For Your Consideration: Data Breach and Future Harm, Gov. 2.0, Digital Commons, Let Kids Play

1. Data Theft Today Poses Indefinite Threat of “Future Harm”
FYI. You can get a new Social Security Number for free from the SSA but the follow-on ramifications of doing so are unclear.

Benjamin Nuss was one of the nearly 80 million people whose social security number and personal information were compromised in this year’s Anthem data breach. He seems to have taken things in stride, continuing his daily routine of sharing computer time with his brother, eating healthy snacks and making crafts. Benjamin is four years old.

While it may seem trivial to think about the harm a preschooler will suffer from a data breach, the question is not what happens to him now, but what will happen years from now. Data theft poses an indefinite threat of future harm, as birthdate, full name and social security number remain a skeleton key of identity in many systems.

Benjamin’s mother, Jennifer Nuss, gave birth while the family had Blue Cross insurance, which was linked to Anthem’s databases. “They sent us a letter saying that Benjamin’s information may have been compromised. All they offered is, ‘We can watch Ben’s credit for you,’” she says. “But you can check that yourself for free.” A stay-at-home mother of two and an accounting student, Nuss is disciplined about family finances and checks her and her husband’s credit records and accounts regularly. “With Benjamin,” she adds, “well, we’re going to have to watch his information forever.”

While data breach victims like Nuss and his adult counterparts face open-ended questions about what lies ahead, the data wars are running hot, with each week seemingly bringing news of vast new breaches, victims and potential victims gripped with anxiety, and debate raging about the vulnerability of companies and government. All the uncertainty is raising thorny legal questions. The Supreme Court is readying to hear a case that could set new precedent on whether data breach lawsuits can be based on future harm.

[And] data breach victims aren’t only concerned with the financial bottom line. Many are more worried about doing the digital-era equivalent of constantly looking over their shoulder, waiting for someone to appropriate their identity, or dredge up some intimate, haunting secret they thought was long buried. It’s not likely that legislation or the courts can fix that.

2. Inside Obama’s Stealth Startup

Outsiders often make the mistake of perceiving Washington’s technical problems as the result of a dearth of engineering talent. This makes it tempting to frame the current wave of hires from Google and elsewhere as a wartime tactical team moving in to save us from the city’s existing coding barbarians. But this is not quite correct. For one thing, the people Park and Dickerson are luring here aren’t just software engineers; they’re data scientists, user-­experience gurus, product managers, and design savants. For another, these people are being matched with government insiders who can advise them on how to deploy private-sector tools like Amazon Web Services, for instance, that have long been considered forbidden within the Beltway, or how the procurement of contractors can be improved. Usually this involves cutting a jungle path through thousands of pages of overgrown government regulations. As Park says, “We need both kinds: people who can hack the technology, as well as people who can hack the bureaucracy.”

The complexity is formidable. If you put your engineer’s hat on, Dickerson says, you can look at government’s approach to tech and decide that it’s pretty much insane. But if you consider it as an anthropologist might (“If you’re studying this alien culture,” he says, “and you ask, Why do they behave so strangely?”), you see that D.C. has developed its dysfunctions for deep, structural reasons. For instance, Washington has plenty of smart people, Dickerson says. But they have been removed from the extraordinary growth—only occurring during the past decade, really—of the handful of West Coast companies that can now manage “planet-scale websites,” as Dickerson puts it.

Above all, there is the inertia of the past. One of the first lessons Dickerson learned about D.C. when he arrived was that the city traditionally conflates the importance of a task with its cost. Healthcare.gov ultimately became an $800 million project, with 55 contracting companies involved. “And of course it didn’t work,” he says. “They set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to build a website because it was a big, important website. But compare that to Twitter, which took three rounds of funding before it got to about the same number of users as ­Healthcare.gov—8 million to 10 million users. In those three rounds of funding, the whole thing added up to about $60 million.” Dickerson believes that the Healthcare.gov project could have been done with a similar size budget. But there wasn’t anyone to insist that the now-well-established Silicon Valley practice of building “agile” ­software—rolling out a digital product in stages; testing it; improving it; and repeating the process for continuous ­improvement—would be vastly superior to (and much, much cheaper than) a patchwork of contractors building out a complete and monolithic website. In his Fast Company interview, President Obama remarks that he made a significant mistake in thinking that government could use traditional methods to build something—Healthcare.gov—that had never been built before. “When you’re dealing with IT and software and program design,” the president explains, “it’s a creative process that can’t be treated the same way as a bulk purchase of pencils.”

