Vol. 1 | #27 | 11.30.18


Landing on Mars, Part 8

This week saw NASA’s InSight probe touch down safely on the flat plains of Mars known as Elysium Planitia, making it the 8th probe to successfully land. (The loss of the Polar Lander/Deep Space 2 lander in 1999 remains the only mission failure.)

InSight’s perfect 3-point landing was engineering precision at its finest. After launching from Earth on May 5 and traveling over 300 million miles, InSight broke into the Martian atmosphere on November 26 at the breakneck speed of 12,300 miles per hour. A mere six and a half minutes later, a combination of a parachute and retro-rockets decelerated the craft and set it down on the red planet flawlessly. Soon thereafter, InSight got to work doing what any human astronaut would do in the same situation: take a selfie and share it.

And because this is just too cool to not include: NASA’s Explore Mars Trek site is like Google Earth but for Mars, with bookmarks full of info on the other landers on Martian soil.

23D Printing the Keys to Mars

Imagine it is 2028, and a SpaceX BFR has begun ferrying colonists to Mars. Transporting the materials needed to build habitats and the like are an expensive necessity where weight at launch is concerned: more cargo weight requires more fuel needed to carry that weight and more fuel adds even more weight, etc.

Want to take a big bite out of that engineering puzzle? Figure out how to use 3D printing technology to turn the raw materials available on Mars into building materials and equipment parts. The European Space Agency is on it.

Next: figure out how to maintain a well-ventilated workspace in a sealed environment on a planet without breathable air, because it appears 3D printing throws toxic nanoparticles into the air. That’s no bueno for the lungs of future Martians…

3Chinese AI Taking Newsreading to a New Level

Is it more creepy or less that this AI-built digital news anchor is modeled after a real, human news anchor? Because I can’t decide.

4Minority Report in Real Life

The 2002 film starring Tom Cruise and based off the short story by Philip K. Dick was not supposed to be a playbook to follow. Nevertheless, a metro police department in central England is testing a program to do just that: use AI-powered analysis and statistical data to identify individuals who are deemed a high-risk to either commit a violent crime or be the victim of one and intervene before those crimes can occur. The intervention consists of “pre-emptive counselling” and visits from local social workers.

As the bloggers used to say: what could possibly go wrong?


5$92M Worth of Chop Suey

It is hard to wrap my brain around the idea that a single painting could fetch such an astronomical sum at auction. Yes, Chop Suey (below, left) is a gorgeous piece of American art and was the last of Edward Hopper’s paintings still in private hands, but still.
If you don’t recognize the name Edward Hopper (I certainly didn’t!), you probably recognize his most famous work, Nighthawks (below, right), which is one of the most recognizably iconic images of 20th Century art.


By way of perspective, the operating budget for the entire Beavercreek City School District out here in SW Ohio — an excellent performing district comprised of 10 schools, nearly 8,000 students, serving many military families from nearby Wright-Patt AFB, and employer of my wife — is only $94M.

Vol. 1 | #26 | 11.23.18


Sweet Talking You Into (a) Bed

There’s a lot of money to be made disrupting the ripe-for-the-picking mattress industry by using the internet to by-pass the normal marketing, sales and distribution hurdles. Which means there’s evidently a lot of money to be made becoming a trusted source of mattress reviews for the growing number of internet mattress shoppers. This story is a revealing peek behind the curtain to the conflicts of interest and financial incentives hiding behind those “trusted” review sites.

2Unlocking Your Genome for $200

Because Moore’s Law applies to more than just computer processing power, things that were once the domain of massive government investment can now be had as a moderately priced consumer product. Case in point: the original project that sequenced the human genome (officially completed in 2003) took 13 years and cost $2.7 Billion.

3It’s Like Facebook for Cars

Imagine looking at Facebook — with its 2-years-running series of data privacy scandals and public relations crisis — and thinking “let’s use them as the model to reshape our century-old business after.”

Yet, that appears to be what the braintrust running Ford Motor Company is planning to do. Peering into the mists of the future and seeing autonomous cars that more people pay for access to and fewer people own, Ford’s ability to keep earning billions in profits is not a foregone conclusion. Evidently converting from a company that builds, sells and finances cars into one that uses cars to collect data to sell about the drivers/users is going to be Ford’s answer.

4The DaVinci of Silicon Valley

Really cool story about Alexander Weygers, a mid-20th-century renaissance man who lived as a radical conservationist, forged his own utensils in his blacksmith shop, created sculpture artwork and … patented a flying saucer design. In 1945.

5Becoming Carrie Fisher

It was quite an interesting experience seeing a young Carrie Fisher playing Princess Leia at the end of the standalone Star Wars film Rogue One. Here’s the story behind the technology that brought the 19-year-old Fisher back to life in her signature role.

Vol. 1 | #25 | 11.16.18


The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month…

… is when the first modern, armageddon-style atrocity officially ended, 100 years ago this week. Using the visual record of the sounds of the guns falling silent at the appointed time, sound engineers working with Britain’s Imperial War Museum recreated what that moment would’ve sounded like.

