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Remembering Jake Brewer



You should be so lucky in your life to meet someone who makes you want to strive to be the best possible version of yourself. That they can do that with invisible grace and little more than a smile and a few words of encouragement. That they can do that by being an example of it themselves. That they can continue to exert that memory and influence over thousands of miles and infrequent contact. You should be so lucky.


I have been that lucky.


In 2006 I met Jake in the airport lobby in Hong Kong as our plane had deplaned for a lay-over on it’s way to Bali. I had my new camera out and was playing with it and he approached me to talk about photography. We started talking about cameras and taking pictures and discovered that we were on the way to the same conference in Bali. Also, that he had just moved to Portland to head up the office there.


At the conference he, Summer, and I spent a lot of time together and became fast friends. In Ubud, Bali at the conference we ate at the same pizza joint after the conference, danced at the karaoke night, where he did an amazing rendition of “Mountain Music” by Alabama before breakdancing with the group. We got lots of liter beers of Bintang and drank them on the side of the road somewhere in a small group. I remember having trouble with the caps and us having to figure out a way to open the bottles with a carabiner. We hid the bottles every time a car drove by and probably disturbed a sleeping neighborhood.


Back in Portland we got together whenever we were both in town. Both of us traveling a lot for work then.


I remember many coffees and Wednesday night drinks with Reno where we discussed the world and technology and life and everything else. If only I had transcripts of those conversations…


Jake was someone who accepted you for who you were. He might have some thoughts on it, and you could have a conversation about it, but he still accepted you. Loved you might be a more appropriate sentiment.
I remember a group of Campus Christians sitting at a table next to us at Powell’s Books and us overhearing some comments they were making. I left to go to the bathroom only to come back to find Jake holding court with the whole group having created a semicircle around him. We discussed heady theological/philosophical stuff for an hour before everyone parted happily.


Jake created conversations, created engagement, translated between groups, built bridges, and sometimes ferried people across those bridges.


I remember sitting in my ridiculous van in my driveway having a long talk about purpose and fear and life goals as he was preparing to move to DC and I preparing to start my round the world adventure.


He moved to DC and I got to check in with him every so often as his trajectory sped upwards at an ever increasing pace, his sphere of influence growing at each change in career. From Idealist when I met him, to the Energy Action Coalition, to the Sunlight Foundation, to, and finally, as should have been expected with Jake, a position advising the President of the United States.


I remember staying at his bottom floor apartment in DC in 2007 and him waking me up in the living room at full volume with the “Flower Duet” opera. Conducting it and making me wait for just the right parts before throwing his hands up in enthusiasm. I wanted to see what Super Tuesday was like in DC. He showed me around and was an amazing host.


I remember a long night out in DC where we were meeting up a group at a Bachelorette party. I believe I may have even awkwardly and drunkenly bought the group a couple bottles of champagne.


We returned to his house later in the night, necessarily via taxi, and had to have pizza, but were somewhat unable to acquire it ourselves. MK arrived shortly thereafter. I remember pleading with her: “We must pizza, can you help us?” or something like that. She took care of us with her usual grace and good humor.


In 2009 He flew out to be a photographer for my wedding to Summer. He was her wing-man through makeup and hair and documented the process. Taking so many wonderful pictures that the batteries in the flash were ejected to hot to touch more than once.


In 2011 I had the honor of meeting his whole family and soon to be in-laws at his wedding to the amazing Mary Katherine, I’ve never had so much fun with a family in my entire life. Summer and I were honored beyond words to be included.


I remember his open heart and his wise nature. His optimism and seemingly boundless ability to connect people, to see the best version of them through their own eyes.


I remember many quick calls and text exchanges. Each standing out on their own now.


As the legion of people that loved Jake descend on Washington DC to pay their last respects to a great man whose time was cut too short, I think we will see something Jake himself would have loved. So many of the people he loved and respected together in one place connecting or re-connecting, talking, exchanging ideas, memories, stories.


Jake is not done changing the world. The people he has touched will carry his ideas and his intentions on to the best of their ability. He has connected me to amazing people who I will keep close. His memory will continue to make me strive to be a better person and to affect positive change. I’ll use his example to teach my children to be better people and with that he will continue to change the world.


You should be so lucky. I have been so lucky. We who were able to orbit his star if even for a short time.


Qui Moede quoted Ralph Waldo Emmerson when remembering Jake and it was so perfect I felt I needed to as well.


