For Your Consideration: Predatory Education, Truck Driver as Endangered Species, AI Primer, Windfarm as Nocebo

And you thought the debate over entitlements is rough today… Over the next decade we will be having, what I’m sure will be an incredibly contentious, national conversation about basic income.

1. Preying on the Promise of Higher Education

There’s a promise we make to the next generation: Graduate from college and you can get ahead. Indeed, recent studies show that college graduates earn $1 million more than high school graduates over their lifetimes.

Yet, as we make this promise, public higher education institutions nationwide are facing a troubling trend of disinvestment. Even with poorly treated adjuncts and other nontenure-track contingent faculty doing the lion’s share of teaching at many colleges, tuition costs keep rising. Even with current federal and state student loans and grants, students have been saddled with crippling debt.

And then there’s another side of higher education. For-profit colleges are defined by putting profit before the public good, earnings over education, shareholders above students. At these schools — such as Corinthian Colleges Inc., which filed for bankruptcy this month, and ITT Tech, which is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for alleged fraud — students are products, faculty are afraid to tell accreditors the truth about where they work, and taxpayers foot the bill for aggressive marketing that preys on first-generation college students, veterans and students of color.

Funded largely by taxpayers, for-profit colleges get close to 90 percent of their funding from federal aid — that’s more than $30 billion annually. The industry feeds off our noble national goal to ensure higher education is a ladder of opportunity for all who want to climb. However, instead of offering an affordable path to a better tomorrow, they leave students with an uncertain future. Seventy-two percent of these for-profit schools produce graduates who earn less, on average, than high school dropouts.

Currently, for-profit schools enroll just 9 percent of all postsecondary students but account for nearly half of all student loan defaults. They allocate about 23 percent of their revenue to recruiting and marketing and just 17 percent to academic instruction. Compare that with institutions where academics are the priority, such as community colleges, which spend 80 percent or more on instruction.

2. Truck Driver as Endangered Species

Late last year, I took a road trip with my partner from our home in New Orleans, Louisiana to Orlando, Florida and as we drove by town after town, we got to talking about the potential effects self-driving vehicle technology would have not only on truckers themselves, but on all the local economies dependent on trucker salaries. Once one starts wondering about this kind of one-two punch to America’s gut, one sees the prospects aren’t pretty.

We are facing the decimation of entire small town economies, a disruption the likes of which we haven’t seen since the construction of the interstate highway system itself bypassed entire towns. If you think this may be a bit of hyperbole… let me back up a bit and start with this:

Source: NPR

This is a map of the most common job in each US state in 2014.

It should be clear at a glance just how dependent the American economy is on truck drivers. According to the American Trucker Association, there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the US, and an additional 5.2 million people employed within the truck-driving industry who don’t drive the trucks. That’s 8.7 million trucking-related jobs.

We can’t stop there though, because the incomes received by these 8.2 million people create the jobs of others. Those 3.5 million truck drivers driving all over the country stop regularly to eat, drink, rest, and sleep. Entire businesses have been built around serving their wants and needs. Think restaurants and motels as just two examples. So now we’re talking about millions more whose employment depends on the employment of truck drivers. But we still can’t even stop there.

Those working in these restaurants and motels along truck-driving routes are also consumers within their own local economies. Think about what a server spends her paycheck and tips on in her own community, and what a motel maid spends from her earnings into the same community. That spending creates other paychecks in turn. So now we’re not only talking about millions more who depend on those who depend on truck drivers, but we’re also talking about entire small town communities full of people who depend on all of the above in more rural areas. With any amount of reduced consumer spending, these local economies will shrink.

3. Rise of the Machines: A primer on Artificial Intelligence

In a speech in October at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr Musk described artificial intelligence (AI) as “summoning the demon”, and the creation of a rival to human intelligence as probably the biggest threat facing the world. He is not alone. Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at the University of Oxford who helped develop the notion of “existential risks”—those that threaten humanity in general—counts advanced artificial intelligence as one such, alongside giant asteroid strikes and all-out nuclear war. Lord Rees, who used to run the Royal Society, Britain’s foremost scientific body, has since founded the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, in Cambridge, which takes the risks posed by AI just as seriously.

Computers can now do some narrowly defined tasks which only human brains could manage in the past (the original “computers”, after all, were humans, usually women, employed to do the sort of tricky arithmetic that the digital sort find trivially easy). An image classifier may be spookily accurate, but it has no goals, no motivations, and is no more conscious of its own existence than is a spreadsheet or a climate model. Nor, if you were trying to recreate a brain’s workings, would you necessarily start by doing the things AI does at the moment in the way that it now does them. AI uses a lot of brute force to get intelligent-seeming responses from systems that, though bigger and more powerful now than before, are no more like minds than they ever were. It does not seek to build systems that resemble biological minds. As Edsger Dijkstra, another pioneer of AI, once remarked, asking whether a computer can think is a bit like asking “whether submarines can swim”.

