With everyone back from vacation, a couple of client projects have reactivated, which means in coming months I have only 2 other open slots for larger or recurring projects, and gaps here and there for 1-2 day engagements. Have a look on the homepage for some details on what I do and hit reply to know more or get a collaboration going.

This week: 18 big thinkers take a critical look at the Sidewalk Labs plan / Faced with a data deluge, astronomers turn to automation / Feeding the 11 billion: the tiny Dutch town ending our food crisis / Jeffrey Epstein’s influence in the science world is a symptom of larger problems / Spoils of #nature on Instagram

A year ago: Reading with a pencil (Austin Kleon).


18 big thinkers take a critical look at Sidewalk Labs

Toronto Life magazine “asked 18 super-smart people to tell us what they think.” From Doctorow to Zuboff and Florida, to Bianca Wylie who’s not only thinking about these issues but doing the hard work of changing things on the ground. The series starts with the backstory, followed by short pieces. As with all city-specific articles I share here, they are all lessons, warnings, or models for smart cities in general.

[Wylie] We as a society—and not just Toronto—don’t fully understand when and how to hold tech companies accountable. This invites democratic disruption and loss of resident power. It won’t happen with a bang. It will happen through gradual erosion over years and years. And it will be driven by profit. […]

Sidewalk Labs isn’t asking for explicit ownership or control of public infrastructure, or to privatize it outright. They wouldn’t be so direct. Think about how tech companies never “own” your data, but you grant them unlimited licence, and with it, power, control, and the capacity to monetize it. Now imagine that digital infrastructure and data running through every one of the proposed systems Sidewalk Labs seeks to design—energy, water, transportation, garbage and more. […]

[Zuboff] Toronto now stands first in line to become surveillance capitalism’s real-world petri dish. Sidewalk’s proposals reveal the full arc of the new logic. With astonishing audacity, it claims the city as its laboratory and the lives of citizens as its free raw material for data creation, ownership, computation and monetization. […]

The real outcome here is the privatization of the city. In this version of our digital future, algorithms replace laws, as the computational truths that expand private capital’s revenue streams replace democratic municipal governance. The city is no longer a crucible of creativity, which is innately unpredictable. Instead it becomes a zone of certainty for the sake of profit. […]

[Doctorow (I like his vision.)] A phone that knows about you—but doesn’t tell anyone what it knows about you—would be your interface to a better smart city. The city’s systems could stream data to your device, which could pick the relevant elements out of the torrent: the nearest public restroom, whether the next bus has a seat for you, where to get a great sandwich. […]

Your device could present you with a list of possible things to do and ways to do them without telling anyone else about it, because, frankly, it’s none of their business. You then choose what to do, and your device gathers feedback to help it improve its suggestions in the future. You become the intelligence, acting on your behalf, expressing your unique human ability to comprehend the world.

Faced with a Data Deluge, Astronomers Turn to Automation

Basically, searching for stuff in space generates massive and ever growing amounts of data, which need to be processed (at least in part) in as close to realtime as possible so collaborating observatories can hand off coordinates and things to look for. Various groups are trying to implement AI to treat the data much faster, while looking at more parameters. Seems promising and includes questions around the black box problem.

“For each black hole merger signal that LIGO has detected that has been reported in publications, we can reconstruct all these parameters in two milliseconds,” Huerta says. In contrast, the traditional algorithms can take days to accomplish the same task. […]

When complete, the 8.4-meter LSST will be able to observe 10 square degrees of the sky at once (equivalent in size to 40 full moons), producing 15 to 20 terabytes of raw data each night—the same amount of data generated by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey over the course of a decade. […]

“If we are developing or constructing these next-generation instruments to study the universe in high fidelity, we also better design better algorithms to process this data.”

Feeding the 11 billion: the tiny Dutch town ending our food crisis

Wired UK with a visit to multiple researchers at Wageningen University and Research (WUR) where some possible futures of food are being developed. Covers the gamut: edible insects, fake steak, CRISPR-Cas changes for resistance (coeliac-safe gluten!), taste detectives, fuelling green growth, rural robotics, and vanilla flowers.

But crops grown exclusively under [LED] red light can experience abnormal growth, known as “red light syndrome”. So blue light is added to help normal development. While each crop has a unique light “fingerprint”, most of Unifarm’s crops can be found under this careful balance of growth-boosting red and regulating blue. […]

Insects reared on organic waste serve as both food production and waste reduction – a triumph in circular agriculture, where yield and use of resources are optimised for minimal impact on the environment. […]

The PTR-QiTOF equipment thus “smells” the coffee, detecting minute differences in quality that are mapped out with statistical methods, forming two little clouds of data: organic on one side, non-organic on the other. […]

Depending on the species, and how it’s grown, algae are capable of producing proteins, lipids and starches. More than 15,000 new chemical compounds have been discovered in algae in recent years. […]

Jeffrey Epstein’s influence in the science world is a symptom of larger problems

As I’ve mentioned on Twitter, this is not really a “beat” I like to cover, but since I’ve featured the Media Lab and Joichi Ito a bunch of times, I feel I had to include something about this crisis the lab is going through. I decided to go with Kate Darling, who’s hopeful and investing herself in change. She also told Nicholas Negroponte to shup up to his face, in public, which takes a lot of guts.

Ultimately, I no longer believe that I can enact true change without the help of powerful allies. In my experience, one of the few people who is even capable of enacting change at MIT is Joi Ito. I hate what he did and I do not defend his actions. But I also know that he may actually act to fix his mistakes. Over the past eight years, I’ve observed him listen, introspect, and take action, even where it would have been easier for him to stay the course. […]

And just as I’m calling on men to do, I want to be here as an ally. I want to stay and use whatever amount of power and privilege I have to fight for those who have less, who are vulnerable and need protection, who are being suppressed and excluded, and who need to be given a voice.

More: Ethan Zuckerman has also taken a strong stance.
Update: This one by Ronan Farrow exploded on the scene after I wrapped this issue up so I’m only adding the link but important: How An Élite University Research Center Concealed Its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein.

Spoils of #nature on Instagram

Aaaarghhhh!!!! Excellent feature at Beside magazine (English version of something they did in French with Radio-Canada) on the plague of the crowds “doing it for the ‘Gram.” That’s why we can’t have nice things, second order effects, get off my lawn, sign of the apocalypse, etc.

On a smartphone screen, a woman balances on a half-submerged tree trunk. Turquoise water stretches out on all sides, with the blurred reflection of a mountain, pine trees, and a glacier. Alone in the world, in an intimate moment with nature, she contemplates the beauty that surrounds her. She’s smiling. It’s the “perfect” picture.

Perfect framing, colouring, construction, mood, and in the perfect setting. Yet on the other side of the camera, 20 people are lined up to immortalize the same perfect scene, on the same log. Several small groups orbit around, telephones in hand. A portable speaker spews “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen into the landscape. […]

It’s clear that social media has contributed to the popularity of this place. Several people told me they learned about the park’s existence from Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest. “We saw the geotag for Joffre Lakes with the pictures, and it created a bit of a domino effect,” a hiker explained as she stepped off the log. […]

But that feeling of luck evaporated about three years ago when Joffre Lakes started to be smothered under record numbers of visitors. “The workload increased, the park-use numbers skyrocketed, and these beautiful, sacred places began to feel like a Best Buy on Boxing Day,” Charlie says.

Miscellany

Header image: Seth Globepainter’s exhibition fills a historic chateau in Bordeaux, France.