Vol. 2 | #7 | 02.15.19


On Interpreting Statistics

A great essay on the challenges of properly understanding statistical data from the legendary evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould originally published this piece in 1985, three years after receiving the diagnosis of abdominal mesothelioma. It is that experience of being diagnosed with cancer that forms the lens through which Gould illustrates how to properly understand real-world statistics like abdominal mesothelioma has “a median mortality of only eight months after discovery.”

(Gould lived another 17 years after publishing this essay, and it was a different cancer entirely that ultimately ended his life.)

2“Sorry (not Sorry) for Stealing Your Tips”

This is an error that really should be easy to avoid making. Grocery delivery app Instacart has finally come to its senses in light of pushback from its “shoppers” (think Uber drivers but for groceries). While the app makes it easy for users to have groceries delivered to their home and both pay for the service and give a tip to their delivery shopper, it also made it easy for Instacart to essentially take those tips for themselves. The business’ opaque compensation scheme enabled it to count the tips the app collected towards the minimum delivery payment due to the drivers.

In essence, Instacart used this tip/wage offsetting scheme to offload some of their wage costs to the users without anyone being the wiser. That is, until drivers started noticing and posting their receipts online like this one.

IMAGE CREDIT: workingwa.org

In ultimately bowing to the pressure, Instacart is changing its policies. In his note explaining this, founder and CEO Apoorva Mehta described this tipping offset design as “misguided.”

Weasel words, given Instacart’s recent history of trying to turn driver tips into a “service fee” (ie – reportable revenue for Instacart) … shenanigans that cost the company $4.6M  to settle a class-action lawsuit.

Here’s to you, Instacart…

3It’s All About the Ads

Speaking of digital startups trying to turn your grocery shopping into new mountains of revenue, Cooler Screens (catchy) wants to turn the drink cooler doors at your favorite gas station and convenience store into a digital screen enabling it to host ads hoping to influence your purchase at the very moment it’s made. On its website, the company touts “the big and untapped opportunity to improve the customer experience.” I know how much I love the customer experience at the gas station of getting ads delivered to me through the screen at the pump, but your mileage may vary on that.

One of these days Silicon Valley will come up with a business model that does cool things and improves people’s lives without paying for it all with the currency of feeding us advertisements. That day is not today, however.

4Nurseries, Kindergartens, and Soviet “Upbringers”

A fascinating time machine look at life inside 1970’s Russia, through the eyes of young Soviet mothers. I found this archived New York Times article particularly interesting for a pair of reasons. First: my maternal Grandmother and Great-Grandmother emigrated to the United States from Europe after WWII as refugees from Soviet Ukraine. This article is an interesting window the world the left behind. Second: it’s date of publication — December 17, 1974. My own Mom was a young mother herself, as I was just over two months old at the time.

For a great read and the true story of my family tree’s move from Siberia to Ukraine to post-war refugee camps throughout Germany to Ellis Island, check out this book. The title character, Elena, was the younger sister of my Great-Grandmother, Pana, and their story spans two of the most significant events in 20th century history: the communist revolution in Russia, and the Nazi occupation of Europe.


5Shape-Shifting Robots

Think it’s hyperbole? Just take in the headlines from MIT’s Technology Review: “This robot can melt and re-form its legs to change how it walks”

Yes, it’s still in the most rudimentary of stages, but as the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” In this case, it’s a series of single steps utilizing radically different gaits made possible by reshaping the angles of the robotic legs. Here’s a video explainer from the team at Colorado State University who is doing the work. Here’s hoping that journey never goes down the road of liquid metal robotics.

Vol. 2 | #6 | 02.08.19


The Thwaites Countdown

You might recall hearing once upon a time about Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician who discovered the principle of buoyancy that bears his name when he took note of how much water his body displaced out of his bathtub as he got in.

