Vol 2 | #15 | 04.12.19

Vol. 2 | #15 | 04.12.19


Ryan Leaf’s Comeback

Often cited atop the annual “biggest draft bust in NFL history” lists that usually run around this time of year, Ryan Leaf’s NFL career proved to be the exact opposite of the quarterback his name is forever linked with: Peyton Manning. In the week’s leading up to the 1998 NFL Draft, the debate was pretty evenly split over which QB should be selected #1 overall by the Colts. When the Colts selected Manning, the Chargers snapped up Leaf at #2. Manning went on to a Hall of Fame career, with multiple championships and records and commercial sponsorship millions. Leaf’s career, on the other hand, was, in the words Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Things for Leaf only got worse from there: depression, drugs, attempted suicide, and ultimately prison.

This video documenting all of that, and Leaf’s inspiring path back — not to football, but to a meaningful life — is from a couple years ago. But, as is the serendipity of the internet, I just stumbled across it this week. Enjoy.

2Projecting Naval Power at Minifig Scale

Minifigs — short for Lego Minifigures — come in at a rough average of 1:40 scale. So, keep that ratio in mind when you take a look at the USS Intrepid, custom designed and built completely with Legos by British Lego artist Ed Diment. At minifig scale, Diment’s Intrepid is over 22′ long, 4.5′ high and wide, and weighs in at over 1/4 ton. If you’re in NYC and pay a visit to the real US Navy’s version of the USS Intrepid — which now sits permanently moored in the Hudson River as a museum — you’ll also get to see Diment’s artwork.

Did I mention this Lego masterpiece’s fully functional flight deck elevator, also entirely out of Lego parts??

3Testing Away the Ability to Think

For going on almost 20 years now, we have been using a rigorous system of standardized tests to see if our teachers and schools are doing their jobs by measuring whether the students are learning. This educator raises the important question: in a world where we need thinking more than mere knowing, why do we continue to use tests that are structured to measure a skill utterly different than analysis and thought: that of deciphering what the questioner wants to hear.

4The Rise and Fall of Homo Sapiens

Over the past week or so, I’ve been making my way through Yuval Harari’s thought-provoking book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It’s a fascinating look at the history of not just mankind (our specific species, homo sapiens), but of all of the different species who once called the genus homohome.

In this 30-minute lecture given for Penguin Books, Harari lays out the 3 most significant achievements of homo sapiens, and how they also now represent our 3 greatest challenges.

In a similar vein, sort of … British street artist Banksy’s “Devolved Parliament” is back on display …


5NASA’s Twins Study

Ever since 1996, NASA has had among its astronaut corps a pair of identical twins in Captains Mark and Scott Kelly. For the longest time, this fact didn’t merit any special study, because with a sample size of a single pair of twins, it’s impossibly small for any statistical validity. But sometimes, an opportunity so unique comes along that it’s worth doing, all the statistical caveats be damned. So it was when Scott Kelly got assigned to spend a record breaking year in the zero-g, weightless environment of space aboard the ISS. With his brother Mark spending the same time at 1g down here on Earth, the possibility came for measuring the differences of long-duration space flight with an almost identical control sample.

The long awaited final report is now out, and it represents a variety of biological findings that will have to be factored in to the future plans of NASA, SpaceX, or anyone else of going to Mars and beyond. Let’s just say, they’re no so identical anymore.

Vol 2 | #14 | 04.05.19

Vol. 2 | #14 | 04.05.19


Filming the Speed of Light

It only requires a camera system capable of capturing a dumbfounding number of frames per second — 10 trillion fps. That’s 10,000,000,000,000 pictures per second. The speed of light is essentially instantaneous until you start getting really, really far away. (For instance, it takes the light from our sun just under 8 1/2 minutes to make the 93,000,000 mile journey to Earth.) And yet, nearly every sci-fi film or show ever made that features characters firing laser weapons also has characters dodging the shots aimed at them.

2Shapeshifting Wings

When you combine geometry with the developing science of 3D-printed flexible materials and components, the old rules of design stop being so rigid themselves. Aircraft wing designs have forever used moving flaps and ailerons to make a single wing that is the compromise of the best wing designs for the different modes of flight (takeoff, ascent, level flight, maneuvering, descent, landing). Now, instead the whole wing itself can alter its fundamental shape to produce the optimal wing characteristics for whatever the pilots needs the aircraft to do in the moment.

