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For Your Consideration: Cotton Robots, Datamining for Literacy, and Childhood Memories

1. Automation and the Cotton Gin

When the cotton gin was invented, many people thought that it would reduce our new nation’s dependence on slavery by removing the painstaking work of separating the usable cotton from seeds, hulls, stems, etc.

But ironically, it resulted in the growth of slavery.

The gin could process cotton so efficiently that more cotton goods could be produced, and it turned out that there was massive latent demand for cotton goods. So while the robots did indeed reduce the reliance on slaves to do the finishing work, they also increased demand for cotton, which resulted in many more cotton fields, and many more slaves to tend them.

I don’t know enough history to know whether this was a core issue that led to our Civil War or just a contributing factor. Probably somewhere in between. But it took us more than 100 years to really process all the implications of just this one technology advance (and I think really you’d argue that we haven’t fully come to terms with them even today.)

So you see where I’m going with this.

Fast forward to our own era, and we’re working our way through software automation instead of cotton processing automation. And it seems obvious to me that as we’re making systems and processes easier and easier to automate, we’re also generating massive new previously latent demand for software driven systems.

I’m not arguing at all that this will result in anything like the growth of slavery in the first half of the 19th century — more that we’re in a time of profound change. And that worries over whether robots will take all our jobs I think will prove to be ultimately misplaced. I think that if you look not just at the cotton gin, but most technology automation advances what you’ll find is that the demand for labor nearly always increases.

2. Mobile Phone Data Reveals Literacy Rates in Developing Countries

One of the millennium development goals of the United Nations is to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. That’s a complex task, since poverty has many contributing factors. But one of the more significant is the 750 million people around the world who are unable to read and write, two-thirds of which are women.

There are plenty of organizations that can help, provided they know where to place their resources. So identifying areas where literacy rates are low is an important challenge…

The usual method is to carry out household surveys. But this is time-consuming and expensive work, and difficult to repeat on a regular basis. And in any case, data from the developing world is often out of date before it can be used effectively. So a faster, cheaper way of mapping literacy rates would be hugely welcome.

Pål Sundsøy at Telenor Group Research in Fornebu, Norway, says he’s worked out how to determine literacy rates using mobile phone call records. His method is straightforward number crunching. He starts with a standard household survey of 76,000 mobile phone users living in an unidentified developing country in Asia. The survey was carried out for a mobile phone operator by a professional agency and logs each person’s mobile phone number and whether or not they can read.

Sundsøy then matches this data set with call data records from the mobile phone company. This provides data such as the numbers each person has called or texted, the length of these calls, air time purchases, cell tower locations, and so on.

From this data, Sundsøy can work out where all the individuals were when they made their calls or texts, who they were calling or texting, the number of texts received, at what time of day, and so on. This allows him to construct a social network for each user, working out who they called, how often, and so on.

Finally, he used 75 percent of the data to search for patterns associated with users who are illiterate, using a variety of number crunching and machine learning techniques. He used the remaining 25 percent to test whether it is possible to use these patterns to identify illiterate people and areas where there is a higher proportion of illiterate people.

3. Why Childhood Memories Disappear

“People used to think that the reason that we didn’t have early memories was because children didn’t have a memory system or they were unable to remember things, but it turns out that’s not the case,” Peterson said. “Children have a very good memory system. But whether or not something hangs around long-term depends on on several other factors.” Two of the most important factors, Peterson explained, are whether the memory “has emotion infused in it,” and whether the memory is coherent: Does the story our memory tells us actually hang together and make sense when we recall it later?

But then, this event- or story-based memory isn’t the only kind, although it’s the one people typically focus on when discussing “first” memories. Indeed, when I asked the developmental psychologist Steven Reznick about why childhood amnesia exists, he disputed the very use of that term: “I would say right now that is a rather archaic statement.” A professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Reznick explained that shortly after birth, infants can start forming impressions of faces and react when they see those faces again; this is recognition memory. The ability to understand words and learn language relies on working memory, which kicks in at around six months old. More sophisticated forms of memory develop in the child’s second year, as semantic memory allows children to retain understanding of concepts and general knowledge about the world.

“When people were accusing infants of having amnesia, what they were talking about is what we refer to as episodic memory,” Reznick explained. Our ability to remember events that happened to us relies on more complicated mental infrastructure than other kinds of memory. Context is all-important. We need to understand the concepts that give meaning to an event: For the memory of my brother’s birth, I have to understand the meanings of concepts like “hospital,” “brother,” “cot,” and even Thomas the Tank Engine. More than that, for the memory to remain accessible, my younger self had to remember those concepts in the same language-based way that my adult self remembers information. I formed earlier memories using more rudimentary, pre-verbal means, and that made those memories unreachable as the acquisition of language reshaped how my mind works, as it does for everyone.