With that principle of liquid displacement in mind, scientists are tracking the worrisome movements of a glacier down in Antarctica the size of the state of Florida. Were the Thwaites Glacier to plop into the ocean all at once, its massive volume would cause the sea level around the world to rise by two feet. This scenario could be made even worse if Thwaites’ demise works like “a rotting support beam [that] lead[s] to the toppling not only of a wall but of an entire house.”

Not to alarm you, but a massive hole recently found under Thwaites — six miles long and 1,000 feet deep — has scientists fearing that the glacier is melting faster than they first thought.

2Using Math to Map the Brain

More evidence that, other than possibly black holes, there may be nothing in the entire universe as complex as the human brain. Evidently it takes 11-dimensional geometry to describe the shapes of neural connections in the simulated brain … of a rat.

3The Freaky-Deaky Intersection of Bitcoin, CRISPR and Transhumanism

Two months ago I noted the controversy surrounding Dr. He Jiankui and his non-therapeutic use of CRISPR gene modification technology to edit the DNA of two recently-born twin girls. Yes, his actions violated scientific norms and medical ethics, but those violations only matter to people who seek to travel in the smoothly-paved lanes of scientific and medical professionalism.

But, if you’re not interested in such things as credentials and funding, then those norms and group standards have little to no power over you. Meaning, if you’re an unaffiliated private citizen who believes in the transhuman vision of using science and technology to evolve beyond the current definition of “human,” and you’re flush with bitcoin wealth, then there’s little to prevent you from venturing forward into the shrouded mists of genetic manipulation. Self-described “do it yourself biohacker” Bryan Bishop is one such fellow, and he has plans to do more than just some personal tinkering. He thinks there’s a huge market waiting to be served for this sort of service.

4Weaponizing DNA Into Malware

This is about a year and a half old now, but somehow I missed hearing about it until this week. A group from the University of Washington figured out a way for to turn DNA into a computer virus. The idea works like this: create a synthetic strand of DNA, in which the ordered pairs of A-T and G-C are used to code the instructions of a malicious piece of software. Then, when the DNA is sequenced, compiled and compressed by the the sequencing software, the coded data gets recognized as programmatic instructions, and the virus sets up shop.

Yes, the work is just barely above the proof-of concept stage and is hardly a viable technology as yet. Here’s hoping it’s ready by the time we find ourselves rebelling against our computer-controlled, robot masters.

5Better Student Behavior Through Data

Elementary schools in nearby Hamilton, Ohio, have turned to “student discipline tech using real-time data” to improve student behavior. This system, known as PBIS — Positive Behaviors & Intervention Supports — involves an online referral system for collecting data of student behavioral incidents. That data is then used to produce charts, graphs and campus maps showing behavioral hotspots, with the goal being that better data will lead to better response decisions and efforts.

Because the news article was a bit light on the details of just how the system works, I surfed over to pbis.org to try to find out more. Instead, I ran into an impenetrable maze of bureaucratic jargon, overly verbose pages, and a site design where information density and complexity appear to have been the guiding principles … rather than ease of use and simple to understand. What a shame: I was genuinely interested in learning more.

Vol. 2 | #5 | 02.01.19


This Is How SkyNet Started Out

Perhaps you’ve seen news stories that come out every so often about how a computer AI has mastered some new game, proving it’s prowess by besting the best human champions our world has to offer. If you haven’t, hear’s a quick refresher.

What’s fascinating about this latest game falling to the processing power of machine’s neural network is the open-ended nature of the game. While games like Chess and Go feature a mindboggingly high number of move combinations and possibilities, all of those possibilities are known to the computer because all of the pieces dictating those possibilities are visible.

Not so for real-time strategy (RTS) games like StarCraft II. When the game’s “fog of war” keeps the opponent’s moves and tactics hidden, the computer must make strategic choices based on imperfect and incomplete information. When a computer-agent  operating in an environment like that whips the best in the world 5 games to 0 … well then. Just listen to the defeated champion’s take:

“AlphaStar [the computer player/agent] takes well-known strategies and turns them on their head. The agent demonstrated strategies I hadn’t thought of before, which means there may still be new ways of playing the game that we haven’t fully explored yet.”