“To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”


Jake succeeded, more than anyone I’ve ever known. And I’m really going to miss him.
Courtesty of Charlotte Hill

Courtesty of Charlotte Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Time-Lapse View of Creating Impossible Beauty Standards

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

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

4. Sir Ken Robinson on Education Reform

Q: What kind of education are you talking about?

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

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

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

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


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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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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: Brains Wired for Error, Health Info Monetization, King David (Carr), and Whole Brain Emulation

1. Your Brain Is Primed To Reach False Conclusions
It goes by many names, the causality illusion, post-hoc fallacy, confirmation bias, the texas sharpshooter fallacy

Many so-called “alternative” remedies exploit the illusion of causality, Matute said, by targeting conditions that naturally have high rates of spontaneous recovery, such as headaches, back pain and colds. Quack cures remain popular in part because they bestow a sense of empowerment on people who are feeling miserable, by giving them something to do while they wait for their problem to run its course.

Even when the evidence for or against a treatment or intervention is clear, medical providers and patients may not accept it. In some cases, the causality illusion is to blame, but usually the reasons are more complex. Other cognitive biases — such as motivated reasoning (all of us want to believe that the things we do make a difference), base rate neglect (failing to pay attention to what happens in the absence of the intervention), and confirmation bias (the tendency to look for evidence that supports what you already know and to ignore the rest) — also influence how we process information. In medicine, perverse incentives can push people in the wrong direction. There’s no easy fix here.

One thing seems clear, though. Simply exposing people to more information doesn’t help. Last year, political scientist Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth and his collaborators published a randomized trial of four different approaches to influencing attitudes about vaccines among parents. The study’s 1,759 participants were split into groups, and each subset was presented with information about why vaccines are important — everything from why the diseases that a measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine could prevent are worth avoiding to images of children stricken with those diseases and a heart-felt story about an infant who nearly died of a case of measles. None of these efforts made parents more likely to vaccinate their kids.

2. Calling Dr. Internet? – There is no doctor/patient confidentiality.

“Experian is a data broker well known for selling credit scores—which include information on bankruptcies,” Libert said. “Academic research by Senator Elizabeth Warren has shown that over 60 percent of bankruptcies are medical-related. Given that I found Experian tracking users on thousands of health-related web pages, it is entirely possible the company not only knows which individuals went bankrupt for medical reasons, but when they first went online to learn about their illness as well. In essence Experian can follow an individual from her first sneeze to her final unpaid hospital bill.” (Experian failed to respond when asked to comment.)

Quintin agrees this poses a real threat. “I would say that’s totally possible.” He suggests that it’s plausible that the medical data these brokers vacuum up could eventually be factored into your credit score—and even used to determine how much you pay for health care. “Look, this is all speculative, right? But if I’m a bank and you’re applying for a loan, there’s no reason I would not want that information.” And the data brokers could provide it. “There’s this advertising demographic of you, and now you’re getting healthcare data in there, too. How much are we going to charge you for healthcare, if you’ve been searching for ‘cancer’ and a bunch of illnesses? Health care services could raise your rates.”

“Another nightmare scenario is applying for jobs,” Quintin continued. “A company might get a demographic profile from one of these data brokers and use that information to decide whether or not to hire you.”

But the chief problem is simply that just about all of the above, under current laws, is legal.

3. King David – In Memory of David Carr
I did not know of David Carr or his contributions and influence until he died last week. I’m sure I’d read something by him and not known it. I am, however, happy to be able to go back and read his thoughts and all  the thoughts of the people he helped become writers and journalists.

What I remember about chasing that story is the fear—the fear of offending, of asking impolite questions, of intruding. But you could not work for City Paper without learning how to walk the streets of D.C., approach people you did not previously know and barrage them with intimate questions. This is an essential skill for any journalist—but it also one of the hardest things to do. But David had no tolerance of our fears, save fear of him. And if we could learn to be as deeply intolerant of our fears as he was, then a thousand glories lay on the other side.

This was represented in David himself, a man who was as effusive in praise as he was damning in condemnation. I still remember stumbling upon him in another editor’s office having just turned in a draft of that eviction story, and David looking up and saying, “We were just here talking about your incredible fucking story.” No one had ever said anything like that to me. I remember my mother calling the office one day to talk to me. And David, in his brusque, brutal way, grabbed the phone from me and said, “I just want you to know that your son is here working his ass off.” No one had ever said anything like that to my parents about me. I was a fuck-up. I was a knucklehead. I was going to end up on the corner. I was going to end up in jail. I was going to end up dead.