How that graphic record of the sounds of artillery fire was made is itself an interesting read. If you don’t know what “sound ranging” is or how it was used to locate and destroy those guns, the IWF has a great explainer.

2The Tragedy of Armistice Day

There is lots of gut wrenching awfulness to go around when studying what was then known as The Great War:

  • the mindless machinery of the interlocking alliances that turned the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife — the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Duchess Sophie Chotek — by a Yugoslavic nationalist into a Europe-devouring apocalypse; or
  • the banal meat grinder strategy of places like Verdun (~300,000 dead, ~400,000 more injured over 10 months) and the Somme (over a million combined casualties among the British, French and German armies in less than 5 months).

But there is a special place in infamy for the commanding officers who ordered their troops to continue fighting up until the literal last minute. Men like Maj. Gen. William H. Wright, who sacrificed the lives of 61 of his men (another 304 were wounded) retaking control of the little town of Stenay in northeastern France on the morning of November 11, 1918. Why was recapturing Stenay on the 11th so important when the American troops could’ve entered it peacefully on the 12th? According to Maj. Gen. Wright, “it was realized that if the enemy were permitted to stay in Stenay, our troops would be deprived of the probable bathing facilities there.”

All told, the pointless fighting on Armistice Day itself resulted in nearly 11,000 total casualties, including ~6,600 lives lost on all sides. Those dead included Henry Gunther, America’s last KIA of World War 1: Gunther was killed by machine gun fire at 10:59 am, one minute before the armistice was to take effect, as he attempted to storm a German roadblock.

(By comparison, total Allied casualties on D-Day were approximately 10,000, with just over 4,400 confirmed dead.)

3The Amazon-ization of Everything

As more and more people buy more and more things online from Amazon, the companies making those things will start adopting their product designs and marketing to how Amazon wants them vs how the end customer does. Case in point, retail giant P&G’s new packaging design for Tide laundry detergent. Think the author of the above-linked article is overstating things? P&G’s own press release unabashedly announces that the Tide Eco-Box is the first product packaging designed to maximize ecommerce shipping appeal.

Of course, as we’ve seen in recent days Amazon’s gravity well is pulling more than just consumer behavior and product design practices into its orbit. The astronomical prices paid by New York City and Arlington, Virginia to be the home of Amazon’s HQ2 sites are well documented. But the shameless way cities threw themselves at Bezos & Co. goes well beyond tax incentives. Witness the special perks Atlanta, Georgia was promising Amazon…


4The State Calls Alexa to the Stand

You might recall the brouhaha back in 2016 between the FBI and Apple over gaining access to the locked iPhone 5C of Syed Rizwan Farook, the primary actor in the San Bernardino terrorist mass shooting attack. Apple never relented in its refusal to build software to do the job, so the FBI had to go hacker shopping to get it done (to the tune of ~$900K).

Getting a corporation to help law enforcement gain access to user data is nothing new — judges have been signing search warrants to enable the government to invade the private spaces of its citizens since the founding of the republic. The only difference now is *what* can be obtained through that legal process.

In this case out of New Hampshire, it is believed that the sounds of the fight that culminated into a double homicide may have been captured and preserved by the victim’s Amazon Alexa connected smart speaker. If this had been a simple audio recording device that had been passively recording the ambient noise in the home on that night, getting access to those recordings wouldn’t be an issue. But, it’s Alexa, and making her talk could peel back the curtain on jhow Amazon’s prized AI assistant works, and just how much she is capturing in the background. So, this will be a giant legal food fight, painted in the media as Amazon fighting to protect user privacy against Big Brother Government.

How quaint.

Ask Will Smith how having a robot as a witness to a murder turned out…


5Is This Gonna Be a Thing?

For the life of me, I can’t believe a smartphone with a foldable screen is a technological advance that consumers will adopt. As Google proved with their ill-fated Google Glass, just because something is a technological advance doesn’t mean it is a marketable product. Of course, I also remember remarking back in 2006 that I didn’t see the point of the new trend of cell phones with embedded digital cameras in them.

Vol. 1 | #24 | 11.09.18


The Internet Strikes Back

Or, more specifically, the Internet Service Provider. This is a fascinating story about the clash between the internet’s DNA of openly available information — the World Wide Web was invented to organize and make accessible scientific research at CERN, after all — and the publishing industry’s rights under copyright law. (Full disclosure: the company involved, Elsevier, is a sister company to my last employer, LexisNexis.)
In his book The Inevitable, author and Wired Magazine Founding Editor Kevin Kelly says technologies want certain things and to be used in certain ways. Once data is digitized, Kelly argues, it wants to be copied, shared, and widely distributed. These capabilities and destinies are part of the very fabric of digital information. The business models of Elsevier and others that were born in a 19th Century world are not going to be long for this 21st Century version, I believe.



What Ails the TV Industry

Not only is the cord cutting trend of television programming viewers not diminishing, it is accelerating. Just like with the Elseviers of the publishing industry, the television industry was designed in an era where distribution power was king. Whether by over-the-air broadcast license, through the laying of coaxial cable or by the launching of satellites, the money was in the power of the few to control the distribution of video programming content.

