Vol. 1 | #25 | 11.16.18


The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month…

… is when the first modern, armageddon-style atrocity officially ended, 100 years ago this week. Using the visual record of the sounds of the guns falling silent at the appointed time, sound engineers working with Britain’s Imperial War Museum recreated what that moment would’ve sounded like.

How that graphic record of the sounds of artillery fire was made is itself an interesting read. If you don’t know what “sound ranging” is or how it was used to locate and destroy those guns, the IWF has a great explainer.

2The Tragedy of Armistice Day

There is lots of gut wrenching awfulness to go around when studying what was then known as The Great War:

  • the mindless machinery of the interlocking alliances that turned the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife — the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Duchess Sophie Chotek — by a Yugoslavic nationalist into a Europe-devouring apocalypse; or
  • the banal meat grinder strategy of places like Verdun (~300,000 dead, ~400,000 more injured over 10 months) and the Somme (over a million combined casualties among the British, French and German armies in less than 5 months).

But there is a special place in infamy for the commanding officers who ordered their troops to continue fighting up until the literal last minute. Men like Maj. Gen. William H. Wright, who sacrificed the lives of 61 of his men (another 304 were wounded) retaking control of the little town of Stenay in northeastern France on the morning of November 11, 1918. Why was recapturing Stenay on the 11th so important when the American troops could’ve entered it peacefully on the 12th? According to Maj. Gen. Wright, “it was realized that if the enemy were permitted to stay in Stenay, our troops would be deprived of the probable bathing facilities there.”

All told, the pointless fighting on Armistice Day itself resulted in nearly 11,000 total casualties, including ~6,600 lives lost on all sides. Those dead included Henry Gunther, America’s last KIA of World War 1: Gunther was killed by machine gun fire at 10:59 am, one minute before the armistice was to take effect, as he attempted to storm a German roadblock.

(By comparison, total Allied casualties on D-Day were approximately 10,000, with just over 4,400 confirmed dead.)

3The Amazon-ization of Everything

As more and more people buy more and more things online from Amazon, the companies making those things will start adopting their product designs and marketing to how Amazon wants them vs how the end customer does. Case in point, retail giant P&G’s new packaging design for Tide laundry detergent. Think the author of the above-linked article is overstating things? P&G’s own press release unabashedly announces that the Tide Eco-Box is the first product packaging designed to maximize ecommerce shipping appeal.

Of course, as we’ve seen in recent days Amazon’s gravity well is pulling more than just consumer behavior and product design practices into its orbit. The astronomical prices paid by New York City and Arlington, Virginia to be the home of Amazon’s HQ2 sites are well documented. But the shameless way cities threw themselves at Bezos & Co. goes well beyond tax incentives. Witness the special perks Atlanta, Georgia was promising Amazon…


4The State Calls Alexa to the Stand

You might recall the brouhaha back in 2016 between the FBI and Apple over gaining access to the locked iPhone 5C of Syed Rizwan Farook, the primary actor in the San Bernardino terrorist mass shooting attack. Apple never relented in its refusal to build software to do the job, so the FBI had to go hacker shopping to get it done (to the tune of ~$900K).

Getting a corporation to help law enforcement gain access to user data is nothing new — judges have been signing search warrants to enable the government to invade the private spaces of its citizens since the founding of the republic. The only difference now is *what* can be obtained through that legal process.

In this case out of New Hampshire, it is believed that the sounds of the fight that culminated into a double homicide may have been captured and preserved by the victim’s Amazon Alexa connected smart speaker. If this had been a simple audio recording device that had been passively recording the ambient noise in the home on that night, getting access to those recordings wouldn’t be an issue. But, it’s Alexa, and making her talk could peel back the curtain on jhow Amazon’s prized AI assistant works, and just how much she is capturing in the background. So, this will be a giant legal food fight, painted in the media as Amazon fighting to protect user privacy against Big Brother Government.

How quaint.

Ask Will Smith how having a robot as a witness to a murder turned out…


5Is This Gonna Be a Thing?