Obama says. “And my pitch is that the tech community is more creative, more innovative, more collaborative and open to new ideas than any sector on earth. But sometimes what’s missing is purpose. To what end are we doing this?” As the president explains, he asks potential recruits, “Is there a way for us to harness this incredible set of tools you’re developing for more than just cooler games or a quicker way for my teenage daughters to send pictures to each other?”

3. The Tragedy of the Digital Commons

“How do you fix a broken system that isn’t yours to repair?” That’s the question that motivated the researchers Lilly Irani and Six Silberman to create Turkopticon, and it’s one that comes up frequently in digital environments dominated by large platforms with hands-off policies. (On social networks like Twitter, for example, harassment is a problem for many users.) Irani and Silberman describe Turkopticon as a “mutual aid for accountability” technology, a system that coordinates peer support to hold others accountable when platforms choose not to step in.

Academics advancing the idea of digital commons have tended to focus on how to prevent or regulate these problems—after they’re identified. In Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Larry Lessig describes software design as a kind of regulation separate from top-down policies or community norms. Sixteen years after Lessig’s book, belief in the power of code and social psychology to shape successful online communities is widespread among the design teams who govern our digital lives. Their growing toolbox of design options is detailed in a recent law review article by James Grimmelman, who covers everything from banning and shaming to reputation and rewards.

What might it mean for digital citizens to play a greater role in the long term operation of online platforms? In Europe, lawmakers and courts have a history of regulating the details of algorithms like Google search. Another idea is a Magna Carta for “consent of the networked,” according to the journalist and anti-censorship advocate Rebecca MacKinnon. This idea, backed by the web’s creator Tim Berners-Lee, might bind platforms to the consent of their users, even when companies span multiple countries and jurisdictions. One example of this might be the Wikimedia Foundation, which reserves half of its board positions for elected Wikipedians. Wikimedia also leaves many governance details to its community in each of its language groups, like a federal government comprised of many states.

Managing a commons is more complex than users versus platforms. In cases like Mechanical Turk, Amazon helps its users hold each other accountable by sharing data with systems like Turkopticon. Perhaps similar data sharing could help researchers and citizen groups audit algorithms from the outside. Nor does this work need to happen entirely outside platforms. Public research like Facebook’s recent study on political bias helps the public understand and debate the state of our shared digital lives.

4. Let the kids learn through play

TWENTY years ago, kids in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing: building with blocks, drawing or creating imaginary worlds, in their own heads or with classmates. But increasingly, these activities are being abandoned for the teacher-led, didactic instruction typically used in higher grades. In many schools, formal education now starts at age 4 or 5. Without this early start, the thinking goes, kids risk falling behind in crucial subjects such as reading and math, and may never catch up.

The idea seems obvious: Starting sooner means learning more; the early bird catches the worm.

But a growing group of scientists, education researchers and educators say there is little evidence that this approach improves long-term achievement; in fact, it may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and perhaps even souring kids’ desire to learn.

The stakes in this debate are considerable. As the skeptics of teacher-led early learning see it, that kind of education will fail to produce people who can discover and innovate, and will merely produce people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than inventors. Which kind of citizen do we want for the 21st century?

“Our destiny is frequently met in the very paths we take to avoid it.”  – Jean de La Fontaine

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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: Education Tech, Russian Troll Farms, Robotic Sewing, Athletic Tourettes

1. Why Technology Alone Won’t Fix Schools

Amplification seems like an obvious idea—all it says is that technology is a tool that augments human power. But, if it’s obvious, it nevertheless has profound consequences that are routinely overlooked. For example, amplification explains why large-scale roll-outs of educational technology rarely result in positive outcomes. In any representative set of schools, some are doing well and others poorly. Introducing computers may result in benefit for some (the ones highlighted in pilot studies), but it distracts the weaker schools from their core mission. On average, the outcome is a wash.

