For Your Consideration: CO2 Eaters, Theses For Disputation, Holographic Protest, Moral Bucket List

1. Synthetic Organisms to Sequester Carbon Dioxide
The time has past when we could ease our way out of climate change. Now we are being forced to get more creative and there are risks on all sides.

The inexorable rise of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and the steady increase in global temperatures raise the frightening prospect of significant change in Earth’s climate. Indeed, the evidence seems clear that our climate is altering rapidly.

So scientists and politicians the world over are looking for ways to halt or reverse these changes, a task that is fraught with difficulties in a world hooked on fossil fuels. One option increasingly discussed is terraforming—deliberately altering the environment in a way that cools the planet, perhaps by absorbing carbon dioxide or reflecting sunlight

To have an impact, these kinds of plans changes must have a global reach require engineering projects of previously unimaginable scale. That’s set bioengineers thinking that there might be an alternative option.

Instead of creating global engineering projects, why not create life forms that do a similar job instead. The big advantage of this approach is that organisms grow naturally and can spread across huge areas of the planet by the ordinary mechanisms of life. Thus the process of terraforming the landscape would occur with minimal human input. What could possibly go wrong?

2. 79 Theses on Technology. For Disputation.
So many prompts for good thinking and discussion in this. Pairs well with the ethical considerations of technology and New Clues from the Cluetrain Manifesto folks (who started out with 95 Theses).

A disputation is an old technology, a formal technique of debate and argument that took shape in medieval universities in Paris, Bologna, and Oxford in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In its most general form, a disputation consisted of a thesis, a counter-thesis, and a string of arguments, usually buttressed by citations of Aristotle, Augustine, or the Bible.

But disputations were not just formal arguments. They were public performances that trained university students in how to seek and argue for the truth. They made demands on students and masters alike. Truth was hard won; it was to be found in multiple, sometimes conflicting traditions; it required one to give and recognize arguments; and, perhaps above all, it demanded an epistemic humility, an acknowledgment that truth was something sought, not something produced.

It is, then, in this spirit that Jacobs offers, tongue firmly in cheek, his seventy-nine theses on technology and what it means to inhabit a world formed by it. They are pithy, witty, ponderous, and full of life…

So here they are (7 of 79):

  1. Everything begins with attention.
  2. It is vital to ask, “What must I pay attention to?”
  3. It is vital to ask, “What may I pay attention to?”
  4. It is vital to ask, “What must I refuse attention to?”
  5. To “pay” attention is not a metaphor: Attending to something is an economic exercise, an exchange with uncertain returns.
  6. Attention is not an infinitely renewable resource; but it is partially renewable, if well-invested and properly cared for.
  7. We should evaluate our investments of attention at least as carefully and critically as our investments of money.

3. The world’s first holographic protest held in Spain
I had always thought pico projectors would become a part of the protesters arsenal. I had not considered holograms. Well played.

A protest group pulled off an undeniably futuristic stunt this weekend in Spain: they sent thousands of holograms parading past the lower house of the country’s parliament.

The augmented reality protest was just the latest in activist groups’ campaign against a series of “citizen security” bills, which received final passage in March. The new laws criminalize some forms of protest, such as gathering in front of Parliament. And among highly restrictive digital provisions, the law makes taking or distributing “unauthorized” photographs of police a crime punishable with a 30,000 euro fine. All in, the laws would create 45 new infractions, mostly centered on cracking down on dissent.

The new measures will go into effect July 1, if they survives national and European legal challenges.

No Somos Delito, which translates as We Are Not Crime, has been protesting what they call the country’s “gag law,” and in that context, the hologram protest is more than the stunt it might first appear. Under conditions in which people cannot put their bodies into the streets, the ghostly virtual projections serve both as protest and as a reminder of the protests that cannot occur.

4. The Moral Bucket List

ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.

A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul. I was going to have to have the sort of moral adventures that produce that kind of goodness. I was going to have to be better at balancing my life.

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.

So a few years ago I set out to discover how those deeply good people got that way. I didn’t know if I could follow their road to character (I’m a pundit, more or less paid to appear smarter and better than I really am). But I at least wanted to know what the road looked like.

I came to the conclusion that wonderful people are made, not born — that the people I admired had achieved an unfakeable inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments…

 

“I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness – it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude.” – Brene Brown

 

 
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I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.

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For Your Consideration: Fighting Words, Tinker Education, License Plate Readers, and Swarm Farming

1. Fighting Words: Thoughts on Prose Style Prompted by John Wick
This essay is a brilliant rumination on how and why different mediums, visual motion and text, do what they do so differently and so well. Each able to excite and convey information in different ways.

