Contemplations – Now

An appetizer:

"I'm going to talk more about what it takes to become a multi-planet species. Just a brief refresher on why this is important: I think fundamentally the future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we're a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planet species than if we're not. You want to be inspired by things. You want to wake up in the morning and think the future's going to be great, and that's what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It's about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past, and I can't think of anything more exciting that going out there and being among the stars."
– Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer, at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia on Friday, September 29, 2017.

2017

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Katie Paterson Future Library

Still shot of forest from Future Library, Katie Paterson video

An inspiring and humbling project.

A forest in Norway is growing. In 100 years it will become an anthology of books. Every year a writer is contributing a text that will be held in trust, unpublished, until 2114. The texts will be printed on paper made from the trees, only to be read after 2114.

Many of the most inspiring things I stumble across on the internet these days come via Kottke.org. I can't believe I discovered it only recently, as Jason Kottke started writing his blog in 1998, a year before I started creating my own website. In a very short time, it has become a sort of sanctuary for me. When I read the morning news, sometimes the only way I can get through it is by dangling ahead of me the promise of finishing up with a visit to Kottke.org. Thank you, Jason!

Founded in 1998, kottke.org is one of the oldest blogs on the web. It’s written and produced by Jason Kottke and covers the essential people, inventions, performances, and ideas that increase the collective adjacent possible of humanity. Frequent topics of interest among the 26,000+ posts include art, technology, science, visual culture, design, music, cities, food, architecture, sports, endless nonsense, and carefully curated current events, all of it lightly contextualized. Basically, it’s the world’s complete knowledge, relentlessly filtered through my particular worldview, with all the advantages and disadvantages that entails.

Post and video: The Future Library, Katie Paterson

Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions

Illustration for The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predication by Joost Swarte
Illustration by Joost Swarte

Excellent article by Rodney Brooks, former director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT and a founder of Rethink Robotics and iRobot, discussing factors that impact and distort our perspective of the likely pace of AI innovation and adoption.

Roy Amara was a cofounder of the Institute for the Future, in Palo Alto, the intellectual heart of Silicon Valley. He is best known for his adage now referred to as Amara’s Law: ""We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run."

Watch out for arguments about future technology that is magical. Such an argument can never be refuted. It is a faith-based argument, not a scientific argument.

New versions of software are deployed very frequently in some industries. New features for platforms like Facebook are deployed almost hourly. For many new features, as long as they have passed integration testing, there is very little economic downside if a problem shows up in the field and the version needs to be pulled back. This is a tempo that Silicon Valley and Web software developers have gotten used to. It works because the marginal cost of newly deploying code is very, very close to zero.
   Deploying new hardware, on the other hand, has significant marginal costs. We know that from our own lives. Many of the cars we are buying today, which are not self-driving, and mostly are not ­software-enabled, will probably still be on the road in the year 2040. This puts an inherent limit on how soon all our cars will be self-driving.

Of course, there's one more thing to put this all into perspective, the eighth deadly sin, if you will. Here's an approximate transcript of part of a call I just made to my health care provider, answered by their automated system:

It: Please state your date of birth, for example, if your date of birth is April 1, 1960, say, "April 1st, 1960."
Me: April 1st, 1960.
It: I'm sorry, I was unable to understand that, please state your date of birth, for example, if your date of birth is April 1, 1960, say, "April 1st, 1960."
Me (slower and louder): April 1st, 1960.
It: I'm sorry, I was unable to understand that, please …
Me: I hate these @#&*^# automated systems!
It: I'm sorry, that was not a valid date. Please …
… and on and on …

If these automated systems are any indication of the current state of the integration of AI into our systems, then the main thing we have to fear is our world being run by moronic automatons … and since that seems to be pretty much the state of affairs these days, I guess we'll be no worse off … which is pretty bad off … okay, I guess we're screwed no matter what happens.

Rodney Brooks. "The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predication." MIT Technology Review, Oct 2017.

Inspiration

Two videos touched me in very different but equally inspiring ways this morning.