2The State of Ai

This kickoff article is the doorway to an entire issue of articles all exploring the world of artificial intelligence here at the beginning of 2019.

“we’re now at the point where AI is going to get normal fast. … so normal you won’t even notice.”

3A.I. Learning to Read Brainwaves

A team of researchers at Columbia University are working on a system that combines electrodes implanted in the brain to detect brain waves, a voice synthesizer, and a deep learning AI to make it all go. The goal is to be able to produce in computer generated speech the words that the test subject had heard by measuring the brain waves generated by the hearing, processing, and decoding of speech.

You can listen to the audio output of the effort yourself.

4“Trust us.” — Facebook

Yes, it’s been revealed in yet another way just how hungry Facebook is for the one asset they worship and crave above everything else: data. This time, it involved paying teens $20 per month for them to use a VPN app (with its connection to Facebook not at all clear) that basically served as an open conduit for Facebook to monitor nearly everything about the participants’ lives visible through their phone, texting, and web usage. But, it’s ok, says COO Sheyrl Sandberg, because they consented and were compensated. (Yes. She actually said that.)

Seeing these behaviors only through the lens of mobile phone apps distorts the picture so much we forget what it is we’re actually talking about. Imagine a flesh and blood stranger paying teens $20 to let the stranger follow them around wherever they went, and record everything they did … with $20 more for every friend the teen brought to the stranger.

Yeah. #Sketchy

5“No, really. Trust us.” — Facebook

Meanwhile, Facebook has written code into their product neutralizing the efforts of journalism outfit ProPublica to compile a database of political ads being run on Facebook. The whole point of ProPublica’s work was to provide transparency on the ads being run and how they are being targeted to Facebook users.

Facebook has put the kibosh on that work. They’re building their own tool for folks to use, they say, that will be as comprehensive and transparent for users as was ProPublica’s. Facebook wouldn’t lie about that to shield the workings of their money making machine, would they?

Vol. 2 | #4 | 01.25.19


Optimization Through Merger

Last month I highlighted the work Elon Musk and his Nerualink team are doing towards connecting the brain directly to a computer via an electrode implanted inside your head.  The goal is straightforward: link the mind to artificial intelligence at the speed of data, without the interface effects of typing, mousing or even speaking to slow things down.

But what if the human brain itself becomes the limitation? Designer Keiichi Matsuda’s 4-minute short film explores the ultimate choice awaiting the worshipers of the “cult of productivity.” Take a watch.

2Fixing the Web

In his book Life After Google, George Gilder describes the macro-trend that the internet has traversed since Tim Berners-Lee drew up the initial plan for the World Wide Web in 1989: from the information-rich wide open frontier of the distributed Net in the early days, to the centralized “walled garden” data farms of today’s Google/Facebook/Amazon world.

Like Gilder, Richard Witt sees the same disturbing trend, and thinks he has the answer.

3The Canary in Democracy’s Coal Mine

Allow me an extended quote from this excellent piece by Damon Linker about Twitter’s unique ability to both influence and illuminate the problems gripping our body politic:

“What Twitter shows us is a real-time ultrasound of the souls of America’s cultural and intellectual elite and its most committed activists — the people in charge of disseminating knowledge and who take the lead in organizing political action in our society. The picture it reveals is ugly, vulgar, shrill, and intolerant, with souls exhibiting an incapacity to deliberate, weigh evidence, and judge judiciously. They display an impulsiveness and unhinged rage at political enemies that is incompatible with reasoned thinking about how we might go about governing ourselves, heal the divisions in our country, and avoid a collapse into civic violence that could usher in tyranny.”

As we used to say in the old days of blogging: read the whole thing.


4“Scale breaks things in human beings.”

The click-bait title screams “Simon Sinek explains the real reason people fall in love!”

