Situational Awareness: There’s an App for That

One of the cool things I get to do now is work with the talented researchers, scientists and engineers of the Air Force Research Lab. As a result, I was recently introduced to this very cool Android app that facilitates real time graphical communication among disparate first response agencies.

The Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK) was first developed by AFRL for the US Special Forces, who tested the app’s capabilities in combat over several years. Now, through the Department of Homeland Security, law enforcement and first response agencies at the local, state and federal levels can seamlessly coordinate their actions in responding to emergent crisis. The tech proved to be invaluable in the response to Hurricane Harvey that decimated Houston in 2017.

2Uber Avoids Criminal Charges for Pedestrian Death

Elaine Herzberg died in March, 2018, after being struck by an Uber-owned Volvo SUV operating autonomously. Herzberg was struck while walking her bicycle across a multi-lane road at 10:00 at night. The vehicle was traveling 40 mph in a 45 mph zone, and had a safety driver on board (although she was watching TV on her phone in the minutes leading up to the crash).

Despite calls by the victim’s family and a massive investigation involving the Tempe Police, the Maricopa County Sheriff, and the federal NTSB, prosecutors in Arizona will close the case without filing criminal charges against Uber corporately. (Yes, companies can be charged with crimes, even when no individuals are. Here’s what that means.)

At this point in the decade-long development of autonomous vehicles, you can still count the number of fatalities total on a single hand. Yet, each time an autonomous vehicle crashes, talk turns to demanding it be proven to be “safe” (often meaning something statistically close to 100%).

Meanwhile, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, nearly 6,000 pedestrians alone were killed in 2017 by cars driven by people. Remember all the news stories about them?

3Today’s Logos in Yesterday’s Style

Actually, the style is that of The Bauhaus, an early 20th century German art school whose design ethos made it “the most influential art and design school in history.” To celebrate the 100-year founding of the school, a design firm used its style to redesign some of our modern culture’s iconic brands.

In other logo art related news, the collaboration app Slack has redesigned it’s brand in advance of its likely IPO. Here’s Slack’s blog post explaining the change. Count me as not impressed: the old logo/icon (on the left) was better, IMO.

4Reexamining Fermi’s Paradox

… thanks to a new paper with some new math (which incorporates the implications of the fact that stars and solar systems move around the galaxy just like planets orbiting their stars). In short: the fact we haven’t made contact with alien civilizations may not logically prove what we thought it did before.

(If you’re not familiar with the Fermi Paradox — which asks why there is no sign of life in the universe outside of Earth despite the extremely large number of planets capable of hosting life that statistically are out there — then here’s a scientific explanation about it from space.com … and here’s a more entertaining exploration of it by Tim Urban at waitbutwhy.com.)

5SimCity Turns 30

As someone who thoroughly enjoyed trying to build cities that worked during the heyday of SimCity’s moment in the 1990’s (a town named Montis Polis was my lasting work), I found this story utterly delightful and fun. Read it to see how the game that surprisingly created the simulation genre has influenced a generation of real life city planners and civic administrators. For even more nostalgia, here’s an article from deeeeep in the the LA Times’ archives (it ran a week before I turned old enough to vote!).


Vol. 2 | #9 | 03.02.19

My calendar says today is Saturday, and your inbox says something didn’t show up as expected yesterday. A couple of engagements I had on Thursday and Friday conspired to keep this week’s “5 for Friday” from going out on schedule. So, to make up for it, I’ve thrown in an extra item of interest.

We’ll call this “6 for Saturday.”



The Last Days of Elizabeth’s Reign at Theranos

Cult leaders — whether the cult is religious, political or personality driven — are never well people. Elizabeth Holmes is no different, as this fascinating article from Vanity Fair makes abundantly clear.


2The Carbon Costs of Prime’s 2-Day Shipping

“When customers want to receive a product in one or two days, the carbon emissions increase substantially. If you are willing to wait a week, it’s like killing just 20 trees instead of 100 trees.” So says Josué Velázquez-Martínez, a sustainable logistics professor at MIT.

Amazon will be releasing its own report on its corporate carbon footprint later this year, for the first time ever. It will be interesting to see how Amazon’s data defines the cost of Prime convenience.

Aside from the costs of sooner vs later shipping, maybe Amazon could take a look at its packaging practices. This came to our house recently:

3How NASA Taught Farming to Tractors

You can hardly look anywhere online and not see some story about autonomous cars doing the work of taxi drivers and autonomous trucks doing the work of truck drivers. Despite this saturation of coverage, I can’t recall ever stumbling across anything talking about autonomous tractors doing the work of farmers. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed doing so while visiting NASA.gov.

4A History of Board Games, aka Board Games as History

A fascinating journey through time from Senet in ancient Egypt to Snakes and Ladders in Victorian Britain to the Soviet games used to promote good Soviet citizenship: Tuberculosis: A Proletarian Disease and Look After Your Health! The New Hygiene Game.