As an airman and a human being

Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria addressing USAFA

On Thursday, September 28, 2017, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, head of the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) near Colorado Springs, called together the entire membership of the academy and prep school, including the entire staff and leadership, to address a racism incident. Key excerpts:

Ladies and gentlemen, you may have heard that some people down in the prep school wrote some racial slurs on some message boards. If you haven't heard that, I wanted you to hear it from me.
   If you're outraged by those words then you're in the right place. You should be outraged not only as an airman, but as a human being. That kind of behavior has no place at the prep school, has no place at USAFA, and it has no place in the United States Air Force. You should be outraged not only as an airman, but as a human being.
   And I'll tell you that the appropriate response for horrible language and horrible ideas, the appropriate response is a better idea.… What we should have is a civil discourse and talk about these issues. That's a better idea.…
   I also have a better idea, and it's about our diversity and it's the power of the diversity, the power of the four thousand of you and all of the people that are on the staff … the power of us as a diverse group. The power that we come from all walks of life, that we come from all parts of this country, that we come from all races, we come from all backgrounds, gender, all makeup, all upbringing. The power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful.…
   We have an opportunity here, the 5,500 people in this room, to think about what we are as an institution. This is our institution and no one can take away our values.…
   So just in case you're unclear on where I stand on this topic, I'm going to leave you with my most important thought today: If you can't treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you can't treat someone from another gender, whether that's a man or a woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you demean someone in any way, you need to get out. If you can't treat someone from another race, or different color skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.

Video: Lt Gen Silveria addresses cadets about racism incident

Making life multiplanetary

Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer, addressing the International Astronautical Congress

Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer, addressed the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia on Friday, September 29, 2017. A couple excerpts:

I'm going to talk more about what it takes to become a multi-planet species. Just a brief refresher on why this is important: I think fundamentally the future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we're a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planet species than if we're not. You want to be inspired by things. You want to wake up in the morning and think the future's going to be great, and that's what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It's about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past, and I can't think of anything more exciting that going out there and being among the stars.…
   It's 2017, we should have a lunar base by now. What the hell has been going on? I think we've got to have a base on the moon. That'd be pretty cool. And then going beyond there and getting people to Mars, that's the continuance of the dream of Apollo that I think people are really looking for.

Musk discusses the technical aspects of what they have code named the BFR, which is a big, multi-use, entirely reusable rocket. It will be capable of restocking the space station, launching very large or large numbers of satellites into Earth orbit, recovering end-of-life satellites, performing lunar and Mars missions as well as other missions throughout the solar system, and perhaps even point-to-point travel on Earth (most places within 30 minutes; anywhere within an hour).

Fascinating talk. Elon Musk may be the most inspirational visionary on Earth today … and he gets stuff done!

Website: SpaceX Mars
Video: Making Life Multiplanetary

Introverts unite!

Ha, I finally found the perfect t-shirt for me …

Introverts Unite t-shirt

www.lookhuman.com

How to Care for Your Introvert by exurb1aBonus: How to Care for Your Introvert video by exurb1a: "If you're looking to get an introvert, you can either adopt a baby one, known as a shylet, or rescue an adult from an introvert shelter, generally known as a library.… A pair of introverts is called an 'awkward.' A group of introverts is called an 'angst.'"

YouTube channel: exurb1a (full of fun stuff)

Bonus: Freelance Achievement Sticker by Jeremy Nguyen, The New Yorker:

Talked to someone in person today sticker

A Short Trip

Still shot from the interactive story, A Short Trip

Put your headphones on, use your right and left arrow keys, and enjoy a few minutes of tranquility courtesy of Australian artist Alexander Perrin.

Interactive story: A Short Trip
Artist: Alexander Perrin, Interactive Media and Illustration
See also the delightful short film, Noirmittens

The man who built a Chinese utopia

78-year-old Song Peilun left his job teaching sculpture 20 years ago in order to build an amazing rock sculpture "castle" that now spans 50 acres of a secluded valley outside Guiyang, China.

Peilun is concerned about increasing urbanisation in the area, but believes his castle will survive and carry a message to future generations. "Our biggest achievement is not just piling up stones. it is the building of a certain spirit, to not seek quick success and instant benefits."

I love it that life can still surprise and delight me like this!

Video story by Christopher Cherry: "The man who built a Chinese utopia." BBC Travel, Sep 15, 2017.

Perspective

Saturn
Photo of Saturn taken by Cassini.

In troubled times like this moment—huge storms and floods battering the planet worldwide, political unrest churning, wars and violence devastating countless innocent civilians in so many places, insane leaders threatening nuclear conflict, forest fires raging (for weeks this summer we've been covered by a nearly unbreathable haze from the many fires burning across western North America), fascism resurging, online security crumbling under relentless attacks—sometimes I just need a moment to quietly breathe and gain some perspective.

I'm reminded of what I experienced when a job I had for several years often took me to the company's Bay Area headquarters for a week at a time. Those were always intense trips with layer upon layer of stressful, sleep-deprived, coffee-fueled stimulation: crammed flights, huge numbers of people packed into a polluted urban corridor, jammed freeways, soulless hotels, constant noise, whirlwind work assignments, weird office politics.