“Now comes the second machine age. Computers and other digital advances are doing for mental power—the ability to use our brains to understand and shape our environments—what the steam engine and its descendants did for muscle power.” – Erik Brynjolfsson

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: American Political Insanity, Google Machine Learning, Gaming Education, and Instagram Hell

1. How Google Is Remaking Itself As A “Machine Learning First” Company – Backchannel

Google’s bear-hug-level embrace of machine learning does not simply represent a shift in programming technique. It’s a serious commitment to techniques that will bestow hitherto unattainable powers to computers. The leading edge of this are “deep learning” algorithms built around sophisticated neural nets inspired by brain architecture. The Google Brain is a deep learning effort, and DeepMind, the AI company Google bought for a reported $500 million in January 2014, also concentrates on that end of the spectrum. It was DeepMind that created the AlphaGo system that beat a champion of Go, shattering expectations of intelligent machine performance and sending ripples of concern among those fearful of smart machines and killer robots.

While Giannandrea dismisses the “AI-is-going-to-kill us” camp as ill-informed Cassandras, he does contend that machine learning systems are going to be transformative, in everything from medical diagnoses to driving our cars. While machine learning won’t replace humans, it will change humanity.

The example Giannandrea cites to demonstrate machine learning power is Google Photos, a product whose definitive feature is an uncanny — maybe even disturbing — ability to locate an image of something specified by the user. Show me pictures of border collies. “When people see that for the first time they think something different is happening because the computer is not just computing a preference for you or suggesting a video for you to watch,” says Giannandrea. “It’s actually understanding what’s in the picture.” He explains that through the learning process, the computer “knows” what a border collie looks like, and it will find pictures of it when it’s a puppy, when its old, when it’s long-haired, and when it’s been shorn. A person could do that, of course. But no human could sort through a million example and simultaneously identify ten thousand dog breeds. But a machine learning system can. If it learns one breed, it can use the same technique to identify the other 9999 using the same technique. “that’s really what’s new here,” says Giannandrea. “For those narrow domains, you’re seeing what some people call super human performance in these learned systems.”

2. How American Politics Went Insane – The Atlantic

Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death. For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or (usually) all of the above. Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick.

The disorder has other causes, too: developments such as ideological polarization, the rise of social media, and the radicalization of the Republican base. But chaos syndrome compounds the effects of those developments, by impeding the task of organizing to counteract them. Insurgencies in presidential races and on Capitol Hill are nothing new, and they are not necessarily bad, as long as the governing process can accommodate them. Years before the Senate had to cope with Ted Cruz, it had to cope with Jesse Helms. The difference is that Cruz shut down the government, which Helms could not have done had he even imagined trying.

Like many disorders, chaos syndrome is self-reinforcing. It causes governmental dysfunction, which fuels public anger, which incites political disruption, which causes yet more governmental dysfunction. Reversing the spiral will require understanding it. Consider, then, the etiology of a political disease: the immune system that defended the body politic for two centuries; the gradual dismantling of that immune system; the emergence of pathogens capable of exploiting the new vulnerability; the symptoms of the disorder; and, finally, its prognosis and treatment.

3. Gaming Reality – Games and the Education System – CNN

To understand why Quest to Learn thinks games are crucial to the educational system, one first must take a look at why games are so compelling in the first place.

That’s easy if you talk to James Gee, a presidential professor at Arizona State University’s department of education, who has made a career out of assessing the usefulness of games.

“What a video game is, is it’s just a set of problems to solve — that’s it,” he said. “And it has a win state. You get feedback and you know when you’ve solved the problem. And then the game designer has to create good motivation for you to do that.”

Take “Angry Birds” as an example. It’s a game where smartphone owners are asked to use a digital slingshot to catapult birds across the screen and into towers of sticks with evil pigs — their enemies — hiding inside them.

That game is compelling, Gee would argue, because there is a clear problem (pigs that need to be pummeled), a feedback system (after each level, players are given stars based on how quickly they’re able to pummel said pigs) and, to some degree, an inherent motivational structure. Players who want to advance to harder levels (to “level-up” in gamer-speak) must improve their scores to do so — maximizing efficiency.

Something about it works: The game has been downloaded more than 1 billion times.

Quest is appropriating those ideas in a system it calls “game-like learning.” Instead of regular classes, kids are sent on missions where they’re expected to make their own discoveries and compete against other students or classrooms from the school.

Sometimes students here use video games and other high-tech tools — there’s a 3-D printer on site; laptops and iPads seem to be everywhere; kids play “The Sims” as part of class — but often they don’t. Duke’s “The Way Things Work” classroom looks pretty much like any other eclectic science class in America: bright posters on the walls, class pets in the back corner, a model skeleton leaning against the window.

It’s how the class is framed that’s different. Kids are told they are no longer students but explorers. They’re put inside a narrative that’s bigger than them — they’re dispatched on a “mission” to discover, in this case, the many mysteries of the metric system.

