Vol. 1 | #17 | 09.21.18


The Pointless CRISPR Patent Fight
The end of a protracted and costly tug-of-war litigation has likely arrived, and the question of who gets to claim the status and rewards of inventing the CRISPR-Cas9 technology for editing the genetic code of DNA has been decided: Feng Zhang and the Broad Institute team at MIT.

On the losing end was the team from UC-Berkely, headlined by geneticist Jennifer Doudna. It was Doudna who exposed the power of CRISPR-Cas9 to the rest of us outside the world of molecular biology with her TED talk (2.2 million views and counting). More impactful than Doudna’s repeated claims to having invented the technology in her talk was the metaphor she used to describe it: “That’s sort of analogous to the way that we use a word-processing program to fix a typo in a document.”

Why was this multi-million-dollar patent fight pointless? As the WIRED article linked above points out, at the time the conflicting patents were filed in 2012, the Cas9 protein (which was the subject of the patents) was the only protein known to be able to facilitate the “word-processing” like function of CRISPR. Now, some 6 years later, teams around the world have been finding many alternative proteins to use.

2A Googler’s “Jerry Maguire” Moment
As I’ve noted previously, Google is suffering a SIGSW over it’s toying with the idea to reenter the Chinese search market by agreeing to provide government censored search results. The anger many employees feel over what they (correctly) believe to be Google violating the spirit of its own “don’t be evil” ethic has boiled over beyond mere complaining on the company’s internal bulletin boards and signing a protest letter. Employees are now resigning over the issue, and not just low-level ones either. Jack Poulson was a Senior Research Scientist working on Google’s AI and Search functions before resigning his position in protest after working at Google for two years. His 6-page resignation letter (with 25 footnotes!) is worth the read.

3Paying Is Voluntary but the Selfies Are Free
The store is called The Drug Store, but it’s not a pharmacy. It sells designer drinks from Dirty Lemon (who owns the store) that sell for over $10 per bottle, and yes: paying is voluntary. There is nobody working the store, and no credit card machine to use. Instead, customers send a text message to Dirty Lemon self-identifying what they bought, and their credit card is charged accordingly. (This is the same method Dirty Lemon uses exclusively to sell its drinks online.) Aesthetically, the store is designed to encourage people to snap selfies of themselves inside posing with their chic DL bottles on Instagram.

As they say online: what could possibly go wrong?

4Can a CAT Scan See Your Mind?
It can show your brain, of course, but are these really the same thing? This is the question that Dr. Michael Egnor tackles in this thought-provoking article. Dr. Egnor is a neurosurgeon and professor of neurological surgery and pediatrics at Stony Brook University in New York.

He opens his piece with an arresting description of a child born with only about 1/3 the normal amount of brain matter, distributed along the periphery of the child’s skull. The remaining volume of the child’s head was filled with water. Not only did little Katie survive, she is soon to be graduating from high school as an honors student. If our minds are simply what we call the neuronic activity of our brains, how can such a fractional brain produce a whole, healthy mind?

The relationship between our brains and our minds is a question that extends beyond just the boundaries of neuroscience, philosophy and theology. With the onward march of AI, the question is being asked: can a machine ever truly think? Is artificial consciousness possible? Here’s a video of an address (<16 minutes) Dr. Egnor delivered at the launch of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, WA. He says “no,” because thinking and computations are two different categories entirely.

Interestingly, the book Life After Google that I’m reading now (and mentioned last month) makes same assertion but gets there by virtue of the math and computer science involved.

5You Never Know What Your Art Can Lead To

This story is proof that you truly never know the future impact you could have simply by putting your creative output out into the world. Valentino Dixon had served 27 years in prison of his 36-years-to-life sentence for murder when he got the news: his conviction had been vacated and he would soon be a free man. The catalyst that started journalists digging into his conviction that ultimately led to the realization that he was, in fact, innocent? — Dixon’s hand-drawn, colored-pencil drawings of golf courses (he’s never played a single hole, anywhere) and the profile of Dixon in Golf Digest six years ago because of those drawings.

Let me say that again: colored pencil drawings about golf courses started a chain of events that led to an innocent man finally being freed after 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

This is one worth reading.

Vol. 1 | #16 | 09.14.18


How Levees Can Make Flooding Worse
With Hurricane Florence about to drop a jaw-dropping level of rain on the Carolinas over the weekend, flooding is a major concern. Of course, it doesn’t take a hurricane to cause destructive flooding, as the history of river flooding in the center of the US has repeatedly shown. As we saw back in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina, when a levee fails to hold like like those meant to keep Lake Ponchatrain out of New Orleans’ neighborhoods, the flooding that results can be catastrophic.