Dragging myself onto my flight home at the end of the week, I always tried to get a window seat. The plane would take off, everything that had been so overwhelming would shrink into insignificance far below, and soon we'd be flying over a vast, open, sparsely populated western landscape. In those moments, my mind grew quieter, my breathing slowed and deepened, I could feel my heart again, and a sense of gratefulness washed over me.

Looking at a photo like this offers me a similar respite.

In some of the photos of Saturn, our planet can be glimpsed as a barely visible spec of light (in the following photo, between the rings on the upper left side), offering the opportunity to put our chaotic frenzy into perspective against the immense backdrop of our solar system, galaxy, universe, and the vast stillness that permeates it all.

Saturn and Earth

Higher res version of these photos »
Excellent article about the wildfires: "Season of Smoke" by Naomi Klein, The Intercept_, Sep 9, 2017.

How can a conflicted observer find clarity?

Photo of a rally agaist fascism by Joe Penney / Reuters
Photograph by Joe Penney / Reuters

An excellent article by Conor Friedersdorf about how to use reasoned thinking about means and ends to make a nuanced evaluation of the various protest groups who are at the forefront of our current environment.

One way forward is to distinguish between a group's ends and its means. Diligently doing so can help anyone to formulate a defensible position, to better understand those who disagree, and to emphasize common ground that too often goes unrecognized.

Conor Friedersdorf. "How to Distinguish Between Antifa, White Supremacists, and Black Lives Matter." The Atlantic, Aug 31, 2017.

Well this explains a lot!

Drawing of two birds on a branch talking by The Oatmeal
Panel from the comic
You're not going to believe what I'm about to tell you
by The Oatmeal

In this clever comic, The Oatmeal explains the Backfire Effect, a psychological behavior we all share that makes us ignore evidence that is contrary to our core beliefs. This is hard wired into the amygdala in our brains, leading us to react to information that threatens our core beliefs in much the same way we'd react to being attacked by a predator.

This has helped me to understand a lot what has been puzzling me about our public discourse today, and also challenges me to take a more careful look at my presumptions related to my own strongly held and cherished core beliefs.

I also read a related article in Axios today summarizing the findings of a recent study that found that knowing more doesn't change disbeliefs about science.

If someone is already pre-disposed to disbelieve scientific conclusions around issues like human evolution, climate change, stem cell research or the Big Bang theory because of their religious or political views, learning more about the subject actually increases their disbelief….

A bit depressing, actually. And yet. And yet I know from my own experiences and observations that we can learn, and even our core beliefs can evolve. Perhaps the key takeaway is simply to be more aware of strength of conviction we have in our core beliefs and its psychological basis, without conceding the optimistic outlook that it is at least possible for all of us to increase our knowledge and move forward.

The Oatmeal comic: You're not going to believe what I'm about to tell you.
Article: Jeff Nesbit, "Study: knowing more doesn't change disbeliefs about science." Axios, Aug 22, 2017.

Lichens

Lichen on Douglas Fir
Lichen growing on the trunk base of a Douglas Fir in Rocky Mountain National Park
Photography by Toshen is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-
ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Lichen are fascinating in their own quiet way. Although they grow and develop very slowly, they can live hundreds or even thousands of years and have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to make up eight percent of the world's biomass. They are found worldwide and can take an astonishing variety of forms from unassuming blotches of gray growing on rocks and trees to dramatically branching specimens that look like the land cousins of coral. At the same time, they are very sensitive to environmental changes like air pollution or increasing temperatures, and take decades to recover from a calamity like wildfire.

Kerry Knudsen is a world renown lichenologist, the lichen curator at the U.C. Riverside Herbarium in California, and a mycological researcher at the Prague University of Life Sciences. There's a fascinating article about him in The Atlantic: "The Ex-Anarchist Construction Worker Who Became a World-Renowned Scientist, as well as an interesting short documentary film about him on Vimeo: The Lichenologist.

Here's a collection of beautiful photos of lichen taken by Jana Kocourková and Tim Wheeler: "Lichen species found in Joshua Tree National Park."

Discovering something new: wine-barrel-aged coffee!

I've been enjoying coffee since I was 17 when I first tried and fell in love with it while I was an exchange student in the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia.

Solar Roast Wine Barrel Aged Coffee packaging
Solar Roast Coffee's Wine Barrel Aged Coffee

Discovering my favorite coffee

At a later point in my life, I spent a year trying coffees from all over the world. Every week, I'd buy a couple different 1/4 pound bags of freshly roasted coffee from different countries and farms. It was an amazing experience, one that left me able to say without hesitation that my favorite coffee is Sidamo from the Oromia region of Ethiopia, roasted in the light-to-medium range. Perhaps this is a reflection of my earliest coffee experience, but there's no question that the first sip of a fresh cup of Sidamo gives me an "Ahhh!" moment.