The worry that AI could do to white-collar jobs what steam power did to blue-collar ones during the Industrial Revolution is therefore worth taking seriously. Examples, such as Narrative Science’s digital financial journalist and Kensho’s quant, abound. Kensho’s system is designed to interpret natural-language search queries such as, “What happens to car firms’ share prices if oil drops by $5 a barrel?” It will then scour financial reports, company filings, historical market data and the like, and return replies, also in natural language, in seconds. The firm plans to offer the software to big banks and sophisticated traders. Yseop, a French firm, uses its natural-language software to interpret queries, chug through data looking for answers, and then write them up in English, Spanish, French or German at 3,000 pages a second. Firms such as L’Oréal and VetOnline.com already use it for customer support on their websites.

Technology, though, gives as well as taking away. Automated, cheap translation is surely useful. Having an untiring, lightning-fast computer checking medical images would be as well. Perhaps the best way to think about AI is to see it as simply the latest in a long line of cognitive enhancements that humans have invented to augment the abilities of their brains. It is a high-tech relative of technologies like paper, which provides a portable, reliable memory, or the abacus, which aids mental arithmetic. Just as the printing press put scribes out of business, high-quality AI will cost jobs. But it will enhance the abilities of those whose jobs it does not replace, giving everyone access to mental skills possessed at present by only a few. These days, anyone with a smartphone has the equivalent of a city-full of old-style human “computers” in his pocket, all of them working for nothing more than the cost of charging the battery. In the future, they might have translators or diagnosticians at their beck and call as well.

4. Windfarms as Nocebos
Nice writeup on how expectations guide perceptions of technology.

Any new technology carries the unexpected in with it, like a bright pin on the jacket. Health researchers picked at what might be happening between the blades, the noise, the infrasound, the electromagnetic fields. What They Found May Surprise You. Plot out the complaints onto a map, and you’ll see that they don’t actually line up against where windfarms are, nor of the size of the turbines themselves. Trawl back through the peer-reviewed literature on ‘wind turbine annoyance‘ and again, see no causal relationship between people living in proximity to wind turbines, emitted noise, and physiological health effects.

What there are instead, by the barrel, are expectations. The majority of complaints in Australia took place well after the farms had been up and running for several years, but shortly after anti-wind farm groups became vocal about health concerns. Visions and sounds do not exist in a vacuum, but are given meaning by the very personal context in which they arise – what you see and what you hear depends on what you expect.

You retire. You sell your house in the city; you buy a larger one in the countryside, in England’s green and pleasant land. Rolling fields, local pubs, long shadows on cricket greens, (you are perhaps John Major). Blackbirds warbling in the trees. Peace. Quiet. And then there on the horizon, on the hill past the new home, is a bloody great wind turbine. Cold white metal, looming like a bastard over your lovely landscape. You see it when you wake in the night and open your curtains. You see it in the morning when you come downstairs and look outside. You hear it. (You think you hear it).

Windfarms are thus nocebos – inert substances that cause harmful effects arising from whatever expectations are loaded onto them and what effects they are perceived to cause. Those who complained of the windfarms were those who had heard frightening information about how the turbines would harm their health; those who don’t like wind farms; and those who simply, from their window, from the door, could see them.

“Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.” -Sydney J. Harris

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: Organized Cybercrime, Art of Living, Wearable Data, Motivation vs Discipline

1. How cyber attacks became more profitable than the drug trade

Those of us responsible for information security don’t face armed combat or the literal prospect of being hanged, but today’s environment of security risks make it necessary for different and competing players to stand united against an organized, motivated enemy out to disrupt, steal or both. The need to work together to protect company data, customer information and corporate brand has never been greater. Business survival depends upon it.

Information security professionals, no matter how big the enterprise they work for, are currently overwhelmingly outgunned by cybercrime. The threat of these criminal enterprises is large and growing and if left unchecked will have a disastrous impact on our economy in the near term. McKinsey & Company estimates that cyber attacks will slow the pace of technology and business innovation over the next few years and cost the economy as much as $3 trillion annually. Data breaches have already taken a heavy toll and costs are on the rise. An IBM-sponsored survey conducted by the Ponemon Institute found that the average cost to the company of a corporate data breach is now $5.9 million. Of this, the cost of lost business from a breach averages $3.2 million. However, this average can be misleading because some of the more widely publicized breaches in recent years have cost the affected companies billions of dollars in revenue and shareholder value.

