Monthly Archives: April 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here they are (7 of 79):

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. The Moral Bucket List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what can prose do well…

2. Learning Through Tinkering​

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Ars knows too.

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

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

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

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

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

4. Swarmfarm Robotics

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

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

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

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

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

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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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