For the life of me, I can’t believe a smartphone with a foldable screen is a technological advance that consumers will adopt. As Google proved with their ill-fated Google Glass, just because something is a technological advance doesn’t mean it is a marketable product. Of course, I also remember remarking back in 2006 that I didn’t see the point of the new trend of cell phones with embedded digital cameras in them.

Vol. 1 | #24 | 11.09.18


The Internet Strikes Back

Or, more specifically, the Internet Service Provider. This is a fascinating story about the clash between the internet’s DNA of openly available information — the World Wide Web was invented to organize and make accessible scientific research at CERN, after all — and the publishing industry’s rights under copyright law. (Full disclosure: the company involved, Elsevier, is a sister company to my last employer, LexisNexis.)
In his book The Inevitable, author and Wired Magazine Founding Editor Kevin Kelly says technologies want certain things and to be used in certain ways. Once data is digitized, Kelly argues, it wants to be copied, shared, and widely distributed. These capabilities and destinies are part of the very fabric of digital information. The business models of Elsevier and others that were born in a 19th Century world are not going to be long for this 21st Century version, I believe.



What Ails the TV Industry

Not only is the cord cutting trend of television programming viewers not diminishing, it is accelerating. Just like with the Elseviers of the publishing industry, the television industry was designed in an era where distribution power was king. Whether by over-the-air broadcast license, through the laying of coaxial cable or by the launching of satellites, the money was in the power of the few to control the distribution of video programming content.

Now, thanks to the ubiquity of high-speed internet and the powerful bandwidth capability of fiber optic networks, distribution is no longer a valuable lever. All the content in the world can be delivered to anyone and everyone through an internet connection, whether wired, wi-fi, or cellular. Infinite distribution is here, and it’s only the massive amount of the inertia of consumer habits that remains to keep people subscribed to the likes of TimeWarner Cable and AT&T’s DirecTV. As William Gibson, the godfather of the cyberpunk sci-fi genre has often said, “The future is already here. It just isn’t evenly distributed yet.”


What Ails the Taxi Industry

It’s easy to say that Uber and Lyft are the daggers driving themselves into the oversized heart of the slow, fat and heretofore happy taxi industry, and there’s obviously much truth to that. But as New York City’s taxi regulating commission recently announced it would delay collecting the roughly $20 Million in medallion fees taxi owner must pay to the city each year, it is clear that there are much deeper systemic issues at work. See if you can spot them.


Who to Hit?

As self-driving cars inch closer to becoming a common reality, the greatest challenge is in answering the question of how to program a machine to navigate a world full of choices with no clear right answer and terrible consequences from failure. As in: if your autonomous vehicle is faced with the inescapable choice of having to hit one pedestrian or another, who should it avoid/save and who should it sacrifice? — the pregnant mother or the doctor? The young boy or the old woman? Help the folks at MIT sort these moral dilemma out by taking a spin on their Moral Machine.

(I find these types of questions to be silly nonsensical examples of how we expect more out of our created machines than we do out of our own selves. Where a human driver to face the same situation, there’s no time to weigh these possibilities even if you could somehow know that the woman in the jogging suit is a doctor and the man in the cargo shorts is an athlete.

Also noteworthy: people would rather hit the criminal than the dog, but would spare the criminal over the cat.)


The Canary in the Coal Mine Drives a Chevy

One of the other inevitable vectors of technology that Kevin Kelly talks about is the move towards a system of access and less a system of ownership. Take, for example, music. Once upon a time, buying music was the only way to exert any editorial control over the music you listened to (because the DJ’s dictated what you listened to on the radio), and the only technological debate was whether the medium of that purchase would be vinyl, magnetic cassette tape, laser-encoded digital compact disc, or the disembodied MP3 digital wave file.

But now, owning music is really an unnecessary cost and storage burden if all you want to do is listen to music. (Collecting things is its own phenomenon.) Paying for access to music via streaming services is both cheaper and more convenient: for a single monthly fee that is less than the cost of a single CD, users gain access to a huge catalog of music far beyond their ability to amass themselves.

Now, as the future of autonomous vehicles available on demand via services like Uber comes into focus, that same trend could decimate the entire auto manufacturing industry whose business model is designed around the concept of consumer car ownership. But, what if that, too, changes?