Then they play games in order to make those discoveries.

The magic of the school is that, just like in a video game, when one challenge ends another begins, co-founder Salen said. You move to the next level. The school is designed to create challenges that the students actually want to tackle, without worrying about grades or tests, just because they’re actually interested in the world.

Games “create a reason for young people to want to engage in a problem or around a set of content,” Salen said. “And then you make those resources around them available so they can do work and practice around that problem.”

Put another way: The carrot is always in front of the horse.

4. Is Instagram Ruining Travel? – BackChannel

Like a bad motivational speaker, I’m a sucker for a good sunrise and Angkor Wat was delivering. This was the edifice that had survived since the 12th century and had miraculously been spared the Khmer Rouge’s rod of destruction during Cambodia’s 1970s genocide. It has inspired sages for generations and graces everything from the labels of local beers to the set of “Tomb Raider,” an architectural wonder draped in a sheet of spiritual mystery and marvel.

I took a breath and a sip, then raised my iPhone to the sky. Thirty seconds of cropping and captioning later, I posted on Instagram an odious, travel-envy shot of the moment, knowing very well that most of my friends back in New York City were cold, miserable urban yetis. Meanwhile, I was eating, praying and loving and now there was a 1080-by-1080-pixel image to prove it.

It sounds like a moment of pure trekking ecstasy. But it was fraudulent.

I didn’t post what was behind me.

That scene — the fight for the perfect Instagram — is one I’ve witnessed over and over, on at least three continents during the last year or so. At times, it felt like destinations were morphing into mere photo sets. In New Zealand, I saw adventure companies that made getting the perfect photo-op part of their pitch for kayaking, hiking or ziplining expeditions. In Thailand, a woman next to me on a beach squealed to her friends about getting her hair just right for a shot destined for her Tinder profile. Back home in New York, I have more than once found myself in the crosshairs of a narcisstick aimed at a scraggly Elmo in Times Square.

Our desire to get the perfect sharable photo has even led to deaths by selfie, with Mashable reporting that in 2015 more people died from taking selfies than shark attacks. Last year, Disneyland banned selfie sticks at its theme parks, citing safety as a concern. The Russian government even released a guide for how not to die taking one, kicking the “safe selfies” movement into motion.

To be sure, these are extremes. But as I stood there in Cambodia, swatted by selfie sticks, bruised by elbows, perfumed by the body odor of my fellow photogs, I realized the irony of being at a temple in which no one was really present. Was Instagram ruining travel?

“Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.” – Eckhart Tolle 

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: Words, Libraries, Reading, Writing, and Futures for Kids

1. Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming​

I’m here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.

And it’s that change, and that act of reading that I’m here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

2. What is writing? Why Telepathy, of Course

In his book On Writing, Stephen King explains what writing is in three words: “Telepathy, of course.”

Then again, this isn’t an entirely new concept. When we were kids, writing was explained as the act of transmitting ideas from our brains onto a sheet of paper. But I don’t know, telepathy just sounds better. For one thing, it means transmitting real objects from one space and time to another, I like this. It means writing doesn’t end or even begin with the writer’s internal struggle, but with the notion that the writer has something to show and can do so by making his mind connect with that of the reader.

And while this may sound ridiculous, even “cute,” as King says other people might call it, we’ve experienced what he’s talking about.

To make the point, King writes a description of a bunny, munching a carrot in a cage with the number 8 written on his back in blue ink and says this afterward, “The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back… This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me… We’re having a meeting of the minds.” And he was right. We are looking at the number on the bunny’s back. We feel connected to him as if we were present with him examining the number.

The question I ask now is, how did he do that? How did he know the number was the subject of our focus? It was his, but how did he know he had successfully pulled our gaze from the cage, bunny and the carrot and onto the blue number?

Of course, you could say, “it’s obviously the most interesting thing in the piece” or “Well, he is the writer, after all. He knew we would want to look at something as out of place as the blue number on the bunny.” And yes, the example is a very easy one to see. But his acclaimed fame as a writer would defend that this is not something he does by accident, but knows exactly what we are seeing. And my question is how did he learn this?

3. Philip K Dick on Disneyland, reality and science fiction (1978)

It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question “What is reality?”, to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.

But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener. Sometimes when I watch my eleven-year-old daughter watch TV, I wonder what she is being taught. The problem of miscuing; consider that. A TV program produced for adults is viewed by a small child. Half of what is said and done in the TV drama is probably misunderstood by the child. Maybe it’s all misunderstood. And the thing is, Just how authentic is the information anyhow, even if the child correctly understood it? What is the relationship between the average TV situation comedy to reality? What about the cop shows? Cars are continually swerving out of control, crashing, and catching fire. The police are always good and they always win. Do not ignore that point: The police always win. What a lesson that is. You should not fight authority, and even if you do, you will lose. The message here is, Be passive. And—cooperate. If Officer Baretta asks you for information, give it to him, because Officer Beratta is a good man and to be trusted. He loves you, and you should love him.

4. Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade​

If you have a child entering grade school this fall, file away just one number with all those back-to-school forms: 65 percent.

Chances are just that good that, in spite of anything you do, little Oliver or Abigail won’t end up a doctor or lawyer — or, indeed, anything else you’ve ever heard of. According to Cathy N. Davidson, co-director of the annual MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions, fully 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.

So Abigail won’t be doing genetic counseling. Oliver won’t be developing Android apps for currency traders or co-chairing Google’s philanthropic division. Even those digital-age careers will be old hat. Maybe the grown-up Oliver and Abigail will program Web-enabled barrettes or quilt with scraps of Berber tents. Or maybe they’ll be plying a trade none of us old-timers will even recognize as work.

For those two-thirds of grade-school kids, if for no one else, it’s high time we redesigned American education.

As Ms. Davidson puts it: “Pundits may be asking if the Internet is bad for our children’s mental development, but the better question is whether the form of learning and knowledge-making we are instilling in our children is useful to their future.”

In her galvanic new book, “Now You See It,” Ms. Davidson asks, and ingeniously answers, that question. One of the nation’s great digital minds, she has written an immensely enjoyable omni-manifesto that’s officially about the brain science of attention. But the book also challenges nearly every assumption about American education.

…Simply put, we can’t keep preparing students for a world that doesn’t exist. We can’t keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills they’re developing on their own. And above all, we must stop disparaging digital prowess just because some of us over 40 don’t happen to possess it. An institutional grudge match with the young can sabotage an entire culture.

When we criticize students for making digital videos instead of reading “Gravity’s Rainbow,” or squabbling on Politico.com instead of watching “The Candidate,” we are blinding ourselves to the world as it is. And then we’re punishing students for our blindness. Those hallowed artifacts — the Thomas Pynchon novel and the Michael Ritchie film — had a place in earlier social environments. While they may one day resurface as relevant, they are now chiefly of interest to cultural historians. But digital video and Web politics are intellectually robust and stimulating, profitable and even pleasurable.

 

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” 

If you were forwarded this newsletter and enjoyed it, please subscribe here: https://tinyletter.com/peopleinpassingI 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: Hacking Elections, Boosting Conspiracy Theories, Presence vs. Advice, and Earth Imaged Daily

1. How to Hack an Election

Two thousand miles away, in an apartment in Bogotá’s upscale Chicó Navarra neighborhood, Andrés Sepúlveda sat before six computer screens. Sepúlveda is Colombian, bricklike, with a shaved head, goatee, and a tattoo of a QR code containing an encryption key on the back of his head. On his nape are the words “</head>” and “<body>” stacked atop each other, dark riffs on coding. He was watching a live feed of Peña Nieto’s victory party, waiting for an official declaration of the results.

When Peña Nieto won, Sepúlveda began destroying evidence. He drilled holes in flash drives, hard drives, and cell phones, fried their circuits in a microwave, then broke them to shards with a hammer. He shredded documents and flushed them down the toilet and erased servers in Russia and Ukraine rented anonymously with Bitcoins. He was dismantling what he says was a secret history of one of the dirtiest Latin American campaigns in recent memory.

For eight years, Sepúlveda, now 31, says he traveled the continent rigging major political campaigns. With a budget of $600,000, the Peña Nieto job was by far his most complex. He led a team of hackers that stole campaign strategies, manipulated social media to create false waves of enthusiasm and derision, and installed spyware in opposition offices, all to help Peña Nieto, a right-of-center candidate, eke out a victory. On that July night, he cracked bottle after bottle of Colón Negra beer in celebration. As usual on election night, he was alone.

Sepúlveda’s career began in 2005, and his first jobs were small—mostly defacing campaign websites and breaking into opponents’ donor databases. Within a few years he was assembling teams that spied, stole, and smeared on behalf of presidential campaigns across Latin America. He wasn’t cheap, but his services were extensive. For $12,000 a month, a customer hired a crew that could hack smartphones, spoof and clone Web pages, and send mass e-mails and texts. The premium package, at $20,000 a month, also included a full range of digital interception, attack, decryption, and defense. The jobs were carefully laundered through layers of middlemen and consultants. Sepúlveda says many of the candidates he helped might not even have known about his role; he says he met only a few.
2. Social Network Algorithms Are Distorting Reality By Boosting Conspiracy Theories

The filter bubble—the idea that online recommendation engines learn what we like and thus keep us only reading things we agree with—has evolved. Algorithms, network effects, and zero-cost publishing are enabling crackpot theories to go viral, and—unchecked—these ideas are impacting the decisions of policy makers and shaping public opinion, whether they are verified or not.

