Vol 2.26 | 06.28.19

Vol. 2 | #26 | 06.28.19

The World’s Dumbest Idea

Every time there’s a news story about some big megacorp’s latest share buyback plan, or a leading politician proposes new legislative rules to regulate them (they come from both the left and the right), I’m reminded of the fundamental debate about the proper purpose of a company. Is it, as has been the oft-repeated mantra for the past 50 years, to “maximize shareholder value?” Or, is that really the “dumbest idea in the world” as former GE CEO Jack Welch once put it? This Forbes article from 2 years ago neatly summarizes the arguments for and against, and the history behind their development, with a nod to a book I’ve mentioned before by the recently departed Professor Lynn Stout.

The Exciting News of Martian Methane

When you hear about methane hear on Earth, you may think about things like bovine flatulence and its effect on climate change. In reality, it’s not the cow that’s to blame for the methane, but the microbes living in the cow’s many guts. Methane and other natural gases are an organic byproduct of microbes doing their microbial thing, which is why the detection of a huge spike in methane on Mars by NASA’s Curiosity rover is such a big deal. While there are geological processes that can also produce a rise in methane, the prospect of finding evidence of even microbial life on Mars has scientists buzzing. 

Heartbeat Identification

All the raging about facial recognition technology could end up becoming quite moot if this tech that uses lasers to measure a person’s identifiable heartbeat pattern from up to 200 meters away becomes a thing. I’ve heard of other unique biological markers besides fingerprints before like irises, but this one is a new one for me.

The Rhythm of Good Writing

Just a magnificently succinct example of how rhythm in writing works and why it matters.

The Art of Mapping the Sky

Having the work of Eleanor Lutz cross my scopes truly is one of those moments of networking serendipity that makes the Internet so special. Eleanor is a Ph.D. student in biology and a dataviz artist on the side who announced in June that she would be releasing 10 maps of the heavens that she’s designed using open source data found on the web, Python programming and Photoshop/Illustrator skills, and 18 months of her free time. Here’s just one of the stunning pieces of art that she has published to her blog so far, with more coming each week:

IMAGE: Eleanor Lutz, Tabletopwhale.com

Equally impressive is her effort to truly share her art beyond just the map/images themselves. Eleanor posts all of the data and coding she used to GitHub along with an in-depth tutorial on how she did it, which is worth scanning just to gain an appreciation for the work that goes into making such stunning displays of excellence.

Check out these others that she’s released so far as well:

Vol. 2.25 | 06.21.19

Vol. 2 | #25 | 06.21.19

Smart Phones Are Making People Horny

Australian researchers studying thousands of x-ray images have discovered a disturbing trend: bone spurs developing on the base of the back of people’s skulls, creating a horn-like protrusion. The cause? — years spent in a posture with the head tilted downward, staring at a smartphone screen, putting extra load on the tiny muscles in the back of the neck, to which the body responds by generating new bone growth to compensate. This is, quite literally, an image of how environmental factors trigger biological adaptions. In other words, this is a snapshot of human evolution in process.

(And no, I’m clearly not above a click-bait headline myself, especially when it essentially writes itself. But they say public confession is good for the soul, so…)

IMAGE: Washington Post

A Watched Clock Never Varies

When you set up a physics experiment to closely monitor 12 atomic clocks for even the slightest variation over the course of 14 years, then this is big news. Why? Because the lack of variation in the way these clocks measure time — by measuring light particle wave emissions from an atom that oscillate at a constant rate of several billion times per second — over an extended period of time proves a fundamental principle of physics: that the rules of physics don’t change over time and place. Read this to find out how watching clocks proved this, and why it matters.

GE’s Comically Complicated “Smart” Bulb Procedure

Watch this and just try to avoid thinking “This has to be a spoof.” This is literally more complicated than the famous unlimited lives cheat code for Contra back in the day. Say it with me, Nintendo generation: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start …

RoboCop Now On Duty

While it looks more like a rolling trashcan than even an R2 unit, let alone the muscular law enforcing machinery of the original RoboCop, the HP RoboCop unit has two things working for it that the others don’t: it’s an actual, real thing, and it sports an impressive 360 degree field of vision HD surveillance camera and recording capability.