Just… ponder that beautiful scene for a second.  John Wick did well with general audiences, but from action fans I heard a collective scream of joy for, among the film’s other virtues, its return to legible fight scenes, and rejection of the Bourne Consensus of Shakey-Cam Combat.  The choreography in John Wick is clear and sharp, the cuts minimal and explicative rather than meant to mystify.  There is a point to the Bourne style fight—it mimics pretty well what it’s like to be in an actual grappling match with intent to kill or maim or at least defend oneself, which is to say deeply confusing and unpleasant.  This camerawork, by contrast, shows us the battlefield as John Wick sees it: composed of clean angles and short, sharp stops.  The fight scene is ballet and the camera one more dancer, intended to highlight rather than obscure the performance.  Nor does the choreography stint from displays of sheer strength and determination, highlighting this important element of the character.  While we begin (from 0:17 to 0:35) with angle, rotation, speed, and precision, we end (as the movie itself ends) with an uncomfortable forty seconds of flailing over a knife.

After the credits rolled, I stood and paced the house thinking, how on earth could I accomplish that same effect in prose?  How could I write scenes that felt like those?

Now, for most of my life my instinct has been: well, you just describe what happened!  So, first he shoots the one guy, then spins and shoots the other guy twice, then changes angle to shoot the third guy.  But that doesn’t capture the information coded in the elegance of Wick’s motion, or even the tiny details that make the first four-shot sequence stick, like blood spray or the spatter on the photograph on the back wall.  (Let alone the music’s heightening of tension and discomfort, or the cinematography’s coding of shadow as threat and moonlight as exposure and the way that plays with the bad guys’ darker wardrobes and balaclavas, the gunshot flares as revelatory instrument.)  Capturing all of that would require a denser, fuller prose approach that would conflict with the speed of the scene, unless we wanted to embrace the Proust.

So, what can prose do well…

2. Learning Through Tinkering​

“There are not enough opportunities in a child’s life to be taken seriously, to be given autonomy and to learn authentically,” says Tulley. “I think they need learning opportunities that respect and incorporate their ideas.”

Tulley’s book presents 50 challenges (with instructions), each utterly at odds with today’s rampant helicopter parenting, such as Stand on a Roof, Taste Electricity (by licking a 9-volt battery), Dam a Creek and (I’ll admit I’m not ready to allow this one yet) Cross Town on Public Transportation.

“50 Dangerous Things” emphasizes the importance of introducing risk, facilitating autonomy and letting kids know that with danger comes discovery. This book comes to life at The Tinkering School, a program Tulley started here in San Francisco in 2000. (There is also a K-12 school, Brightworks, and a sleepaway camp down the coast; the program has recently expanded to Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin and Buffalo.)

This isn’t just a bunch of kids messing around with stuff. Behind the chaos you can see the gears turning. There is no template, no set of instructions (and no screens). They need to be attentive, engaged and curious. As they begin a project, they’re learning how to collaborate, identify the skill sets of their group and deploy those talents accordingly, and problem-solve creatively. “The use of real tools dramatically increases agency,” says the Tinkering School’s manager, Joshua Rothhaas. “It’s like learning Spanish and suddenly realizing you can talk to about 400 million more people in the world than you could before you knew Spanish. It fundamentally changes the way your kid thinks about the world, how it works, and what they are capable of.”

3. We know where you’ve been: Automated License Plate Readers
I really want to start digging into FOIA and open records laws to see what other kinds of information is available…

If you have driven in Oakland any time in the last few years, chances are good that the cops know where you’ve been, thanks to their 33 automated license plate readers (LPRs).

Now Ars knows too.

In response to a public records request, we obtained the entire LPR dataset of the Oakland Police Department (OPD), including more than 4.6 million reads of over 1.1 million unique plates between December 23, 2010 and May 31, 2014. The dataset is likely one of the largest ever publicly released in the United States—perhaps in the world.

After analyzing this data with a custom-built visualization tool, Ars can definitively demonstrate the data’s revelatory potential. Anyone in possession of enough data can often—but not always—make educated guesses about a target’s home or workplace, particularly when someone’s movements are consistent (as with a regular commute).

For instance, during a meeting with an Oakland city council member, Ars was able to accurately guess the block where the council member lives after less than a minute of research using his license plate data. Similarly, while “working” at an Oakland bar mere blocks from Oakland police headquarters, we ran a plate from a car parked in the bar’s driveway through our tool. The plate had been read 48 times over two years in two small clusters: one near the bar and a much larger cluster 24 blocks north in a residential area—likely the driver’s home.

“Where someone goes can reveal a great deal about how he chooses to live his life,” Catherine Crump, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told Ars. “Do they park regularly outside the Lighthouse Mosque during times of worship? They’re probably Muslim. Can a car be found outside Beer Revolution a great number of times? May be a craft beer enthusiast—although possibly with a drinking problem.”

“Project forward to a world where LPR technology is cheap and they can be mounted on every police car and posted at every traffic light,” said Crump. “Do you think that anyone with a badge should be able to search through that data at their discretion? If not, then you should support restrictions on how long law enforcement agents can store this data, and who can access it, and under what circumstances.”