And then I wasn’t.

David Carr convinced me that, through the constant and forceful application of principle, a young hopper, a fuck-up, a knucklehead, could bring the heavens, the vast heavens, to their knees. The principle was violent and incessant curiosity represented in the craft of narrative argument. That was the principle and craft I employed in writing “The Case for Reparations.” That is part of the reason why the George Polk Award, the one with my name on it, belongs to David. But that is not the most significant reason.

4. If software looks like a brain and acts like a brain—will we treat it like one?

Kenneth Hayworth, a neuroscientist and president of the Brain Preservation Foundation, also sees no reason why a digital brain should be somehow less than a real one. And to those who would argue that these digital uploads of a person’s mind are merely copies, Hayworth suggests considering what type of thing a person is to start. “We have discovered through cognitive science and neuroscience that we are like a program; we are like a data file on a computer in the sense that the information that makes us unique is the only thing that is truly us.”

(It should be noted that Hayworth isn’t too worried yet about the legal and moral status of conscious simulations. “This will not happen tomorrow,” he says. “I would hope that in 50 to 100 years that we would have gotten our act together such that [emulations] would have full rights.”)

A notable voice of dissent on the prospect of WBEs is Duke Neuroscience Professor Miguel Nicolelis. Nicolelis has made headlines for his lab’s work with brain-machine interfaces and primate neuroprosthetics. In 2013, he was quoted in MIT’s Technology Review as saying, “Downloads will never happen… There are a lot of people selling the idea that you can mimic the brain with a computer… You could have all the computer chips ever in the world and you won’t create a consciousness.”

When asked for a comment today, Nicolelis simply responded, “I stand by my previous comments: simulating the work of a human brain in a digital machine is impossible.”

Again, many feel that thought experiments like Hanson’s and Sanders’ are worthless. Why waste time on potential future problems when there are so many current ones? But it makes sense, perhaps, to step back and try to predict the future so that we have a better chance of navigating when it arrives. The day may come when we create software that has the capacity to suffer. And when this happens, we need to pay attention. We need to care.

After all, as Sandberg writes, “When the future arrives we may know far more, but we will have less ability to change it.”


The world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It’s run by ones and zeros— little bits of data. It’s all electrons. There’s a war out there, a world war. It’s not about who has the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information— what we see and hear, how we work, what we think. It’s all about information. – Cosmo [Sneakers]


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For Your Consideration: Death to Kids Menus, Changing the World, Farm Hackers, and Rubber Hands

1. Death to the Chicken Finger

The 1980s and ’90s saw the advent of countless convenience and snack foods, from fruit and chicken nuggets pressed into “fun” shapes to sugar-laden yogurts and foods kids could assemble themselves. Grocery stores increasingly sold meals that resembled fast food. As Moss chronicles in Salt Sugar Fat, these products, many of them portable and/or frozen, helped transform the North American diet. Their flavour profiles, packaging, and advertising and marketing programs were often designed to appeal specifically to children with a sophistication that made the 1960s breakfast cereal explosion look limited and quaint.

And why wouldn’t a child, given the choice, select from typical kids’ menu items? “The sensation of biting into a toasted cheese sandwich or pizza,” Moss observes, “especially when it’s hot and gooey, and with all the aromas … is actually quite powerful from a psychobiology and sensation standpoint.”

Regardless of the processed food industry’s role, putting children on their own restricted, bland diet would never have been possible had parents not gone along with the shift. Observe what happens when you try to challenge other people’s children by feeding them something unfamiliar. It’s often the parents themselves who will push back, giving up before a battle has even begun (“She won’t eat that”). A less challenging food like grilled cheese and fries offers a path of least resistance, guaranteed to succeed — if success is narrowly defined as getting the kid to actually eat it.

2. On the Desire to Change The World

A book is of course an ideal place to lay down an ambition, sort out one’s thoughts and gather a constituency. But that’s about it. A book on its own cannot bring about real change because the world as it currently stands isn’t held together simply by ideas: it is made up of laws, practices, institutions, financial arrangements, businesses and governments. In other words, its muscles are made up of institutions and therefore, the only way to bring about real change is to act through competing institutions. Revolutions in consciousness cannot be made lasting and effective until legions of people start to work together in concert for a common aim and, rather than relying on the intermittent pronouncements of mountain-top prophets, begin the unglamorous and deeply boring task of wrestling with issues of law, money, long-term mass communication, advocacy and administration.