What’s interesting about this piece of fantastic journalism from Pro Publica is that it examines the flooding problems that can arise when the levees work as designed. Not only was this fascinatingly informative. This effort is a beautiful example of how data visualization and the internet can be harnessed to present information. For example, also check out this companion piece: “How Overbuilt Levees Along the Upper Mississippi River Push Floods Onto Others.”

2Concrete + Gravity = Battery?
Yep. That’s exactly what it adds up to. When I first saw this link come across my feed, I clicked it expecting to read about some magical chemical process turning concrete itself into a medium for storing energy like a lithium-ion battery. (Seriously, how cool would *that* be? Forget buying Powewall units from Tesla. Imagine if the walls of your basement doubled as a giant battery for your entire house!)

The reality is much more simple and, in its way, ingenius. If reading the article and navigating past the explanatory math, just watch the video at the top of the piece.

3The Internet & the Domino Queen
Checking out this profile of 19-year-old professional domino artist Lily Hevesh and her mind-blowing domino designs is more than just an exercise in classic internet diversionary entertainment. (Which, thanks to my 13-year-old daughter, I’ve learned has a name for the genre: “satisfying videos.”)

It’s an illustration of how the interconnectedness of the internet has made something like a “19-year-old professional domino artist” even a thing. You don’t have to go far back into history to see how remarkable a change this is. Twenty-five years ago last month I started college as a freshman. (Trust me, it feels farther back than it is!) Going back to then — 1993 — a teenager who liked to do intricate, large-scale domino setups and knock them down may have been entertaining to their friends and family, but that was really as far as the interest could go. Maybe there would be a club for like-minded folks if you lived in a large city, but even that provided little more than a community and sense of belonging. The spark of such a niche interest did not have access to the fuel and oxygen of a larger market to catch fire.

Fast forward a mere quarter century, and a niche interest can become a career with the investment of a camera, an internet connection, and time. Lily Hevesh published her first video on YouTube when she was 10 years old: a one minute compilation of several different domino designs falling using actual playing dominoes, all on what appears to be the family’s living room coffee table. Today, her YouTube channel has over 2 million subscribers, and her videos have been viewed a combined 500,000,000 times. With the demands of posting a new video each week, and the professional gigs that come her way, finishing college is no longer relevant.

Check out her latest video, posted yesterday as a “collab” with a few other likeminded YouTubers: “The Lemonade Machine” It’s the greatest thing you will see on the internet this week.

4Facebook’s Big Problem
And then there’s the dark side of the interconnectedness of the internet. Two quotes to sample from this 14,000+ word New Yorker article:

If Facebook were a country, it would have the largest population on earth. More than 2.2 billion people, about a third of humanity, log in at least once a month. That user base has no precedent in the history of American enterprise. Fourteen years after it was founded, in Zuckerberg’s dorm room, Facebook has as many adherents as Christianity.”

. . .

At an event in November, 2017, Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, called himself a “conscientious objector” to social media, saying, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” A few days later, Chamath Palihapitiya, the former vice-president of user growth, told an audience at Stanford, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works—no civil discourse, no coöperation, misinformation, mistruth.” Palihapitiya, a prominent Silicon Valley figure who worked at Facebook from 2007 to 2011, said, “I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew in the back of our minds.” Of his children, he added, “They’re not allowed to use this shit.”

5Do You Really Own That Movie or Song?

When you can own a movie digitally and access it using any device anywhere you are, why would you ever want to buy a DVD or Blueray instead?

Oh …

Click on the headline link to read the whole thread. It’s remarkable.

Vol. 1 | #15 | 09.07.18


BS Jobs and the Meaning of Work
If you’re not familiar with the concept of the UBI — Universal Basic Income — it’s time to start learning. Not because it’s necessarily the solution for the problem of poverty – there’s lots of debate about that, as you can imagine. Rather, the concept is more important because it is in the context of talking about UBI that a looming problem is at least getting discussed with some seriousness. What to do in a possible future when technology (be it AI, robotics, or both) makes the meaningful employment of large swaths of society obsolete?

2More on the History and Future of Work
It’s easy to fall into the notion that the “gig economy” is a relatively new phenomenon just because companies like Uber and WeWork are relatively new companies. In this podcast (you can either listen or read the transcript at the link above), author Louis Hyman discusses the argument of his new book, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary — that the roots of the gig economy originally sprouted in the ’50’s and ’60’s as a result of the new thinking about how corporations should conduct themselves.

