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Archive for November, 2016

#983 – The B.S. Detector

When I was in high school I had designs on creating a newspaper to compete with the school sanctioned Sider Press.  I was going to call it V.I.P., short for Voices in Print, as the paper would tell stories through the perspectives of the people living them.  Instead of boring fact based recaps you’d get lively, insightful long form deep dives on the issues affecting the student body and the community at large.

V.I.P. never saw the light of day but the idea of starting a publication still resonates with me.  And considering how easy it is to do nowadays I might want to consider giving V.I.P. another shot.  After all, if you want to make it big today as a journalist you don’t need a big budget or large staff.  You don’t even need morals, credibility, or journalistic integrity.  All you need is an over-active imagination and a salacious headline and you’ve got yourself some click bait.  Welcome to the wonderful new world of journalism where reputable sources like the New York Times are dragged through the mud by the President of the United States and fake websites publishing outright lies have the power to influence who wins and loses elections.

As Vox put it, “recent research has found that 44 percent of all adults get their news from Facebook, and that social media can directly influence the political views of people on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. So, it’s reasonable to assume that fake news shared on Facebook — whether it’s left-leaning or right-leaning — has the potential to reach and even sway a considerable number of the site’s 1 billion active users.”

And sway they did.  In fact, in some instances, two sides of the same story, the truth and a fake twist on it, would get shared a disproportionate amount of times, with the fake news story getting more views than the real one.  The end result?  An Internet troll is now the 45th President of the United States of America.  And the shocking truth is that this isn’t a fluke.  It’s our new reality.

You see, the Internet has the ultimate ability to democratize power.  Information wants to be free and our governments can’t hide their secrets from the public any longer.  Police brutality can be easily captured by a smartphone camera and shared on Twitter millions of times over before a cover up can begin.  Protesters can easily mobilize their efforts and coordinate their movements.  Dissidents can speak out against abuse.  The Internet has the power to simultaneously bring about revolution (the Arab Spring) and squash it (Turkey’s failed coup attempt).

As a result, politicians, political leaders, and governments have to re-think the way they do business.  Adapt or die.  The only problem is that by the time everyone realized how easy it was for fake news to spread the damage had already been done.  Opinions had already been formed.  Biases already firmly established.  And just like in the good old days of the Cold War we have the Russians to blame.

According to the Verge:

“A Russian propaganda apparatus was successful in spreading fake or false news stories during the recent US election, Washington Post reports. The findings come from a new, unpublished report provided to the Post that found more than 200 websites responsible for publishing Russian propaganda during the election cycle. These sites had a combined readership of 15 million Americans.

The campaign reportedly included the use of thousands of botnets, a network of websites and social media accounts, and a team of people paid to push conspiracy theories online. Some of the most common propaganda stories claimed that Hillary Clinton’s health was declining, that people were paid thousands of dollars to protest Trump, and, in the weeks leading up to election day, that the election was rigged.”

Today’s political propaganda isn’t air dropped in via military aircraft.  It’s retweeted and shared from within.  The pen isn’t mightier than the sword but a tweet sure is.  Just look at the power that a lone disingenuous tweet from a sixteen year old has as Donald Trump takes the bait and claims that the election that he won was rigged.  When everyone’s lying how do you know who to believe?  You don’t.  Not really.  Not anymore.  Until now, that is.

Enter the B.S. Detector, a new Google Chrome extension that will flag links appearing in your Facebook feed if their domains are not from reputable news organizations.  As Lifehacker puts it, “While most of us are already programmed to ignore obviously fake tabloids at the supermarket, we’re still adjusting to the era of fake news online. It’s just as easy to share an article from a site created by a Macedonian teen as it is to share from the Washington Post. If you’re not used to checking the reliability of news sources, it might be easy to get duped. B.S. Detector aims to help make it easier to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.”

Of course there are some obvious issues with this extension.  Mainly that it’s only effective if people download it and conspiracy theory nut jobs aren’t likely the kind of people who will be taking the time to do that.  Plus the bad guys can probably create new domains faster than we can block them.  What we really need is for Facebook itself to step in and create filters that can ensure the integrity of their site.  However, they are still in denial that they even have a problem.  So for now it’s the B.S. Detector to the rescue!

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Is the B.S. Detector the Greatest Idea Ever?

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It may seem like all hope has been lost but in spite of recent world events there’s still a lot to be thankful for scientifically and technologically.