An even bigger problem is that administrators rarely allocate enough resources to adapt curricula or train teachers. Where teachers don’t know how to incorporate digital tools appropriately, there is little capacity for the technology to amplify.

If a private company is failing to make a profit, no one expects that state-of-the-art data centers, better productivity software, and new laptops for all of the employees will turn things around. Yet, that is exactly the logic of so many attempts to fix education with technology.

To wonder what ails American education is to open a Pandora’s box of wicked problems. It could be poverty in early childhood or school districts funded by inadequate property taxes. Maybe it’s poorly designed incentives for teachers or elite flight into the private school system. The truth likely lies in some combination of these factors and more, but the problem is definitely not a lack of computers. Even tech proponents don’t argue that U.S. educational decline was caused by a decline of technology.

2. Troll Farming in Russia – The Agency
When nation states start playing psyops with social media. It gives a whole new flavor to “Manufacturing Consent”.

And the hoax was just one in a wave of similar attacks during the second half of last year. On Dec. 13, two months after a handful of Ebola cases in the United States touched off a minor media panic, many of the same Twitter accounts used to spread the Columbian Chemicals hoax began to post about an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta. The campaign followed the same pattern of fake news reports and videos, this time under the hashtag #EbolaInAtlanta, which briefly trended in Atlanta. Again, the attention to detail was remarkable, suggesting a tremendous amount of effort. A YouTube video showed a team of hazmat-suited medical workers transporting a victim from the airport. Beyoncé’s recent single “7/11” played in the background, an apparent attempt to establish the video’s contemporaneity. A truck in the parking lot sported the logo of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

On the same day as the Ebola hoax, a totally different group of accounts began spreading a rumor that an unarmed black woman had been shot to death by police. They all used the hashtag #shockingmurderinatlanta. Here again, the hoax seemed designed to piggyback on real public anxiety; that summer and fall were marked by protests over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. In this case, a blurry video purports to show the shooting, as an onlooker narrates. Watching it, I thought I recognized the voice — it sounded the same as the man watching TV in the Columbian Chemicals video, the one in which ISIS supposedly claims responsibility. The accent was unmistakable, if unplaceable, and in both videos he was making a very strained attempt to sound American. Somehow the result was vaguely Australian.

Who was behind all of this? When I stumbled on it last fall, I had an idea. I was already investigating a shadowy organization in St. Petersburg, Russia, that spreads false information on the Internet. It has gone by a few names, but I will refer to it by its best known: the Internet Research Agency. The agency had become known for employing hundreds of Russians to post pro-Kremlin propaganda online under fake identities, including on Twitter, in order to create the illusion of a massive army of supporters; it has often been called a “troll farm.” The more I investigated this group, the more links I discovered between it and the hoaxes. In April, I went to St. Petersburg to learn more about the agency and its brand of information warfare, which it has aggressively deployed against political opponents at home, Russia’s perceived enemies abroad and, more recently, me.

Savchuk told me she shared an office with about a half-dozen teammates. It was smaller than most, because she worked in the elite Special Projects department. While other workers churned out blandly pro-Kremlin comments, her department created appealing online characters who were supposed to stand out from the horde. Savchuk posed as three of these creations, running a blog for each one on LiveJournal. One alter ego was a fortuneteller named Cantadora. The spirit world offered Cantadora insight into relationships, weight loss, feng shui — and, occasionally, geopolitics. Energies she discerned in the universe invariably showed that its arc bent toward Russia. She foretold glory for Vladimir Putin, defeat for Barack Obama and Petro Poroshenko. The point was to weave propaganda seamlessly into what appeared to be the nonpolitical musings of an everyday person.