In the Republic, Plato confessed to a profound and melancholy understanding (gathered from bitter experience) of the limits of intellectuals, when he remarked that the world would never be set right until, in his words, ‘philosophers became kings, or kings philosophers’. By which he meant that thinkers should stop imagining that ideas can change reality and recognise that only institutions, ‘kingship’ in this context, have any chance of working a proper influence on the world.

The problem with the world today isn’t that we lack good ideas. We have great, sound, beautiful, enlightened ideas to last us a hundred generations. Enough new books! We don’t have to work stuff out. We have to make what we already know very well more effective out there. The urgent question is how to ally the very many good ideas which currently slumber in the recesses of intellectual life with proper organisational tools that actually stand a chance of giving them real impact in the world.

3. New High-Tech Farm Equipment Is a Nightmare for Farmers

Dave is a DIY kind of guy. But Dave would like to do more than just change his tractor’s oil. He’d like to be able to modify the engine timing. He’d like to harvest the information that his tractor collects to learn more about how his crops grow. He’d like to troubleshoot error codes. Most of all, he’d like to be able to repair his equipment himself—because it’s what he’s been doing all his life.

In the tech industry, we tend to talk about the exploding Maker Movement as if tinkering is something new. In fact, it’s as old as dirt: farmers have been making, building, rebuilding, hacking, and tinkering with their equipment since chickens were feral. I’ve seen farmers do with rusty harvesters and old welders what modern Makers do with Raspberry Pis and breadboards. There’s even a crowdsourced magazine, Farm Show, that’s catalogued thousands of clever farming inventions over the past three decades.

Of course, the world is changing, and that’s especially true in the world of agriculture. Most problems can’t be solved with duct tape and baling wire anymore. Regulations are stricter, agribusiness is more consolidated, resources are more scarce, and equipment is infinitely more complicated and proprietary. Small family farmers like Dave face challenges that even the most industrious Maker would find hard to “hack.”

What used to be done by hand is now managed at scale by giant machine. And that equipment is expensive—equivalent to the price of a small house (Dave’s mid-ranged tractor is worth over $100,000). New, elaborate computer systems afford the kind of precision and predictability that farmers 20 years ago couldn’t have even imagined. But they’ve also introduced new problems.

4. Avatars, rubber hands, virtual reality, and racism

Sure, you accept that some people think in certain ways that you don’t because they’ve absorbed cultural norms that you didn’t, but what about your own mind? It can seem as if once you’ve recognized your own contributions to racism and privilege you should then be able to proceed with a clean slate, rebooted with the awareness of your own ignorance, but free from it.

The evidence suggests it isn’t that easy. The desire alone doesn’t seem to remove prejudice from your thoughts and actions. In experiments where subjects were asked to identify an image within two seconds and to mark it as either a gun or a tool, subjects were much more likely to mistake tools for guns if they first saw a black face before making the call. If shown a white face beforehand, those same people made the mistake in reverse, mislabeling guns as tools. In another line of research, scientists found that people trying to make fair and unbiased decisions in the justice system are just as susceptible. Those researchers wrote that in court cases “involving a white victim, the more stereotypically black a defendant is perceived to be, the more likely that person is to be sentenced to death.”

The seeds of bigotry and xenophobia were planted in your brain long ago, and though you can consciously desire to be unbiased when it comes to race, religion, age, politics, and all the other social phenomena that glom people together – those things have already molded the synaptic landscape in your head. Undoing that in an effort to reduce prejudice will take time. The good news is that neuroscientists are, right now, working on how that undoing might be accomplished at the individual level.


“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
― Ernest Hemingway

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 : Algorithmic Worship, Fact Obsolescence, Mini-Cyberwar, and Lip Reading

1. The Cathedral of Computation | The Atlantic

The worship of the algorithm is hardly the only example of the theological reversal of the Enlightenment—for another sign, just look at the surfeit of nonfiction books promising insights into “The Science of…” anything, from laughter to marijuana. But algorithms hold a special station in the new technological temple because computers have become our favorite idols.

In fact, our purported efforts to enlighten ourselves about algorithms’ role in our culture sometimes offer an unexpected view into our zealous devotion to them. The media scholar Lev Manovich had this to say about “The Algorithms of Our Lives”:

“Software has become a universal language, the interface to our imagination and the world. What electricity and the combustion engine were to the early 20th century, software is to the early 21st century. I think of it as a layer that permeates contemporary societies.”