3The Dangers of Satellite Clouds

It’s not new news that there is an ever-growing collection of man-made objects in orbit around the Earth that could potentially be a problem. As of 2013, NASA put the number of trackable objects in orbit at over 500,000. Yes, that’s a lot, and it looks frightening when a you see an image like below representing them all.

But, keep in mind, those white dots aren’t to scale. There’s a lot more room up there in space than that.

And yet … there are multiple companies all with plans in the works to launch thousands of satellites in order to create an orbital blanket of high-speed, broadband internet access to cover the globe. Amazon’s Project Kuiper calls for 3,236 satellites in low-earth orbit, while SpaceX aims to put 11,943 small satellites up into the sky.

4… and Their Useless Cousin, Debris Clouds

All of which makes the fireworks show put on by India last week so concerning. In showing off its military capability in launching a projectile from Earth into a satellite in orbit, the Indian test created a massive debris cloud that isn’t clogging up the orbital tracks to provide access to the internet to the rest of the world. India said it’s test was designed to keep the debris cloud in the lower-earth orbital altitudes so as to not endanger the International Space Station (which orbits at an average altitude of 240 miles). Even so, NASA has already identified two dozen trackable pieces of debris at an altitude higher than the highest points of the ISS’s orbit.

5YouTube’s Cigarettes for the Brain

Reading this Bloomberg News investigative piece about YouTube’s problem with the toxic content flourishing on their platform feels familiar. It’s a story that is quite damning of the leaders of YouTube and Google, specifically: avoiding the steps necessary to fix a known problem that was causing harm to their users, all because dealing with the problem would cause the company to lose the revenue that came from the users suffering those consequences.

The company spent years chasing one business goal above others: “Engagement,” a measure of the views, time spent and interactions with online videos. Conversations with over twenty people who work at, or recently left, YouTube reveal a corporate leadership unable or unwilling to act on these internal alarms for fear of throttling engagement.

It doesn’t sound too dissimilar to the allegations levied against the tobacco companies in the 1990’s: that they knew their product was harmful and addictive to their customer users, but ignored and even actively hid the problem in order to continue to collect the billions in revenue dollars that the harmful product produced.

Trust me: someone somewhere is building a case aimed at the nearly bottomless pockets of the Silicon Valley Tech Titans who have run the same playbook as YouTube here.

Vol. 2 | #13 | 03.29.19

Vol. 2 | #13 | 03.29.19


The Problem With SpaceSuits

While the protective feats of engineering that astronauts use for EVA’s (extra-vehicular activity) are unisex in design, they are not uni-sized. This seemingly obvious fact became newsworthy this week when the size of the spacesuits on the International Space Station that were prepped for EVA use inadvertently scrubbed what was to be a historic moment: the first all-female EVA mission. Two women were scheduled to step outside and perform some exterior maintenance to the ISS today: NASA astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch. But, because only one of the station’s two medium-sized upper torso pieces of the EVA suits are going to be prepped and available, today’s mission will feature astronaut Nick Hague taking McClain’s place … wearing a size large.

2Slow Down for Security’s Sake

With data security issues being so important, some are finally asking “do we really need to have our refrigerators and toilets connected to the internet?” (No, I’m not making up the connected toilet thing. It’s real.) In this Harvard Business Review article, the authors raise a wild idea: maybe we should take a breath and take our foot off the gas of finding ways to connect every gadget in our lives to the vast Internet of Things network.

Crazy, right?

So how do we fix our cybersecurity troubles? In two words: Slow down. Put simply, the time has come to more purposefully control what it is we digitize. This means slowing down the pace of adoption of networked technology with new laws and standards aimed at increasing the quality and reliability of any device with an IP address. And it means carefully preserving analog capabilities, even as we embrace the digital.


313,000 CRISPR Edits in a Single Cell

For all the handwringing about the science of genetic editing using CRISPR technology getting too far ahead of good sense, it doesn’t seem like the pace of development is slowing down at all. When dealing with highly complex systems, it is one thing to acquire the capability to make changes to the system. It is quite another thing entirely to be able to understand and predict all the ramifications of making just one change in that system.