Discovering my favorite brewing method

Over the years, I've tried a wide variety of brewing techniques. In the end, I settled on French Press with freshly ground coffee as my favorite. After the water boils, I let it cool a few moments before pouring it over the freshly ground coffee, then let it sit for a half a minute or so before stirring it and slowly pressing the plunger into place¹. I use a 100% stainless steel French Press so that no other flavors are imparted to the coffee, and I savor it pure black.

1] We live at 5700 feet, which affects boiling temperatures, etc. Even though I use the same method every morning, I've noticed it can taste slightly different day to day. I've come to the conclusion that the flavor may be affected by environmental factors like the humidity or barometric pressure.

Discovering my favorite roaster

My favorite coffee roaster is Solar Roast Coffee in Pueblo, Colorado. They use solar energy to power their roasting. Originally, that meant an array of 80 solar mirrors focused on a roaster that could process only a pound at a time. Over the course of eight years, they tweaked the design of their roaster, and by the fourth iteration, they had increased the number of mirrors to 880 and got to the point where they could roast 30 pounds at a time.

They had to roast at a lower temperature than is typical of today's modern coffee roasters, so they ended up with a method of using gentle heat and slow roasting, as they say, "like a good BBQ." Their next step, the current one, was to switch to using photo voltaic panels on the roof of their shop to power a more conventional electrical roaster, while still retaining the gentle heat approach.

I think they may have hit on something because I find their coffee consistently delicious. As usual, my favorite is their Ethiopian Sidamo, but I've tried a few of their other coffees as well and found them all to be excellent.

Discovering something new!

Recently, at the prompting of a friend, the Solar Roast folks tried something new and a bit crazy: aging some of their green beans, first in whiskey barrels supplied by their friend, and then in wine barrels from The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey near Pueblo. To their surprise and delight, the barrel-aged (14 weeks) coffees turned out to have amazing flavors.

For their second batch of wine-barrel-aged coffee, they aged Ethiopian green beans in a Chardonnay barrel. Of course, that caught my attention and I decided to give it a try just for fun. It's amazing, a really smooth cup of coffee with wonderful hints of wine. In fact, it's so exceptional that I had to share it with a few good friends, then figured I should share it here, too.

Solar Roast Coffee
The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey
Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union

2017

Are our clothes polluting the ocean?

Image of laundry hanging
Science Photo Library

According to the BBC, Imogen Napper, a PhD student at Plymouth University, and Professor Richard Thompson "study marine microplastics—fragments and fibres found in the ocean surface, the deep sea and the marine food chain."

They have found that polyester and acrylic clothing shed hundreds of thousands of fibers each time they are washed, and a good deal of those fibers end up in our oceans. In addition, the chemical coatings that enable outdoor clothing to be water resistant but breathable is also washing down the drain, and those chemicals can build up in the bodies of marine animals until they reach potentially harmful levels.

The solution is going to require a rethinking of how we create fibers for our clothing so that they are longer lasting and don't shed as much harmful plastics and chemicals. There are some interesting possibilities, like fibers made from trees and even fermented food waste that are more biodegradable, reduce the use of plastics and chemicals, and are longer lasting.

That's another challenge: how much of our clothing we dispose of after relatively short periods of use.

We are unsustainably addicted to consumption. I cannot emphasise enough how much of a step-change it would be for sustainability if we bought fewer items of clothing per year, wore them for longer and threw them away less often.
Professor Richard Blackburn, head of the sustainable materials research group at the University of Leeds

This is something I've been growing slowly more conscious of over the years. I find it increasingly more acceptable to continue using things that are visibly worn but still fundamentally functionally sound, especially when I weigh updating against the cost of something new being manufactured and the old item being disposed of. For example, our wool carpeting is looking a bit worn, but it still insulates nicely and is comfortable to walk on, so it stays.

Another time when I thought about this recently was when I refurbished our deck stairway. Replacing the treads would mean the harvesting of new wood and the disposal of the old wood. In this case, the stairway really did need refurbishing; fortunately, I found a great use for the old treads: instead of replacing the stringers, I reinforced the old ones with the old treads. I ended up with an even more solid stairway than if I had used just new stringers, it should last for many years, and there was very little waste. A satisfying outcome!

Victoria Gill, Science reporter. "Dirty laundry: Are your clothes polluting the ocean?" BBC News, July 6, 2017.

Related article: Sarah Zhang. "Half of All Plastic That Has Ever Existed Was Made in the Past 13 Years." The Atlantic, Jul 19, 2017.

Jupiter

From the Juno mission.

