Frankenstein at 200 / Humans Will Never Colonize Mars / Tarek Loubani 3D-Prints in Gaza / Walking, easy superpower / Serendipity v algorithmy — No.88

This week I was guest editor at Kottke dot org, here’s the wrap up post with my favourite finds. Between that and the last few details of a client report, the week was pretty packed so I’ve re-used some blogging bits here, if you were following along, you might experience some déjà read.

This week: Frankenstein at 200 / Humans Will Never Colonize Mars / Tarek Loubani on 3D-Printing in Gaza / Walking makes us healthier, happier and brainier / Tim Maughan interview / The Rock at Mauna Kea / Serendipity v algorithmy

A year ago: The Role of Technology in Political Economy.


Frankenstein at 200

Amidst all the calls for more ethics and considerations for social issues on the part of tech companies, this looks like quite an interesting and innovative way of approaching the problem. This review of the book Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds gives a good overview of the contents and thinking.

The critical essays accompanying the text are eclectic, cross-disciplinary, and incisive, and they include contributions from beyond the academy, such as the essays by science fiction authors Elizabeth Bear and Cory Doctorow. […]

These annotations often raise novel questions about technology and society, extrapolating from the technological conditions suggested by the novel into terms that might emerge today, alongside the more usual role of explanatory footnotes in a student text.

The piece and the book it refers also cover how Shelley’s work is regarded by many as the first work of science-fiction and how it was made possible not only by her great talent but also her education. She studied the humanities—literature, philosophy and classics, as well as the science of the day. Today these two aspects of education are often times presented as opposites, and in some kind of fight, where on the contrary they need to coexist and feed from each other. It’s something that more and more people realize and integrate in their teaching, planning, and hiring but which is still regularly disregarded in many technology circles.

Victor, she says, is morally culpable for not taking responsibility for his creation and for his refusal to acknowledge his responsibility because he cannot see it for what it is. He runs away from it and refuses to engage with it. He refuses to engage with the creature and flees, and he does so because he is not able to see its essential nature, its needs and his part in their fulfilment—and that, Bear says, is on account of his monstrous “narcissism, this inability to engage with other creatures” as creatures like himself. […]

We can thus discern two kinds of cautionary tales in “Frankenstein” (there are others): one Miltonian and the other Promethean. The former is a warning to “creators”—scientists, engineers and what this new edition of “Frankenstein” calls “creators of all kinds”—of the risks of hubris: reaching to exercise knowledge and powers that are not fully understood, whose consequences cannot be predicted and which cannot be controlled. The latter, however—the Promethean—is a warning to these same creators that, when they do exercise that knowledge and power, they must be willing to take responsibility for the things they create, for the work of their hands, which is what Prometheus did and what Victor failed to do.

Humans Will Never Colonize Mars

Overview of all the many, many difficulties we would face trying to set up a permanent base on Mars. Radiation, low gravity, almost no atmosphere, super cold temperatures, bodies unable to adapt to all of the above, etc. Also includes perhaps the simplest way of framing this: we never even truly inhabited Antartica or our oceans, yet they would be way easier to colonize. How the hell can people believe will have success on a different planet so far away?

“[T]he notion that we’ll soon set up colonies inhabited by hundreds or thousands of people is pure nonsense, and an unmitigated denial of the tremendous challenges posed by such a prospect.” […]

It’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth’s problems. We’ve got to solve these problems here. Coping with climate change may seem daunting, but it’s a doddle compared to terraforming Mars. No place in our solar system offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic or the top of Everest. There’s no ‘Planet B’ for ordinary risk-averse people. […]

On Earth, bones, muscles, the circulatory system, and other aspects of human physiology develop by working against gravity. It’s possible that the human body might adapt to the low-gravity situation on Mars, but we simply don’t know. […]

If humans can’t make it to Mars, it means we’re destined to be “a single-planet species.” What’s more, it suggests extraterrestrial civilizations might be in the same boat, and that the potential for “intelligent life to spread throughout the universe is very, very gloomy.”