Now, scientists at Harvard have developed a technique to make 13,200 genetic changes using CRISPR to a single cell all at once. If CRISPR is like having a word processor to make genetic edits, this is like using the “Find/Replace All” function to replace one word with another everywhere it appears. Has that ever worked without causing other problems? I’ve never been bold enough to try on any paper or writing I’ve ever done.


4Is This Really a Bad Thing?

High-speed, high-bandwidth video conference enables patients to receive medical care from doctors far away through the technology of telemedicine. Hearing a doctor deliver a grave diagnosis that your elderly loved one will be heading to end-of-life hospice care instead of returning home is undoubtedly a heavy thing to experience, and the delivery of this news should be done with the most humane and empathetic approach as possibly the physician. But, if that doctor’s consultation is being conducted via remote, what should he do? Not deliver the news?

The way this story is reported in the news as a “robot doctor” is silly sensationalism, of course, and obscures the deeper question. In this modern age when Apple’s Facetime and other video chat apps are marketed and enjoyed by users as making interpersonal communication more real and connected, why can that not be the case here?

5Why Cutting the Cord Isn’t That Simple Anymore

It’s all well and good to see the benefits of on-demand video entertainment and the unbundling of content away from the force-fed purchasing models cable and satellite providers have used forever. No longer do you have to pay a bloated monthly fee for 200+ channels you don’t want just to get the 10-15 you do.

On-demand viewing via Netflix or Amazon Prime is easy and simple, right? Not anymore. The early days of the internet brought unprecedented availability to almost any kind of information you could think of … if only you could find it. The sheer volume of information options required the ability to search intelligently before we could get value out of it. That need gave rise to the search engine races, from which the Google consolidation of everything online began.

We are facing the same dynamic now in video. With over 300 video streaming service providers out there, and even more on the way, the field is becoming hopelessly fractured, complex, and confusing. Too many choices is no paradise, and trying to comparison shop across the patchwork quilt of services … trying to determine which ones carry which content and support which devices … it’s all getting to be prohibitively complicated. Just like Google brought order to the internet, some consolidating force(s) will need to do the same for the video streaming world. Perhaps Apple’s big plan will be it?


Vol 2 | #12 | 03.22.19

Vol. 2 | #12 | 03.22.19


Salesforce at 20

Long before there was a Salesforce Tower, there was a tiny apartment next to Marc Benioff’s San Francisco home. There, on March 8, 1999, the three coders Marc had convinced to join him began writing the code that would become Salesforce.com. Since then, Benioff is as much known for his outsized philanthropy (estimated at over $500 million given by he and his wife) as he is for his $120 billion dollar cloud software giant.

2Why AI Is Doing Learning All Wrong

At least, they’re all doing it wrong if attaining real intelligence is the goal, says Boris Katz … the man who basically invented the ability for computers to process and understand natural language. Katz’s ideas were the brains behind IBM’s Watson defeating Jeopardy’s two greatest champions in 2011, and his work was the inspiration behind Apple’s Siri.

In language processing, like in other fields, progress was made by training models on huge amounts of data—many millions of sentences. But the human brain would not be able to learn language using this paradigm. We don’t leave our babies with an encyclopedia in the crib, expecting them to master the language.

When we see something, we describe it in language; when we hear someone talk about something, we imagine what the described objects and events look like in the world. Humans live in a physical environment, filled with visual, tactile, and linguistic sensory inputs, and the redundant and complementary nature of these inputs makes it possible for human children to make sense out of the world, and to learn language at the same time. Perhaps by studying these modalities in isolation, we have made the problem harder rather than easier?

3If an Asteroid Slammed into Earth and Nobody Heard It

The 2nd largest projectile to hit Earth in the last 30 years did so back in December, exploding in the sky over the Bering Sea closest to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The rock, believed to have been “several meters in size,” detonated about 25 km above the surface, with an explosive force of 173 kt (1 kt = 1 kiloton = 1000 tons of TNT). To put that into perspective, that puts the blast at roughly 11.5 times the explosive force of “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima.