Now you understand why GM is taking major steps to radically shift the makeup and skillsets of its massive workforce, and why CEO Mary Berra, when asked if GM was becoming a tech company instead of a car company, replied “that is my goal.” If you want to get a glimpse of how radically different the world is going to soon be, pay attention to the transformation taking place up in Detroit.

Vol 1 | #23 | 11.02.18

Vol. 1 | #23 | 11.02.18


What Monitors Are Saying

Did you know that the monitor you are reading this on is broadcasting what you are seeing? That’s right: not just showing, but broadcasting a description of what is on your screen by means of ultrasonic sound. Yeah, me neither. And now that a team of researchers has pioneered a way to use machine learning algorithms to convert this “acoustic leakage” into visual data … to literally see what the user of the screen is seeing. To make it even more astounding, the researchers were able to pull this acoustic signal from recordings taken from as far as 30 feet away, using microphones no more sophisticated than the one in your smartphone.


It’s Like Uber, For Your Face

Honestly, I don’t even know what to say about this. Read it for yourself and you tell me.


It’s Like Tesla For Planes

Whenever a global confab on climate change takes place, one of the predictable memes that rolls across places like Twitter goes something like this:

Nothing puts out CO2 quite like a set of Rolls Royce TAY 611-8’s on a G-IV burning sweet jet fuel.

But, what if like Tesla has done for personal travel on the ground, air travel could be done on electricity stored in super-efficient, lightweight batteries? Some mind-blowing stuff coming out of MIT.


Paper Airplane Database

Before the advent of social media turned the internet into a psychological and privacy hellscape, the internet was a place where anyone with a quirky interest could throw up a website with information that others might find valuable.

This is just such a site: a magnificent display of 40 paper airplane designs, filterable on 8 different characteristics, with super clear visual instructions for each. This is the internet at its purest expression of playfully useful.


An Interview With Gen. Stanley McChrystal (ret.)

This interview is a compelling read, full of humility, thoughtfulness and nuance.

Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described McChrystal as “perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I ever met.” He was the commander of the coalition Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq in 2003-05 when the fighting was the hottest, and he led the entire operation in Afghanistan under President Obama after that. He is the author of one of my absolute favorite books — Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World — and I can’t wait to tear into his latest offering, which came in the mail today.

Vol. 1 | #22 | 10.26.18


New Moon Rising

There’s a great episode of The Simpsons where Mr. Burns builds a giant disk to block out the sun to force Springfieldians to pay for electricity from Burns’ nuclear power plant 24/7. I was reminded of that diabolical plan to alter the heavens when coming across this article, in an opposite kind of way. See, the Chinese want to hang in the heavens an articifial moon to provide a single city with a new source of light at night.



The Non-Science Behind the MBTI®

Chances are if you’re reading this, you’ve taken a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® personality test. The assessment has been a staple of corporate human resource management for decades now. (Thanks to my time in corporate America, I discovered I’m an ENTJ.) While it feels like psychological science put to practical use, is it? A new book, The Personality Brokers, examines the history of the MBTI and its creators – the mother-daughter duo Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers.


“Money Laundering for Bias”

Speaking of corporate HR fads meant to replace human judgment with something “science-y” … it turns out that computer algorithms meant to objectify candidate screening for hiring may not be all that objective after all. Companies are now realizing that they can be held liable for bias in their hiring process even though they rely on a machine learning algorithm to sort resumes (and the candidates they represent). Just because a result comes from a computer based on math doesn’t make that result objective and unbiased.

The quote “money laundering for bias” about machine learning comes from Maciej Cegłowski, creator of bookmarking site Pinboard. The context of this line was a panel discussion on the Moral Economy of Tech at the 2016 SASE Conference. Ceglowski’s comments are worth reading in whole.


More Fun With Hi-Tech Archaeology

Last week in the #4 spot was a story about using lasers from the sky to uncover the century-old terrain scars of WWI. This week, it’s the use of robotic vehicles at a depth of almost 1.25 miles at the bottom of the Black Sea. There a team of researchers found a well-preserved ancient Greek sailing ship with an estimated age of over 2,400 years. The 75-ft long ship is in remarkable shape due to the lack of oxygen in the water at that depth. No oxygen, no degradation of the wood.