Cyber criminals run highly organized and collaborative enterprises that operate with troubling and destructive efficiency. Juniper Networks conducted a study that found that global cybercrime takes in larger profits than the illegal drug trade. “The cyber black market has evolved from a varied landscape of discrete, ad hoc individuals into a network of highly organized groups, often connected with traditional crime groups (e.g., drug cartels, mafias, terrorist cells) and nation-states,” the report said. And even when the goals of the attackers are not monetary gain, the costs can be enormous. Though not a penny of its cash was stolen, the attack on Sony last December cost the entertainment company billions of dollars through the release of data. Types of data stolen can include financial data, personal health information (PHI) and associated insurance information.

2. The Art of Living: Wisdom of Epictetus

The disciplined introspection that philosophy affords us, Lebell suggests, also helps us cultivate the uncomfortable luxury of not-knowing and discern wisdom from here information — something even more important in our data-driven age than it was in Epictetus’s time:

The wisest among us appreciate the natural limits of our knowledge and have the mettle to preserve their naiveté. They understand how little all of us really know about anything. There is no such thing as conclusive, once-and-for-all knowledge. The wise do not confuse information or data, however prodigious or cleverly deployed, with comprehensive knowledge or transcendent wisdom. They say things like “Hmmm” or “Is that so!” a lot. Once you realize how little we do know, you are not so easily duped by fast-talkers, splashy gladhanders, and demagogues. Spirited curiosity is an emblem of the flourishing life.

In a remark that calls to mind philosopher Daniel Dennett’s spectacular meditation on the art of making good mistakes, Lebell adds:

Arrogance is the banal mask for cowardice; but far more important, it is the most potent impediment to the flourishing life. Clear thinking and self-importance cannot logically coexist.

And yet:

The legitimate glow of satisfaction at accomplishing a hard-won worthy goal should not be confused with arrogance, which is characterized by self-preoccupation and lack of interest in the feelings or affairs of others.

The acquisition of wisdom, Lebell argues, is like the acquisition of any skill — we must overcome our instinctive resistance to the unfamiliar and fear of our own incompetence before it begins to get easier, then fluid, then automatic. Eventually, we stop keeping ourselves small by people-pleasing become attuned to that increasingly clear inner voice:

The first steps toward wisdom are the most strenuous, because our weak and stubborn souls dread exertion (without absolute guarantee of reward) and the unfamiliar. As you progress in your efforts, your resolve is fortified and self-improvement progressively comes easier. By and by it actually becomes difficult to work counter to your own best interest.

By the steady but patient commitment to removing unsound beliefs from our souls, we become increasingly adept at seeing through our flimsy fears, our bewilderment in love, and our lack of self control. We stop trying to look good to others. One day, we contentedly realize we’ve stopped playing to the crowd.

In one of her most potent asides, Lebell adds to this notion of playing to the crowd and comments on the trap of popular opinion:

We are only enraged at the foolish because we make idols of those things which such people take from us.

3. Quantified Self Risks and Opportunities

The explosion in extreme tracking is part of a digital revolution in health care led by the tech visionaries who created Apple, Google, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems. Using the chips, database and algorithms that powered the information revolution of the past few decades, these new billionaires now are attempting to rebuild, regenerate and reprogram the human body.

In the aggregate data being gathered by millions of personal tracking devices are patterns that may reveal what in the diet, exercise regimen and environment contributes to disease.

Could physical activity patterns be used to not only track individuals’ cardiac health but also to inform decisions about where to place a public park and improve walkability? Could trackers find cancer clusters or contaminated waterways? A pilot project in Louisville, for example, uses inhalers with special sensors to pinpoint asthma “hot spots” in the city.

“As we have more and more sophisticated wearables that can continuously measure things ranging from your physical activity to your stress levels to your emotional state, we can begin to cross-correlate and understand how each aspect of our life consciously and unconsciously impacts one another,” Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun and investor in mobile health start-ups, said in an interview.

At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in January, new gizmos on display included a baby bottle that measures nutritional intake, a band that measures how high you jump and “smart” clothing connected to smoke detectors. Google is working on a smart contact lens that can continuously measure a person’s glucose levels in his tears. The Apple Watch has a heart-rate sensor and quantifies when you move, exercise or stand. The company also has filed a patent to upgrade its earbuds to measure blood oxygen and temperature.

