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.

Vol. 1 | #20 | 10.12.18

Today’s the day for the speakers taking to the TEDxDayton stage! This is the 6th year for TEDxDayton, and once again the historic Victoria Theatre is sold out. Best of luck to everyone stepping out today to deliver their “idea worth sharing,” including John-Michael and Mark, the two speakers I’ve had the pleasure of mentoring through the five month process.

Two years ago, I was where they are this morning. Here’s what it looked like:


RoboCop on Wheels
The multi-pronged push for autonomous driving continues apace through the efforts of Tesla, Google’s Waymo, and even the likes of Mercedes Benz. When a company like Uber rolls out a fleet of self-driving cars to test, you know the lives of Uber drivers are going to be impacted as much as riders.

What happens, though, when autonomous cars get sworn in to “serve and protect”? Motorola has an idea, and a patent application to protect it.

2The Trouble of Designing for Disruption
Disrupting an industry is all fun and games until somebody (or thousands of somebodies) gets hurt. According to Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe, the job of designers requires more than just designing. Using the upsides and downsides of the design-fueled disruption inflicted on the transportation industry by Uber and Lyft, Vinh believes product designers have a responsibility to the rest of us to look beyond the requirements of their work to the impact of their work.

3Sometimes “Disruption” Is Just an Excuse

It is easy to look at a brick-and-mortar retail chain filing bankruptcy and blame the online industry newcomer as the cause. Netflix killed Blockbuster. We were told Amazon killed Toys-R-Us, This time it’s Mattress Firm, and the easy answer villian is online mattress startup Casper (along with others).

These narratives can be deceptively easy to accept. Unfortunately, they can also hide a more fundamental cause to the woes that actual lead a company to the bankruptcy courthouse. With the case of Mattress Firm, this story is littered with clues that its leaders are the cause of its demise. See if you can spot them.

4“We Just Got Banksy’ed”
Some people — like the leaders of Mattress Firm — aim to create value but end up destroying it instead. Others, like anonymous British street artist Banksy, aim to use the tools of destruction to create value instead. Usually, Banksy uses graffiti art to make his point. This time, it was a shredder he hid in the frame of his famous “Girl with Balloon” painting … which activated and shredded the piece as soon as the gavel banged down closing the auction sale of the work for $1.4 million.

In his Instagram post explaining how and why he did it, Banksy quoted Picasso: “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.”

5When AI Starts Creating Fake News Video

We are still up in arms over the proliferation of “fake news” across social media during the 2016 election … and essentially every day since. Right now, we struggle with knowing when a news story is accurate or not (which doesn’t necessarily make it “fake”). Through the magic of photoshop, pictures are no longer a default trustworthy medium. For example, with another major hurricane smashing a large section of America’s coastline, these realistically frightening photos purporting to show sharks swimming in the flood waters are making the rounds on social media (again).

So, what are we going to do when audio and video can be manufactured and faked to a similar degree of realism?

Vol. 1 | #19 | 10.05.18


Net Neutrality, California-Style
You may remember the fight over “Net Neutrality” rules put into place at the federal level by the Obama Administration in 2015. Those rules didn’t last long: earlier this year, the FCC under the Trump Administration reversed the decision. California has now decided they’re not down with that, and has passed their own rules, which mirror the original Obama-era rules.

Why does this matter? It’s not just because California was the internet’s cradle and is home to Silicon Valley and all of the top tech and internet brands outside of Microsoft. When the world’s 5th largest economy (yes, you read that right: if California was its own country, it’d be the 5th largest economy in the world!) decides to regulate something, it tends to pull others in that direction whether they want to go or not.

2The Tiny Chip and the Massive Security Problem
There’s just no way to overstate the concern of this story. Operatives from China’s military managed to infiltrate the supply chain / production of server motherboards. The result was the addition of a malicious piece of hardware added to the boards, giving Chinese spies hardwired backdoor access to the data centers of major US companies including Apple and Amazon. The gif below, taken from the Bloomberg Businessweek article, shows how ridiculously tiny this silicon mole was. (Hint: wait for the white circle at the end.)


3Remembering the Space Shuttle in Photos
Columbus, OH, photographer John Chakeres has released a book about the early years of the Shuttle program, seen through the lens of his camera. It’s a time-machine trip back to the days when this new engineering marvel — the first ever reusable space launch vehicle — was going to turn space travel as routine as taking an airplane shuttle from New York to DC. These photos aren’t just spaceship cool. They’re photographic art beautiful.