Now, thanks to the ubiquity of high-speed internet and the powerful bandwidth capability of fiber optic networks, distribution is no longer a valuable lever. All the content in the world can be delivered to anyone and everyone through an internet connection, whether wired, wi-fi, or cellular. Infinite distribution is here, and it’s only the massive amount of the inertia of consumer habits that remains to keep people subscribed to the likes of TimeWarner Cable and AT&T’s DirecTV. As William Gibson, the godfather of the cyberpunk sci-fi genre has often said, “The future is already here. It just isn’t evenly distributed yet.”


What Ails the Taxi Industry

It’s easy to say that Uber and Lyft are the daggers driving themselves into the oversized heart of the slow, fat and heretofore happy taxi industry, and there’s obviously much truth to that. But as New York City’s taxi regulating commission recently announced it would delay collecting the roughly $20 Million in medallion fees taxi owner must pay to the city each year, it is clear that there are much deeper systemic issues at work. See if you can spot them.


Who to Hit?

As self-driving cars inch closer to becoming a common reality, the greatest challenge is in answering the question of how to program a machine to navigate a world full of choices with no clear right answer and terrible consequences from failure. As in: if your autonomous vehicle is faced with the inescapable choice of having to hit one pedestrian or another, who should it avoid/save and who should it sacrifice? — the pregnant mother or the doctor? The young boy or the old woman? Help the folks at MIT sort these moral dilemma out by taking a spin on their Moral Machine.

(I find these types of questions to be silly nonsensical examples of how we expect more out of our created machines than we do out of our own selves. Where a human driver to face the same situation, there’s no time to weigh these possibilities even if you could somehow know that the woman in the jogging suit is a doctor and the man in the cargo shorts is an athlete.

Also noteworthy: people would rather hit the criminal than the dog, but would spare the criminal over the cat.)


The Canary in the Coal Mine Drives a Chevy

One of the other inevitable vectors of technology that Kevin Kelly talks about is the move towards a system of access and less a system of ownership. Take, for example, music. Once upon a time, buying music was the only way to exert any editorial control over the music you listened to (because the DJ’s dictated what you listened to on the radio), and the only technological debate was whether the medium of that purchase would be vinyl, magnetic cassette tape, laser-encoded digital compact disc, or the disembodied MP3 digital wave file.

But now, owning music is really an unnecessary cost and storage burden if all you want to do is listen to music. (Collecting things is its own phenomenon.) Paying for access to music via streaming services is both cheaper and more convenient: for a single monthly fee that is less than the cost of a single CD, users gain access to a huge catalog of music far beyond their ability to amass themselves.

Now, as the future of autonomous vehicles available on demand via services like Uber comes into focus, that same trend could decimate the entire auto manufacturing industry whose business model is designed around the concept of consumer car ownership. But, what if that, too, changes?

Now you understand why GM is taking major steps to radically shift the makeup and skillsets of its massive workforce, and why CEO Mary Berra, when asked if GM was becoming a tech company instead of a car company, replied “that is my goal.” If you want to get a glimpse of how radically different the world is going to soon be, pay attention to the transformation taking place up in Detroit.

Vol 1 | #23 | 11.02.18

Vol. 1 | #23 | 11.02.18


What Monitors Are Saying

Did you know that the monitor you are reading this on is broadcasting what you are seeing? That’s right: not just showing, but broadcasting a description of what is on your screen by means of ultrasonic sound. Yeah, me neither. And now that a team of researchers has pioneered a way to use machine learning algorithms to convert this “acoustic leakage” into visual data … to literally see what the user of the screen is seeing. To make it even more astounding, the researchers were able to pull this acoustic signal from recordings taken from as far as 30 feet away, using microphones no more sophisticated than the one in your smartphone.


It’s Like Uber, For Your Face

Honestly, I don’t even know what to say about this. Read it for yourself and you tell me.


It’s Like Tesla For Planes

Whenever a global confab on climate change takes place, one of the predictable memes that rolls across places like Twitter goes something like this:

Nothing puts out CO2 quite like a set of Rolls Royce TAY 611-8’s on a G-IV burning sweet jet fuel.

But, what if like Tesla has done for personal travel on the ground, air travel could be done on electricity stored in super-efficient, lightweight batteries? Some mind-blowing stuff coming out of MIT.


Paper Airplane Database

Before the advent of social media turned the internet into a psychological and privacy hellscape, the internet was a place where anyone with a quirky interest could throw up a website with information that others might find valuable.

This is just such a site: a magnificent display of 40 paper airplane designs, filterable on 8 different characteristics, with super clear visual instructions for each. This is the internet at its purest expression of playfully useful.


An Interview With Gen. Stanley McChrystal (ret.)

This interview is a compelling read, full of humility, thoughtfulness and nuance.

Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described McChrystal as “perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I ever met.” He was the commander of the coalition Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq in 2003-05 when the fighting was the hottest, and he led the entire operation in Afghanistan under President Obama after that. He is the author of one of my absolute favorite books — Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World — and I can’t wait to tear into his latest offering, which came in the mail today.