5Doing Facebook’s Dirty Work

$28,800 — That’s how much the employees are paid to do the mind-numbing task of moderating the impossibly large quantity of content being uploaded to Facebook every day. They are not Facebook employees, though. They are employees of IT contractors like Cognizent. Thus, without being Facebook employees, or possessing any particular expertise, these folks are the front line decision makers of how to implement Facebook’s complex and ever changing set of content standards for the site that claims 1/3 of the world’s population as its user base. It’s a psychologically taxing and impossibly complex job.


Meanwhile, the median pay for actual employees of Facebook is $240,000 and Facebook is turning profits at a rate of approximately $7 BILLION per quarter.


6The Font Wars of the FHWA

In 2004, the Federal Highway Administration changed the font used for highway signage from the ’40’s era Highway Gothic to Clearview, a font produced by a design firm and with years of testing data (and license rights to the design firm) behind it. Twelve years later, the FHWA reversed itself and went back to Highway Gothic.

And then, just two years after the news linked above was announced, the FHWA reversed itself yet again, going back to Clearview.


Vol. 2 | #8 | 02.22.19


The Fool’s Gold of Hosting an Olympics

Every so often a news organization will throw up a story with some pictures of the abandoned decay overrunning Olympic venues of the past. Here is but one example from CBS News. What is different and striking about the headline-linked piece is the double whammy gut-punch when one looks at the Olympic facilities from Rio in Brazil:

  1. Recency — this isn’t a look at places like Sarajevo, which hosted the Winter Olympics 35 years ago … and suffered a civil war a decade later. The Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro was less than three years ago.
  2. Debt — it’s bad enough when cities spend the money to fund ever more elaborate venue construction projects, only to have the facilities become useless shells after the games are gone. In Rio’s case, they incurred a large amount of debt to finance these now wasted projects that has now tripled in size in the last two years (from $32M to $113M). That and organizing committee is facing hundreds of lawsuits over its failure to pay the wages of the workers who did the work and the invoices of the suppliers who provided the materials

And yet, every cycle the lunacy of corruption begins anew.

2Lyft’s Big Lift: Ending Car Ownership

An interesting 3:12 worth of video from an interview between CNN’s Poppy Harlow and Lyft co-founder and President, John Zimmer. Lyft (and presumably it’s cross-town app-based rival, Uber) want to so radically transform the transportation sector that private car ownership doesn’t just become the more expensive option — it becomes the unnecessary one.

Though neither Harlow nor Zimmer discuss it in the video clip, the idea of providing a service that removes the burdens of responsibility that come with car ownership — cost, upkeep, parking, etc — unwittingly triggers another interconnected issue: the freedom of car ownership. Freedom and Responsibility are always two sides of a single metaphorical coin. You can’t diminish one without losing the other. Yes, there are costs and hassles that owning a vehicle imposes that would be nice to be out from under in a near-future world where an Uber or Lyft car is cheap and easy everywhere. (Don’t worry about how the companies will balance a cheap service with living wages for their drivers. Self-driving cars are the answer for both companies.)

The tradeoff? Every trip to everywhere becomes a recreation of junior high and early high school, when getting anywhere required someone else to drive you.

3People-Centered City Design

One of the first things Lyft’s Zimmer says in that clip with Harlowe is that our cities “have been designed for cars. … In reality, they should be designed for people.”

This essay is an interesting look at what that means. I was particularly surprised to by the section on how much space is devoted just to parking spaces.

4The AI Race Is About More Than Just Algorithms

The development of Artificial Intelligence and all its various incarnations (deep learning, machine learning, neural networks, etc) to potentials beyond what we currently see around us is going to require new types of computer chip hardware, which is why software companies like Google and Facebook are developing their own, in-house chips. Beyond that, in the words of Facebook’s Chief AI Scientise, Yann LeCun, AI development “might require us to reinvent the way we do arithmetic in circuits.”

And you thought Facebook was just about memes, fake news, and misuse of customer data.


5Will “AI Artist” Ever Be a Thing?

“No,” says Sean Dorrance Kelly, a philosophy professor at Harvard. In this, he joins the chorus of those like George Gilder, who argues the same point in his book, Life After Google, based on the logical proofs of a 24-year-old mathematician named Kurt Godel from 1930.

Says Kelly about whether a machine or algorithm can ever surpassed humans when it comes to creativity:

To say otherwise is to misunderstand both what human beings are and what our creativity amounts to.

This claim is not absolute: it depends on the norms that we allow to govern our culture and our expectations of technology. Human beings have, in the past, attributed great power and genius even to lifeless totems. It is entirely possible that we will come to treat artificially intelligent machines as so vastly superior to us that we will naturally attribute creativity to them. Should that happen, it will not be because machines have outstripped us. It will be because we will have denigrated ourselves.