Monthly Archives: March 2015

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

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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: 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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For Your Consideration: Little Kid Engineers, Street Art, New Pharma, and Good Writing

1. Caltech’s little engineers that could

Then a classic engineering problem strikes: resource scarcity. The crates run out and there are still 2-year-olds without a seat on the train. The toddlers solve it by finding chairs to create the needed train carriages.

Yard time is over, and back inside, Chagolla quiets the toddlers with a story.

“Young Iggy Peck is an architect and has been since he was 2, when he built a great tower in only an hour with nothing but diapers and glue.”

It’s deliberate here. From story time to free play, everything is geared toward age-appropriate learning through engineering principles, Chagolla says.

“Because they’re between 2 and 3, they’re still acquiring a lot of language and so there’s a lot of ideas that they have that are nonverbal,” she says.

But not speaking doesn’t mean they don’t get complex concepts. Toddlers here know and verbalize concepts like stability and balance because they are constantly named and reinforced.

In the preschool classroom, 4- and 5-year-olds are building straw rockets using just three items: fat straws, thin straws and tape.

Teacher Veronica Dayag engages the 4-year-olds like college students. “So I want to see if you can get your straw rockets to shoot all the way from where you’re sitting to the other side of the room,” she says.

She asks them to start by sketching a blueprint, but doesn’t give them any other instructions. Each one uses tape, plus the big and little straws, and through trial and error figures out how to turn the materials into a rocket that shoots across the room.

2. Social Media + Street Graffiti = Stenciled Signs of Our Times
I’m a big fan of well done street art, stencils, and social commentary. When all three are done together it’s a treat.


3. The Drug Lord With A Social Mission
And you thought drugs were a tough subject before…

In 2005, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction established an early-warning system to track the appearance of new drugs on the continent. In its first years, the number of new psychoactive substances in Europe held fairly steady, hovering around 10 per annum. But in 2009 the figures began a steady ascent: from 24 new substances reported that year to 41 in 2010, 49 in 2011, 74 in 2012, and 81 in 2013.

Worldwide, more than 350 new substances are now marketed as alternatives to marijuana, amphetamines, and other drugs, branded with names like bath salts, Spice, K2, and Blaze, according to the United Nation’s drug control agency. In the United States, by 2012, over 11 percent of high school seniors were reporting that they had tried at least one of these new psychoactive substances, usually a synthetic cannabinoid designed to substitute for pot. That made synthetic marijuana the second most popular class of drugs among American teens, after marijuana itself.

Drug control has always been a Sisyphean task. The use of mind-altering substances and techniques is regarded by anthropologists as a “human universal”—a cultural practice as basic to societies in every region and every period in history as trade, religion, and folklore. And after more than a trillion dollars spent, the American war on drugs has not put much of a dent in the trafficking and consumption of the substances our legal system has chosen to outlaw. Now, this new class of drugs makes controlling the supply of, say, heroin look easy by comparison. New psychoactive substances are coming out so quickly that it’s not possible to ban them fast enough to keep up, let alone police or scientifically understand them. When one substance is outlawed, another is born, just chemically distinct enough from the last one to evade its ban.

Not since the 19th century—when an earlier wave of globalization rapidly accelerated the spread of opium, cocaine, marijuana, and hazily defined “patent medicines”—has there been such a burgeoning and unregulated pharmacopeia. And by all indications, the future promises only more acceleration. Last year, a research lab at Stanford demonstrated that it’s possible to produce opioid drugs like morphine using a genetically modified form of baker’s yeast. Soon, even the production of traditional illegal drugs or illicit versions of pharmaceuticals could become a highly decentralized cottage industry, posing the same kind of regulatory challenge that the specter of 3-D printed firearms poses to the project of gun control.

4. The Art of Good Writing
It’s How To Write A Sentence vs. The Elements of Style. I do love an artfully crafted sentence and there are a great many in this comparative book review.

[The Elements of Style] is a book full of sound advice addressed to a class of all-male Ivy-Leaguers wearing neckties and with neatly parted hair. This, of course, is part of its continuing appeal. It is spoken in the voice of unquestioned authority in a world where that no longer exists.

What, at base, is a sentence? he asks, and then goes on to argue that the standard answer based in parts of speech and rules of grammar teaches students “nothing about how to write”. Instead, we should be examining the “logical relationships” within different sentence forms to see how they organise the world. His argument is that you can learn to write and later become a good writer by understanding and imitating these forms from many different styles. Thus, if you’re drawn to Jonathan Swift’s biting satire in the sentence, “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse,” then, Fish advises, “Put together two mildly affirmative assertions, the second of which reacts to the first in a way that is absurdly inadequate.” He offers, “Yesterday I saw a man electrocuted and it really was surprising how quiet he became.” Lame, and hardly Swift, as Fish is the first to admit, but identifying the logical structure does specify how satire functions at the level of the sentence and, if you want to employ the form, that’s a good thing to know.

