Newsletter No.40 — Jul 15, 2018

Sentiers No.40

Heads up: For a couple of reasons related to early writing methods, the first forty-five issues archived here are “pre last review” and haven’t been fully re-reviewed yet. Please forgive typos and miscellaneous mistakes if you see them! They are also less structured than more recent issues and thus haven’t been split into multiple notes. (Yet?)

You might have noticed that I did end up skipping two weeks to properly enjoy my vacation. I hope you used the time to catchup on past issues and other newsletter because this one is gigantic. I’m not sure if I should say “sorry” or “enjoy”.

Future Human
Not a new section/category but rather Medium’s magazine of the same name where the next two articles are from. The whole thing looks good.

⭐️ The Cognition Crisis
I highlighted large chunks of this article, both for recognizing the symptoms, conditions and their prevalence, and for the depiction of our use of tech. Pretty much must read, as this is one of the defining issues of our age. Basically; we are frying our brains 😱.
The second part covers a lot of ground but is focused on enhancing our cognition, as well as advancing and connecting healthcare and education. My preference goes to reducing the firehose of information we face but there are plenty of those so it’s good to see this other approach detailed.

While the sources fracturing our cognition are many, we are faced with the realization that our brains simply have not kept pace with the rapid changes in our environment—specifically the introduction and ubiquity of information technology. At our core, we humans are inherently information-seeking creatures. As a result, a profound shift in the flow of information will inevitably have major effects; and as we have come to see, many of these are negative. […]
We are seeing accelerating reward cycles associated with intolerance to delayed gratification and sustained attention; excessive information exposure connected with stress, depression, and anxiety (e.g., fear of missing out and being non-productive); and, of course, multitasking has been linked to safety issues (such as texting while driving) and a lack of focus (which impacts our relationships, our studies, and our work). […]
What’s more, ::our constant engagement with technology interferes with the pursuit of other behaviors critical for maintaining a healthy mind, such as nature exposure, physical movement, face-to-face contact, and restorative sleep. Its negative influence on empathy, compassion, cooperation, and social bonding are just beginning to be understood::. […]
Success in solving such global challenges depends upon us having the mental capacity to actually solve them: high-level attention, reasoning, creativity, decision making, compassion, and wisdom are required. If we can’t focus our attention and make creative, wise, and more future-oriented decisions, we will never effectively deal with complex, time-delayed crises like the one affecting our climate, no matter how much information we acquire. […]
For too long wellness and medicine have been considered distinct disciplines, and healthcare has essentially been sickcare.
++ The author, Adam Gazzaley M.D. / Ph.D, was also quite interesting on the The Kevin Rose Show.

Reversed Aging, Pig Organs, and the Future of Humankind
An interview with George Church, “the most influential geneticist of our time.” Hard to encapsulate in a couple of phrases since it jumps from topic to topic at each question but a good read for a quick intro to some of the possibilities around gene therapy, longevity, CRISPR, and organoids (fabricated structures made from brain tissue).

You’ve got a very sophisticated machine, which is a protein, which you can engineer to do new things in the body. You can go through the human species and find rare individuals who have exceptionally interesting proteins. […]
The largest structures we’ve made are on the order of half a billion cells, which is larger than a mouse brain. It’s not really a macho size thing yet; it’s just exploiting the ability to get flow through capillaries. We can now get most of the major cell types of the brain. We can make oligodendrocytes, which wrap the myelin sheath that insulates neural connections. We can make endothelial cells, which is really critical, because if you don’t have endothelium, you don’t have capillaries. We’re trying to make larger, more complex organoids that have good blood flow. […]
The human brain is pretty far ahead of any silicon-based computing system, except for very specialized tasks like information retrieval or math or chess. And we do it at 20 watts of power for the brain, relative to, say, 100,000 watts for a computer doing a very specialized task like chess. So, we’re ahead both in the energy category and in versatility and out-of-the-box thinking. Also, Moore’s law is reaching a plateau, while biotechnology is going through super-exponential growth, where it’s improving by factors of 10 per year in cost/benefit.

Changing Knowledge
Big new discoveries are usually the most heralded but we have to remember that our collective knowledge is ever-changing, expanding, updating. We disprove things , we add to what we know. Here are two good examples, followed by an article I’ve linked before, on the half-life of knowledge.

‘Everything we’ve heard about global urbanization turns out to be wrong’ - researchers
I’m not sure if these findings can be considered any more definitive than previous numbers, the urbanization percentages have always been opinionated and based on vastly varying definitions. Which makes this piece interesting for its results but also for the multiple other methods it mentions.

Using a definition made possible by advances in geospatial technology that uses high-resolution satellite images to determine the number of people living in a given area, they estimate 84 percent of the world’s population, or almost 6.4 billion people, live in urban areas. […]
According to the European Commission definition, any contiguous stretch with at least 50,000 people and a population density of 1,500 per square km is considered an urban center.
Any area with at least 5,000 people and a population density of 300 per square km is classified an urban cluster. Rural areas are those with less than 300 people per square km.

No single birthplace of mankind, say scientists
Can’t say I’m surprised by this conclusion, the frequency of findings of major “new” species and the fact all of our knowledge of pre-history is, in the end, only based on relatively few bones, always seemed to me like something that could be upended at any moment. Also, interesting to make a parallel between this one birthplace with the lone genius idea. Things develop in multiple places at the same time, it’s always more of a scenius than genius (see ego piece further down). Notice that a multidisciplinary group did this research, as opposed to the usual competition and turf wars between groups.

