This week → Not soon enough ⊗ On floating upstream ⊗ This is the reason Demis Hassabis started DeepMind ⊗ Critchlow, Davies, and some promising long reads
‘Big’ news this week, with the most recent Dispatch I launched a new Discord server (what’s that?) for members. Click through to see the logic behind making it a member privilege and what I hope will be going on in this discussion space. For a couple of months, I’m offering a special membership price of $20 (maybe until issue 220 or 222?) so it’s a bit less exclusive and brings some more readers to our chats. Thanks in advance and I hope to see you in there.
Small ask: I’m looking for quotes about the weekly newsletter: what do you get from Sentiers, what do you like best, why is it useful, etc. The quotes currently on the homepage are fantastic but loosely translate as “this is awesome,” I’d like to have some that are more about the benefits you take away from reading.
At the Journal of Futures Studies, this piece by Ivana Milojević offers “Meditations on Ending War and Visioning Peace.” First thing to note, and something I’ll certainly steal, the use of the word “eutopian,” to denote “a ‘good’ and possible place vs. ‘perfect’ and impossible as applied in the term utopian.” Second, the short story she applies the word to, Soon by Aleksandra Kollontai which indeed seems like a good place, and not that unachievable. If gains in productivity had been more fairly distributed and there wasn’t a massive neoliberal extraction going on, we could just work two hours a day and have everyone cared for.
Milojević writes that “to end war, we need to challenge the futures fallacies we use to construct reality. We also need to envision peaceful futures.” She details eight futures fallacies, which are presented in a war context, understandably, but could also be applied more generally, or the climate crisis with the future personal exemption fallacy, for example. She also correctly reminds us that we need both theory (stories we tell), and practice (how we actually act). The four visions then proposed are basically lists of positive phrases, which can be good perhaps to prop up one’s optimism, but didn’t advance the piece that much.
(Thanks to Sentiers reader Jörg for sending this to me, keep them coming friends!)
Wars are commonly supported by ‘used futures’ – the term refers to the strategies from the past that we keep on repeating even though they are no longer in line with our desired visions for the future. […]
The ceteris paribus fallacy, or the error of considering only one single aspect of change. That is, the assumption that one can only consider the military aspect when designing strategies and not the economic, demographic, cultural, environmental, psychological, and so on. […]
[P]eace is not a state that results from violence which is its opposite. Rather, it is a strategy that cannot be separated from an inherently dynamic process: a process which absolutely must utilise nonviolent means. […]
So instead of ‘choosing sides’, ‘win-lose’, ‘either-or’, one or at most two futures alternatives, we need to develop habits of imagining a multiplicity of peaceful processes and strategies for our future, based on progressive and constructive narratives. […]
How do we change our own lives to reflect these alternative stories and positive visions for the future? What do we do differently? And most importantly, how do we link these visions of positive futures to our current decision-making?
W. Patrick McCray reviewing a book about the life and career of Stewart Brand. Brand is an interesting character, present for multiple important cultural and technological trends, too bad he’s too far on the technosolutionist end of the spectrum (for me) or I could be a real fan. Although McCray seems quite the fan himself, he does raise some of the biases of Brand and gives a good overview of the man’s career. The parts about staying close to power and the Global Business Network (GBN, basically a futures consultancy founded in 1987) were two less travelled bit of Brand’s life and a good addition to my understanding of him. Side note: is Tim O’Reilly a “Brand light” or “Brand 2.0”?
From the first Grateful Dead shows to 21st-century TED Talks, Brand is there. All the while, he has, according to Markoff, maintained a “consistent through line” of thought and purpose, marked by insatiable curiosity about technology, commitment to science and democracy (of the “small d” sort), and an aversion to orthodox thinking of all stripes. […]
Starting in the 1970s, he catalyzed public debates about personal computers, nanotechnology, the internet, and nuclear power. More recently, he has promoted the possibility of using biotechnology to reverse the extinction of certain creatures like the Xerces, a brilliantly iridescent blue butterfly that disappeared from the San Francisco area in the 1940s. […]
Cosmopolitan but affiliated with technoscientific-based industries, the people in Brand’s larger circle are always looking beyond the grind of industrial competition to a future that transcends time, space, politics, and bodies. As a cohort, they generally believe in accelerating technological improvement, of the sort predicted by Moore’s Law, which will make us more connected, longer-lived, and more liberated from our bodies, governments, and traditions. […]
With its enhanced trade opportunities and favorable geopolitics, GBN and its clients clearly favored the triumph of “Market World.” Regardless, it was technology tout court that always figured as the prominent force for social, economic, and political change.