Image from the Juno mission of Jupiter's cloud tops

NASA:

This enhanced color view of Jupiter's cloud tops was processed by citizen scientist Bjorn Jonsson using data from the JunoCam instrument on NASA's Juno spacecraft. The image highlights a massive counterclockwise rotating storm that appears as a white oval in the gas giant's southern hemisphere.

Juno acquired this image on Feb. 2, 2017 … as the spacecraft performed a close flyby of Jupiter. When the image was taken, the spacecraft was about 9,000 miles … from the planet.

Image from the Juno mission of Jupiter's south pole

NASA:

This image shows Jupiter's south pole, as seen by NASA's Juno spacecraft from an altitude of 32,000 miles…. The oval features are cyclones, up to 600 miles … in diameter. Multiple images taken with the JunoCam instrument on three separate orbits were combined to show all areas in daylight, enhanced color, and stereographic projection.

Jovian cloud tops. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Bjorn Jonsson.
Jupiter south pole. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles.

What the brain's wiring looks like

Scientists at Cardiff University, working with engineers from Siemens, used a special MRI scanner to produce this stunningly detailed 3D scan of the fibers in the brain's white matter, called axons, that carry the brain's electrical signals. In this image, they colorized the axons to show the direction of travel of the signals: green back to front, red left and right, and blue up and down.

Fergus Walsh, medical correspondent. "What the brain's wiring looks like." BBC News, July 3, 2017.

Are you forgetful?
That's just your brain erasing useless memories

Image of a brain comprised of multi-colored wires

The ability to remember often seems to be a good thing. However, according to University of Toronto professor Blake Richards (my emphasis): "at the end of the day, our brains only do things if it was good for our survival from an evolutionary perspective."

Now where did I put my glasses?…

Article: Angela Chen. "Are you forgetful? That's just your brain erasing useless memories." The Verge, Jun 21, 2017

The Photo Ark by Joel Sartore

Photograph of San Clemente Island fox (Urocyon littoralis clementae) by Joel Sartore
San Clemente Island fox (Urocyon littoralis clementae) by Joel Sartore

Joel Sartore is a National Geographic photographer and a speaker whose current project is the Photo Ark, a 25-year effort to photograph all of the approximately 12,000 animal species that are in human care.

"My goal is simple: to get the public to care and save species from extinction."

As of mid-2017, he is about halfway through his quest, at about 6,500 species photographed. The photos are stunning and mesmerizing (be prepared to get lost in time). Joel himself is passionate, humorous, and courageous. As he says on his site, for his work he has traveled half a million miles, been chased by grizzlies four times, found two spitting cobras in his camera gear, made a narrow escape from killer bees, been stung twice in his ear canals by wasps, and melted the soles of a pair of his boots on a lave field. Respect!

"It is folly to think that we can destroy one species and ecosystem after another and not affect humanity. When we save species, we're actually saving ourselves."

More: A few additional photos by Joel Sartore that I particularly enjoy
Website: Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photographer and Speaker
Photos: The Photo Ark
Video: Photo ark: Joel Sartore at TEDxMidwest

We are better together than we are apart

Still image of Mayor Landrieu giving his speech

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu just delivered an amazing speech inviting us to come together as a nation to build a better future. His words speak for themselves, but I do want to call attention to the words of Abraham Lincoln, with which he concluded his own speech:

… let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Here is Mayor Landrieu's full speech. It's worth taking the time to read.

The soul of our beloved city is deeply rooted in a history that has evolved over thousands of years; rooted in a diverse people who have been here together every step of the way—for both good and for ill. It is a history that holds in its heart the stories of Native Americans—the Choctaw, Houma Nation, the Chitimacha. Of Hernando de Soto, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the Acadians, the Islenos, the enslaved people from Senegambia, Free People of Color, the Haitians, the Germans, both the empires of France and Spain. The Italians, the Irish, the Cubans, the south and central Americans, the Vietnamese, and so many more.

Continue reading »

Video of Mayor Landrieu's speech

Patriots Day film

Title image for Patriots Day showing a U.S. flag made from running shoe laces

Peter Berg's film provides an intense look at how the Boston police department, their commissioner, the FBI, the governor of Massachusetts, the Watertown police department, and most importantly, the people of Boston themselves dealt with the heinous terrorist bombing that struck the 2013 Boston Marathon.

What I found most compelling were the glimpses at the end of the film into the lives of some of the people who were portrayed in the film, as well as some of the interviews with them in the film's extras, including Dun Meng, the young Chinese immigrant living in Boston who was carjacked by the terrorists, but escaped and alerted police to their location; Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, who after going off duty at the end of his shift, joined in the gunfight with the terrorists and tackled and fought with one of them; and newlyweds Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky, who each lost legs in the bombing, but not their spirit. Patrick went on to run the Boston Marathon again three years later on a prosthetic blade.