Why is this important? Because the form and rhythm of sentences communicates as much meaning as their factual content, whether we’re conscious of it or not. In 1863, when General Grant took the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last hindrance to free passage of Union supplies along the river, President Lincoln wrote in a letter to be read at a public meeting: “The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” It’s a poem of a sentence, “The father of waters” and “unvexed to the sea” perfectly balanced on the unexpected pivot of “again goes” rather than “goes again”, and all in the service of a metaphor that figures the Union as an inevitable force and the Confederacy as a blight on nature, without mentioning either. If cadence had no content, “Union supplies lines are now clear” would have the same power. And what is obvious in rhetoric is true in literature, as well.

We get no analysis of Japanese cell-phone novels or the best of the blogosphere. But for those, and I would count myself among them, who fell in love with literature not by becoming enthralled to books they couldn’t put down but by discovering individual sentences whose rhythm and rhetoric was so compelling they couldn’t help but repeat them to anyone who would listen, it is a blessed replacement to that old Strunkian superego forever whispering in your ear – cut, cut, cut.

“Sometimes interesting opportunities arrive dressed as a huge pain in the ass.” – Thomas Edison

 

 

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: Starbucks Saturation, Sacred Closet, Tiny Monsters, and Ballon Moon Shots

1. Why the high street is overdosing on caffeine

The intuition behind these complaints is straightforward. If Starbucks opens a café just round the corner — or in some cases, across the road — from another Starbucks, could that really be about selling more coffee, or is it about creating a retail landscape so caffeinated that no rival could survive? Similarly, the arrival on the supermarket shelves of Cinnamon Burst Cheerios might seem reasonable enough, were they not already laden with Apple Cinnamon Cheerios and Cheerios Protein Cinnamon Almond and 12 other variants on the Cheerios brand.

Conceptually, there is little difference between having outlets that are physically close together and having products that differ only in subtle ways. But it is hard to be sure exactly why a company is packing its offering so densely, at the risk of cannibalising its own sales.

A crush of products or outlets may be because apparently similar offerings reflect differences that matter to consumers. I do not much care whether I am eating Corn Flakes or Shreddies — the overall effect seems much the same to me — but others may care very much indeed. It might well be that in midtown Manhattan, few people will bother walking an extra block to get coffee, so if Starbucks wants customers it needs to be on every corner.

But an alternative explanation is that large companies deliberately open too many stores, or launch too many products, because they wish to pre-empt competitors. Firms could always slash prices instead to keep the competition away but that may not be quite as effective — a competitor might reasonably expect any price war to be temporary. It is less easy to un-launch a new product or shut down a brand-new outlet. A saturated market is likely to stay saturated for a while, then, and that should make proliferation a more credible and effective deterrent than low prices.

2. The Holy Junk Heap – or The Entombment Of Sacred Texts (Genzia)

“Geniza” is a barely translatable Hebrew term that holds within it an ultimate statement about the worth of words and their place in Jewish life. It derives from the Persian ganj (or kanj), meaning “hoard” or “hidden treasure,” and while the expression itself doesn’t appear in the Bible, several of the later biblical books composed under Persian rule contain a handful of related inflections: Esther and Ezra, for instance, speak of ginzei hamelekh, or ginzei malka—“the King’s treasuries,” and the “royal archives.” Rabbinic usage of the root is more common, if also more peculiar: in the Talmud it almost always suggests the notion of “concealment” or “storing away”—though just what that entailed isn’t usually specified. The rabbis describe the light of Creation by which Adam could see from one end of the world to the other as being “hidden” or “stored up” (ganuz) for the souls of the righteous in the afterlife. Writing the sages deemed somehow heretical (including, at one point, the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, “because [their] words contradicted one another”) should, some believed, also be ganuz, that is, censored in the most physical manner—by being buried. In one instance, a threatening text was placed under a step in a staircase. Likewise, religious manuscripts that time or human error has rendered unfit for use cannot be “thrown out,” but rather “require geniza”—removal, for example, to a clay jar and a safe place, “that they may continue many days” and “decay of their own accord.”