Such as:

  • My wildest Back to the Future dream coming true with the December 1st release of self-lacing sneakers from Nike known as HyperAdapt.  These are going to be a must have even at the $720 price point.
  • The Hyperloop continuing to progress in Dubai; perhaps it will be used to transport people and not just cargo after all.
  • A breakthrough that could allow medication to be delivered consistently without having to take a pill every day thanks to a new method that administers a dose that lasts for weeks.
  • The Chinese using the groundbreaking gene editing technique CRISPR on a live human for the first time to fight cancer.  Could this be the future of healthcare?
  • An even more absurd AI breakthrough that could lead to the creation of a light based neural network that would be 1,960 times faster than a normal processor.
  • The completion of the James Webb Telescope, still on schedule to replace the Hubble Telescope in 2018.  Habitable exo-planets here we come!
  • Apple allegedly working on a new innovation to incorporate Augmented Reality features into their cameras.  Apparently Tim Cook and company are still capable of telling us what we want before we even realize it.
  • Continuous 3D printing breakthroughs including a new turbine capable of powering 10,000 homes using carbon dioxide. Perhaps we will be able to science our way out of Climate Change after all.

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Nike’s Hyper Adapt is just one of the many things I’m thankful for.

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This past weekend I saw my first ever Cirque du Soleil show, a prequel to the movie Avatar – the box office bonanza that featured the inhabitants of Pandora fighting to defend their sacred lands from greedy Earthlings who wanted to mine it for the rare natural resource Unobtainium.  The movie’s storyline really resonated with me at the time and does so again now as we similarly fight for the survival of our own planet.  Not from an invading population but, rather, from the one that is already here.

Well, at least some of us are fighting.  Consider the startling contrast as armed forces attack protesters with mace, rubber bullets, and water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures in Standing Rock, North Dakota, all in the name of protecting fossil fuel profits, just as Donald Trump, who is on record as saying that Climate Change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, is set to take office and undo all the great strides that were made during the Obama administration.

CNN put this contrast into perspective when they reported the following:

“’The disaster that Donald Trump represents for the climate cannot be understated,’ Jamie Henn, a spokesman for 350.org, an environmental advocacy group, told CNN last week. ‘He is the only head of state in the world who is an all-out climate denier and he has the most radical, anti-environmental policies of anyone to ever assume the role of the presidency.’”

Now, more than ever, we need a strong willed President with steel resolve who will move Heaven and Earth in order to save the Earth.  Which I should point out, is the only planet so far, in an infinitely large Universe, that we know for sure is capable of supporting human life. However, instead of getting a champion for our cause we’re left having to defend ourselves against an Internet troll.  It shouldn’t have to be this hard.  Wanting to protect the planet should be part of our base programming.  Aren’t we designed for survival?  Doesn’t evolution favor traits that help us survive?  How is it possible then that we could be so willing to blatantly shoot ourselves in the foot?  To willfully destroy our only home.  To destroy ourselves from within.  Logically it doesn’t make any sense.

You know, what else doesn’t make sense?  Denying climate change, the idea that the actions of mankind are altering weather patterns and the climate as a whole.  Why does it matter if mankind is responsible or not?  If things are changing for the worse try to fix them regardless of whose fault it is.  And if you are that much in denial that there’s even any change occurring at all, then just stand aside and be indifferent while others waste their time trying to fix something that, according to you, isn’t even broken.  The only reason to actively oppose those who want to fight back against climate change is if you are an even more ardent protector of the Earth and believe that a geo-engineering effort to counteract climate change is actually going to make things worse.  But that’s never the case.  The only people who oppose climate change are those who don’t understand it. It’s the opposite of survival of the fittest.  It’s destruction by the dumb-witted.

It would seem then that we’re fighting an uphill battle that we’re destined to lose, especially as climate scientists suggest that we’ve already passed the point of no return in terms of global warming.  But all hope may not be lost.  That’s because a group of 21 young people and children have taken it upon themselves to sue the federal government for the right to a stable climate.  And they may just win.