Definitely a film worth watching.

"Be confident that good always defeats bad." – Dun Meng

Cassini's Grand Finale

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked with filmmaker Erik Wernquist to create this stunningly beautiful animated film based on actual images of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft.

Still shot from 'Cassini's Grand Finale: Cassini flying towards Saturn

The film captures key moments in the mission, from the launch on October 15, 1997 through the end of mission nearly 20 years later.

Here's an actual image the film is based upon, titled The Rite of Spring:

Image of Saturn taken by Cassini

View these images in larger size, including additional still shots from the film: Key moments in Cassini's mission.

Article (including film): Making 'Cassini's Grand Finale' by Preston Dyches and Bill Dunford, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Cassini image of Saturn: The Rite of Spring

To save money, coal museum turns to solar panels

"Museum's 80 solar panels on the roof are expected to save approximately $8,000 per year."

Photo of Kentucky Coal Museum by Jimmy Emerson, DVM

My guess is that, unfortunately, someone will lose their job due to the politics surrounding this otherwise wise decision.

Article: Megan Geuss. "To save money, Kentucky Coal Museum turns to solar panels." Ars Technica, Apr 10, 2017.
Photo: Kentucky Coal Museum by Jimmy Emerson, DVM.

NASA Image and Video Library

Wow! NASA has upgraded its image and video library search engine, and it's really fun! This image is titled "Hubble Captures Vivid Auroras in Jupiter's Atmosphere":

Vivid Auroras in Jupiter's Atmosphere

What an amazing neighborhood we live in! Here's a view of Saturn:

Saturn from Far and Near Hubble Space Telescope

NASA Image and Video Library

Riding Up Front

Painting of a taxi driver holding a photo of his family by Alexandra Burda
Art by Alexandra Burda

This is a very new non-profit with an interesting idea: to support immigrant rights through illustrated stories from around the world that give us insight into the lives of taxi drivers, many of whom are immigrants. So far there are just over a dozen stories, and a few of them provide interesting glimpses. It reminds me a bit of Jim Jarmusch's film, Night on Earth, during which we ride along with five fares in different cities in the U.S. and Europe during one night, gaining a brief yet intense burst of experience from each ride.

For example, in a story titled "Muhammad: New York, New York," a dour and perhaps somewhat bitter driver shares that he has been unsuccessful finding work in his field as an engineer, then suddenly beams with pride when the conversation turns to his daughter, who he thinks will become a doctor because she's so smart. The rider who wrote the story comments:

Interesting that the recurring theme I've seen in many of my rides with immigrant drivers was the affirmation that their children would do better than them, and the faith they have in their belief. It is a powerful belief, gives rise to formidable work ethics, and it is admirable.

A nice touch is that, at the end of each story, there is an illustration of the driver, along with a hand-drawn map of the route. For example, here's the illustration for the story, "Salma: Long Beach, California":

Illustration of Salma and the route map

Although the stories so far are a bit uneven—I found it puzzling why some are even included in their curated collection—I applaud the idea behind their effort. I think the first step we can take to get beyond xenophobia—and for that matter, the political polarization that currently afflicts us—is to get to know each other a bit better. I hope this promising effort finds its stride and helps us get there.

Riding Up Front, a non-profit art blog supporting immigrant rights.
Art by: Alexandra Burda, who is from Romania and currently lives in Helsinki, Finland.

I loved humanity and humans

I came across another project this morning that impacted me in a similar way. Photographer Alex John Beck, traveling with Oxfam, visited Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and photographed them along with their most cherished photo on their smartphones. He also captured a brief statement from each about why the photo is valuable to them.

The result is a powerful photo essay titled Syrian Refugees in Lebanon & Jordan. Many of the people featured talk about how they yearn to return to Syria and the beautiful life they shared with family, friends, and neighbors before the conflict broke out.

One refugee in Beirut, Shatilla, a history and geography teacher from Yarmouk, shared a photograph of his daughter and grandchildren upon their arrival in Denmark.

I loved humanity and humans. I promised that, in my life, I'd never cause anyone pain or sadness.

And I wish that our suffering could end by returning to a country that respects human values, so I can spend the rest of my life in happiness, cheerfulness, and pleasure.

Photo essay by Alex John Beck: Syrian Refugees in Lebanon & Jordan

GPS navigation turns off part of the brain

Satnav map showing street grid in central London
Photo by Joao Pinelo Silva/UCL

Researchers at University College London took brain scans of study participants who simulated navigating with and without GPS assistance. When they navigated without assistance, the scans revealed spikes in activity in the "hippocampus, a brain region used for memory and navigation, and the prefrontal cortex, a region used for planning and decision-making." And the more navigation options they were presented with—like intersections joining multiple streets—the stronger the spikes in activity were."

On the contrary, when they used GPS assistance, those parts of the brain "turned off."

This certainly matches my own experience. When I navigate by studying a map ahead of time and perhaps writing down turn-by-turn instructions, I find that I learn the route and surrounding area more quickly. When I use GPS, I can drive the same route multiple times and not learn it. This has caused me to use GPS only selectively, for example, when I need to navigate through intense traffic going somewhere I don't expect to visit again. But for most navigation tasks, I leave the GPS off.

Brooks Hays. "GPS navigation turns off part of the brain." United Press International, March 21, 2017.

Innovative house building technique

Brikawood house

French company Brikawood has come up with a very clever approach to wooden house building. All of the pieces are short and slide together in a manner that forms a sort of interlocking series of hollow wooden bricks that can be then filled with a type of coarse sawdust as insulation.

It appears relatively easy to assemble, seems to create a quite strong structure, and the end result is certainly attractive. I'm also guessing it can be made from cutoffs, so it might be quite inexpensive as well.

There's a video that shows the assembly of a house. Don't worry if you don't speak French; the imagery is enough to give you a good idea of how everything works.

Brikawood house
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ierqMW_FxfE

I love innovation like this. Bravo!

http://www.brikawood-ecologie.fr/

Statue of girl stares down Wall Street bull

Love it! Hope it remains permanently.

On Women's Day eve, statue of girl stares down Wall Street bull
Image by Brendan McDermid / Reuters

What is wrong with this picture?

This photo is at the top of an article by Sean Blanda whose title includes, "The Reason You Can't Stand the News Anymore." It's actually a good article, despite the eye-bait photo, which I'm guessing … hoping … is used intentionally as an example of the point he's making.

This creates incentives to demonstrate to advertisers that the news outlet knows how to spread content on social media. Thus, a piece of news content that spreads has a better business value to the news outlet than one that is journalistically sound.

Trying to find reasonably good news is a challenging proposition, a walk in search of a decent cup of coffee through a neighborhood full of hucksters, pickpockets, and con artists. Crappy programmatic advertising, devious personal data tracking, sneaky native advertising, and malware make for an increasingly unpleasant and even dangerous experience. And there are serious consequences to our communities, our country, our world.

[A]s advertising mixes with propaganda mixes with actual reporting we can't tell the difference anymore. It's a never-ending scorched earth campaign, made possible because harming trust and encouraging tribalism is economically rewarded. In other words, the economic incentives of news directly contribute to the divisiveness of our country.

Sean Blanda. "Medium, and The Reason You Can't Stand the News Anymore." Medium, Jan 15, 2017.

Defense Against the Dark Arts: Networked Propaganda and Counter-Propaganda

I found the link to Blanda's essay in an article about how to recognize and most effectively fight against the various kinds of propaganda prevalent today by Jonathan Stray, a data scientist and journalist, currently working as a research scholar at Columbia Journalism School. Venting an angry reply, trying to shut somebody up, resorting to violent protests and vandalism … all of these might be exactly what the propagandist is trying to provoke, a sickly clever way of capturing attention.

While they may not be as emotionally satisfying in the short term as shouting at someone that they're wrong, and will require more long-term effort, there are effective counter-propaganda methods.

For example, regarding a propaganda method called the firehouse of falsehood (a favorite of Russia), RAND scholar Dr. Christopher Paul suggests that:

… the counter-strategy is not to try to refute the message, but to reach the target audience first with an alternative. Fact checking, which is really after-the-fact-checking, may not be the most effective plan. He suggests instead that we "forewarn audiences of misinformation, or merely reach them first with the truth, rather than retracting or refuting false 'facts.'"

Stray also talks about a type of propaganda commonly employed in China, "communicate positive messages to the masses while you quietly disable your detractors."

A counter-strategy, if you are facing this type of opponent, is organized, visible resistance. Get into the streets and make it impossible to talk about something else—though note that recent experiments suggest that violent or extreme protest tactics will backfire.

He finishes with a look at today's social media-fueled "attention by any means necessary" propaganda. The counter-strategy: do your homework.

… you have [to] know what your propagandist adversary is doing, in detail and in real-time. If you don't have that critical function taken care of, you're going to be forever reactive, which means you're probably going to lose.

Being a champion for truth and facts is not going to be easy in the face of today's sophisticated propagandists. Understanding what they are up to is the first step. Knowing which countermeasures are effective is the next. Stray's article is an excellent starting point.

Jonathan Stray. "Defense Against the Dark Arts: Networked Propaganda and Counter-Propaganda." February 24, 2017.

