Vol. 1 | #19 | 10.05.18

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Net Neutrality, California-Style
You may remember the fight over “Net Neutrality” rules put into place at the federal level by the Obama Administration in 2015. Those rules didn’t last long: earlier this year, the FCC under the Trump Administration reversed the decision. California has now decided they’re not down with that, and has passed their own rules, which mirror the original Obama-era rules.

Why does this matter? It’s not just because California was the internet’s cradle and is home to Silicon Valley and all of the top tech and internet brands outside of Microsoft. When the world’s 5th largest economy (yes, you read that right: if California was its own country, it’d be the 5th largest economy in the world!) decides to regulate something, it tends to pull others in that direction whether they want to go or not.


2The Tiny Chip and the Massive Security Problem
There’s just no way to overstate the concern of this story. Operatives from China’s military managed to infiltrate the supply chain / production of server motherboards. The result was the addition of a malicious piece of hardware added to the boards, giving Chinese spies hardwired backdoor access to the data centers of major US companies including Apple and Amazon. The gif below, taken from the Bloomberg Businessweek article, shows how ridiculously tiny this silicon mole was. (Hint: wait for the white circle at the end.)

 


3Remembering the Space Shuttle in Photos
Columbus, OH, photographer John Chakeres has released a book about the early years of the Shuttle program, seen through the lens of his camera. It’s a time-machine trip back to the days when this new engineering marvel — the first ever reusable space launch vehicle — was going to turn space travel as routine as taking an airplane shuttle from New York to DC. These photos aren’t just spaceship cool. They’re photographic art beautiful.

CREDIT: John Chakeres


4The $100K Doorstop
This rock has been holding open doors since the Great Depression. Why is it now known to be worth a cool hundred grand? It’s a 22-lb remnant of a meteorite that landed in Michigan nearly 90 years ago.


5The Science of Eyewitness Testimony

Because making informed judgments requires knowing more than simply “who said what.” I worked with a lot of eyewitnesses in the over 50+ cases I took to trial during my career as a prosecutor. I don’t believe I misread the reliability of any of them that I worked with personally … but I shudder to think about the odds that I may have done so, even once.

All is not hopeless, though, when it comes to relying on eyewitness testimony. This counterpoint article, also from Scientific American (same as the one above), does a great job of explaining the meaningful difference between “reliability” and “malleability” of eyewitness testimony.

Vol. 1 | #18 | 09.28.18

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Ivy League Academic Fraud Taken Down 
If you’ve ever bought snacks in 100 calorie-sized packs, or used a smaller dinner plate as a psychological hack to nudge yourself into eating fewer calories, then you’ve put into practice the research findings of Cornell University Professor of Marketing Brian Wansink. In 2012, he took to the TEDxUVM stage to evangelize the lessons of his research into “mindless eating.” Here’s a look at one of his slides from that talk. Any of these solutions sound familiar?

Just one problem: all the purported science behind these ideas was junk. This Ars Technica article from last year explains how the questions about Wansink’s research began (a poor example and a throwaway joke about it on a blog post by Wansink) and what was wrong with his “science.”

If you’re not familiar with the term “p-hacking” and how it is affecting social science research well beyond just Brian Wansink, you should be. This FiveThirtyEight article illustrates how easy it is to “p-hack” data to make it say whatever you want to a degree of certainty sufficient for publication in peer reviewed scientific journals.

cartoon source: explainxkcd.com


2Would YOU Buy This From Facebook?
Facebook has justifiably earned loads of terrible press this past year or two over how they have carelessly and callously enriched themselves by printing money with the personal data of their users. When you think of a tech company who is proving itself too large for its own good and unworthy of being trusted with safekeeping the privacy of its users, is there anyone else besides Facebook in your mind?

With that in mind, Zuckerberg & Co. would like to sell you a video chat device that “will use facial recognition to tag users and follow them around the room.” Yeah, I’ve seen that movie before. I think I’ll pass.