In fact, she was a troll. The word “troll” was popularized in the early 1990s to denounce the people who derailed conversation on Usenet discussion lists with interminable flame wars, or spammed chat rooms with streams of disgusting photos, choking users with a cloud of filth. As the Internet has grown, the problem posed by trolls has grown more salient even as their tactics have remained remarkably constant. Today an ISIS supporter might adopt a pseudonym to harass a critical journalist on Twitter, or a right-wing agitator in the United States might smear demonstrations against police brutality by posing as a thieving, violent protester. Any major conflict is accompanied by a raging online battle between trolls on both sides.

3. Made to Measure

HUMAN hands are extremely good at making clothes. While many manufacturing processes have been automated, stitching together garments remains a job for millions of people around the world. As with most labour-intensive tasks, much of the work has migrated to low-wage countries, especially in Asia. Factory conditions can be gruelling. As nations develop and wages rise, the trade moves on to the next cheapest location: from China, to Bangladesh and, now that it is opening up, Myanmar. Could that migration be about to end with the development of a robotic sewing machine?

There have been many attempts to automate sewing. Some processes can now be carried out autonomously: the cutting of fabric, for instance, and sometimes sewing buttons or pockets. But it is devilishly difficult to make a machine in which fabric goes in one end and finished garments, such as jeans and T-shirts, come out the other. The particularly tricky bit is stitching two pieces of material together. This involves aligning the material correctly to the sewing head, feeding it through and constantly adjusting the fabric to prevent it slipping and buckling, while all the time keeping the stitches neat and the thread at the right tension. Nimble fingers invariably prove better at this than cogs, wheels and servo motors.

“The distortion of the fabric is no longer an issue. That’s what prevented automatic sewing in the past,” says Steve Dickerson, the founder of SoftWear Automation, a textile-equipment manufacturer based in Atlanta, where Dr Dickerson was a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The real test of how successful robots will be at making clothing and shoes will depend on how efficient and reliable they will be, and how fully they can automate the process. If time-to-market and customisation are priorities, then the robots might win—even if some manual intervention in production is required. But for mass-produced lines, where every cent matters, any human involvement could keep manufacturing offshore. The lesson from industrial automation in other sorts of factories, though, shows that robots keep getting better and cheaper. It may be a while coming, but the writing seems to be on the wall for sweatshops.

4. Amaris Tyynismaa: The Human Body Is A Miracle, The Human Body Is A Curse

Some athletes with TS attribute near-magical powers to their condition. Tim Howard, the goalkeeper of last year’s U.S. World Cup soccer team, says that TS has given him vision and reflexes that other players simply don’t have. Famed physician Oliver Sacks once wrote about a ping-pong player whose abnormal quickness and ability to knock back unreturnable shots, he believed, had to be connected to TS. One reason is that people with Tourette’s also tend to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Amaris included). They need to repeat behaviors—whether it’s preventing balls from going into the net or running improbably long distances—until they do it just right. “I’m not saying it’s a good thing to have,” Sacks told a reporter last year, “but if one has Tourette’s, there are advantages.” New research out of the University of Nottingham shows that the brains of TS patients are physically different from everyone else’s, transformed by years of operating under much greater than normal resistance and better at controlling the body.

Neurologists at the Tourette Syndrome Association aren’t quite ready to embrace a connection between TS and superior athleticism. They are more comfortable saying that people with TS often see their symptoms subside when they’re playing sports or otherwise engaged in something that focuses their attention away from the urge to tic.

Soccer quieted the noise in Amaris’ head. After taking up the game, she began to tic less off the field. She did better in school. She talked more. Actually, she talked a lot, like she does now. In her last game in England, she scored three goals and the other kids lifted her up on their shoulders and carried her around. She would have had a major problem with that just months before—too many germs—but she loved it. And then her family moed to Alabama.

Her tics intensified with the stress and anxiety of being relocated to a new base, a new house, a school with no friends. More than at any other time in her life, her tics wore her out. But England had taught her something. She decided to join two different soccer teams and a swim team.

Soon enough, Mike and Kristen began to hear tales of athletic feats that seemed impossible. Specifically, they were told that their sixth-grader had run a mile at school in well under six minutes.