As Slate reports:

“After a week that sent advocates of a habitable Earth reeling, new hope has emerged that could make way for substantial climate action in the near term—even during a Trump administration: The children and young adults suing the federal government for their right to a stable climate can now proceed to trial, an unprecedented move in the American legal system.  The path was cleared by a federal district court judge in Oregon who wrote an opinion preliminary finding that a stable climate is a fundamental constitutional right. In the groundbreaking decision, announced on Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken ruled in favor of a group of 21 children and young adults in their suit against the federal government. In denying the government’s motion to dismiss, Aiken, based in Eugene, Oregon, opened a path for an eventual court-mandated, science-based plan to bring about sharp emissions reductions in the United States. The case, Juliana v. United States, will now go to trial starting sometime in 2017 and could prove to be a major civil rights suit, eventually finding its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

While this may sound like the plot of a Legally Blonde sequel it is rooted in precedent.

As Fast Company reports:

“‘Neither this Congress or this administration are prepared to take the difficult steps to achieve the climate targets that science requires,’ says Philip Gregory, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. ‘Like the civil rights cases from the ’50s and ’60s when the school districts wouldn’t integrate the schools and Congress and the state legislatures wouldn’t pass legislation, children there turned to the courts. And here, these 21 kids turned to the courts because there really is no other place for them to go.'”

Will Juliana v. United States join Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education, and The People vs. O.J. Simpson as one of the most influential court cases in U.S. history?  That remains to be seen.  But, if this suit is successful, it would, at the very least, be the greatest twist of irony of all time as the court ruling would force Donald Trump, a notoriously litigious bastard, to enact climate policies that fly in the face of everything that he allegedly believes in.

I for one, sincerely hope that it is successful because what we really need to do is get some momentum on our side in the fight against climate change.  To turn the tide in our favor before the tide comes in for good, permanently changing our coastal borders.  A court mandated ruling asserting our right to a vibrant eco-system could be the push that we need to fight back against the ignorance of climate change deniers and the general apathy of mostly everyone else.

Am I putting too much faith into our court system?  A system that has failed us before.  A system that has, in many cases, played favorites towards people from one socio-economic background or another.  A system that is far from being infallible.  Susceptible to bribery, and corruption like anything else.  A system that could be heavily influenced by Trump’s eventual appointments to the Supreme Court.  Probably.  But, when all us fails, faith is usually exactly what you turn to.

Court system, don’t fail me now!

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Is suing for the right to a stable climate the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#980 – Onwards

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has exposed a harrowing truth: that there’s a lot more hate in the world than we’d care to admit.  Racism, sexism, misogyny, and xenophobia aren’t new phenomenon though.  It’s just that they’ve boiled to the surface seemingly more than ever before as their practitioners now feel emboldened by their President elect’s mandate of hate.

Thankfully, not everyone is fueled by hatred or willing to turn the other check in the face of it.  In addition to the fifty million plus people who voted for Hillary Clinton, the visibly angry youth who took to the streets to protest the election results the night after, and those who continue to put pressure on the Electoral College to do the right thing, there’s also a new wave of people who feel empowered in their own right.  People who have been motivated by this shocking turn of events to take it upon themselves to get more involved in the fight for social justice.  People who have publicly stated that they want to get more involved in their local communities.  People who have stated their desire to run for office themselves.  People who have been getting involved at the grassroots level, calling upon their local representatives to do more.  In fact, there’s now an official movement that has been started known as Onwards that’s going to explore specific ways for people to make a difference.  If you want to join the movement you can sign up at: https://www.onwards.world/

The man behind the movement?  Dex Torricke-Barton, a now former Space X executive who quit his dream job to tackle an issue that he felt was even more important than helping to turn our race into a true two planet species: fighting hatred on the front lines right here on Planet Earth.  Or as he put it himself: “The only reason to quit my dream job was to go and fight a nightmare.”

And you know what?  He’s right.  Building a better future won’t matter if the present derails us before we can get there.  We need to be more compassionate, more tolerant of each other, more inclusive, more willing to work together.  If we can’t do that then we won’t have anyone capable and willing to work on our rockets in the future because we’ll all be too busy fighting each other.

As the told the Huffington Post, “’What happened on Tuesday is not just about campaigning deficiencies or media failures,’ he said. “There is a growing gulf in understanding, empathy and policy; between coastal elites and communities left behind by globalization, between those who seek greater diversity and those who are fearful of it, between the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in a changing world.’”

What Torricke-Barton wants to do is shorten that gulf.  To bring us closer together.  How exactly will he do that? Well, that remains to be seen.  It could be a small gesture akin to the Kindness Project in San Francisco which has facilitated strangers leaving random notes of kindness to one another.  Or it could be something on a much larger scale.