Implied in this latter idea of geniza is that these works, like people, are living things, possessing an element of the sacred about them—and therefore when they “die,” or become worn out, they must be honored and protected from profanation. “The contents of the book,” wrote Solomon Schechter, “go up to heaven like the soul.” The same Hebrew root, g-n-z, was, he noted, sometimes used on gravestones: “Here lies hidden (nignaz) this man.”

The origins and otherworldly aspects of the institution aren’t the only mysterious things about it. Both its development and its precise nature have remained curiously elusive. What we do know is that at some point the verbal noun “geniza” evolved from indicating a process to also connoting a place, either a burial plot, a storage chamber, or a cabinet where any damaged or somehow dubious holy book would be ritually entombed. In this way, the text’s sanctity would be preserved, and dangerous ideas kept from circulating. Or, as one early scholar of the material neatly put it: “A genizah serves… the twofold purpose of preserving good things from harm and bad things from harming.”

If one is used to thinking of Judaism as a straight shot from the Bible to the shtetl, followed by a brief stopover on the Lower East Side, it may seem strange to realize that this socially integrated Jewish society was not just a product of some peculiar local circumstance but was, instead, emblematic of its epoch. Lest we forget, from the time of antiquity until around 1200, over 90 percent of the world’s Jewish population lived in the East and, after the Muslim conquest, under the rule of Islam. Fustat was, in its medieval heyday, home to the most prosperous Jewish community on earth, and served as a commercial axis for Jews throughout North Africa and the Middle East and as far away as India. At the same time, the city contained nearly every race, class, occupation, and religious strain the region had to offer. “It was,” as Goitein saw it, “a mirror of the world.”

3. Augmented Reality is Virtual Reality.
These terms will blend at some point to find a common ground.

Logically, I know there isn’t a hulking four-armed, twisty-horned blue monster clomping in circles in front of me, but it sure as hell looks like it.

I’m sitting behind a workbench in a white-walled room in Dania Beach, Florida, in the office of a secretive startup called Magic Leap. I’m staring wide-eyed through a pair of lenses attached to what looks like metal scaffolding that towers over my head and contains a bunch of electronics and lenses. It’s an early prototype of the company’s so-called cinematic-­reality technology, which makes it possible for me to believe that the muscular beast with the gruff expression and two sets of swinging arms is actually in the room with me, hovering about seven feet in front of my face.

He’s not just visible at a set distance. I’m holding a video-game controller that’s connected to the demo station, and at the press of a button I can make the monster smaller or larger, move him right or left, bring him closer, or push him farther away.

Of course, I bring him as near as possible; I want to see how real he looks up close. Now he’s about 30 inches from my eyeballs and, though I’ve made him pocket-sized, looks about as authentic as a monster could—he seems to have rough skin, muscular limbs, and deep-set beady eyes. I extend my hand to give him a base to walk on, and I swear I feel a tingling in my palm in expectation of his little feet pressing into it. When, a split second later, my brain remembers that this is just an impressively convincing 3-D image displayed in the real space in front of me, all I can do is grin.

4. Inside Google X – Project Loon
A fantastic peek into an incredibly ambitious project that has the potential to connect “the other 4 billion” people in underserved and developing parts of the world to the Internet.

 

When you imagine a sensitive computer system that will be subjected to the harsh conditions of the stratosphere, you probably don’t picture it inside a $2 box meant for a picnic. But in the fast and dirty ethos of X Labs, the simplest solution is often the best one — and so it was that the flight controller on early balloons was jammed into a styrofoam beer cooler and set to the edge of outer space. The team keeps that original unit around as a memento.

Since then, the payload has evolved into a modular aluminum rig wrapped in a metal-mylar blanket that insulates it from temperature changes and high-intensity ultraviolet rays. It’s suspended below two solar panels that collect all the energy used to power its onboard systems. The entire payload below the balloon looks very much like a miniature satellite, but takes a fraction of the time and money to produce. Google won’t divulge the exact cost, except to say each balloon costs “tens of thousands of dollars.”

“Communication satellites are typically pretty expensive, hundreds of millions to build and a hundred million plus to launch,” says Cassidy. “Whereas the balloons are an order of magnitude or two cheaper to operate on a daily basis, even for a global network.”

Loon is always aiming to extend the lifespan of its flights, but in some ways, a short ride can be an advantage. “With balloons you’re only four to five months away from having a fresh balloon,” Cassidy explains. “New technologies come, new compression algorithms, the electronics can be updated, so you have a pretty fresh fleet in the air at any time.”

“A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.” — Leonard Nimoy

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” — Leonard Nimoy

Rest In Peace Mr. Nimoy (Spock)

 

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