The Importance of Connection

A powerful look at the connection between family, neighborhood, and a poor child’s chances at succeeding in life. More specifically, the data shows that a child’s chances of climbing up the income ladder and avoiding the detour of incarceration are greatly affected by the concentration of two-parent families in their neighborhood.

I found this fascinating, as it is distinct from the data and argument about the value of a child being raised in a two-parent home. According to the work of Harvard University’s Raj Chetty, a poor child’s chances benefit from being surrounded by a community where two-parent homes are the norm, even if that’s child himself is being raised in a single-parent home (as I was for much of my childhood years).

This idea is part of a larger, necessary cultural conversation on the critical role connection has in the lives of people, both as individuals and as a society. Some more examples of that conversation worth reading:

Vol. 1 | #21 | 10.19.18


Resisting Robocalls
It’s not everyday that 2/3 of the countries state attorneys general agree on a bipartisan basis about something. Leave it to the scam artists flooding our phones with robocalls to bring us all together. You can read the AG’s letter to the FCC urging it to adopt rules and technology that will identify the wheat and burn the chaff flooding our cellular airwaves and landlines. According to the AG’s, “American landline and wireless subscribers received an estimated 30.5 billion illegal robocalls” in 2017, and 2018 is on track for over 40 billion, an increase of 33%.

I can believe it. I have spent the last few months ignoring a constant stream of calls, deleting voicemails, and dutifully filing complaints on the FTC’s “National Do Not Call Registry” website. This NBC News article has a handy form into which you can put your area code to see how many robocalls the average person received per day in September. For me, it was 15. God help the poor folks down in Atlanta, where the number is 68.9 robocalls/day.

2More On “Deep Fake” Videos
Last week I highlighted this article in Scientific American on the growing danger of AI-powered altered video that is increasingly indistinguishable from the real thing. I’m following that up with this well-done video by The Wall Street Journal explaining how the technology works, and the damage it is already inflicting on its victims. The spectre of fabricated video and audio creating evidence of a reality that isn’t real is frightening and a far more serious threat to our ability to function as a civil society than the crude political memes that litter Facebook.

3Is 99% Enough?
One of the ongoing themes of this weekly newsletter has been way Google has been taking a hatchet to its own mission and credibility with its rumored “Project Dragonfly” — the leaked plans to reenter the Chinese search market by acceding to Chinese government censorship requirements.

This week, Google publicly acknowledged the existence of Dragonfly. As it’s CEO explained, “If Google would operate in China, what would it look like? What queries would we be able to serve? It turns out we’d be able to serve well over 99 percent of queries and there are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what’s available.”

Evidently giving up 1% of intellectual freedom to search for things like “human rights” and “student protest” is worth gaining access to China’s estimated 772 million internet users. That’s a lot of ad-revenue omelettes to make from the breaking of 1% of the eggs.

4Archaeology With Frickin’ Lasers
Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice to end the horror of “The Great War” … which only came to be known as “World War I” once it became clear that it was not, as billed, the “war to end all wars.” Despite the scope of the devastation wrought across the Belgian and French countrysides along the Western Front, time and nature have conspired to hide the scars of war on the earth.

That is, until airplanes armed with LIDAR came along. Now, despite a century’s worth of overgrown trees and plowed over farmland, we can see once again the trenches and shell craters of the first horror of the 20th Century.

Also proof that everything is better with lasers.

5Gene Sequencing, USB Ready
The original project to map the human genome and its 3 billion base pair of DNA took 13 years and cost upwards of $2.7 billion. As with nearly everything related to technology and computing power, the time and cost involved with unlocking DNA code has plummeted to almost nothing. Here’s but one mind-blowing example: the USB thumbdrive-sized minION, which processes DNA in near realtime, requiring no more computing power than a simple laptop and USB 3.0 cable. And at $1,000, it costs less than the laptop. It doesn’t stop there, either: the company — Oxford Nanopore Technologies — is already working on a DNA sequencer that plugs into your iPhone.