Our neighbor

Your Neighbor, published by Erica Heilman

Rumble Strip is my favorite podcast. I appreciate so much the stories Erica Heilman, the host of the podcast, shares with us. Sometimes the stories she shares make me laugh, sometimes they bring me to tears, oftentimes they open my eyes to something I haven't personally experienced, and once in awhile they make me uncomfortable. But I always appreciate the way they help me to better understand the world around me.

The episode "Your Neighbor" tells the story of a young man who is an undocumented American emigrant working with a skill earned through years of incredibly hard labor in order to support his family back home.

Sometimes you are happy, but sometimes all sad. What are you doing here? But you think how Mexico is. You just keep working. It's because you need it. You really need work. You are working, but you are not with your family. You are not seeing how they are getting old. You are not going to get back these years.

I always have a dream that I can bring my mom and my father just to see how it is right here … not for work … just to see how nice. I don't know, if I had a chance and I can bring them just for, you know, them to see how it is here. I would like them to see all this … how, you know, it is outside right here … how people are. This is a really nice country.

None of this changes the fact that there was an illegal border crossing, yet I think it's vitally important to bring more understanding to the debate of how to deal with this issue. Understanding the motivations of someone like this, recognizing his willingness to work incredibly hard and sacrifice years of the prime of his life for his family, affording him the dignity of recognizing him as a fellow human being, all can help bring a more reasoned tone to this debate. This is a complex issue. Finding solutions will be challenging. But I think we can all benefit by bringing a little more understanding and compassion to our attempts to do the right thing.

"Your Neighbor." From Rumble Strip, Good Conversation that Takes Its Time. Hosted by Erica Heilman.

I Was a Muslim in Trump's White House

Portrait of Ruhmana Ahmed by Leah Varjacques / The Atlantic
Portrait of Ruhmana Ahmed by Leah Varjacques / The Atlantic

Ruhmana Ahmed worked in the White House beginning in 2011, when Obama was president. In early 2014, she accepted a position on the National Security Council offered to her by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. Since she was a direct hire of the NSC, she had the option to remain in her position after President Obama left. Given the intolerant message that Trump was expressing, it wasn't an easy decision for her, but in order to serve our country, she decided to stay on, thinking that "Trump's NSC could benefit from a colored, female, hijab-wearing, American Muslim patriot." She lasted eight days.

In her essay, she shares her reflections on her experience. I think her story illustrates the grave risk we face: we are in danger of losing the strength that has made this country a beacon.

Placing U.S. national security in the hands of people who think America's diversity is a "weakness" is dangerous. It is false.
   People of every religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and age pouring into the streets and airports to defend the rights of their fellow Americans over the past few weeks proved the opposite is true—American diversity is a strength, and so is the American commitment to ideals of justice and equality.
   American history is not without stumbles, which have proven that the nation is only made more prosperous and resilient through struggle, compassion and inclusiveness. It's why my parents came here. It's why I told my former 5th grade students, who wondered if they still belonged here, that this country would not be great without them.

Ruhmana Ahmed. "I Was a Muslim in Trump's White House." The Atlantic, Feb 23, 2017.

Behind the scenes defending KrebsOnSecurity

Photo of fighting bots by Alex Eylar
Photo by Alex Eylar

A couple years ago, I read Spam Nation by Brian Krebs. It was interesting to learn a bit more about just what is going on behind the scenes that results in this irritating and often harmful flood of spam we're all inundated with. Since then, I've been following his blog, Krebs on Security, just to try to keep up a bit with the latest scams. I don't visit every day, but I did try to drop in last September on the day he got hit with one of the more massive DDoS attacks ever seen on the internet. I remember being very surprised that his site was down, and then quickly learning he was under attack.

Within a few days, we learned that the company that was trying to provide his site with free protection from attack, Akamai, decided it could no longer afford to offer their service to him. Shortly after that, a Google service called Project Shield, which is a free service that protects news from digital attacks, helped get him back online. As soon as I heard his site was back up, I visited again, but found that the site was still struggling. I remember thinking, Wow, if the attack is even causing some trouble to Project Shield, that's really major.

Dan Goodin is one of my favorite security bloggers and Ars Technica is my favorite tech news site, so this article by Dan on Ars Technica immediately caught my attention. It's really interesting to read about what went on behind the scenes, the risk that the Project Shield team took in deciding to protect Krebs on Security, and the battles they fought in the first days and are still fighting today in order to keep the site up. It was also interesting to learn that protecting a small site like Krebs on Security is, in some ways, more challenging than protecting large sites like Google's own properties. There's a full-scale war going on out there. Crazy.

Dan Goodin. "How Google fought back against a crippling IoT-powered botnet and won." Ars Technica, Feb 2, 2017.

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