First it is important to understand the technology that drives the system. Most algorithms work simply: Web companies try to tailor their content (which includes news and search results) to match the tastes and interests of readers. However as online organizer and author Eli Pariser says in the TED Talk where the idea of the filter bubble became popularized: “There’s a dangerous unintended consequence. We get trapped in a ‘filter bubble’ and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview.”

Facebook’s news feed and personalized search delivers results that are tailored just to us because a social network’s business is to keep us interested and happy. Feeling good drives engagement and more time spent on a site, and that keeps a user targetable with advertisements for longer. Pariser argues that this nearly invisible editing of the Internet limits what we see—and that it will “ultimately prove to be bad for us and bad for democracy.”

In his 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin describes a world where our ability to technologically shape reality is so sophisticated, it overcomes reality itself. “We risk being the first people in history,” he writes, “to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.”
3. The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice

Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.

Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there, as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our “fix,” then cut and run, figuring we’ve done the best we can to “save” the other person.

During my depression, there was one friend who truly helped. With my permission, Bill came to my house every day around 4:00 PM, sat me down in an easy chair, and massaged my feet. He rarely said a word. But somehow he found the one place in my body where I could feel a sense of connection with another person, relieving my awful sense of isolation while bearing silent witness to my condition.

By offering me this quiet companionship for a couple of months, day in and day out, Bill helped save my life. Unafraid to accompany me in my suffering, he made me less afraid of myself. He was present — simply and fully present — in the same way one needs to be at the bedside of a dying person.
4. A New 50-Trillion-Pixel Image of Earth, Every Day​

But it’s Planet Labs and Terra Bella who seem to be driving the small-satellite industry. Both are born of and based in Bay Area business culture. (Terra Bella’s founders often speak of the Stanford class where they met.) Both companies are now non-negligible in size: Planet Labs has more than 330 employees, evenly split between space-operations and product engineering; Terra Bella numbers more than 180. For reference, DigitalGlobe employs 1,300 people.

And, despite both manufacturing satellites, Planet Labs and Terra Bella both downplay their importance. Dan Berkenstock, Terra Bella’s CEO, even implied its why the company is changing its name: “I think Skybox, in many ways, came to be equated with satellite imaging,” he told me. “And satellite imaging is great—but that’s one piece of the puzzle.” (I also wonder if Skybox sounded too much like the similarly geospatial-minded Mapbox or the recently devalued Dropbox.)

Instead, both companies now talk about how imagery fits into their “Earth information platforms” that bring together lots of different kinds of data about the planet. Both companies offer APIs, aiming to provide something like “cloud” services for Earth information. (As opposed to “cloud” services for the Earth—that would be something else entirely.) Both companies are also cagey about what kind of non-imagery data could get included in these platforms, but meteorological and climate data would make sense.

“The product is information processing—real-time, fact-based data,” says Robbie Schlinger, co-founder of Planet Labs.

For Terra Bella, the uses of its eventual platform revolve around “economic transparency.” Their satellites have sufficiently high resolution to see vehicles, and they record high-definition video, not still frames. They mention executives working on logistics problems, or people checking on a construction project far away, when discussing their project. Their satellites’ resolution also puts a solution to “the Walmart parking-lot problem” in reach: an almost-infamous idea that financiers could scry the direction of the U.S. economy by tabulating how many cars obscure the blacktops of the nation’s big-box retailer.

Planet Labs tends to focus on different situations. As recently as last summer, it was a “unicorn,” valued at more than $1 billion. And unlike Terra Bella, which has leased out some of its manufacturing, Planet Labs still builds all of its extra-large Cubesats in its South of Market headquarters in San Francisco. Next month, the company will begin constructing 120 of them in a six-week span, the fastest manufacture of satellites in history, according to Schlinger.

Its satellites are a better fit for observing land use: the health and types of agricultural crops, the extent of logging and deforestation, the availability of water and the plumpness of reservoirs. (You can still often discern car and truck-sized objects in its photos.) Last year, it started giving imagery of newsworthy areas, like the Syria-Turkey border, to outlets like The New York Times.

 

“If you tell me precisely what it is a machine cannot do, then I can always make a machine which will do just that.” – John von Neumann

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: Aphantasia, Learned Resilience, Other People’s Problems, Pirated Science

1. Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind

“I just learned something about you and it is blowing my goddamned mind.This is not a joke. It is not “blowing my mind” a la BuzzFeed’s “8 Things You Won’t Believe About Tarantulas.” It is, I think, as close to an honest-to-goodness revelation as I will ever live in the flesh.

Here it is: You can visualize things in your mind.

If I tell you to imagine a beach, you can picture the golden sand and turquoise waves. If I ask for a red triangle, your mind gets to drawing. And mom’s face? Of course. You experience this differently, sure. Some of you see a photorealistic beach, others a shadowy cartoon. Some of you can make it up, others only “see” a beach they’ve visited. Some of you have to work harder to paint the canvas. Some of you can’t hang onto the canvas for long. But nearly all of you have a canvas.