“Miracles sometimes occur, but one has to work terribly hard for them.” -Chaim Weizmann

 

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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: Coupon Racket, Focused EMP, New Body Parts, Age of Infrastructure

1. Inside a Giant Dark Web Counterfeit Coupon Scheme

“We have the best, most consistent, most precise, most scannable, most accepted, most diverse collection of coupons anywhere. They are not on anyone’s ban list. They are not blacklisted anywhere,” reads PurpleLotus’s vendor profile on Agora, the largest currently active black market on the Dark Web. “They will save you a ton of money…If you use the coupons for the everyday things that you normally buy, the golden goose will continue to lay golden eggs.”

In addition to those packages of pre-made coupons, ThePurpleLotus also offered a $200 package of “coupon-making lessons.” That counterfeit digital guide included a powerpoint presentation showing the step-by-step process of coupon fraud, from generating bar codes to copying legitimate-looking logos and watermarks. In an accompanying video, set to a tasteful soundtrack of Bach piano compositions, he demonstrates the technique on screen.

In his tutorials, ThePurpleLotus explained the simple breakdown of barcode creation using the increasingly universal GS1 standard: GS1 codes begin with a “company prefix” that can be copied from any of the company’s products. The next six digits are the “offer code,” which can be any random number for a counterfeit coupon, followed by the savings amount listed in cents and the required number of item purchases necessary to receive the discount. “You can be up and running and making coupons in an hour,” PurpleLotus’s guide reads. “The more you make the faster you get…You are a coupon ninja if you can make one in under two minutes.”

In fact, ThePurpleLotus’s schemes demonstrate how absurdly easy coupon fraud remains, Beauchamp argues. She points to the insecure method of coupon verification that major retailers like Target, Walmart, and many others use—which essentially amounts to no authentication, only a blacklists of known fraudulent coupons like one maintained by an industry group known as the Coupon Information Center. A coupon fraudster can merely use the publicly available GS1 barcode algorithm to encode whatever discount they want into a new fake coupon. If it’s not yet on that blacklist and looks realistic to the cashier, it’s accepted, says Beauchamp. “Usually the cashiers don’t even take the time to question it. If it ‘beeps,’ it’s good,” she says.

Beauchamp notes that when a counterfeit coupon is spotted at the register, consumers often say they were given the coupon by a friend or “found it on the internet” and face no consequences. Other coupon fraudsters are careful to use self checkout at large stores, as Wattigney advised one customer in a message included in the indictment.

“Every day new codes get added to the blacklist,” says Beauchamp. But new fraudulent coupons are being created at a faster rate than ever, she says. “The problem is that it’s a blacklist, not a whitelist. And that affects the whole industry.”

2. Boeing Unveils Amazing, Slightly Terrifying New Electromagnetic Pulse Weapon

The weapon in question: Boeing’s “CHAMP,” short for Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project. It’s essentially the old nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapon that we used to worry so much about — but without the nuclear part. CHAMP carries a small generator that emits microwaves to fry electronics with pinpoint accuracy. It targets not nations or cities but individual buildings, blacking out their electronics rather than blowing up physical targets (or people).

What makes CHAMP even more interesting is that, unlike a nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapon, which fires once, blacking out entire nation-states, CHAMP can fire multiple times, pinpointing and blacking out only essential targets. This would permit, for example, taking down radar defenses in a hostile state, while saving the electrical grid that supports the civilian population. In a 2012 test flight in Utah, a single CHAMP was reported to have blacked out seven separate targets in succession, in one single mission.

Even back then, a Boeing representative was able to boast: “We hit every target we wanted to,” predicting further that “in the near future, this technology may be used to render an enemy’s electronic and data systems useless even before the first troops or aircraft arrive.” Three years later, that future has arrived. Air Force Research Laboratory commander Maj. Gen. Tom Masiello says CHAMP is “an operational system already in our tactical air force.”