However, a team of prominent scientists is now calling for a rewriting of this traditional narrative, based on a comprehensive survey of fossil, archaeological and genetic evidence. Instead, the international team argue, the distinctive features that make us human emerged mosaic-like across different populations spanning the entire African continent. Only after tens or hundreds of thousands of years of interbreeding and cultural exchange between these semi-isolated groups, did the fully fledged modern human come into being.

Half Life: The Decay of Knowledge and What to Do About It

[I]nformation has a predictable half-life: the time taken for half of it to be replaced or disproved. Over time, one group of facts replaces another. As our tools and knowledge become more advanced, we can discover more — sometimes new things that contradict what we thought we knew, sometimes nuances about old things. Sometimes we discover a whole area that we didn’t know about.

Fevered egos
Austin Kleon on big egos, who you surround yourself with, reading, and genius-scenius. (Also have a look for the Mark Hamill anecdote about George Lucas.)

::Genius is an ego-system, and scenius is an eco-system.:: […]
“[T]he only mofos in my circle are people that I CAN LEARN FROM. I believe THAT is the first and foremost rule to a successful life. [Y]ou are going to be as educated and successful as the 10 most frequented people you call/text on your phone”

Facebook, Google, and the Death of the Public Square
A bit rambling but there are also some good ideas in here. Useful for his historical framing of the public sphere, before launching into Silicon Valley disruption instead of just talking about free speech or the media. He does fall prey to a common problem; sugar coating the past.

To state the obvious, these are multinational corporations, with an ultimate interest in their bottom lines. ::They will never be capable of regulating the public sphere that they control in any name other than their own profit.:: […]
The present global explosion of anxiety and hate is unlike anything most of us have ever witnessed. People don’t know how to confront these evils, which come in nearly every direction, in the form of theological zealots, demagogic populists, avowed racists, and trollish misogynists. […]
::Silicon Valley doesn’t understand truth as a quest or trial, but as an engineering challenge::. They believe human behavior and human choices can be predicted by algorithms on the basis of past behavior. […]
We need to shape the culture so that the prestige of engineering doesn’t continue to come at the expense of the humanities. We need to preserve literature as a primary technology for interrogating the meaning of life. We need to resist the tendency to reduce the world to data.”
++ Different but related, it reminded me of this older piece on the loss of public spaces in cities: What is the most private city in the world?

The Churn
Big Brother’s Blind Spot
Joanne McNeil with a much broader view of algorithms and bias than what we usually read. She talks with Nabil Hassein, Joy Buolamwini, looks at the Kosinski and Wang “gaydar” train wreck, and brings some historical perspective with references to J. Edgar Hoover, the “Lavender Scare,” and the US occupation of the Philippines. The main point of the article is that focusing on bias and its removal from algorithms obfuscates the question of whether the various uses of these algorithms should even exist, and the important fact that people can rarely opt out of being recognized and surveilled.

Today, diversity is a much-championed agenda item, and eliminating bias is a tempting proposition for some technologists. I imagine part of the appeal lies in its simplicity; addressing “bias” has a concrete aim: to become unbiased. With “bias” as a prompt, the possibility of a solution begins to sound unambiguous, even if the course of action—or its aftereffects—is dubious. […]
Considering its false advertisement, how is this technology used? What restrictions should be placed on it? Should this technology exist? […] I think a technology should not exist if there is no procedure to contest and amend its inevitable mistakes.

Facial recognition software is not ready for use by law enforcement
Nothing in here that I haven’t linked to already in terms of content. Still, notable because it’s written by Brian Brackeen who’s CEO of face recognition software makers Kairos.

Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams: A.I., Shame and Lots of Cameras
Overview of many of the surveillance and face recognition tech and policies in China. Jon Evans on Twitter was right though, the article buries the lede; “[P]er capita, the USA today has ~exactly as many surveillance cameras as fearsome panopticon-state China.” — @rezendi

Thermostats, Locks and Lights: Digital Tools of Domestic Abuse
“The street finds its own use for things”… and so do the creeps.

Their stories are part of a new pattern of behavior in domestic abuse cases tied to the rise of smart home technology. Internet-connected locks, speakers, thermostats, lights and cameras that have been marketed as the newest conveniences are now also being used as a means for harassment, monitoring, revenge and control.

I finally got to reading Eliot Peper’s Bandwidth this week and thoroughly enjoyed the read. Basically it’s (almost) everything I write about here but in novel form. Silicon Valley, surveillance, feeds, climate change, etc. He’s been getting rave reviews, including this one by Doctorow.

On vacation I finished Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (novel) - Wikipedia which was mind bending and complex. It's already been recommended everywhere so I won't say much except add my name to the list and I'm looking forward to picking up the next two in the trilogy.

📚 When you’ve died and gone to book heaven and Libraries: Where the world’s memory is stored.

Comparing City Street Orientations
I really love this. Histograms representing the orientations of various cities’ streets and the relative frequency of each bearing. He later followed up with City Street Orientations around the World. I’d be curious to see the cities ordered through time, I’m assuming the more varied layouts are, on average, older.

“Weather is the key paradox of our time. Weather that is nice is often weather that is wrong. The nice is occurring in the immediate and individual, and the wrong is occurring systemwide.” — Roni Horn (Short thread by James Bridle.)

The future, yes, is unevenly distributed. But it’s clearly visible, it’s hot and it’s wet and it’s going to be a struggle, and it’s happening right now, happening first to the places and people we’ve tried to ignore or despoil, but it will be everywhere in time.

🌡Everything’s fine, no problem at all. Red-hot planet: All-time heat records have been set all over the world during the past week

What most of these have in common might be “things that read like movie scripts.”

The capuchins are the first animals of their genus observed using stone tools and only the fourth group of nonhuman primates known to do so.