4. Swarmfarm Robotics

ANDREW Bate well remembers his light-bulb moment. He was sitting alone one night in the dark cab of his powerful new tractor spraying weeds on the family cropping farm near Emerald, in central Queensland. He recalls thinking about where it was all going to lead.

“Machines were getting bigger, wider, heavier and more expensive. There was this mad boom to get more hectares sprayed or harvested in a day,” he says. “I was frustrated with spending more time in my tractor, less time with my family. If the one machine broke down everything stopped.” The 36-year-old Bate was also having trouble with weeds that had become resistant to chemicals. “I started to wonder if we were doing it right; if we couldn’t be more efficient and timely, and do it all at a lower cost by farming in a completely different way. I decided then that everything had got way past the point of a farming system that was best for the growing of a good crop.”

Out on his farm at Gindie, 300km south of Emerald, Bate has two of his prototype robots at work in the field killing weeds. His previous weed sprayer weighed 21 tonnes, measured 36 metres across its spray unit, guzzled diesel by the bucketload and needed a paid driver who would only work limited hours. Two robots working together on Bendee effortlessly sprayed weeds in a 70ha mung-bean crop last month. Their infra-red beams picked up any small weeds among the crop rows and sent a message to the nozzle to eject a small chemical spray. Bate hopes to soon use microwave or laser technology to kill the weeds. Best of all, the robots do the work without guidance. They work 24 hours a day. They have in-built navigation and obstacle detection, making them robust and able to decide if an area of a paddock should not be traversed. Special swarming technology means the robots can detect each other and know which part of the paddock has already been assessed and sprayed

Another program built into the robots by Bate and his collaborators means the machines can also detect when they are running out of water, chemicals or fuel, and go to a nearby tanker to refuel. They can dock with the tank without aid, fill up and return to their midnight spraying. “That’s where the swarm comes in,” says Bate. “They can communicate with each other, know what each other is doing and change their behaviour and actions accordingly. They won’t come in to refuel at the same time and if one has found an area with many weeds and is taking longer to cover it, the other will adapt its grid pattern to compensate.”

“What a strange machine man is. You fill him with bread, wine, fish, and radishes, and out comes sighs, laughter and dreams.” – Nikos Kazantzakis

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For Your Consideration: Cryptopticon, Plato for Plumbers, RPG as Education, Growth Industries

1. The Cryptopticon

Cohen develops a complex theory of a networked self that helps us distill a better working definition of privacy than the worn and somewhat limited one Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis dubbed “the right to be left alone” in their landmark 1890 article on privacy rights in the Harvard Law Review.3 Through Cohen, we can see that privacy does not consist merely of those aspects of our lives that we withhold from others. Privacy is more than the autonomy we exercise over our own information. It more accurately comprises the ways we manage our various reputations within and among various contexts. Those contexts might include school, church, the public sphere, a place of employment, or a family. Each of these contexts shifts and overlaps with others. Borders change, contexts blend. So configuring a “self” in the twenty-first century is a lot more work than it used to be. The fluidity can be liberating, especially for those who seek niches supportive of marginalized identities. But it can also be a terrifying and vertiginous liberty—sometimes exhausting and even potentially dangerous.

Unlike Bentham’s Panopticon, the Cryptopticon is not supposed to be intrusive or obvious.8 Its scale, its ubiquity, even its very existence, are supposed to go unnoticed. So while a closed-circuit television camera mounted over a counter at a convenience store openly warns would-be shoplifters or robbers to behave or risk being caught, the Cryptopticon relies on browser cookies, data streams retained by telecommunication firms, satellite imagery, global positioning system traces, covert voice surveillance, store discount cards, e-book readers, and mobile applications. Each of these things masks its real purpose: to gather or provide data and to track the behavior of millions of people with stunning precision. Beguilingly, though, most of these instrumentalities offer something valuable (convenience, security, connectivity, information, efficiency, lower costs) to those who engage with them—often “for free.”9

Unlike Bentham’s prisoners, we do not know all the ways in which we are being watched or profiled—we simply know that we are. And we do not regulate our behavior under the gaze of surveillance. Instead, we seem not to care. The workings of the Cryptopticon are cryptic, hidden, scrambled, and mysterious. One can never be sure who is watching whom and for what purpose. Surveillance is so pervasive, and much of it seemingly so benign (“for your safety and security”), that it is almost impossible for the object of surveillance to assess how he or she is manipulated or threatened by powerful institutions gathering and using the record of surveillance. The threat is not that expression and experimentation will be quashed or controlled, as they supposedly would have been under the Panopticon. The threat is that subjects will become so inured to and comfortable with the networked status quo that they will gladly sort themselves into “niches” that will enable more effective profiling and behavioral prediction.

2. Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers

We don’t intellectually embrace a society where the privileged few get to enjoy the advantages of leisure and wealth while the masses toil on their behalf. Yet that’s what a sell-out of the liberal arts entails. For the most part, the wealthy in this country continue to pay increasingly exorbitant tuition to private prep schools, good liberal arts colleges, and elite universities, where their children get strong opportunities to develop their minds, dress themselves in cultural capital, and learn the skills necessary to become influential members of society. Meanwhile, the elite speak of an education’s value for the less privileged in terms of preparation for the global economy. Worse yet, they often support learning systems designed to produce “good employees”—i.e., compliant laborers.  Then, money for public education is slashed, and tuition soars. Those in the middle class, let alone the poor, have to fight an ever-steepening uphill battle to spend their time and money on the arts appropriate to free people.

As a professor with lots of experience giving Ds and Fs, I know full well that the value of the liberal arts will always be lost on some people, at least at certain points in their lives.  (Whenever I return from a conference, I worry that many on whom the value of philosophy is lost have found jobs teaching philosophy!) But I don’t think that this group of people is limited to any economic background or form of employment. My experience of having taught at relatively elite schools, like Emory University and Oglethorpe University, as well as at schools like Kennesaw State University and Kirkwood Community College, is that there are among future plumbers as many devotees of Plato as among the future wizards of Silicon Valley, and that there are among nurses’ aides and soldiers as many important voices for our democracy as among doctors and business moguls.

3. Video Gaming Made Me A History Major

One morning, my history teacher drew the numbers 1066 on the blackboard. “Can anyone tell me what happened in this year?” she asked. My classmates seem to lapse into a semi-stupor. But for me, those four digits set off a cascade of images and ideas in my head. When I raised my hand, my teacher raised her eyebrows.

“Yes?” she asked, pointing to me, squinting with suspicion. Until that point, I had rarely spoken in class. I opened my mouth, and to everyone’s surprise the answer just spilled out. Dates, names, places, battle tactics. I could have taught the class that day.

My teacher’s eyebrows rose even higher. “Where did you learn that?” she asked. “A video game” I responded. She snorted derisively, and turned back to the board.

And here’s the real laugh. Despite the way my teacher had rolled her eyes when I admitted to learning about history from a video game, it turns out real historians play games too. I’m a junior in college now — and a history major. Like all the most enthusiastic students in my history classes, I know how to weigh evidence, think critically, study primary sources, and debate the important historical questions of a period. But in casual conversations, professors and classmates alike reveal that games like Empire Earth, Age of Empires, and Civilization offer a narrative framework that animates our studies.

To us, gaming has made history seem less remote and more, well, epic. It’s a secret we keep mostly to ourselves. It’s easy to memorize dates when you know the stories already.

4. Predicting a Future Where Products Are Parented
So much of the framework we use to determine ownership, intellectual property, patents, etc. is going to have a hard time keeping up with what’s coming.

Waving his smartphone at the audience, Stanford bioengineer Drew Endy said, “I’m trying to grow one of these.” Let the day of mindblowing conversations about the future of biology begin.

Endy joined Google Director of Engineering David Glazer, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, and Merck Director of Scientific Modeling Platforms Chris Waller for the Techonomy Bio 2015 opening panel, “You Say You Want a Revolution.” Techonomy CEO David Kirkpatrick moderated the discussion about how innovations at the intersection of IT and biology will transform industries and products beyond life sciences.

Communications hardware probably wasn’t anyone’s top candidate for bioengineered disruption, but Endy explained: “Think about how an object like a cell phone is manufactured today. Imagine you live in the future and think backwards about where we could take surplus manufacturing capacity, [which is] now invisible to us because we just choose to ignore it, and say, ‘We’re going to repurpose a type of plenty that we have to grow objects in a different way.’”

What’s a “plenty?” Endy pointed, for example, to gardens in the community of Menlo Park, which he said collectively ship 16 million pounds of clippings, pine cones, grasses, and leaves—what Endy calls “state of the art nanotechnology”—to the compost heap annually.

How is a pinecone nanotechnology? “You can take a wood fungus that eats plant material and have it recompiled over a period of time to differentiate into an object that you wouldn’t think of as being manufacturable via biology,” Endy said. “It requires doing hybrid synthesis of biomaterials, it requires program patterning, but I mean it quite literally.”

“The difference between intelligence and education is this: intelligence will earn you a good living” – Charles Kettering

If you were forwarded this newsletter and enjoyed it, please subscribe here: https://tinyletter.com/peopleinpassing

I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.

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For Your Consideration: Clickbait Science, Social Neighborhood Watch, Hiding from Ideas, Micro-Drones

1. The Emerging Science of Clickbait
This, of course, means discovering why people, including you, click on things.

Psychologists have long categorized emotion using a three-dimensional scale known as the Valence-Arousal-Dominance model. The idea is that each emotion has a valence, whether positive or negative and a level of arousal, which is high for emotions such as anger and low for emotions like sadness.

Dominance is the level of control a person has over the emotion. At one end of this spectrum are overwhelming emotions like fear and at the other, emotions that people can choose to experience, such as feeling inspired.