I don’t. I have never visualized anything in my entire life. I can’t “see” my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought “counting sheep” was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind.

If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the “concept” of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself.
But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time—or whether I’m standing on the beach itself.

And I grew up in Miami.

This is how it’s always been for me, and this is how I thought it was for you. Then a “Related Article” link on Facebook led me to this bombshell in The New York Times. The piece unearths, with great curiosity, the mystery of a 65 year-old man who lost his ability to form mental images after a surgery.
What do you mean “lost” his ability? I thought. Shouldn’t we be amazed he ever that ability?
Neurologists at the University at Exeter in England showed the man a photo. Who is that? Tony Blair, of course. Brain scans showed the visual sectors of his brain lighting up.

Then they removed the photo and asked him to imagine Tony Blair. The man knew characteristics—his eye color, his hair—but he could not “see” the image in his mind’s eye. Brain scans showed the visual sectors didn’t activate this time. In fMRIs of other men, many of the same sectors activated whether the subjects were looking at a photo or simply imagining one.”

2. How People Learn to Become Resilient

One of the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” Bonanno told me, in December. “To call something a ‘traumatic event’ belies that fact.” He has coined a different term: PTE, or potentially traumatic event, which he argues is more accurate. The theory is straightforward. Every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it. (Bonanno focusses on acute negative events, where we may be seriously harmed; others who study resilience, including Garmezy and Werner, look more broadly.) Take something as terrible as the surprising death of a close friend: you might be sad, but if you can find a way to construe that event as filled with meaning—perhaps it leads to greater awareness of a certain disease, say, or to closer ties with the community—then it may not be seen as a trauma. (Indeed, Werner found that resilient individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual and religious support than those who weren’t.) The experience isn’t inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological construal.

It’s for this reason, Bonanno told me, that “stressful” or “traumatic” events in and of themselves don’t have much predictive power when it comes to life outcomes. “The prospective epidemiological data shows that exposure to potentially traumatic events does not predict later functioning,” he said. “It’s only predictive if there’s a negative response.” In other words, living through adversity, be it endemic to your environment or an acute negative event, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll suffer going forward. What matters is whether that adversity becomes traumatizing.

The good news is that positive construal can be taught. “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” Bonanno said. In research at Columbia, the neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner has shown that teaching people to think of stimuli in different ways—to reframe them in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally “hot”—changes how they experience and react to the stimulus. You can train people to better regulate their emotions, and the training seems to have lasting effects.

3. The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems

The “reductive seduction” is not malicious, but it can be reckless. For two reasons. First, it’s dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve mistakenly diagnosed as easily solvable. There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity.

There are so many examples. As David Bornstein wrote in The New York Times, over four decades of Westerners working on clean water has led to “billions of dollars worth of broken wells and pumps. Many of them functioned for less than two years.”

One classic example: in 2006, the U.S. government, The Clinton Foundation, The Case Foundation, and others pledged $16.4 million to PlayPump, essentially a merry-go-round pump that produced safe drinking water. Despite being touted as the (fun!) answer to the developing world’s water woes, by 2007, one-quarter of the pumps in Zambia alone were in disrepair. It was later estimated that children would need to “play” for 27 hours a day to produce the water PlayPump promised.

We are easily seduced by aid projects that promise play. The SOCCKET, an energy-generating soccer ball, made a splash in 2011 when it raised $92,296 on Kickstarter. Three short years later, the company that created it wrote to its backers: “Most of you received an incredibly underwhelming product with a slew of manufacturing and quality control errors… In summary, we totally f*#ked up this Kickstarter campaign.”

Reading their surprisingly candid mea culpa, I couldn’t help but wonder where the equivalent message was to the kids in energy-starved areas whose high hopes were darkened by a defunct ball.

In some cases, the reductive seduction can actively cause harm. In its early years, TOMS Shoes — which has become infamous for its “buy one give one” business model, wherein they give a pair of shoes for every one sold — donated American-made shoes, which put local shoe factory workers out of jobs (they’ve since changed their supply chain).

Some development workers even have an acronym that they use to describe these initiatives: SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want). AIDWATCH, a watchdog development blog, created a handy flow chart that helps do gooders reality check their altruistic instincts. It begins with the simplest of questions — “Is the stuff needed?” — and flows down to more sophisticated questions like, “Will buying locally cause shortages or other disruptions?”

4. Why one woman stole 50 million academic papers — and made them all free to read

Many academic journals are extremely expensive. Want to read just one article? That could cost you around $30. The best way to access academic papers is through universities or libraries. But those institutions can pay millions of dollars a year to subscribe to a comprehensive collection.