3The Jawbone Autopsy
You may not have ever heard of the company Jawbone. But, if you own a set of wireless earbuds, a bluetooth speaker, a Fitbit or an Apple Watch, you are using products that all owe their very existence to Jawbone. The company invented the technology and hardware that literally created the product categories of bluetooth enabled headsets, wireless speakers, and wearable fitness trackers. Then, despite having secured one billion dollars in venture capital, Jawbone went belly-up and left its customers and creditors high and dry.

This interview with Jawbone’s CEO Hosain Rahman by Recode’s Kara Swisher is not only an interesting look behind the rise and fall of Jawbone. It is also a great example of how an interview can politely but doggedly keep pressing for the answers to the tough questions others don’t want to actually answer head on. At the headline link, you can either listen to the audio of Kara’s podcast episode with Rahman or read the transcript.


4The Tech Startup Executive I’d Love to Work For
He goes by “DHH,” and his company (co-founded with Jason Fried) is called Basecamp (formerly 37 Signals), named after their project management software. DHH — David Heinemeier Hansson — also created the popular web application programming framework known as Ruby on Rails (or just Rails for short). Whether through their original 37-point manifesto or their books (Rework, Remote, or the forthcoming It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work), DHH and Fried are not shy about declaring what’s wrong with the Silicon Valley startup culture.

In this article, DHH lays aim at –

  • focusing on “beating the competition”
  • the fallacy of the need to work long hours
  • the corrupting effect of “growth targets”
  • the dishonesty behind many of the tech industry’s famous employee perks.

5The Birds and the Bees As Seen by Radar

Just a neat series of tweets by Phil Stepanian, a researcher at the University of Oklahoma about how normal weather radar captures the daily flight patters of birds and bugs. This tweet thread is entertaining while educating, and full of fascinating views of animated radar gifs. Surfacing cool and interesting miscellany like this is Twitter at its near level best.

Vol. 1 | #17 | 09.21.18

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The Pointless CRISPR Patent Fight
The end of a protracted and costly tug-of-war litigation has likely arrived, and the question of who gets to claim the status and rewards of inventing the CRISPR-Cas9 technology for editing the genetic code of DNA has been decided: Feng Zhang and the Broad Institute team at MIT.

On the losing end was the team from UC-Berkely, headlined by geneticist Jennifer Doudna. It was Doudna who exposed the power of CRISPR-Cas9 to the rest of us outside the world of molecular biology with her TED talk (2.2 million views and counting). More impactful than Doudna’s repeated claims to having invented the technology in her talk was the metaphor she used to describe it: “That’s sort of analogous to the way that we use a word-processing program to fix a typo in a document.”

Why was this multi-million-dollar patent fight pointless? As the WIRED article linked above points out, at the time the conflicting patents were filed in 2012, the Cas9 protein (which was the subject of the patents) was the only protein known to be able to facilitate the “word-processing” like function of CRISPR. Now, some 6 years later, teams around the world have been finding many alternative proteins to use.


2A Googler’s “Jerry Maguire” Moment
As I’ve noted previously, Google is suffering a SIGSW over it’s toying with the idea to reenter the Chinese search market by agreeing to provide government censored search results. The anger many employees feel over what they (correctly) believe to be Google violating the spirit of its own “don’t be evil” ethic has boiled over beyond mere complaining on the company’s internal bulletin boards and signing a protest letter. Employees are now resigning over the issue, and not just low-level ones either. Jack Poulson was a Senior Research Scientist working on Google’s AI and Search functions before resigning his position in protest after working at Google for two years. His 6-page resignation letter (with 25 footnotes!) is worth the read.



3Paying Is Voluntary but the Selfies Are Free
The store is called The Drug Store, but it’s not a pharmacy. It sells designer drinks from Dirty Lemon (who owns the store) that sell for over $10 per bottle, and yes: paying is voluntary. There is nobody working the store, and no credit card machine to use. Instead, customers send a text message to Dirty Lemon self-identifying what they bought, and their credit card is charged accordingly. (This is the same method Dirty Lemon uses exclusively to sell its drinks online.) Aesthetically, the store is designed to encourage people to snap selfies of themselves inside posing with their chic DL bottles on Instagram.

As they say online: what could possibly go wrong?