Every emotion occupies a point in this Valence-Arousal-Dominance parameter space.

Guerini and Staiano’s idea is that it is not an emotion itself that determines virality but its position in this parameter space.

It turns out that two news-based websites have recently begun to collect data that throws light on exactly this problem. Rappler.com is a social news site that allows each user to rate the emotional value of each story using a “mood meter.” The Italian newspaper site Corriere.it offers a similar function.

Together, these sites have some 65,000 stories rated by emotional quality. That’s a significant database to explore the link between emotion and virality, which they measure by counting the number of comments each story generates as well as the number of votes it gets on social media sites such as Facebook and Google Plus.

Finally, they mine the data looking for patterns of emotion associated with the most viral content.

The results make for interesting reading. Guerini and Staiano argue there is a clear link between virality and particular configurations of valence, arousal and dominance. “These configurations indicate a clear connection with distinct phenomena underlying persuasive communication,” they say.

2. Tracking Wierdos via Nextdoor
The fun part about this is that while it can identify concerning trends in a neighborhood, it can also call attention to the crazies and paranoids you live next to.

Nextdoor is a location-based social network meant to connect neighbors. By signing up and giving your address, you’re placed in a “neighborhood” of users who live in your immediate vicinity. Its intended uses, according to a promotional video, are to borrow a ladder or find a babysitter. In my neighborhood, probably more than half of the Nextdoor posts are about crime.

While that information has made me and many others into evangelical users of the app, unfortunately that’s not the end of the story. As Fusion reported earlier this week, its growth is stirring up questions about how hyperlocal social networks unwittingly allow neighbors to engage in racial profiling

At Fusion, Pendarvis Harshaw writes that tensions on the app can be so high that some communities are taking steps to address it, complicating things even further. In one Oakland neighborhood, residents organized a “whites-only” meeting to address the issue of how to properly report and describe suspicious people on Nextdoor. This was after a neighbor posted in detail about the race and wardrobes of two “sketchy” men “lingering” outside her house. They turned out to be friends of another woman on Nextdoor who were invited to her home for a party. This highlights many of the complicated issues and dangerous consequences around being able to put out an emotionally charged yet misinformed warning—or even a photo—to everyone on your block, instantly.

Part of the problem is that safety, by its very nature, is subjective. A street that feels scary to you might be the street where I live and feel perfectly comfortable walking at night. We need to be able to share what makes us feel uneasy, which isn’t even always the actions of people, it could be a broken streetlight or a tipped-over trash can. But it’s difficult to actually quantify what makes a neighborhood safe.

3. Learn to argue your viewpoint or learn to hide from others…
If you presume to not be challenged with difficult ideas, which you should learn to debate if you oppose them, stay home. Some of my favorite people are the ones I can vigorously disagree and argue with and come away looking forward to our next chat. Almost always both sides learn something, even if it is only to agree to disagree.

“It’s amazing to me that they can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism,” Ms. Kaminer said in an email.

The confusion is telling, though. It shows that while keeping college-level discussions “safe” may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?

Only a few of the students want stronger anti-hate-speech codes. Mostly they ask for things like mandatory training sessions and stricter enforcement of existing rules. Still, it’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago. But those were hardier souls. Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals — mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like. This new bureaucracy may be exacerbating students’ “self-infantilization,” as Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, suggested in an essay for Inside Higher Ed.

But why are students so eager to self-infantilize? Their parents should probably share the blame. Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote on Slate last month that although universities cosset students more than they used to, that’s what they have to do, because today’s undergraduates are more puerile than their predecessors. “Perhaps overprogrammed children engineered to the specifications of college admissions offices no longer experience the risks and challenges that breed maturity,” he wrote. But “if college students are children, then they should be protected like children.”

4. The buzz of something new (Micro-Drones)
Now we have UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) soon we will have SUAV (semi-autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (good acronym)) and eventually AUAV (autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle). This is interesting for a number of reasons. Not least of which is that you can’t jam communication on something that doesn’t need to be in contact with an operator.

This year, some predict, will be the year of the microdrone. Small, pilotless aircraft—most of them helicopters with four or more sets of rotors and a payload slung between them—are moving out of the laboratory and into practical use. They are already employed for aerial photography and surveillance, particularly in Europe. In Paris, earlier this month, drones flying around the Eiffel tower caused a security scare. And in America, on March 19th, Amazon, a retailer, was given permission to test a drone designed to deliver its goods.

These drones, though, rely on an operator on the ground. Indeed, this is often a legal requirement. But it is also a constraint. If a world of microdrones really is to come about, then the craft will need to be able to cut the surly bonds of Earth and fly unsupervised. For that, they are going to have to get a lot more intelligent.

The problem is not navigation. The Global Positioning System and Google Earth can tell a drone where it is and what large, permanent obstacles it might encounter, and it can be programmed with its course before it lifts off. The problem, rather, is the unexpected: an unwary bird; an unmapped tree; a gust of wind. Part of making drones able to fly by themselves will be to give them the senses they need to deal with such hazards.