3The Real Challenge Facing Tesla
Yes, Tesla is learning that manufacturing car at scale is a seriously tough feat, both from an engineering and an operational standpoint. And while they still have quite a ways to go there, Tesla’s sales haven’t suffered. Just take a look at the numbers of all electric and electric-hybrid vehicles sold in the US last month:

But even assuming they successfully tackle the manufacturing challenge, that isn’t the end of the game. It will just mean the game for market dominance is officially on. Few people write as smartly about the larger trends of the tech world than Andreesen Horowitz ‘partner’ Benedict Evans. His analysis of the four pieces of the game Tesla is aiming to win — and the one that actually matters the most — is a great example of deep strategic thinking. If you only click through and read one thing from me this week, this is it.

4The Even More Pressing Challenge Facing Tesla
There is simply no way to sugar coat this: Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, is saying and doing things of late that are giving even his most ardent defenders pause. From his repeated bizarre lewd insult of one of the rescue divers in Thailand (for which he is being sued) to his half-cocked tweet about taking Tesla private (for which he is being investigated by the SEC and is also being sued), Musk’s mouth and tweets are creating havoc for Tesla. If the reports by the Wall Street Journal linked in the title here are true, Musk’s behavior as the day-to-day leader and CEO are becoming a problem as well. Of course, none of this is playing well for Tesla’s stockholders.


5The Wonder Years of Web Design
It’s called the Web Design Museum, and let’s just say it’s a fabulous diversionary time machine walk through the garish colors and dense designs of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Here’s what CNN.com looked like on the day it was launched:


Vol. 1 | #14 | 08.31.18


Gritty Companies
In the last week I started reading the bestselling Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. So it was quite a serendipitous surprise when I saw in my Twitter feed a link to this article coauthored by Duckworth from the forthcoming issue of Harvard Business Review. In the article, Duckworth pairs the lessons of her research on grit with the individuals, teams, organizations and leaders involved with developing world-class medical care in places like Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic here in Ohio.

If you’re not yet familiar with Duckworth’s work on grit, here she describes her essential findings from the TED stage.

2Who Really Killed Geoffrey?
Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t simply the rise of online retail (with its limitless shelf space and anytime/anywhere access) and the decline of traditional, big-box retail chain stores. This is an interesting story about the hedge fund investors who drove Toys ‘R’ Us away from a workout plan during its trip through Chapter 11 bankruptcy and off the cliff towards liquidation. While it takes an understanding of commercial bankruptcy law to understand all the details and finer points, the overall game at play is simple enough: when a lender of money stands to make more money from you if you fail than if you succeed, then they’re not an “investor” in any rational sense of the word.

3Trickshot to Save Earth
When I come across stories like this, it is a humbling reminder to be grateful for the armies of super-smart people doing innumerable number of super-smart things aimed at making all of our lives better and — in the case of protecting Earth from a killer asteroid — more likely to continue into the future.

What gets me most about this plan — there are several other design theories being investigated and advocated — is the sheer mathematical audacity of it. There’s a great scene in the first episode of the series From the Earth to the Moon that I mentioned last month where NASA’s original Flight Director, Dr. Chris Kraft, is shown describing the challenges of rendezvousing two objects in space:

“Rendezvous. Two spacecraft meeting up in orbit. You wanna have fun? Come over to my house. You stand in the back yard. I’ll stand in the front yard. You throw a tennis ball over my roof. I’ll try to hit it with a rock as it comes sailing over. That’s what we’re going to have to do. Two spacecraft flying at five miles a second hundreds of miles up with a communication system spread all over the world like so many trading stamps.”

Take that concept, multiply the variables of size, distance and time to ridiculous levels, and you have this asteroid deflection plan.

4The Secret Life of Planes
I was just talking to two friends earlier today about how the use of drone photography in real estate marketing provides an interesting new perspective on the property. Seeing things from directly above, while high enough to appreciate scale but low enough to discern detail, opens up observations one wouldn’t be able to appreciate on the ground.

Photographer Mike Kelley puts that different perspective to work, but instead of using drones to sell houses, Kelley charters helicopters to enable him to capture the life cycles of commercial aircraft: from the Boeing Field (their official birthplace as finished airliners) to the Bradley International Terminal at LAX to the bone yards of the Mojave Desert.

5Automotive Engineering, Lego Style
In the world of supercars, the Ferraris and Lamborghinis of the world may be the most well known, but the pinnacle of the form comes not from Italy, but Molsheim, France. The Bugatti Chiron is the height of automotive engineering and art … and the inspiration behind the greatest achievement of Lego engineering and design in history.

The Chiron on the left is the 261 mph / 1,500 hp version (price tag: just shy of $3M) version handbuilt in France. The Chiron on the right is made almost completely of Lego Technic pieces — over 1,000,000 pieces. What’s even more amazing is that it works. Check out the video of it on the move at the article linked in the headline.

For more Lego automotive engineering fun, check out this working Lego car assembly line, using the programmable robotics of Lego’s Mindstorms series. With the end of August upon us, teenagers all over the world are embarking on this year’s FIRST Lego League season, in which they must build a Lego Mindstorms robot and write the code to program it to accomplish Lego-sized missions. Having coached a FLL team last year, let me tell you: these kids do serious engineering and programming work.

Vol. 1 | #13 | 08.24.18


The Essence of The Excellence Dividend
If you are unfamiliar with management legend Tom Peters’ style, here it is in a nutshell: excellence focused, exuberantly delivered. Peters’s most recent book is The Excellence Dividend, and people quoting from it have been showing up in my Twitter feed ever since its release back in the spring.

Recently, Peters posted a 10-page document on his website, free for all, that captures the basic fundamentals of his arguments in the book. (The whole thing is, of course, worth buying and reading as well!)

2Big Trouble in Google’s China
Once upon a time, Google was admiringly defined (or roundly mocked, depending on your perspective) by it’s all encompassing core value statement of “Don’t Be Evil.” The phrase, which had been an overt part of Google’s culture since 2000, was unceremoniously phased out earlier this year.

Whether that step was taken in preparation for Google’s future business plans in China is anybody’s guess. What is clear is that a sizable contingent of Google’s employees think Google is crossing the “don’t be evil” line by it’s plans to operate a government censored search engine in China. Codenamed “Project Dragonfly,” the planned search product “would remove content that China’s authoritarian government views as sensitive, such as information about political dissidents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest. It would “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases.”

(And yes, I am quite proud of that punny headline up there…)


3Life After Google Reviewed
Even as Google is focused on tamping down its employee revolt over its Chinese plans, technology futurist George Gilder thinks it has a much more fundamental problem on its hands. In his new book Life After Google, Gilder makes the case that the consolidating effect of the modern internet organizing model exemplified by Google — a all-encompassing model of free internet-based activities in exchange for your data for purposes of the targeted advertising that earns  eye-watering revenue — will be undone by the next information revolution: the decentralized and secure system made possible by blockchain technology.

This review of Gilder’s book, written by sci-fi writer Tony Daniels, was an interesting enough primer to Gilder’s work to prompt me to add a couple of his books to my ever-growing “to be read” list. The other? – Life After Television, his now prescient predictive piece from 1990 about how the internet’s decentralized nature (as originally designed and before the corruption/consolidation of digital advertising) would be the undoing of the centralized world of television programming. Imagine predicting the cord-cutting effect of computing nearly 20 years before Netflix made its switch from mailing DVD’s to streaming movies.

4Is Netflix Forgetting Who It Is?
Speaking of Netflix, when they launched their original service of DVD rental by mail, their business model threatened the existing business model of movie rental stores everywhere. Most notable of the business threatened by Netflix was Blockbuster Video, which had as many as 9,000 retail locations in 2004. There is now a single Blockbuster left in business — Bend, Oregon, if you’re interested.

Netflix’s bigger impact has been on the viewing habits of media consumers more generally. As Netflix moved away from DVD’s in the mail to movies and television shows streamed over the internet directly, services like Hulu and others joined the fray. Then Netflix opened up a new front in the battle for eyeballs by launching into the production of original content in 2012. Suddenly, media consumers had “cord-cutting” as an alternative to the long hated subscription package bundling of cable and satellite television providers. Choice was the major appeal to consumers who made the move to a streaming television viewing world, but there was another, equally attractive reason to cut the cable cord: no more commercials. Paying a single monthly subscription fee for the pleasure of watching your favorite shows without the constant and obnoxious interruptions of revenue-generating commercials is the best feature of watching television shows on demand.

And now it appears Netflix thinks it’s time to start undoing that great feature of being a subscriber: they are testing “video promos” of suggested content in between episodes of whatever you’re watching. You know how enjoyable it is to watch NBC endlessly plug their own shows while you’re watching the Olympics? Yeah, something like that.

5“It’s Easy,” They Say
Here’s the article’s headline in full, which is … something: “This company embeds microchips in its employees, and they love it.”

What are these grain-of-rice sized microchips embedded in the webbing of employees’ hands for, you may be asking? — “They’re intended to make it a little easier to do things like get into the office, log on to computers, and buy food and drinks in the company cafeteria.”

These folks “love” being a company cyborg with an implanted RF-transmitter under their skin so that things like opening doors and buying a Coke can be “a little easier.” Because using the standard card key on a retracting belt leash and a credit card is such a drain on life and productivity!