Vol. 2 | #10 | 03.08.19

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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.”

via GIPHY

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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.

$28,800

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

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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.

Vol. 2 | #7 | 02.15.19

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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

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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.