One approach is to ask how natural drones do it. The word, after all, referred originally to a male bee, and bees and other insects rarely blunder into things or fall out of the sky. Copying their tricks makes sense. And laboratories around the world, using bees, blowflies and hawk moths as their models, are trying to do just that.

That sounds easy in principle, but collision-avoidance, especially when what is to be avoided is moving as well, requires good manoeuvring skills. This is where the flies and the moths come in. Adjusted for size, blowflies are better at manoeuvring than any fighter aircraft yet built. Hawk moths are superb at hovering. Both insects use the same method: they combine vision with an inertial guidance system.

Inertial guidance relies on measuring the position of something that, because of its inertia, resists following the object it is part of. Man-made systems use gyroscopes. Moths use their antennae. Flies use a pair of tiny organs called halteres that have evolved from the animals’ hind wings and are shaped like balls on sticks.

“People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” – George Bernard Shaw

If you were forwarded this newsletter and enjoyed it, please subscribe here: https://tinyletter.com/peopleinpassing

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For Your Consideration: Essential Self-Delusion, Moral Progress, Fake Vacations, Harvard Sentences

1. How our delusions keep us sane

The mind’s delusory tendencies, McRaney explains, are just as vital as the automatic self-preservation processes of the body. Much like the respiration inhibition function of the brain prevents us from damaging our lungs by consciously deciding to stop breathing, the psyche employs a sort of “despair-inhibition module” of positive illusions constantly running in the background to power our self-enhancement bias — those rose-colored glasses we reserve exclusively for viewing ourselves, without which we might be blinded by life.

Citing several studies, McRaney writes:

“Your wildly inaccurate self-evaluations get you through rough times and help motivate you when times are good. [Research shows] that people who are brutally honest with themselves are not as happy day to day as people with unrealistic assumptions about their abilities.”

In other words, not only was Hunter S. Thompson right about journalism when he wrote that “there is no such thing as Objective Journalism” and that “the phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms,” but he was also right about the human condition at large — we are wildly unrealistic about ourselves, and that’s a good thing. Still, our self-perception — or explanatory style — exists on a spectrum, and different people fall at different spots along it. McRaney explains:

“At one end is a black swamp of unrealistic negative opinions about life and your place in it. At the other end is an overexposed candy-cane forest of unrealistic positive opinions about how other people see you and your own competence. Right below the midpoint of this spectrum is a place where people see themselves in a harsh yellow light of objectivity. Positive illusions evaporate there, and the family of perceptions mutating off the self-serving bias cannot take root. About 20 percent of all people live in that spot, and psychologists call the state of mind generated by those people depressive realism*. If your explanatory style rests in that area of the spectrum, you tend to experience a moderate level of depression more often than not because you are cursed to see the world as a place worthy neither of great dread nor of bounding delight, but just a place. You have a strange superpower — the ability to see the world closer to what it really is. Your more accurate representations of social reality make you feel bad and weird mainly because most people have a reality-distortion module implanted in their heads; sadly, yours is either missing or malfunctioning.”

Still other illusions underlie the trifecta of our self-illusory positivity — confirmation bias, which leads us to notice more of the information which confirms our beliefs and less of that which contradicts them, hindsight bias, which causes us to retroactively revise our own predictions in the face of new information and claim that we always saw it coming, and self-serving bias, which lets us take credit for all the good stuff that happens to us but blame the bad on external circumstances or other people. McRaney summarizes the formidable alchemy of these conspirers in forming the master-delusion of our self-enhancement bias:

“The positive illusions and their helpers form a supercluster of delusion that thumps in the psyche of every human. Together, illusory superiority bias, the illusion of control, optimism bias, confirmation bias, hindsight bias, and self-serving bias combine like Voltron into a mental chimera called self-enhancement bias. It works just as the name suggests — it enhances your view of your self.”

2. Morality and the Idea of Progress in Silicon Valley

Critiques of recent scandals in Silicon Valley rightly place the blame on a culture that supports amorality, thoughtlessness, and ignorance rather than ill intent.[2] But the problem runs much deeper, because Silicon Valley’s amorality problem arises from the implicit and explicit narrative of progress companies use for marketing and that people use to find meaning in their work. By accepting this narrative of progress uncritically, imagining that technological change equals historic human betterment, many in Silicon Valley excuse themselves from moral reflection. Put simply, the progress narrative short-circuits moral reflection on the consequences of new technologies.

The progress narrative has a strong hold on Silicon Valley for business and cultural reasons. The idea that technology will bring about a better world for everyone can be traced back to the Enlightenment aspiration to “master all things by calculation” in the words of Max Weber.[3] The successes of science and technology give rise to a faith among some that rationality itself tends to be a force for good.[4] This faith makes business easier because companies can claim to be contributing to progress while skirting the moral views of the various groups affected by their products and services. Most investors would rather not see their firms get mired in the fraught issue of defining what is morally better according to various groups; they prefer objective benefits, measured via return on investment (ROI) or other metrics. Yet, the fact that business goals and cultural sentiments go hand in hand so well ought to give us pause.