Alexandra Elbakyan has had enough.

Elbakyan is a Russia-based neuroscientist turned academic Robin Hood. In 2011 she founded the website Sci-Hub, which has grown to host some 50 million academic papers — Elbakyan claims this is nearly all the paywalled scientific knowledge that exists in the world. These papers are free for anyone to view and download.

For students and researchers around the globe who can’t afford academic journals, Elbakyan is a hero. For academic publishers that have historically been shielded from competition, she’s a villain.

Either way, what she’s doing is most definitely illegal.

Last year, leading journal publisher Elsevier took action against Sci-Hub, claiming it violated US copyright laws and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which prohibits the fraudulent access of computer systems. In October, a New York district court orderedthat the site be taken down. Elbakyan was unfazed. Soon after, in November Sci-Hubreemerged with a new overseas domain.

This story is bigger than a single court ruling. It’s a new front in the academic publishing wars. What’s at stake is the question of who has access to scientific knowledge: wealthy institutions, or anyone with an internet connection?

If Sci-Hub wins, the age of academic paywalls may effectively be over.

No man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking.
-Ruth Benedict

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: Laws of Life, Art of (Cyber)war, The Minecraft Generation, and Self or Selfie

Time to re-boot the newsletter. I’ve been meaning to start organizing it again for months but haven’t made the time. Not sure what interrupted the flow especially when I had a lot of encouragement from friends and family. One in particular who used to encourage me on this, to publish (or re-publish) the things that interested me, and to write even when I felt like it was an echo into the void. Miss you dude…

1. Jeremy England, the Man Who May One-Up Darwin

In town to give a lecture, the Harvard grad and Rhodes scholar speaks quickly, his voice rising a few pitches in tone, his long-fingered hands making sudden jerks when he’s excited. He’s skinny, with a long face, scraggly beard and carelessly groomed mop of sandy brown hair — what you might expect from a theoretical physicist. But then there’s the street-style Adidas on his feet and the kippah atop his head. And the fact that this scientist also talks a lot about God.

The 101 version of his big idea is this: Under the right conditions, a random group of atoms will self-organize, unbidden, to more effectively use energy. Over time and with just the right amount of, say, sunlight, a cluster of atoms could come remarkably close to what we call life. In fact, here’s a thought: Some things we consider inanimate actually may already be “alive.” It all depends on how we define life, something England’s work might prompt us to reconsider. “People think of the origin of life as being a rare process,” says Vijay Pande, a Stanford chemistry professor. “Jeremy’s proposal makes life a consequence of physical laws, not something random.”

England’s idea may sound strange, even incredible, but it’s drawn the attention of an impressive posse of high-level academics. After all, while Darwinism may explain evolution and the complex world we live in today, it doesn’t account for the onset of intelligent beings. England’s insistence on probing for the step that preceded all of our current assumptions about life is what makes him stand out, says Carl Franck, a Cornell physics professor, who’s been following England’s work closely. “Every 30 years or so we experience these gigantic steps forward,” Franck says. “We’re due for one. And this might be it.”

And all from a modern Orthodox Jew with fancy sneakers.

2. The New Art Of War: How trolls, hackers and spies are rewriting the rules of conflict

While there is no international law that directly refers to the ultra-modern concept of cyber warfare, there is plenty that applies. So CDCOE assembled a panel of international legal experts to go through this existing law and show how it applies to cyber warfare. This formed the basis of the Tallinn Manual and the 95 so-called ‘black letter rules’ it contains (so named because that’s how they appear in the text).

Through these rules the manual attempts to define some of the basics of cyber warfare. At the most fundamental level, the rules state that an online attack on a state can, in certain circumstances, be the equivalent of an armed attack. It also lays out that such an attack is against international law, and that a state attacked in such a way has the right to hit back.

Other rules the manual spells out: don’t target civilians or launch indiscriminate attacks that could cripple civilian infrastructure. While many of these sorts of rules are well understood when it comes to standard warfare, setting it out in the context of digital warfare was groundbreaking.

While the manual argues that a cyber attack can be considered to be the equivalent of an armed attack if it causes physical harm to people or property, other attacks can also be considered a use of force depending on their severity or impact. For example, breaking into a military system would be more likely to be seen as serious, as opposed to hacking into a small business. In contrast, cyber attacks that generate “mere inconvenience or irritation” would never be considered to be a use of force.
The manual also delves into some of the trickier questions of cyber war: would Country A be justified in launching a pre-emptive military strike against a Country B if it knew Country B planned to blow up Country A’s main oil pipeline by hacking the microcontrollers managing its pipeline pressure? (Answer: probably yes.)

The manual even considers the legality of some scenarios verging on the science-fictional.

If an army hacked into and took control of enemy drones, would those drones have to be grounded and marked with the capturers insignia before being allowed to carry out reconnaissance flights? (Answer: maybe.)