Tarek Loubani on 3D-Printing in Gaza

Your long read for the day, an interview at Logic magazine with Tarek Loubani who founded the Glia Project, an organization producing high-quality low-cost open source medical hardware. You probably heard of some of their projects in the past, this is a great, super opinionated discussion and a fantastic project. Loubani could be a character straight out of a Cory Doctorow novel, from project to opinions.

[I]n the same way that drug manufacturers copy brand-name drugs and sell them for less as generics, the Glia Project makes generics of medical hardware. Loubani is also distributing the means of producing that hardware — 3D printers — and training Canadian medical students and regular Gazans to print medical equipment themselves. […]

But what if we had the ability to create the alternative before the bad guys show up? The guys who love patents, the guys who love copyright, the guys who love all that shit. What if we could create a culture that was resilient enough that it could resist the coming influx of capitalism? […]

What we are doing is exactly the inverse. We’re doing all of our development in the First World, and then deploying it in the Third World — the idea being that mistakes are very expensive in the Third World and very cheap in Canada. […]

What is a patent? A patent is the government incentivizing innovation by encouraging inventors. It does this by spending people’s freedom — it gives the inventor the right to prevent other people from making or using that invention for a period of time.

‘It’s a superpower’: how walking makes us healthier, happier and brainier

One of the very few productivity tips I trust 100% (ok, probably the only one) is the recommendation for getting up and walking around. It’s been proven time and time again by various authors and creatives of all types, as well as by science through research after research. Walking is good for the body, changes the mode our brain is in, and helps get our thinking going.

He favours what he calls a “motor-centric” view of the brain – that it evolved to support movement and, therefore, if we stop moving about, it won’t work as well. […]

A 2018 study tracked participants’ activity levels and personality traits over 20 years, and found that those who moved the least showed malign personality changes, scoring lower in the positive traits: openness, extraversion and agreeableness. […]

“It turns out that the brain systems that support learning, memory and cognition are the same ones that are very badly affected by stress and depression,” he says. “And by a quirk of evolution, these brain systems also support functions such as cognitive mapping,” by which he means our internal GPS system. […]

More: I wrote a bit more in my post at Kottke dot org.

Tim Maughan Interview at Big Echo

Good interview. Includes spoilers for Infinite Detail, and aside from the quotes below it’s mostly of interest if you follow Maughan or want to know some of the thinking behind his book and other writings.

The idea that everything is tedious, even when everything is happening at the same time. That something can happen that’s completely shocking, but at the same time you’re not surprised at all. Not so much future-shock as present-resignation. […]

It’s just another example of sitting around waiting for some massive collapse to come, while being resigned to and bored by how terrible it’ll be. […]

[T]hat dislocation and alienation within your own home space is a key thread to my fiction, I think, because it’s such a defining quality of 21st century urban life. I spent 5 years living in Brooklyn, where it was happening right in front of your eyes, but honestly I see the same thing everywhere I go now. […]

Real people don’t have character arcs, or simple motivations, or background stories to be revealed in a prequel – those things are inventions of the entertainment industry. They’re marketable tropes. Real people are far more nebulous, complicated, they live far more in the moment and without definable meaning.

Dwayne The Rock Johnson visited Mauna Kea

Robin Sloan is a fan of The Rock and is “extremely confident that he will one day run for president of the United States.” It’s a fun theory and I always have a look at the Johnson appearances he links to. Very nice visit / video in the link above and I really like what he says in the blurb alongside it.

It’s respect for culture and approaching this with deep care and sensitivity. I’ll always be strong advocate for the advancement of science and technology, but never at the sacrifice of human beings who’s hearts are hurting thru mismanagement and breach of trust.

I believe in forward progress, but only when it comes thru humanity. I don’t believe in leaving people behind, I believe in bringing people with us.

The best of leaders find a way to make progress thru humanity and will always lead with empathy.

Serendipity v algorithmy

[Written by me, full post at the link above.] I’ve always liked the concept of serendipity, even more since being involved in the early days of coworking, where we used the term “accelerated serendipity” quite a bit. The idea that, through the creation of a welcoming space and a diversified and thriving community, you could accelerate (or concentrate) “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.”

Miscellany