I really wish Google hadn’t purchased DeepMind (though admittedly the company would probably not be where they are if that were the case), it’s like a huge ‘yes but’ permanently hanging over their achievements. “Brilliant yes but, what will Google do with this?” Still, I’d say they are the most impressive AI company out there (point me to others if you think I’m wrong) and in this article/interview, Douglas Heaven explains how AlphaGo lead to AlphaFold, the massive advance it is, what they are doing with these tools, and where DeepMind and Hassabis want to go next.
You can read this as a purely tech piece, but it’s also useful to focus on the protein and protein folding parts, and marvel at how they work, the complexity of their interactions, and how much we still don’t know.
The catch is that it’s hard to figure out a protein’s structure—and thus its function—from the ribbon of amino acids. An unfolded ribbon can take 10^300 possible forms, a number on the order of all the possible moves in a game of Go. […]
“I was thinking about what we had actually done with AlphaGo,” says Hassabis. “We’d mimicked the intuition of incredible Go masters. I thought, if we can mimic the pinnacle of intuition in Go, then why couldn’t we map that across to proteins?” […]
Over the past year, AlphaFold2 has started having an impact. DeepMind has published a detailed description of how the system works and released the source code. It has also set up a public database with the European Bioinformatics Institute that it is filling with new protein structures as the AI predicts them. The database currently has around 800,000 entries, and DeepMind says it will add more than 100 million—nearly every protein known to science—in the next year.
Also at DeepMind: Predicting the past with Ithaca.
No.212 Shorts & Asides ⊕ See Note
Here’s a “twofer,” with a quick but insightful post by Tom Critchlow on long, carefully created pages, Holding (and scrolling) attention. Plus the great collection which prompted his post, To see what’s really going on, it helps to get close. “I’m very excited to see a new digital format that can capture attention so well. Something that encourages close reading of the details. This is the opposite of what we think of as the digital experience! Holding and scrolling my attention in an artful way.”
Adjacent to Critchlow, under something like ‘the craft of the web,’ is Russell Davies’ Useful where he explains that often, just a blog is enough. “Whenever someone asks me for coffee/chat/advice I normally end up saying random useless nonsense in the moment but then emailing a couple of days later saying "Actually, this book/quote/link might be useful for that thing you were wondering about." I have a large collection of that stuff, scattered across this blog, various google docs, Pinboard and Readwise. It's a sort of distributed commonplace book.”
For an article to be featured in Sentiers, I have to have read the whole thing with attention. Sometimes, longer reads pile up and I have to cleanup a bit, which means I’ll scan through them instead of attentively reading. All of that to say, here are some 4000+ words articles that look excellent but won’t be featured ‘cause trying to catch up.
How WordPress and Tumblr are keeping the internet weird. “CEO Matt Mullenweg on why he bets big on small companies.” ◼ Lessons From 19 Years in the Metaverse by Charlie Warzel ◼ The science of becoming “interplanetary”: Could humans live in the asteroid belt? ◼ In a World on Fire, Stop Burning Things by Bill McKibben ◼ Ethereum's Vitalik Buterin Is Worried About Crypto's Future.
- 😍 🤩 🇨🇭 🏔 🗺 The People Who Draw Rocks. “[E]xperts in shaded relief, a technique for illustrating a mountain (and any of its glaciers) so that it appears three-dimensional. Their skills and creativity also help them capture consequences of the thawing permafrost, like landslides, shifting crevasses and new lakes.”
- 😍 📸 🔬 🍄 Macro Photos by Barry Webb Highlight the Spectacular Diversity of Slime Molds. “His macro shots magnify the often imperceptible details of small slime molds, capturing the specimen’s unique characteristics with striking detail. From the globular heads of the Comatricha nigra to the spongey forms of the Arcyria denudata, each photo unveils the diversity and intricacies of some of the world’s tiniest organisms.”
- 🇺🇦 🗺 Fascinating march towards more accuracy. Interesting to see how the @nytgraphics has changed their map symbology as the Russian war in #Ukraine️ unfolds. On Feb 26, large red arrows and an almost opaque red color shows Russian advances in Ukraine. Suggesting fast, large and controlled overtaking.
- 🇹🇷 🇬🇷 🤩 In Search of Troy. “Thanks in part to their work, most historians now believe that the city uncovered at Hisarlik is the Troy Homer wrote about, and that a war or series of wars did in fact play out between the Mycenaean Greeks and Anatolians here around 1180 B.C., at the end of the late Bronze Age.”
- Nice! Also, makes a lot more sense for this kind of modularity to be used in a DIY hobbyist kit than mobiles or computers. A Demo of Pockit, a Tiny, Powerful, Modular Computer. “It does web browsing, streaming video, AI object detection, home automation, and just anything else you can think of.”
- 🇮🇩 🚲 👏🏼 Jakarta’s Transit Miracle. “Cycling is up 500% across Jakarta (2019 to 2020), and in certain parts of the city, a whopping 1,000%. In late 2019 Transjakarta—the city’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system—hit a landmark 1M riders per day1”
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