This is a common account of algorithmic culture, that software is a fundamental, primary structure of contemporary society. And like any well-delivered sermon, it seems convincing at first. Until we think a little harder about the historical references Manovich invokes, such as electricity and the engine, and how selectively those specimens characterize a prior era. Yes, they were important, but is it fair to call them paramount and exceptional?

2. Warning: Your Reality Is Out Of Date | The Boston Globe

These slow-changing facts are what I term “mesofacts.” Mesofacts are the facts that change neither too quickly nor too slowly, that lie in this difficult-to-comprehend middle, or meso-, scale. Often, we learn these in school when young and hold onto them, even after they change. For example, if, as a baby boomer, you learned high school chemistry in 1970, and then, as we all are apt to do, did not take care to brush up on your chemistry periodically, you would not realize that there are 12 new elements in the Periodic Table. Over a tenth of the elements have been discovered since you graduated high school! While this might not affect your daily life, it is astonishing and a bit humbling.

For these kinds of facts, the analogy of how to boil a frog is apt: Change the temperature quickly, and the frog jumps out of the pot. But slowly increase the temperature, and the frog doesn’t realize that things are getting warmer, until it’s been boiled. So, too, is it with humans and how we process information. We recognize rapid change, whether it’s as simple as a fast-moving object or living with the knowledge that humans have walked on the moon. But anything short of large-scale rapid change is often ignored. This is the reason we continue to write the wrong year during the first days of January.

Our schools are biased against mesofacts. The arc of our educational system is to be treated as little generalists when children, absorbing bits of knowledge about everything from biology to social studies to geology. But then, as we grow older, we are encouraged to specialize. This might have been useful in decades past, but in our increasingly fast-paced and interdisciplinary world, lacking an even approximate knowledge of our surroundings is unwise.

Updating your mesofacts can change how you think about the world.

3. Cyber City – The Military Training Ground For Cyberwar | Washington Post
I heard about this in a New Tech City podcast but the linked article is more descriptive.

Creating realistic virtual environments is extraordinarily challenging. In cyberspace, a global network of networks, more than 2 billion people interact with at least 12 billion computers and devices, including global positioning systems, mobile phones, satellites, data routers, ordinary desktop computers, and industrial control computers that run power plants, water systems and more.

In many cyber ranges, the simulated Web servers, routers, mobile phones and other network devices operate essentially as they do in the real world, but they have few if any physical components. The virtual devices simply exist as computer code.

Merit Network Inc., a nonprofit technology group in Michigan, just launched a cyber range at Eastern Michigan University that promises to conduct “live fire” exercises. The Defense Department runs the Information Assurance Range in Stafford County, Va. It gives cyber warriors a safe, closed environment to practice intrusions and security testing.

In Hampshire, England, and Millersville, Md., Northrop Grumman runs cyber ranges that allow corporate and government clients in the United Kingdom and the United States to create models of their own networks and employee activity. Northrop officials liken their systems to flight simulators.

Christopher Valentino, a research and development director in the cyberintelligence division of Northrop Grumman Information Systems, said one key to a successful range is closely approximating the way human psychology plays out on real networks.

“It’s very hard to find ‘normal,’ ” he said.

4. Read My Lips | The Economist

No matter how good voice-recognition software becomes, it will always be hostage to its sonic environment. Ask your digital assistant to dial a number in a quiet office and it might hear the right numbers. Try again near a busy road or at a noisy party and you will probably be disappointed. If only your phone could simply read your lips.

Ahmad Hassanat, an artificial-intelligence researcher at Mu’tah University, in Jordan, has been trying to teach a computer program to do just that. Previous attempts to get computers to lip-read have focused, understandably enough, on the shape and movement of the lips as they produce phonemes (individual sounds like “b”, “ng” or “th”). Such shapes-of-sounds are called visemes. The problem is that there are just a dozen visemes for the 40 to 50 phonemes in English; “pan” and “banned”, for example, look remarkably similar to a lip-reader. That makes it rather taxing to reconstruct words from visemes alone. Instead, Dr Hassanat has been trying for the past few years to detect the visual signature of entire words all at once, using the appearance of the tongue and teeth as well the lips.

Disclaimer: The selections I use to describe the links are snippets, often edited together to better describe the original piece, each of which is worth reading on it’s original site.


“It’s not that we need new ideas, but we need to stop having old ideas.” – Edwin Land

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