In the near future, companies hope to augment those trackers with new ones that will measure from the inside out — using chips that are ingestible or float in the bloodstream.

Some physicians, academics and ethicists criticize the utility of tracking as prime evidence of the narcissism of the technological age — and one that raises serious questions about the accuracy and privacy of the health data collected, who owns it and how it should be used. There are also worries about the implications of the proliferation of devices for broader surveillance by the government, such as what happened with cellphone providers and the National Security Agency.

4. Screw motivation, what you need is discipline

Because real life in the real world occasionally requires people do things that nobody in their right mind can be massively enthusiastic about, “motivation” runs into the insurmountable obstacle of trying to elicit enthusiasm for things that objectively do not merit it. The only solution besides slackery, then, is to put people out of their right minds. That’s a horrible, and fortunately fallacious, dilemma.

Trying to drum up enthusiasm for fundamentally dull and soul crushing activities is literally a form of deliberate psychological self-harm, a voluntary insanity: “I AM SO PASSIONATE ABOUT THESE SPREADSHEETS, I CAN’T WAIT TO FILL OUT THE EQUATION FOR FUTURE VALUE OF ANNUITY, I LOVE MY JOB SOOO MUCH!”

I do not consider self-inflicted episodes of hypomania the optimal driver of human activity. A thymic compensation via depressive episodes is inevitable, since the human brain will not tolerate abuse indefinitely. There are stops and safety valves. There are hormonal hangovers.

The worst thing that can happen is succeeding at the wrong thing – temporarily. A far superior scenario is retaining sanity, which unfortunately tends to be misinterpreted as moral failure: “I still don’t love my pointless paper-shuffling job, I must be doing something wrong.” “I still prefer cake to brocolli and can’t lose weight, maybe I’m just weak”. “I should buy another book about motivation”. Bullshit. The critical error is even approaching those issus in terms of motivation or lack thereof. The answer is discipline, not motivation.

It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.
– Leonardo da Vinci

 

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: VR Repeat of the 90’s, Carbon-Fiber Spider-Silk, Photoshop Beauty, Sir Ken on Education Reform

The goal is twice weekly. However, life often conspires against my ability to read and distill enough information to crank out this newsletter. I will pick up and carry on as life allows and I hope you’ll still take a look when it shows up, however infrequently.

1. The VR resurgence is making the same mistakes it did in the 1990’s
Personally I’m way more interested in the near-term applications for augmented reality than I am for immersive virtual reality. I’ve been a VR booster since the 90’s when REND 386 and a Nintendo Power Glove were the pinnacle of DIY virtual reality.

Don’t let VR go wrong again!” is a blog post you should read right now, because it’s by Jacquelyn “Jacki” Morie, a VR pioneer who sees the same mistakes being made by Oculus Rift and other leaders of the VR industry that caused the technology to hit a trough of disillusionment in the early 90s. Part of the problem is a resurgence of breathless headlines like “Could Oculus Rift bring people back from the dead?” (yes, really) which inevitably lead to disaster:

“What sensational headlines like these do is create extremely unreasonable expectations for VR – the same thing that happened towards the end of the 1990s in VR’s first popularization,” she writes. “When those promises don’t pan out, then people are disappointed and things start to falter.”

Another part of the problem is a generation gap, because many of today’s VR industry leaders were barely around for VR’s first wave. (Oculus Rift founder Palmer Luckey was born in 1992.)

“That’s a big part of it,” Jacki tells me, “but the other part is people with a long history in film and related media who want to take what they know and ride the VR wave. That is why we have Cinematic VR – which is not really interactive, immersive VR as VR can really be experienced.”

Another problem is that the tech press is focused too much on covering venture funding of VR, as opposed to VR innovators: “I’d like to see more people really pushing the envelope on what VR could be. And I’d like the press to follow those people and their work, rather than just reporting on who got the latest big round of VC financing. VCs are not really investing in the full potential of VR – but on what today’s media consumers know and feel comfortable with – just put into a sexy HMD. I don’t have high hopes for the press doing that though.”

2. Feed Spiders Carbon Nanotubes and Graphene to get super-silk
And what if we feed the same to Silkworms? No more dry-clean only?

Spider silk is one of the more extraordinary materials known to science. The protein fiber, spun by spiders to make webs, is stronger than almost anything that humans can make.

The dragline silk spiders use to make a web’s outer rim and spokes is amazing stuff. It matches high-grade alloy steel for tensile strength but is about a sixth as dense. It is also highly ductile, sometimes capable of stretching to five times its length.

This combination of strength and ductility makes spider silk extremely tough, matching the toughness of state-of-the-art carbon fibers such as Kevlar.