4The United City-States of America

What would the map look like if political subdivisions were drawn around the 100 largest population centers in America instead of the state boundaries we currently have? A city planner used GIS data to draw up the possibility and explore how those new boundaries would’ve effected political outcomes. With all the current talk about doing away with the Electoral College vs explaining why the EC exists in the first place (and no, it wasn’t a tool designed to preserve slavery), this is certainly a timely, thought-provoking use of data and data-visualization tools.


5The Deadly Problems of the 737 MAX 8

By now, you’ve no doubt heard of the two deadly crashes of Boeing 737 MAX 8 airliners that have occurred in the last 6 months:

  • 10/29/18: Lion Air Flt 610 (Indonesia) — all 189 passengers and crew killed
  • 3/10/19: Ethiopian Airlines Flt 302 — all 157 passengers and crew killed

Both flights crashed a few minutes after takeoff, due to similar malfunctions of the jet’s MCAS system. As a result, the jet has been grounded by countries all over the world.

This article by the Seattle Times (home of Boeing) provides a detailed account of the regulatory enforcement issues (to put it mildly) that contributed to systemic failure to uncover the design and training flaws with Boeing’s new jet design.

Meanwhile, this tweet-thread by a pilot and software engineer puts the failures into a larger, longer context of failures. As always with horrific system failures, there are usually dozens of opportunities for one different choice to alter the outcome.

Vol 2 | #11 | 03.15.19

Vol. 2 | #11 | 03.15.19



Companies like Uber, DoorDash and Instacart like to talk about the “gig economy” they’re creating as a force of liberation — the freedom to earn money whenever you want doing simple things like driving your car and delivering food. This piece in The Atlantic asks: is that really true, or is it just the story they’ve successfully told while pulling off something far more feudal?

Author Alexis Madrigal’s concluding paragraphs lay bare what he thinks:

What the combined efforts of the Uber-for-X companies created is a new form of servant, one distributed through complex markets to thousands of different people. It was Uber, after all, that launched with the idea of becoming “everyone’s private driver,” a chauffeur for all.

An unkind summary, then, of the past half decade of the consumer internet: Venture capitalists have subsidized the creation of platforms for low-paying work that deliver on-demand servant services to rich people, while subjecting all parties to increased surveillance.

2The Fraud of Forensic Evidence

Reading this story about the wrongful accusation and conviction of Julie Rea for the stabbing murder of her own 9-year-old son is heartbreaking. Reading it as a former prosecutor who has dealt with forensic evidence experts across the wide spectrum of competence and expertise legitimacy is maddening. The interpretation of blood spatter evidence has more in common with the interpretation of goat entrails and tea leaves than with the physics of hydro-dynamics. That this kind of evidence and little else could result in wrongly sending a mother to prison branded a perpetrator of filicide is an injustice of the highest order.

Once again, the folks at Pro Publica show what first class journalism looks like. Bravo to them.

3AI, Neural Networks, and the Nature of Art

Just a few weeks ago, I highlighted this article by a philosopher that asserts that computers can never create genuine art. While the tools of AI and neural networks may or may not be up to creating what we deem art, they are definitely going to be making an impact in what it means to do art … and redefining who gets the credit for doing it.

Here is Ganbreeder, the app at the center of this article. There’s no way for me to describe it. You just have to pay a visit for yourself. Pick an image, click on the family tree icon beneath it, and see that image’s “lineage.” It’s a weird, almost surreal way of thinking about digital images.


4The Practice of Breaking Ancient Egyptian Noses

From mixing digital imagery to make modern AI art to defacing ancient art to make a point. Why are the noses broken off and missing from so many ancient Egyptian sculptures and artifacts? You may have heard the story of the demise of the Great Sphinx’s nose: that it was taken off due to French cannoneer firing a wayward ball during Napoleon’s time. (I had, and thought that was the actual story until literally just now writing this, when I learned otherwise. Thanks Smithsonian!)

Julia Wolkoff of Artsy.net has the story behind the rest of those missing noses.

5Yo-Yo Moon

No, this isn’t photographic fakery. That’s really the moon’s silhouette passing in front of the sun, and then passing back in the other direction. There’s a perfectly sound explanation for this, and it has to do with the math of orbital mechanics and perspective.

(And yes, I thoroughly pleased myself with that punny headline.)