This week: Born-Digital Publications. Science Fiction Doesn’t Have to Be Dystopian. Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. IPBES. Attenborough. Industry, rules, and AI.

A year ago: AI researchers allege that machine learning is alchemy.


Born-Digital Publications

When the “about us” pages are super interesting, you know you’re in for something excellent to explore. Cita Press produces “[c]arefully designed public-domain books written by women in free, contemporary editions for print and web.” While Parametric Press “is an experiment, a born-digital magazine dedicated to showcasing the expository power that’s possible when the audio, visual, and interactive capabilities of dynamic media are effectively combined.” Both are teh awesome and are very much of now and inspiring in these days of gigantic surveilling platforms selling our attention. They use open tools, open licences, share ideas, and create collective works. I’ve spent a bit more time with Parametric Press and these people are just mad in the length, thoroughness, and technical chops they display in their loooong reads with embedded technical demonstrations. I encourage you to spend some time with both and think about the ideas in their content and their methods and philosophies.

Why Is It So Hard to Predict the Future?

Article adapted from David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. I’m always there for pieces on hybrids, generalists, neogeneralists, t-shaped, key-shaped, square-shaped, and other transdisciplinarians. Epstein looks at multi-decade research about forecasting and how specialists constantly can’t predict with any accuracy while generalists manage to do better. In short; people who are broadly curious, and interested in multiple fields, fare better and adjust their models more easily when proven wrong. Caveat; the article paints all specialists as blind to anything outside their discipline, which is not the case, and it’s a bit annoying to not see that mentioned.

One subgroup of scholars, however, did manage to see more of what was coming. Unlike Ehrlich and Simon, they were not vested in a single discipline. They took from each argument and integrated apparently contradictory worldviews. […]

The highly specialized hedgehogs knew “one big thing,” while the integrator foxes knew “many little things.” […]

Foxes, meanwhile, “draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradiction,” Tetlock wrote. Where hedgehogs represent narrowness, foxes embody breadth. […]

[T]hey identified a small group of the foxiest forecasters—bright people with extremely wide-ranging interests and unusually expansive reading habits, but no particular relevant background—and weighted team forecasts toward their predictions. They destroyed the competition. […]

They were “curious about, well, really everything,” as one of the top forecasters told me. They crossed disciplines, and viewed their teammates as sources for learning, rather than peers to be convinced. […]

[W]hen making an argument, foxes often use the word however, while hedgehogs favor moreover.

Science Fiction Doesn’t Have to Be Dystopian

Joyce Carol Oates at The New Yorker reviewing Ted Chiang’s latest collection of stories, Exhalation, which looks absolutely fascinating while proposing a refreshing view.

Even as humans search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the narrator observes, they can’t hear the messages being sent by an imperilled species on their own planet. […]

Chiang’s vision of the future turns out to be unexpectedly optimistic. After all, the narrator observes, writing itself is a technology, and we became “cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers.”

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)

You’ve likely seen this so I considered not including anything but at the same time, I can’t not link to what’s happening. Here’s the actual Media Release. The numbers are staggering, vertiginous, and scary af. Basically, just as we are finally coming to grips with the urgency of tackling climate change, we need to broaden our thinking even more and realize that we are causing a massive extinction event, destroying ecosystems around the planet and jeopardizing our very existence. We don’t need to curb our use of fossil fuels, we need to curb… well, everything we do. Not the best article but certainly the best, most accurate title: Humanity Is About to Kill 1 Million Species in an Epic Murder-Suicide.

Human society under urgent threat from loss of Earth’s natural life

“The health of the ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide, [w]e have lost time. We must act now.” […]

“This is fundamental to humanity. We are not just talking about nice species out there; this is our life support system.” […]

The study paints a picture of a suffocating man-made sameness spreading across the planet, as a small range of cash-crops and high-value livestock are replacing forests and other nature rich ecosystems. As well as eroding the soil, which causes a loss of fertility, these monocultures are more vulnerable to disease, drought and other impacts of climate breakdown. […]

“People shouldn’t panic, but they should begin drastic change. Business as usual with small adjustments won’t be enough.”

David Attenborough on How to Save Our Planet 📹

“We now determine nature’s survival. The planet, is ours.” … “The plan for our planet is remarkably simple. Reduce our impact by making sure that everything we do, we can do forever.”

We’ll soon know the exact air pollution from every power plant in the world. That’s huge.

AI for good. Looking forward to what this leads to, including critiques of the AI part of the data analysis and how well it holds up.

In a nutshell: A nonprofit artificial intelligence firm called WattTime is going to use satellite imagery to precisely track the air pollution (including carbon emissions) coming out of every single power plant in the world, in real time. And it’s going to make the data public.

📈 Nature’s emergency: Where we are in five graphics. “The felling of forests, the plundering of seas and soils, and the pollution of air and water are together pushing the natural world to the brink.”

Don’t let industry write the rules for AI

The esteemed Yochai Benkler with some ideas we’ve covered before, interesting for these two points:

When designed for profit-making alone, algorithms necessarily diverge from the public interest — information asymmetries, bargaining power and externalities pervade these markets. … I see these sorts of service as the emissions of high-tech industry: they bring profits, but the costs are borne by society. […]

A university abdicates its central role when it accepts funding from a firm to study the moral, political and legal implications of practices that are core to the business model of that firm.

Also: This one seems rosy tinted to me, especially the second half, but some fun examples and links; Artificial Intelligence Is Automating Hollywood. Now, Art Can Thrive.

And even though face mapping and swapping technology would normally take weeks, Digital Domain’s machine learning algorithm could do it in nearly real-time, which let them set up a sort of digital mirror for Brolin.

Why You Should Start Binge-Reading Right Now

There are many articles on (re)starting a reading habit by reading 15 minutes a day or 15 pages but this article mirrors my experience; you really have to binge read, at the very least the beginning, to really get into a book and get the most enjoyment and learning.

But what struck me more than the night’s general delightfulness, was how much my experience of reading the book was influenced by the speed with which I was suddenly moving through it. […]

I’d gotten into the habit of consuming novels so fitfully that I was all but sealed off from their pleasures. It was as if I’d been watching movies in a special buffering-only mode, or listening to music through the world’s balkiest Bluetooth headphones.

Miscellany