So it goes without saying that the ability to make spider silk even stronger and tougher would be a significant scientific coup. Which is why the work of Emiliano Lepore at the University of Trento in Italy and a few pals is something of a jaw-dropper.

These guys have found a way to incorporate carbon nanotubes and graphene into spider silk and increase its strength and toughness beyond anything that has been possible before. The resulting material has properties such as fracture strength, Young’s modulus, and toughness modulus higher than anything ever measured.

The team’s approach is relatively straightforward. They started with 15 Pholcidae spiders, collected from the Italian countryside, which they kept in controlled conditions in their lab. They collected samples of dragline silk produced by these spiders as a reference.

The team then used a neat trick to introduce carbon nanotubes and graphene flakes into the spider silk. They simply sprayed the spiders with water containing the nanotubes or flakes and then measured the mechanical properties of the silk that the spiders produced.

For each strand of silk, they fixed the fiber between two C-shaped cardboard holders and placed it in a device that can measure the load on a fiber with a resolution of 15 nano-newtons and any fiber displacement with a resolution of 0.1 nanometers.

The results make for impressive reading. “We measure a fracture strength up to 5.4 GPa, a Young’s modulus up to 47.8 GPa and a toughness modulus up to 2.1 GPa,” say Lepore and co. “This is the highest toughness modulus for a fibre, surpassing synthetic polymeric high performance fibres (e.g. Kelvar49) and even the current toughest knotted fibers,” they say.

In other words, giving spiders water that is infused with carbon nanotubes makes them weave silk stronger than any known fiber.

3. Time-Lapse View of Creating Impossible Beauty Standards

Photoshop celebrated its 25th anniversary recently with a video showing off its positive contributions to the world, such as hobbit-effects. The reason we need to be reminded of the technology’s airbrushing benefits is because Photoshop is also frequently used to create impossible standards of beauty—specifically in women. A new series of video has just showed up online to provide an in-depth look at what goes ion in the upper echelon of imperfection-elimination.

Elizabeth Moss (nope, not that Elisabeth Moss) is a professional retouch wizard who has worked with magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair, and she recently created a behind-the-scenes video showing off what goes into the craft at her level. Over the course of three time-lapse videos, made with her studio RARE Digital Art, Moss distills hours and hours of meticulous detail work down to a matter of minutes. Some of the differences are subtler than what we’ve seen before.


4. Sir Ken Robinson on Education Reform

Q: What kind of education are you talking about?

A: It’s to make education more personalized for students and more customized to the communities in which they are part of. The reason I say that is that education has become, over the past 20 years particularly, increasingly seen as kind of a strategic issue for governments. Years ago, countries didn’t pay much attention to what was happening in other countries in terms of education. People in France weren’t much interested in what was happening in Germany and Italy …. Nowadays people compare the systems like they are defense policies or economic policies, and it is because people all around the world recognize that education is absolutely fundamental to economic growth. In fact, it is fundamental to the social fabric, fundamental to cultural development and so on. And the interest in all of these things has been driven very hard by the publication of these league tables by the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] and PISA [the international test]. You now, seriously, have secretaries of state in America wringing their hands that we are 17th or 18th or 20th, whatever it is this time around [on PISA] in science and math and so on. Education has become a big strategic issue.

Secondly, therefore, governments at the state and federal level have taken the reins of education in a very significant sort of way. It began in this country with the report in the Reagan administration, “A Nation at Risk,” when there was this massive concern that, as they put it, schools in this country were “drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity.” No Child Left Behind was part of that, too. So everyone knows education is important and governments have got deeply involved in trying to fix it. My argument is that it is important to fix it, it is important for not only economic reasons and all the other reasons. But strategies the governments around the world have adopted for the most part, including this one, have been completely back to front, and have been actually entirely counterproductive.

If you look at measures that No Child Left Behind was intended to be judged by … this whole standards movement has been at best a very partial success but in other ways a catastrophic [failure]… We have got and have had appalling high levels of non-graduation, terrible rates of turnovers and resignations  among teachers and principals, and a profession that has been in many ways demoralized by the whole process. … And what lies behind that is the standards movement. It’s well intentioned to raise standards, but the mistake it makes is that it fails to recognize that education is not a mechanical impersonal process that can improved by tweaking standards and regularly testing. … It’s a human process. It’s real people going through the system and whether the system takes into account who they are, what engages them, isn’t incidental. It is the core of what education is.

“Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use.” -Earl Nightingale

 

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: 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

 

 
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: 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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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: 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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