4Can a CAT Scan See Your Mind?
It can show your brain, of course, but are these really the same thing? This is the question that Dr. Michael Egnor tackles in this thought-provoking article. Dr. Egnor is a neurosurgeon and professor of neurological surgery and pediatrics at Stony Brook University in New York.

He opens his piece with an arresting description of a child born with only about 1/3 the normal amount of brain matter, distributed along the periphery of the child’s skull. The remaining volume of the child’s head was filled with water. Not only did little Katie survive, she is soon to be graduating from high school as an honors student. If our minds are simply what we call the neuronic activity of our brains, how can such a fractional brain produce a whole, healthy mind?

The relationship between our brains and our minds is a question that extends beyond just the boundaries of neuroscience, philosophy and theology. With the onward march of AI, the question is being asked: can a machine ever truly think? Is artificial consciousness possible? Here’s a video of an address (<16 minutes) Dr. Egnor delivered at the launch of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, WA. He says “no,” because thinking and computations are two different categories entirely.

Interestingly, the book Life After Google that I’m reading now (and mentioned last month) makes same assertion but gets there by virtue of the math and computer science involved.


5You Never Know What Your Art Can Lead To

This story is proof that you truly never know the future impact you could have simply by putting your creative output out into the world. Valentino Dixon had served 27 years in prison of his 36-years-to-life sentence for murder when he got the news: his conviction had been vacated and he would soon be a free man. The catalyst that started journalists digging into his conviction that ultimately led to the realization that he was, in fact, innocent? — Dixon’s hand-drawn, colored-pencil drawings of golf courses (he’s never played a single hole, anywhere) and the profile of Dixon in Golf Digest six years ago because of those drawings.

Let me say that again: colored pencil drawings about golf courses started a chain of events that led to an innocent man finally being freed after 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

This is one worth reading.

Vol. 1 | #16 | 09.14.18

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How Levees Can Make Flooding Worse
With Hurricane Florence about to drop a jaw-dropping level of rain on the Carolinas over the weekend, flooding is a major concern. Of course, it doesn’t take a hurricane to cause destructive flooding, as the history of river flooding in the center of the US has repeatedly shown. As we saw back in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina, when a levee fails to hold like like those meant to keep Lake Ponchatrain out of New Orleans’ neighborhoods, the flooding that results can be catastrophic.

What’s interesting about this piece of fantastic journalism from Pro Publica is that it examines the flooding problems that can arise when the levees work as designed. Not only was this fascinatingly informative. This effort is a beautiful example of how data visualization and the internet can be harnessed to present information. For example, also check out this companion piece: “How Overbuilt Levees Along the Upper Mississippi River Push Floods Onto Others.”


2Concrete + Gravity = Battery?
Yep. That’s exactly what it adds up to. When I first saw this link come across my feed, I clicked it expecting to read about some magical chemical process turning concrete itself into a medium for storing energy like a lithium-ion battery. (Seriously, how cool would *that* be? Forget buying Powewall units from Tesla. Imagine if the walls of your basement doubled as a giant battery for your entire house!)

The reality is much more simple and, in its way, ingenius. If reading the article and navigating past the explanatory math, just watch the video at the top of the piece.


3The Internet & the Domino Queen
Checking out this profile of 19-year-old professional domino artist Lily Hevesh and her mind-blowing domino designs is more than just an exercise in classic internet diversionary entertainment. (Which, thanks to my 13-year-old daughter, I’ve learned has a name for the genre: “satisfying videos.”)

It’s an illustration of how the interconnectedness of the internet has made something like a “19-year-old professional domino artist” even a thing. You don’t have to go far back into history to see how remarkable a change this is. Twenty-five years ago last month I started college as a freshman. (Trust me, it feels farther back than it is!) Going back to then — 1993 — a teenager who liked to do intricate, large-scale domino setups and knock them down may have been entertaining to their friends and family, but that was really as far as the interest could go. Maybe there would be a club for like-minded folks if you lived in a large city, but even that provided little more than a community and sense of belonging. The spark of such a niche interest did not have access to the fuel and oxygen of a larger market to catch fire.