The idea of progress is popular because it ends up negating itself, and as a result, makes almost no demands upon us. In Silicon Valley, progress gets us thinking about objectively better, which suggests that we come up with some rational way to define better (e.g., ROI). But the only way to say that something is better in the sense we associate with progress is to first ask whether it is moral. Morality is inherently subjective and a-rational. Suggesting that a technology represents progress in any meaningful, moral sense would require understanding the values of the people affected by the technology. Few businesses and investors would be willing to claim they contributed to progress if held to account by this standard. If people are concerned with assessing whether specific technologies are helpful or harmful in a moral sense, they should abandon the progress narrative. Progress, as we think of it, invites us to cannibalize our initial moral aspirations with rationality, thus leaving us out of touch with moral intuitions. It leads us to rely on efficiency as a proxy for morality and makes moral discourse seem superfluous.

4. Surreal Photos from Inside the “Fake Vacation” Industry
Click through for the Images.

It’s hot, the water’s warm, and blue skies stretch as far as the eye can see. Which actually isn’t very far at all since, all sensory evidence to the contrary, we’re indoors — clustered inside a giant plastic globe in one of the oldest industrial centers of Northern Europe. Welcome to the world of “fake vacations,” as documented by Austrian photographer Reiner Riedler.

Many travel magazines, guide books and websites focus on “authentic” experiences; off-the-beaten track places that reveal the genuine culture beyond the touristic clichés. Riedler has spent the past decade documenting the opposite phenomenon — artificial destinations that mimic other places around the world, foregoing any sense of authenticity in favor of ease and convenience. Whether watching a Pacific sunset in Germany, dining beneath Mayan ruins in Florida, or snowboarding in Dubai, a lot of people are happy to skip the effort and expense of travel in favor of a cheap, comfortable simulacrum of the real thing.

4. The “Harvard Sentences” Secretly Shaped the Future of Audio Tech

During World War II, the boiler room under Harvard’s Memorial Hall was turned into a secretive wartime research lab. Here, volunteers were subjected to hours of noise as scientists tested military communications systems. Out of this came the Harvard sentences, a set of standardized phrases still widely used to test everything from cellphones to VoIP.

Few know about the sentences themselves other than speech scientists and audio engineers, but the technologies they’ve helped build are everywhere. Verizon’s real-life “Can you hear me now?” guy uses them. Speech-to-text software engineers use them. Speech scientists studying cochlear implants say them out loud all the time. “These materials have been the gold standard,” says David Pisoni, director of the Speech Research Laboratory at Indiana University.

Top image: The Harvard sentences are used to test intelligibility in situations where speech is supposed to be less than intelligible. One speech researcher told me his favorite mistake: “Tea served from the brown jug is tasty” misheard as “Tea soaked in Lebron James is tasty.” Illustration by Tara Jacoby

There are other standardized sets of words for testing speech, but the Harvard sentences are among the oldest and most popular. Their origins—which I pieced together from old academic papers and interviews—reveals a fascinating slice of little-known history.

But first, perhaps you’d like to read some more of the sentences.

 

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” – George Bernard Shaw

 

If you were forwarded this newsletter and enjoyed it, please subscribe here: https://tinyletter.com/peopleinpassing

I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.

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For Your Consideration: Letting Kids Fail, Surveillant Anxiety, Stagnovation, Computational Options

It’s been a ridiculous couple of weeks. Hopefully the twice weekly publication schedule will be back on track soon.

1. Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail

This is what we teachers see most often: what the authors term “high responsiveness and low demandingness” parents.” These parents are highly responsive to the perceived needs and issues of their children, and don’t give their children the chance to solve their own problems. These parents “rush to school at the whim of a phone call from their child to deliver items such as forgotten lunches, forgotten assignments, forgotten uniforms” and “demand better grades on the final semester reports or threaten withdrawal from school.” One study participant described the problem this way:

“I have worked with quite a number of parents who are so overprotective of their children that the children do not learn to take responsibility (and the natural consequences) of their actions. The children may develop a sense of entitlement and the parents then find it difficult to work with the school in a trusting, cooperative and solution focused manner, which would benefit both child and school.”

These are the parents who worry me the most — parents who won’t let their child learn. You see, teachers don’t just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. We teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardized testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach.

I’m not suggesting that parents place blind trust in their children’s teachers; I would never do such a thing myself. But children make mistakes, and when they do, it’s vital that parents remember that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty. Year after year, my “best” students — the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives — are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes.