CREDIT: John Chakeres

4The $100K Doorstop
This rock has been holding open doors since the Great Depression. Why is it now known to be worth a cool hundred grand? It’s a 22-lb remnant of a meteorite that landed in Michigan nearly 90 years ago.

5The Science of Eyewitness Testimony

Because making informed judgments requires knowing more than simply “who said what.” I worked with a lot of eyewitnesses in the over 50+ cases I took to trial during my career as a prosecutor. I don’t believe I misread the reliability of any of them that I worked with personally … but I shudder to think about the odds that I may have done so, even once.

All is not hopeless, though, when it comes to relying on eyewitness testimony. This counterpoint article, also from Scientific American (same as the one above), does a great job of explaining the meaningful difference between “reliability” and “malleability” of eyewitness testimony.

Vol. 1 | #18 | 09.28.18


Ivy League Academic Fraud Taken Down 
If you’ve ever bought snacks in 100 calorie-sized packs, or used a smaller dinner plate as a psychological hack to nudge yourself into eating fewer calories, then you’ve put into practice the research findings of Cornell University Professor of Marketing Brian Wansink. In 2012, he took to the TEDxUVM stage to evangelize the lessons of his research into “mindless eating.” Here’s a look at one of his slides from that talk. Any of these solutions sound familiar?

Just one problem: all the purported science behind these ideas was junk. This Ars Technica article from last year explains how the questions about Wansink’s research began (a poor example and a throwaway joke about it on a blog post by Wansink) and what was wrong with his “science.”

If you’re not familiar with the term “p-hacking” and how it is affecting social science research well beyond just Brian Wansink, you should be. This FiveThirtyEight article illustrates how easy it is to “p-hack” data to make it say whatever you want to a degree of certainty sufficient for publication in peer reviewed scientific journals.

cartoon source: explainxkcd.com

2Would YOU Buy This From Facebook?
Facebook has justifiably earned loads of terrible press this past year or two over how they have carelessly and callously enriched themselves by printing money with the personal data of their users. When you think of a tech company who is proving itself too large for its own good and unworthy of being trusted with safekeeping the privacy of its users, is there anyone else besides Facebook in your mind?

With that in mind, Zuckerberg & Co. would like to sell you a video chat device that “will use facial recognition to tag users and follow them around the room.” Yeah, I’ve seen that movie before. I think I’ll pass.

3The Jawbone Autopsy
You may not have ever heard of the company Jawbone. But, if you own a set of wireless earbuds, a bluetooth speaker, a Fitbit or an Apple Watch, you are using products that all owe their very existence to Jawbone. The company invented the technology and hardware that literally created the product categories of bluetooth enabled headsets, wireless speakers, and wearable fitness trackers. Then, despite having secured one billion dollars in venture capital, Jawbone went belly-up and left its customers and creditors high and dry.

This interview with Jawbone’s CEO Hosain Rahman by Recode’s Kara Swisher is not only an interesting look behind the rise and fall of Jawbone. It is also a great example of how an interview can politely but doggedly keep pressing for the answers to the tough questions others don’t want to actually answer head on. At the headline link, you can either listen to the audio of Kara’s podcast episode with Rahman or read the transcript.

4The Tech Startup Executive I’d Love to Work For
He goes by “DHH,” and his company (co-founded with Jason Fried) is called Basecamp (formerly 37 Signals), named after their project management software. DHH — David Heinemeier Hansson — also created the popular web application programming framework known as Ruby on Rails (or just Rails for short). Whether through their original 37-point manifesto or their books (Rework, Remote, or the forthcoming It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work), DHH and Fried are not shy about declaring what’s wrong with the Silicon Valley startup culture.

In this article, DHH lays aim at –

  • focusing on “beating the competition”
  • the fallacy of the need to work long hours
  • the corrupting effect of “growth targets”
  • the dishonesty behind many of the tech industry’s famous employee perks.

5The Birds and the Bees As Seen by Radar

Just a neat series of tweets by Phil Stepanian, a researcher at the University of Oklahoma about how normal weather radar captures the daily flight patters of birds and bugs. This tweet thread is entertaining while educating, and full of fascinating views of animated radar gifs. Surfacing cool and interesting miscellany like this is Twitter at its near level best.