I’m sure nothing can go wrong with this idea…

The Continuing Mystery of Flight MH370

It’s been over five years since the Boeing 777 operating as Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared from radar after leaving Malaysian airspace en route to Beijing, China. Like a bad network drama, the most advanced airliner in the world just disappeared without a trace, with nearly 300 souls aboard. It would nearly a year and a half before a single piece of wreckage was found: a piece of a wing that washed ashore a tiny French island in the western Indian Ocean. This is a long but fascinating read on the mysterious tragedy, and why what little evidentiary signs there are all point to a suicidal pilot as the cause.

Vol. 2.24 | 06.14.19

Vol. 2 | #24 | 06.14.19

Tetris Reaches Middle Age

Born behind the Soviet Iron Curtain during the last chapters of the Cold War, the game of falling 4-square blocks turned 35 years old this week. With it’s 8-bit picture of St. Basil’s Cathedral located in Moscow’s Red Square and it’s ear-worming Russian folk song theme music, Tetris was one of my favorite games to lose myself in on my Nintendo back in the day. At our church youth group’s first ever video game tournament night, all fell before me and my block-arranging prowess .. which was the highlight of my freshman year in high school, to be honest. 

Are Camera-Phones Killing Our Memories?

As Alanis Morissette might say, isn’t it ironic that our impulse to capture everything through the portal of our smartphone cameras in order to preserve and share it may be the very thing that inhibits us from storing the experience as a memory in the first place? On the narrowing of our attention, cognitive offloading, and the unseen costs of taking photos with an eye to sharing them online.

That Shirt’s Not Dirty – Wear It Again

Gotta be honest: when I clicked on this link, I knew it was likely click-bait and would be taking me to an article written in the now popular style of “I found two people who think something, and will now write it up as if it’s a full-blown social trend.” I clicked anyway … and was pleasantly surprised to be introduced into an actual idea I hadn’t encountered before: that the impulse to throw clothing into the laundry basket as “dirty” after a single wearing is a habit driven by decades of product market and not necessarily hygenic need. 

The Problem With Massive Scale

In one of his many video interviews that all seem to rocket around the web, Simon Sinek has a line that reads as an afterthought but has stuck with me ever since I came across it: “scale breaks things.” YouTube is now finding out how true that is.

In its effort to remove content “alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status,” YouTube has found itself removing videos of historians and educators who aren’t trying to spread supremacist ideology, but teach about it. Of course, YouTube’s alogrithms can’t tell the difference, because recognizing keywords, images, and content concepts is an order of magnitude easier than understanding the context of how those things are being displayed and discussed. And with users uploading an astonishing 500 hours of new video content every minute, it is impossible for an army of cheap human reviewers to moderate it all (ask Facebook), let alone people paid and trained commensurate with the executive analysis and decision making such a job actually requires.

The scale of content proliferating on social media platforms is now so large that it is beyond precise moderation. Only automated rough measures are possible at this scale, and that is only going to turn YouTube’s PR problems into a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

Finding Snoopy

In late May, 1969, the crew of Apollo X launched with a mission both daunting and likely so very frustrating: fly to the moon, have Commander Tom Stafford and Lunar Module Pilot Gene Cernan detach the Lunar Module — call sign Snoopy — from the Command Module (Charlie Brown) and Command Module Pilot John Young, and fly down to an altitude of 50,000 feet above the lunar surface. After a journey of 244,000 miles, an altitude of just 10 miles must’ve felt like the moon’s surface was just inches beneath their feet. The only left for Stafford and Cernan to do to make history would’ve been to initiate “P63” — the program within the Apollo Guidance Computer that executed the powered descent down to the surface.

But, making that history wasn’t the mission of Apollo X. After doing everything except landing, Stafford and Cernan piloted Snoopy back to rendezvous with the Command Module in lunar orbit, docked, and climbed back aboard Charlie Brown with Young. Once that procedure was done, the crew of Apollo X jettisoned Snoopy into the emptiness of space to float, and returned to Earth.

And now, after an 8 year search and against 235,000,000/1 odds, astronomers believe they have found Snoopy floating in the vacuum of space.

Vol. 2.23 | 06.07.19

Vol. 2 | #23 | 06.07.19

D-Day’s 75th Anniversary

There’s just no way to string words together that will ever do justice to the hinge moment of the 20th Century. The 27-minute opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning epic Saving Private Ryan remains the most accurate portrayal of what the men who stormed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Sword, and Juno beaches endured in the name of defeating the evil machinery of Nazi tyranny. Don’t take my word for it; that’s how D-Day vets themselves describe Spielberg’s work.