But what’s striking is that the Tallinn Manual sets the rules for a war that hasn’t been fought yet.

3. The Minecraft Generation

Minecraft is an incredibly complex game, but it’s also — at first — inscrutable. When you begin, no pop-ups explain what to do; there isn’t even a “help” section. You just have to figure things out yourself. (The exceptions are the Xbox and Play­Station versions, which in December added tutorials.) This unwelcoming air contrasts with most large games these days, which tend to come with elaborate training sessions on how to move, how to aim, how to shoot. In Minecraft, nothing explains that skeletons will kill you, or that if you dig deep enough you might hit lava (which will also kill you), or even that you can craft a pickax.

This “you’re on your own” ethos resulted from early financial limitations: Working alone, Persson had no budget to design tutorials. That omission turned out be an inadvertent stroke of genius, however, because it engendered a significant feature of Minecraft culture, which is that new players have to learn how to play. Minecraft, as the novelist and technology writer Robin Sloan has observed, is “a game about secret knowledge.” So like many modern mysteries, it has inspired extensive information-­­sharing. Players excitedly pass along tips or strategies at school. They post their discoveries in forums and detail them on wikis. (The biggest one, hosted at the site Gamepedia, has nearly 5,000 articles; its entry on Minecraft’s “horses,” for instance, is about 3,600 words long.) Around 2011, publishers began issuing handbooks and strategy guides for the game, which became runaway best sellers; one book on redstone has outsold literary hits like “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt.

“In Minecraft, knowledge becomes social currency,” says Michael Dezuanni, an associate professor of digital media at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. Dezuanni has studied how middle-­school girls play the game, watching as they engaged in nuanced, Talmudic breakdowns of a particular creation. This is, he realized, a significant part of the game’s draw: It offers many opportunities to display expertise, when you uncover a new technique or strategy and share it with peers.

The single biggest tool for learning Minecraft lore is YouTube. The site now has more than 70 million Minecraft videos, many of which are explicitly tutorial. To make a video, players use “screencasting” software (some of which is free, some not) that records what’s happening on-screen while they play; they usually narrate their activity in voice-­over. The problems and challenges you face in Minecraft are, as they tend to be in construction or architecture, visual and three-­dimensional. This means, as many players told me, that video demonstrations have a particularly powerful explanatory force: It’s easiest to learn something by seeing someone else do it. In this sense, the game points to the increasing role of video as a rhetorical tool. (“Minecraft” is the second-­most-­searched-­for term on YouTube, after “music.”)

4. Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie

Consider Erica, a full-time college student. The first thing she does when she wakes up in the morning is reach for her smartphone. She checks texts that came in while she slept. Then she scans Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter to see “what everybody else is doing.” At breakfast, she opens her laptop and goes to Spotify and her various email accounts. Once she gets to campus, Erica confronts more screen time: PowerPoints and online assignments, academic content to which she dutifully attends (she’s an A student). Throughout the day, she checks in with social media roughly every 10 minutes, even during class. “It’s a little overwhelming,” she says, “but you don’t want to feel left out.”

We’ve been worried about this type of situation for thousands of years. Socrates, for one, fretted that the written word would compromise our ability to retell stories. Such a radical shift in communication, he argued in Phaedrus, would favor cheap symbols over actual memories, ease of conveyance over inner depth. Philosophers have pondered the effect of information technology on human identity ever since. But perhaps the most trenchant modern expression of Socrates’ nascent technophobia comes from the 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose essays on the subject—notably “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954)—established a framework for scrutinizing our present situation.

Heidegger’s take on technology was dire. He believed that it constricted our view of the world by reducing all experience to the raw material of its operation. To prevent “an oblivion of being,” Heidegger urged us to seek solace in nontechnological space. He never offered prescriptive examples of exactly how to do this, but as the scholar Howard Eiland explains, it required seeing the commonplace as alien, or finding “an essential strangeness in … familiarity.” Easier said than done. Hindering the effort in Heidegger’s time was the fact that technology was already, as the contemporary political philosopher Mark Blitz puts it, “an event to which we belong.” In this view, one that certainly befits today’s digital communication, technology infuses real-world experience the way water mixes with water, making it nearly impossible to separate the human and technological perspectives, to find weirdness in the familiar. Such a blending means that, according to Blitz, technology’s domination “makes us forget our understanding of ourselves.”

The only hope for preserving a non-technological haven—and it was and remains a distant hope—was to cultivate what Heidegger called “nearness.” Nearness is a mental island on which we can stand and affirm that the phenomena we experience both embody and transcend technology. Consider it a privileged ontological stance, a way of knowing the world through a special kind of wisdom or point of view. Heidegger’s implicit hope was that the human ability to draw a distinction between technological and nontechnological perception would release us from “the stultified compulsion to push on blindly with technology.”

 

 

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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