3. Missing link found between brain, immune system; major disease implications
This is HUGE.

In a stunning discovery that overturns decades of textbook teaching, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have determined that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist. That such vessels could have escaped detection when the lymphatic system has been so thoroughly mapped throughout the body is surprising on its own, but the true significance of the discovery lies in the effects it could have on the study and treatment of neurological diseases ranging from autism to Alzheimer’s disease to multiple sclerosis.

“Instead of asking, ‘How do we study the immune response of the brain?’ ‘Why do multiple sclerosis patients have the immune attacks?’ now we can approach this mechanistically. Because the brain is like every other tissue connected to the peripheral immune system through meningeal lymphatic vessels,” said Jonathan Kipnis, PhD, professor in the UVA Department of Neuroscience and director of UVA’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia (BIG). “It changes entirely the way we perceive the neuro-immune interaction. We always perceived it before as something esoteric that can’t be studied. But now we can ask mechanistic questions.”

“We believe that for every neurological disease that has an immune component to it, these vessels may play a major role,” Kipnis said. “Hard to imagine that these vessels would not be involved in a [neurological] disease with an immune component.”

The unexpected presence of the lymphatic vessels raises a tremendous number of questions that now need answers, both about the workings of the brain and the diseases that plague it. For example, take Alzheimer’s disease. “In Alzheimer’s, there are accumulations of big protein chunks in the brain,” Kipnis said. “We think they may be accumulating in the brain because they’re not being efficiently removed by these vessels.” He noted that the vessels look different with age, so the role they play in aging is another avenue to explore. And there’s an enormous array of other neurological diseases, from autism to multiple sclerosis, that must be reconsidered in light of the presence of something science insisted did not exist.

4. Welcome to the Infrastructure Age

But now we’re we’re entering the age of infrastructure gadgets. Thanks to devices like Tesla’s household battery, Powerwall, electrical grid technology that was once hidden behind massive barbed wire fences, owned by municipalities and counties, is now seeping slowly into our homes. And this isn’t just about alternative energy like solar. It’s about how we conceive of what technology is. It’s about what kinds of gadgets we’ll be buying for ourselves in 20 years.

It’s about how the kids of tomorrow won’t freak out over terabytes of storage. They’ll freak out over kilowatt-hours.

Beyond transforming our relationship to energy, though, the infrastructure age is about where we expect computers to live. The so-called internet of things is a big part of this. Our computers aren’t living in isolated boxes on our desktops, and they aren’t going to be inside our phones either. The apps in your phone won’t always suck you into virtual worlds, where you can escape to build treehouses and tunnels in Minecraft. Instead, they will control your home, your transit, and even your body.

Once you accept that the thing our ancestors called the information superhighway will actually be controlling cars on real-life highways, you start to appreciate the sea change we’re witnessing. The internet isn’t that thing in there, inside your little glowing box. It’s in your washing machine, kitchen appliances, pet feeder, your internal organs, your car, your streets, the very walls of your house. You use your wearable to interface with the world out there.

“Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” (Susan Ertz)

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: Space Mining, Humblebraggarts, Distance Iris Scanning, American Story in Maps

1. The US House of Representatives pass a bill on Space Mining

For as long as we’ve existed, humans have looked up at the stars — and wondered. What is up there? Who is out there?

Now, to that list of questions we can add: And CAN I HAVE IT?

The United States has already shown its penchant for claiming ownership of space-based things. There are not one, not two, but six U.S. flags on the moon, in case any of you other nations start getting ideas. (Never mind that the flags have all faded to a stateless white by now.)

So it only makes sense that American lawmakers would seek to guarantee property rights for U.S. space corporations. Under the SPACE Act, which just passed the House, businesses that do asteroid mining will be able to keep whatever they dig up:

“Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of Federal law.”

This is how we know commercial space exploration is serious. The opportunity here is so vast that businesses are demanding federal protections for huge, floating objects they haven’t even surveyed yet.

But it’s actually important that we’re talking about this now, because we don’t want to wind up in a situation where multiple companies are fighting for the same patch of rock without having a way to resolve it. There are two key questions at stake: Who should regulate commercial space activity? And what rules should apply?