2. The Anxieties of Big Data

the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind of surveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us. Like a fluorescent light in a dark corridor, it can both show too much and not enough. Anxiety, as Sianne Ngai has written, has a temporality that is future oriented: it is an expectation emotion, and the expectation is generally of risk, exposure, and failure. British group Plan C in their blistering manifesto “We Are All Very Anxious” argue that anxiety is the dominant affect of our current phase of capitalism, engendering political hopelessness, insecurity, and social separation.

But the trick of a dominant cultural affect is that it functions as a kind of open secret: Everyone knows it, but nobody talks about it. In order to work against it, we first have to recognize the condition and trace its contours.

Surveillant anxiety is always a conjoined twin: The anxiety of those surveilled is deeply connected to the anxiety of the surveillers. But the anxiety of the surveillers is generally hard to see; it’s hidden in classified documents and delivered in highly coded languages in front of Senate committees. This is part of why Snowden’s revelations are so startling: They make it possible for us to see the often-obscured concerns of the intelligence agencies. And while there is an enormous structural power asymmetry between the surveillers and surveilled, neither are those with the greatest power free from being haunted by a very particular kind of data anxiety: that no matter how much data they have, it is always incomplete, and the sheer volume can overwhelm the critical signals in a fog of possible correlations.

If we take these twinned anxieties — those of the surveillers and the surveilled — and push them to their natural extension, we reach an epistemological end point: on one hand, the fear that there can never be enough data, and on the other, the fear that one is standing out in the data. These fears reinforce each other in a feedback loop, becoming stronger with each turn of the ratchet. As people seek more ways to blend in — be it through normcore dressing or hardcore encryption — more intrusive data collection techniques are developed. And yet, this is in many ways the expected conclusion of big data’s neopositivist worldview. As historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison once wrote, all epistemology begins in fear — fear that the world cannot be threaded by reason, fear that memory fades, fear that authority will not be enough.

3. The Whirlpool Economy

In previous eras, from the middle ages through to the 1970s, stagnation went hand in hand with low innovation: the economy stagnated because there was little underlying dynamism, few new ideas and limited opportunities for entrepreneurship. Could we now live in an era where the economy is stagnating in part because there is so much innovation? Stagnation and innovation are combining to create a vicious whirlpool in which everything moves very fast and yet stays in the same place. Perhaps that helps to explain the dissonant feelings the always-on rush of modern life creates for so many people.

Technological tools that offer to make us more productive by undertaking tasks for us just end up helping us work longer hours, answering a torrent of emails, bleeps, updates and alerts. We feel busier than ever as digital diaries fill our days with meetings, yet oddly unproductive as achieving anything substantial requires extended periods of focus. One minute we’re over-stimulated by the screens that are our constant companions; the next we’re rendered powerless and listless by signal loss or the system going down.

All of these common feelings reflect a deeper disquiet: many feel richer and poorer at the same time. While wages stagnate, the squeezed middle classes hunt for bargains on moneysavingexpert.com; rent out their spare rooms on Airbnb; get driven around by someone earning a little extra by working for Uber on his day off; and entertain themselves for free on YouTube.

This would not be the first time our economies have suffered from a toxic mix thought impossible by orthodox economics. The 70s were a time of stagflation: slow growth combined with stubbornly high unemployment andhigh inflation. Now we live in a time of stagnovation: slow growth combined with incessant innovation and rising inequality. Are stagnation, innovation and inequality becoming locked together?

4. Moore’s Law Is About to Get Weird
A “computer” used to be a job title for a person with paper, a slide rule, and a writing utensil.

In the nearly 70 years since the first modern digital computer was built, the above specs have become all but synonymous with computing. But they need not be. A computer is defined not by a particular set of hardware, but by being able to take information as input; to change, or “process,” the information in some controllable way; and to deliver new information as output. This information and the hardware that processes it can take an almost endless variety of physical forms. Over nearly two centuries, scientists and engineers have experimented with designs that use mechanical gears, chemical reactions, fluid flows, light, DNA, living cells, and synthetic cells.

Such now-unconventional means of computation collectively form the intuitively named realm of, well, unconventional computing. One expert has defined it as the study of “things which are already well forgotten or not discovered yet.” It is thus a field both anachronistic and ahead of its time.

But given the astounding success of conventional computing, which is now supported by a massive manufacturing industry, why study unconventional computing techniques at all? The answer, researchers say, is that one or more of these techniques could become conventional, in the not-so-distant future. Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors that can be squeezed onto a semiconductor chip of a given size doubles roughly every two years, has held true since the mid 1960s, but past progress is no guarantee of future success: Further attempts at miniaturization will soon run into the hard barrier of quantum physics, as transistors get so small they can no longer be made out of conventional materials. At that point, which could be no more than a decade away, new ideas will be needed.

So which unconventional technique will run our computers, phones, cars, and washing machines in the future? Here are a few possibilities [read the article for more detail]

“Whatever good things we build end up building us.” – Jim Rohn

If you were forwarded this newsletter and enjoyed it, please subscribe here: https://tinyletter.com/peopleinpassing

I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.

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