Ignore that title, because that’s not what this segment of conversation is really about. What Sinek is actually doing is using love to illustrate the maxim often attributed to Einstein but actually belonging to sociologist William Bruce Cameron: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

What grabbed me, though, is a small moment when Sinek points out how grand scale and relational humanity are incompatible. This is why large organizations always turn bureaucratic over time. The operation is too large at that scale for the humanity of individuals to continue to humanize the organization. This is a particularly fascinating topic when connected to the budding “zebra” movement of start-up entrepreneurs who are saying “no thanks” the to the hyper-growth mindset of the VC funding world and Silicon Valley.


5Rise of the GANs

So, you think the “fake news” of debatable video editing and narrative-driven, click-bait Twitter reporting is a dire threat to the republic? Wait til we have full-blown videos purporting to show exactly what happened in a given situation, featuring normal, everyday people like these folks:

What’s so special about these people? Nothing. It’s their ordinariness that is noteworthy, because none of these people are real people. All of the faces you see here were digitally designed and constructed by an AI algorithm technique known as a generative adversarial network. Every image in that collage is a digital Mr. Potato Head of facial parts, characteristics and data points combined in completely natural looking ways.

Oh, the frauds and social/civic havoc this tech creation will be able to wreak.

Vol. 2 | #3 | 01.18.19


10 Years Ago, Everyone Survived

US Airways Flight 1549 lasted all of five minutes, which was long enough to take off, lose both engines to a flock of Canadian geese, assess the situation, and make a plan. The efforts of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, Flight Attendant Donna Dent, Flight Attendant Doreen Welsh and Flight Attendant Sheila Dail exemplified the very best of the professional virtues of competence, teamwork and performance under pressure. Listen to the radio communications between the air traffic controller and “Cactus 1549” and hear just how utterly unflappable Capt. “Sully” was during those 5 minutes of destiny.

2What’s in a Name?

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” So goes the quote attributed to Albert Einstein. Somebody at Weight Watchers didn’t think this was advice worth heeding, as they announced back in September they were changing their name to “WW” … and no, the “WW” doesn’t stand for Weight Watchers or even their trademarked phrase “Wellness That Works.” Because of course. That would be too obvious.

3The Promise of Fusion Power

Often the stuff of sci-fi fantasy and perpetual-motion-machine dreams, nuclear fusion has long been described as the key to solving all of the planet’s power related problems. The premise is simple enough: whereas nuclear fission reactors release energy by splitting atoms, a fusion reactor works in reverse, by fusing atoms together and harnessing the energy that is released in the process. One major benefit of fusion is it’s much cleaner than fission. Because atoms are being combined rather than split, fusion doesn’t generate the radioactive byproduct of nuclear waste that we have to deal with currently with every nuclear fission reactor on the planet.

It is one of those things that we know works in theory — there’s a bright, shining example of it that appears in the east every morning —  but we have (thus far) proven unable to figure out how to make the theory work in practice. The main problem comes down to efficiency. Scientists are perfectly capable of fusing atoms together and collecting the energy by-product. It’s just that it always takes more energy to do it than fusion produces. You can see how that gets in the way of making a fusion reactor as a useful power source.

But, things may be changing on that front…

4North Isn’t What It Used to Be

While geographic North (the axis point around which the Earth rotates) remains the same, magnetic north is something else entirely. Not only does it wobble each day as the sun’s energy influences the Earth’s magnetic fields, but it is wandering over time due to the flows of the liquid metal of the mantle beneath the Earth’s crust. Whereas it started the 20th century in Canada, it is now in the middle of the Arctic Ocean heading towards Russia … which sounds like a plot line from an Austin Powers movie.

5From East Saint to LA and Back Again

What happens when you take a kid from one of the poorest and most crime-riddled areas of the country, hand him millions of dollars and put him on a “PJ” to the big time of the NBA as a top draft pick right out of high school? Darius Miles was that kid in 2000, and he will tell you. His piece in The Players Tribune is raw, unfiltered, tragic and a worthwhile read.