The History of Art on the Internet

A fun ride in an internet time machine looking how art helped shape the internet, and now how the algorithm-driven, like-seeking internet of now is reshaping art. (I didn’t realize until reading this that DeviantArt.com predates Facebook and is nearly 20 years old!)

Emmanuel Laflamme, La Persistance de la Memoire Vive, 2012

Why Tears for Fears’ Anthem Is Still Great

Because it’s one of the iconic Euro-synth-pop songs of the 1980’s? Yes, but there’s more, so says … <checks notes> … The Economist. Yeah, I didn’t see that one coming either, which is why I clicked and read it in the first place. Now it’s your turn.

“It’s like trying to shoot a black hole with a bow and arrow.”

Nearly 16 years ago, a torrent-file sharing site came online, giving people all over the web access to all kinds of copyrighted materal free of charge if not conscience. Despite lawsuits and even jail time for the creators, the Pirate Bay remains online … and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. This is the story behind the Jack Sparrow of the internet.

Update on the CRISPR Twins

In the world of CRISPR-enabled genetic editing, unintended consequences have a less-than-unsettling euphemism: “off-target effects.” In the case of the twin girls who represent the first ever (and highly illicit) use of non-therapeutic human genetic editing using CRISPR, one of those “off-target effects” could be a shorter life span. In the sanitized language of euphemism, that would be highly sub-optimal.

Oh, and the Chinese scientist’s stated reason for breaking the ethical seal on using CRISPR to design embryos — to reduce their susceptibility to contract HIV? Further analysis shows he didn’t even do that right.

Vol 2.21 | 05.24.19

Vol. 2 | #22 | 05.31.19

“Alexa, Am I Depressed?”

Just typing that hypothetical question feels a bit silly, and yet that’s not too far beyond what Amazon is actually working towards: teaching a wearable, Alexa-enabled device to “recognize human emotions … [and] be able to advise the wearer how to interact more effectively with others.”

What we need are more algorithms shaping how we interact with other people, because Facebook and Twitter haven’t quite broken us yet.

“The Real You” by Andrew Jasinski

How Long Is Long Enough?

25 years ago, Michael Thompson began serving a prison sentence for selling 3 lbs of pot to a police informant. He is now 68 years old, and still has 15-35 years to go. (His sentence was enhanced because of a prior record and having a firearm in his possession at home – although it wasn’t used as part of the drug sale).

As of last year, selling marijuana — even 3 lbs (or ~$20,000 worth) — is no longer illegal in Michigan. As more states move towards legalizing the possession, use, and sale of marijuana/pot/cannabis, policymakers are going to be faced with more questions like this: should large numbers of people (mostly men and mostly minorities) continue to be locked away for acts that are no longer illegal?

As a former prosecutor who prosecuted my fair share of pot-related crimes, put me down in ink on the side of “No. No, they should not.”

Lessons From the Stealth Fighter That Lost

Almost 30 years ago, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman aimed their stealth Advanced Tactical Fighter prototypes at each other and went head-to-head in a design and performance competition. At stake was the multi-billion-dollar USAF contract to build the next generation replacement for the venerable F-15 Eagle built by McDonnell Douglas. Lockheed’s YF-22 won, and went on to become the F-22 RaptorNorthrop’s YF-23 lost, and the two prototype aircraft were donated to NASA and have been living as museum pieces in California ever since.

As the Air Force begins the study process for what will replace the Raptor, the legacy of the prototype plane that never turned into a production fighter offers some lessons.

“It’s like Moneyball for cattle.”

I knew that data collection and analysis is changing everything, but I never would’ve guessed it would be the reason great steaks can be had from places like WalMart and Costco as easily as at a Jeff Ruby steakhouse. (Of course, the difference worth paying Jeff Ruby for is in the cooking…) This from Bloomberg offers a fascinating look into how “science and math have transformed the steak industry in less than a generation.”

“It was bigger than hula hoops and bigger than TV dinners.”

Before you could search YouTube for a tutorial on painting a landscape, and before Bob Ross was helping PBS viewers appreciate the joy of painting “happy trees,” aspiring hobbyists had another way to learn to paint: paint-by-number kits. What started as a fad in the 1950’s continues even today, and all thanks to the creative invention of Dan Robbins. Artsy’s Alexxa Gotthardt has the story behind the staple of DIY pop art.