2. To Brag or To Humblebrag, that is the question
Also, best to try and not be a jackass.

Humblebragging allows people to highlight positive aspects of their lives while attempting to appear modest by masking the “good news” as a complaint. On social media, people Tweet or update their Facebook statuses with their achievements and good fortune in the guise of complaints to gain validation in the form of “likes,” comments, and so on.

But humblebragging isn’t confined to social media. Consider one of the most common job interview questions, “What’s your greatest weakness?” Think about the last time you asked this question or had to answer it. I bet that, depending on your role, you either heard or crafted an artful response that reframed a flaw as something positive: “I’m such a perfectionist that I drive myself crazy” or “I tend to work too hard, which can take a toll on my personal life.”

Whether on social media, in interviews, or in any other type of social or professional interaction, people humblebrag to try to make a positive impression on others without appearing vain. But, as it turns out, humblebragging frequently fails. Research I conducted in collaboration with my Harvard Business School colleagues Ovul Sezer and Mike Norton shows that observers find the strategy insincere. As a result, humblebraggers are rated less likeable than those who straightforwardly brag — or even those who simply complain.

These findings suggest that in job interviews, showing we are self-aware and working on improving our performance may be a more effective strategy than humblebragging. After all, authentic people who are willing to show vulnerability are likely to be the type of candidates interviewers most want to hire.

Even outside of interview contexts, humblebragging does not seem to produce the positive impressions we all hope to deliver when we use this self-promotion strategy. In follow-up studies we found that people dislike humblebraggers more than braggers and even more than complainers. And the costs of humblebragging extend beyond interpersonal evaluations to affect behavior, causing people to penalize humblebraggers financially and be less likely to help them out.

What these results seem to suggest is that when deciding whether to (honestly) brag or (deceptively) humblebrag, would-be self-promoters should choose the former — and at least reap the rewards of seeming sincere.

3. Long Range Iris Scanning Is Here.
What could possibly go wrong…

As with fingerprints, an individual’s iris is so distinctive as to be unique.

“Fingerprints, they require you to touch something. Iris, we can capture it at a distance, so we’re making the whole user experience much less intrusive, much more comfortable,” Savvides told me. Unlike other scanners, which required someone to step up to a machine, his scanner can capture someone’s iris and face as they walk by.

“There’s no X-marks-the-spot. There’s no place you have to stand. Anywhere between six and 12 meters, it will find you, it will zoom in and capture both irises and full face,” he said.

Carnegie Mellon describes a whole host of functions for the scanner beyond just police use. It could replace government IDs at the airport and elsewhere. Like other types of biometrics, it could replace a laptop’s login system.

As a sector, biometrics are undoubtedly important. Many security experts believe that passwords—and the security regime that accompanies them—are fundamentally broken. Savvides, for his part, sees biometrics as one more method of human-computer interaction.

Yet there’s something threatening about long-range iris scanning. Identification to a degree comparable to finger prints, at a distance, is not something our social habits and political institutions are wired for.

4. 70 Maps That Explain America
A geographical and cultural history lesson told through maps.

The United States of America is many things. It is the world’s most powerful country, and one of the largest. It has a history of political revolution and social progress, as well as a legacy of slavery and genocide. In one sense, mapping the United States should be a simple matter of displaying borders and geography. But America is a complex nation with a long and fascinating history that could never be captured in a single frame. Here’s a glance at America’s past and present, in 70 maps.

 

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.” -Henry Ford

 

 

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

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

1. Preying on the Promise of Higher Education

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

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

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

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

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

2. Truck Driver as Endangered Species

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

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

Source: NPR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you were forwarded this newsletter and enjoyed it, please subscribe here: https://tinyletter.com/peopleinpassing

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Art of Living: Wisdom of Epictetus

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

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

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

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

And yet:

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Quantified Self Risks and Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Screw motivation, what you need is discipline

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

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

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

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

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

 

If you were forwarded this newsletter and enjoyed it, please subscribe here: https://tinyletter.com/peopleinpassing

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

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