The edge of our existence ⊗ The hyperreal life of Chen Qiufan ⊗ Open sourcing other people’s hardware — No.164

This week → The edge of our existence ⊗ The hyperreal life of Chen Qiufan ⊗ Kyle Wiens, open sourcing other people’s hardware ⊗ Chaos strikes global shipping ⊗ Putting landsat 8’s bands to work

A year ago → The most clicked article in issue No.117 was Coronavirus offers a blank page for a new beginning by Li Edelkoort.

Read the Sentiers newsletter on technology in society, signals of change, and prospective futures.

The edge of our existence

The other part of the title is “A particle physicist examines the architecture of society.” Which, to me anyway, frames the piece as some kind of analytical decrypting of society, it’s actually something much more heartfelt. Dr. Yangyang Cheng takes us from her childhood in China, to her immigration in the US, and the evolution of her thinking since then. Making astute observations on real and metaphorical walls, inequality, privilege, race, the colonization previous forms of knowledge by science, the barriers and assumptions of language in science, then some history, and the sci-fi of Liu Cixin (she’s really not a fan) thrown into the mix. Even with that enumeration, I’m not including everything. Just a really good read.

Sometimes, walls do not appear in clay or concrete. They take shape through uniformed officers and flashing blue lights, through property deeds and zoning policy, through food deserts and underfunded public schools. […]

In The Wandering Earth, our planet is converted into an intergalactic spaceship, but its society and politics have barely evolved: The nation-state outlives the sun. An engineer by training, Liu, like many of his peers, is more comfortable bending the laws of gravity than reimagining the forms of government. […]

Doctors and nurses run short on protective gear, while the police use military-grade equipment to disperse peaceful protesters. The ones without a shelter cannot shelter in place. The ones without the luxury of space, the poor and the incarcerated, cannot practice social distancing. The system rewards grifters at the top and traps the less fortunate in cycles of despair. […]

The border is not an edge but a new beginning. The ones who have persevered in the periphery hold the key to our future survival. Their presence disrupts our comfort, challenges our norms, uncovers the paucity of our moral imagination.

The hyperreal life of Chen Qiufan

Basically “just a profile” of Chinese sci-fi author Chen Qiufan, yet a fun read for his take on how he comes up, researches, and writes his stories, some more inklings on how sci-fi is being created and used within their political landscape, and the interplay of tech, sci-fi, dealing with society in the present, and interpreting it by projecting ideas forward.

Once he has a feel for a given landscape in the real world, he transports the scene into what he calls the imagined “hyperreal”—a zone where the fantastical and factual are so blurred it is unclear where one begins and one ends. […]

“With science fiction, I can probe real-life issues through an imaginary narrative without explicitly arguing who is right or wrong, good or evil.” […]

The tech industry has learned how to monetize not only consumer goods but also experiences, attention, relationships. In many ways, we’ve become just like our devices—efficient, optimizable, operating faster than ever, caught in the endless churn of increasing productivity. But nobody knows to what end. […]

There’s even a word for this sense of sped-up purposelessness today—an arcane, academic term that has exploded on Chinese social media and popped up in Chen’s speeches: involution. The opposite of evolution, a process of involution spirals in on itself, trapping its participants.

Kyle Wiens, open sourcing other people’s hardware

The founder on iFixit interviewed at MachinePix with some important points on repair, maintenance, and “increasing the overall resiliency of the system.” Before reading it, I thought this one would go in the Asides section and be useful for a few people, but there are just too many good bits in there, I had to swing it into featured articles. (Picking the quotes I wanted to keep, I also noticed Wiens in the last highlighted quote below mirrors one of Chen’s above as well as the whole of the next piece.)

Software complexity feels free, but it’s really not. I have an old truck, big mechanical springs. I just went in and bent it back into shape. Imagine if I had to do that in code. Trying to get into the ECU. We could, if we could access it. Do we have the tools? The compiler? It’s so complex. This is the reaction all the farmers are having to the John Deere controversy. Ok fine, make things more complex, but give us the tools to work with them. […]

The product we are most pissed off at is the AirPods. I think they’re the embodiment of things wrong in the world today. […]

If you think about civilization, we’re scrambling as fast as we can up the mountain of technological progress. We’re hanging on by our hands—the more resilience we have, that’s supports, ropes, safety systems we’re adding. So if TSMC has to shut down a factory, we don’t fall.

Chaos strikes global shipping

There’s been a lot of talk in the last year about broken supply chains, the importance of infrastructure, brittleness, etc. This one at the NYT is a very good overview of the various problems the business of shipping and container management have been experiencing over that time. How about 27x shipping fees in some situations?

The quick summary; when a system is super optimized on a global scale, a big shift in one part reverberates across the system and can take a long while to settle down. Also; don’t count on free markets to optimize for anything other than profit.

“Everybody wants everything,” said Akhil Nair, vice president of global carrier management at SEKO Logistics in Hong Kong. “The infrastructure can’t keep up.” […]

Six months ago, he was paying about $2,500 to ship a 40-foot container to California. “We just paid $67,000,” he said. “This is the highest freight rate that I have seen in 45 years in the business.” […]

Given the prices fetched by containers in Asia, shipping carriers are increasingly unloading in California and then immediately putting empty boxes back on ships for the return leg to Asia, without waiting to load grain or other American exports. That has left companies like Scoular scrambling to secure passage.

Putting landsat 8’s bands to work

James Bridle re-surfaced this 2013 article by Charlie Loyd explaining how Landsat 8’s bands can be used to create better satellite images. If you’re interested in satellite imagery in any way, have a look to know more about how Mapbox uses non-visual bands to analyze everything from terrain types, to crop growth, to natural disasters. Quite fascinating.

Of its 11 bands, only those in the very shortest wavelengths (bands 1–4 and 8) sense visible light — all the others are in parts of the spectrum that we can’t see. The true-color view from Landsat is less than half of what it sees. […]

The color version [of LA] looks out of focus because those sensors can’t see details of this size. But if we combine the color information that they provide with the detail from the pan band — a process called pan sharpening — we get something that’s both colorful and crisp.


Header image: Make your own ’chute like the JPL. This one says “Sentiers, Signals, Futures.”