Contemplations – Now

An appetizer:

"It is important to have an inspiring future and if it doesn't include being out there among the stars, that is incredibly depressing.… I just want to think about the future and not feel sad." – Elon Musk, TED 2017

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.

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

Patriots Day - Official Website

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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