Fast forward a mere quarter century, and a niche interest can become a career with the investment of a camera, an internet connection, and time. Lily Hevesh published her first video on YouTube when she was 10 years old: a one minute compilation of several different domino designs falling using actual playing dominoes, all on what appears to be the family’s living room coffee table. Today, her YouTube channel has over 2 million subscribers, and her videos have been viewed a combined 500,000,000 times. With the demands of posting a new video each week, and the professional gigs that come her way, finishing college is no longer relevant.

Check out her latest video, posted yesterday as a “collab” with a few other likeminded YouTubers: “The Lemonade Machine” It’s the greatest thing you will see on the internet this week.


4Facebook’s Big Problem
And then there’s the dark side of the interconnectedness of the internet. Two quotes to sample from this 14,000+ word New Yorker article:

If Facebook were a country, it would have the largest population on earth. More than 2.2 billion people, about a third of humanity, log in at least once a month. That user base has no precedent in the history of American enterprise. Fourteen years after it was founded, in Zuckerberg’s dorm room, Facebook has as many adherents as Christianity.”

. . .

At an event in November, 2017, Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, called himself a “conscientious objector” to social media, saying, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” A few days later, Chamath Palihapitiya, the former vice-president of user growth, told an audience at Stanford, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works—no civil discourse, no coöperation, misinformation, mistruth.” Palihapitiya, a prominent Silicon Valley figure who worked at Facebook from 2007 to 2011, said, “I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew in the back of our minds.” Of his children, he added, “They’re not allowed to use this shit.”


5Do You Really Own That Movie or Song?

When you can own a movie digitally and access it using any device anywhere you are, why would you ever want to buy a DVD or Blueray instead?

Oh …

Click on the headline link to read the whole thread. It’s remarkable.

Vol. 1 | #15 | 09.07.18

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BS Jobs and the Meaning of Work
If you’re not familiar with the concept of the UBI — Universal Basic Income — it’s time to start learning. Not because it’s necessarily the solution for the problem of poverty – there’s lots of debate about that, as you can imagine. Rather, the concept is more important because it is in the context of talking about UBI that a looming problem is at least getting discussed with some seriousness. What to do in a possible future when technology (be it AI, robotics, or both) makes the meaningful employment of large swaths of society obsolete?


2More on the History and Future of Work
It’s easy to fall into the notion that the “gig economy” is a relatively new phenomenon just because companies like Uber and WeWork are relatively new companies. In this podcast (you can either listen or read the transcript at the link above), author Louis Hyman discusses the argument of his new book, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary — that the roots of the gig economy originally sprouted in the ’50’s and ’60’s as a result of the new thinking about how corporations should conduct themselves.


3The Real Challenge Facing Tesla
Yes, Tesla is learning that manufacturing car at scale is a seriously tough feat, both from an engineering and an operational standpoint. And while they still have quite a ways to go there, Tesla’s sales haven’t suffered. Just take a look at the numbers of all electric and electric-hybrid vehicles sold in the US last month:

But even assuming they successfully tackle the manufacturing challenge, that isn’t the end of the game. It will just mean the game for market dominance is officially on. Few people write as smartly about the larger trends of the tech world than Andreesen Horowitz ‘partner’ Benedict Evans. His analysis of the four pieces of the game Tesla is aiming to win — and the one that actually matters the most — is a great example of deep strategic thinking. If you only click through and read one thing from me this week, this is it.


4The Even More Pressing Challenge Facing Tesla
There is simply no way to sugar coat this: Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, is saying and doing things of late that are giving even his most ardent defenders pause. From his repeated bizarre lewd insult of one of the rescue divers in Thailand (for which he is being sued) to his half-cocked tweet about taking Tesla private (for which he is being investigated by the SEC and is also being sued), Musk’s mouth and tweets are creating havoc for Tesla. If the reports by the Wall Street Journal linked in the title here are true, Musk’s behavior as the day-to-day leader and CEO are becoming a problem as well. Of course, none of this is playing well for Tesla’s stockholders.

via GIPHY


5The Wonder Years of Web Design
It’s called the Web Design Museum, and let’s just say it’s a fabulous diversionary time machine walk through the garish colors and dense designs of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Here’s what CNN.com looked like on the day it was launched: