Vol. 2.20 | 05.17.19

Vol. 2 | #20 | 05.17.19

Golden Spike’s 150th Anniversary

It’s difficult to appreciate just how momentous the finishing of the first trans-continental railroad was in 1869. Here in this modern age, the entire globe is wrapped in multiple layers of interconnectivity. Here’s the story behind the photo that captured the joy and accomplishment of the men who built it.

Getting the Shot

Take a look at the photo below and know this great image was captured in 1966 without the use of today’s miniature, high-definition photography tools. It was the work of Sports Illustrated photographer Neil Leifer, and how he got the shot was featured in Smithsonian Magazine once upon a time.

How DataViz Has Changed the Game of Basketball

I’m not a fan of basketball, let alone the NBA’s version of it. However, this story of how the pro game has changed is a fascinating look into the power of visually displaying statistical data. Here, University of Texas professor Kirk Goldsberry combined existing data sets about NBA shot location, frequency, accuracy, and point value into a visual map. By combining existing data and displaying them in a creative, never-done-before way, Goldsberry unlocked insights that have either revolutionized the way the NBA game is played … or destroyed it (depending on your view). Fascinating either way!

Was Shakespeare Really Named Emilia?

Evidently there’s a well-known debate around the identity of William Shakespeare. The debate isn’t about who he was or whether he existed (both are well documented), but rather whether the William Shakespeare that we can prove existed was actually the author of all the great works of English literature that are associated with his name. Within this debate, there are a subset of scholars who contend that not only was the author of such classics as Romeo and JulietMacbethHamlet and Othello not William Shakespeare, but the author wasn’t even a “he.” This is an interesting look at the case for the “Bard of Avon” actually being a woman named Emilia Bassano.

Space Shuttle Launches Up Close

With over a million moving parts, the Space Shuttle was the most complex machine every built by humankind. Using the footage from over 125 high-speed cameras capturing some truly mesmerizing and gorgeous images, two NASA engineers narrate what happens during a shuttle launch, from engine ignition and liftoff through the roll program and SRB separation. Due to its stunning visuals and slow-motion majestic beauty, this video is “oddly satisfying” as my 14-year-old daughter would say.

Vol 2.19 | 051019

Vol. 2 | #19 | 05.10.19


Prime – “the greatest retail innovation of the internet age”

The story behind how a mundane detail like shipping costs led to Amazon rewiring the psychology of how we buy nearly everything in retail.


2Billionaire Town

San Francisco stands as a study in contrasts. On the one hand, the city’s growing homelessness crisis has led to a five-fold increase in “human feces incidents” on the city’s sidewalks and streets over the last 7 years. On the other hand, the City by the Bay holds the title as having the highest per capita concentration of billionaires in the world — 1 billionaire for every 11,600 residents — and it’s not even close. New York City ranks #2, with 1 billionaire for every 81,000 people.

3The P.C. PC

Not satisfied with a word processing software that merely catches misspellings and questionable grammatical construction, Microsoft has it’s eye on a new capability for its Word product: advising users when their word choice may be seen as insensitive or offensive. With all the failings and flailings we see in the social media space when it comes to Facebook or Twitter trying to figure out which user posts are sufficiently “bad” to merit removal, why would Microsoft want to wade into that minefield with its otherwise bland and perfectly useful Word tool?


4Could 3D Printing Make Organ Donation Obsolete?

When you can take a tissue sample from a patient, extract the necessary cellular material, use that material to create the “ink” for a 3d printer, and then use that ink to 3d print a replacement organ built with the cellular materials that the patient’s body will recognize as its own, the stories of people afflicted with illnesses waiting for a match with an organ donor will soon become a thing of the past. Scientists in Tel Aviv are working in that direction, as they’ve now produced a 3d printed heart with working blood vessels, a first in the field.

5Maybe a Sun Burn Isn’t So Bad After All?

Turns out the chemicals in topical sunscreen that protect against the harm done by sunlight can seep through your skin and deposit themselves directly into your bloodstream. Whether it’s actually bad for your to have avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule coursing through your veins remains to be seen. Studies are now underway.

Vol 2.18 | 05.03.19

Vol. 2 | #18 | 05.03.19


“Brain Resuscitation”

Used to be that a person would be declared “dead” when a lack of a pulse showed their heart had stopped beating. Thanks to modern understanding and things like CPR, that’s no longer necessarily the case. Now, scientists at Yale are working on doing the same thing for the brain.


2Runner’s Heart vs Swimmer’s Heart

The adaptability of human physiology to even the most subtle of environmental factors will never cease to amaze me.

Since swimmers exercise in a horizontal position, he says, their hearts do not have to fight gravity to get blood back to the heart, unlike in upright runners. Posture does some of the work for swimmers, and so their hearts reshape themselves only as much as needed for the demands of their sport.

3The Bizarre World of ASMR

This is a bit of an unintentional follow-up on an item from last week. While reading about the myriad of child social media “kidfluencers,” I kept coming across the acronymn “ASMR” in reference to a certain type of videos. It’s not that making ASMR videos is exclusively the domain of kid YouTubers — far from it. But the weirdness that is ASMR videos gets truly bizarre when it adults racking up millions of views (and the ad cash that comes with that level of views) on videos of a child whispering softly and eating weird things.


4Maybe Communication Shouldn’t Be So Easy

When you reduce the friction of something to essentially zero, you not only make it easy to do that thing once — you make it easy to do it a thousand times. This is the problem besieging the attention spans of white-collar knowledge workers everywhere. First with email, and now with group chat platforms like Slack, the ease with which anyone can communicate with anybody else means communication is more efficient to do, but nobody is enjoying the benefit of the time saved by doing it less.

5“$44 billion over budget and 13 years behind schedule”

There are cautionary tales about being unwilling to kill a project because of the inertia of chasing sunk costs, and then there’s the jaw-dropper of a boondoggle that is California’s high-speed rail project.

vol 2.17 | 4.26.19

Vol. 2 | #17 | 04.26.19


“It’s like Uber, for child labor”

One of the fascinating things to watch over the last 5-10 years or so has been the collision between the old ways of thinking about services with the new mental models that new, app-driven services use to describe themselves.

So, when Uber and Lyft originally described their services as “ride sharing,” those words evoked the mental model of carpooling and riding with a friends somewhere. The value of such thinking is in how it naturally steers away from the heavy regulatory burden of the taxi industry. “We regulate taxis, not carpools … and we’re more like carpools than taxis.” The same rhetorical model-making surrounded AirBnB: should be they regulated and taxed like a commercial hotel if they’re really more like letting a friend sleep on an air mattress in your living room for a few nights?

Consider that dynamic as you read this article about the unregulated but lucrative world of “kidfluencers” — heavily followed social media accounts featuring children as the “stars” and making their parents lots of ad and sponsor money. Do child labor laws apply? If so, how and where? Is a family YouTube channel more like a Hollywood studio using child actors, or a family photo/video album that others are able to follow?

2It Isn’t Amazon That Is Killing Your Grocery Store

It is an all too familiar refrain when a brick-and-mortar retail chain finds itself on the business end of a bankruptcy filing: “We can’t compete because Amazon is selling their stuff too cheap!’ It’s what the private equity owners behind the demise of Toys-R-Us claimed as well … and it wasn’t true.

This article by economist Eileen Applebaum looks at the retail grocery store category and shines a light on the predatory practices of private equity investment firms. She pulls no punches:

Since 2015 seven major grocery chains, employing more than 125,000 workers, have filed for bankruptcy. The media has blamed “disruptors” — low-cost competitors like Walmart and high-end markets like Whole Foods, now owned by Amazon. But the real disruptors in this industry are the private equity (PE) owners who were behind all seven bankruptcies. They have extracted millions from grocery stores in the last five years—funds that could have been used to upgrade stores, enhance products and services, and invest in employee training and higher wages.

3Mystery Meat – Sushi Edition

Not being a sushi eater myself, I was able to read this with a measure of humorous detachment. You may not be so lucky. A biology professor in Canada gave her Molecular Biology students an assignment: go out and buy the sushi of their choice, save a sample, and bring it into class where they would then sequence its DNA to see if it was the fish they thought they purchased.

In short, it’s all fun and games when your tuna turns out to be trout … until the DNA says your “salmon fillet” bought from the grocery fish counter comes back as … well, you just have to read it for yourself.

4“Siri: Say This For Me…”

Back in February, I highlighted an effort by researchers at Columbia Universityto teach a computer to generate speech by measuring brain activity in a person. Specifically, that work use AI machine learning to use the brain waves that come from listening to speech to teach a machine to decode and then produce those same words audibly.

This week, a related but distinct research effort was published in the journal Nature by scientists at UCSF. In this work, scientist used the brain waves made when a person speaks — specifically the electrical signals that tell the mouth, jaw, tongue, etc. to do what they do to produce spoken sounds — to train a computer system to do the same: produce speech.

5The Creative Leadership of J.J. Abrams

Just an interesting conversation to read with the creative mind behind Lost, the reboot of Star Trek, and the bookend movies of the final Star Wars trilogy of the Skywalker saga. Abrams’ TED talk from over a decade ago is also one of my favorites for just sheer fun to listen to a great storyteller tell stories.

Vol. 2 | #16 | 04.19.19


The Problem With Unicorns

This item’s a two-fer: two different perspectives on the larger problem with the modern VC-fueled internet startup game.

1. The ethos of scale fast and grow at almost any price sets up companies with no viable path to becoming profitable.

2. The pressure of venture capital investors pushing for stratospheric returns is more akin to a mob loan shark coming for his vig than a bank looking for a profit on a loan.

And internet investors don’t want a modest return on their investment. They want an obscene profit right away, or a brutal loss, which they can write off their taxes. Making them a hundred million for the ten million they lent you is good. Losing their ten million is also good—they pay a lower tax bill that way, or they use the loss to fold a company, or they make a profit on the furniture while writing off the business as a loss…whatever rich people can legally do under our tax system, which is quite a lot.

What these folks don’t want is to lend you ten million dollars and get twelve million back.

2Tiffany’s Monopoly in Blue

The story behind the single most iconic brand color in the world.

3The Art of Cinematic Cartography

With the much-anticipated release of the trailer for the final movie in the Skywalker saga this week, Star Wars was all over the news and internet feeds. As a result, the distinctive artwork of Andrew DeGraff came across my field of digital vision. Specifically, it was the unique maps that DeGraff made that showed the travels of all the main characters of the Star Wars movies that captured me. Just stunning, really. (Check out this single master map that covers the first six movies all at once.)

And it’s not just Star Wars — DeGraff has cinematic story maps of movies as diverse as The Breakfast Club and The Shining to go with his sci-fi (Star Trek, Aliens) and fantasy work (Lord of the Rings).

4Building the Matrix

When author and technologist Kevin Kelly talks about the coming AR (“augmented reality”) — “Mirrorworld” — as the next big platform development, this is pretty much what he’s talking about. In order for AR tools and apps to work, they require a detailed digital mapping of the real world. London-based startup Scape aims to do just that, with centimeter-level accuracy. In their words, “Our end goal is a one-to-one map of the world covering everything. Our ambition is to be as invisible as GPS is today.”

5Notre-Dame in Art Throughout History

It was shocking to see the famed gothic cathedral in Paris engulfed in fire this week. The earliest stones for the structure were laid in the mid 12th century, and it has stood for over 850 years through wars, revolutions, and the remorseless march of time. Here are examples of the cathedral’s role in inspiring art and artists from as far back as the 15th century (the earliest piece at the link is from around 1460).