You may think that it would be hard to judge such a nebulous idea without knowing what exactly it is or what kind of impact it will have but that’s actually not the case.  The really big idea here is that of taking a stand against injustice and it points to a larger trend: the creation of an entire cottage industry centered around social justice.  In a future where the majority of jobs may be automated it very well could be that the future of work will involve more human-centric tasks.  Like actually being nice to one another.  Onwards could very be at the forefront of that.  At the very least they’ll have been one of the first ones to try.

I sincerely hope that Onwards catches on and becomes the Next Big Thing because it is abundantly clear that we need all the help that we can get in the fight against Donald Trump and his mandate of hate.  The cast of Hamilton can’t do it all on their own.

Onwards and upwards then to a better future!  Hopefully…

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Dex Torricke-Barton has quit Space X to start Onwards.  Will it become the Greatest Idea Ever?  Only time will tell.

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending NextCon 2016 where the keynote speaker was none other than The Wonderful Wizard of Woz, Steve Wozniak – the real brains behind Apple Computer even though Steve Jobs got all the credit.  To hear Woz tell it, that credit was deserved though, as Jobs was a great businessman and did make a lot of great decisions that helped Apple survive as a small company and ultimately thrive as the biggest company in the world.  But it wasn’t all unicorns and sunshine all the time.  Some of Apple’s creations like the Lisa and the first Macintosh failed specifically because of Job’s limitations as an engineer and computer scientist and his inability to recognize those limitations.   Woz on the other hand, knew his strengths and weaknesses and was content to work on the product behind the scenes so that he wouldn’t have to deal with the media or any of the other superfluous responsibilities that comes along with running a multi-national corporation.

When he wasn’t discussing Jobs’ reality distortion field and the creation myth behind Apple Woz hit on several other key topics that are currently shaping the world we live in.  Here are some of the key takeaways from his talk:

  • Woz owns a Tesla, generally loves the company, and thinks that it’s only a matter of time before we’re all driving electric cars.  However, there is one thing that bothers him: the fact that the new version of the car no longer lets him play his own music off a flash drive.  If Woz had his way Tesla would have an app store the way that Apple does.
  • Speaking of cars Woz thinks that driverless cars are going to be revolutionary.  And he should know considering that his wife just got into a bad car accident after someone ran a red light.  In the future that’s the kind of accident that would be avoided and he can’t wait for that day to come.
  • Other than driverless cars the new technology that Woz is most excited about is Artificial Intelligence.  In particular, neural nets, machine learning and the general ability of computers to think on their own.  In particular, he pointed out how impressive it is that Google Translate can now understand full sentences.  It’s only a matter of time before we see further benefits of advanced AI in all walks of life.
  • The other futuristic technology that Woz touched on was Virtual Reality, an obvious successor to the computer interfaces that we use today.  He talked about how it was actually gaming that fueled the adoption of the home computer and how gaming in general is now responsible for most of the computer related breakthroughs that we’ve seen such as faster computing power, higher resolution graphics, etc.  So it stands to reason that it’ll actually be gaming that will influence how successful VR becomes.
  • The point that he made that I liked the most was his idea for companies to have an independent Chief Disruption Officer who would report directly to the Board of Directors and not the CEO.  That way you could have someone responsible for ensuring that a company is always looking towards the future, always looking towards other industries to ensure that you never miss the boat on a new technology.
  • And lastly, yep, you guessed it:  He uses an Android phone!

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The Wonderful Wizard of Woz had plenty of insight.

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#978 – Emergent Gravity

I knew it! I just knew it! There’s no such thing as Dark Matter!

For the uninitiated regular matter i.e. me, you, everything on Earth, the Earth itself, other planets, asteroids, stars, etc. only makes up about 5% of the known Universe.  Everything else is Dark Matter and even though we can’t directly detect it we believe that it’s there because without it planets would fly off their orbits and into space.  But what if it’s really not there at all?  Perhaps all we have to do to explain our observations of the way things work in our solar system and in our galaxy is to redefine our understanding of what gravity is and how it works.

This mind blowing new theory is known as Emergent Gravity and was posited by Professor Erik Verlinde, a string theory expert at the University of Amsterdam and the Delta Institute for Theoretical Physics.  As Phys.org puts it, “According to Verlinde, gravity is not a fundamental force of nature, but an emergent phenomenon. In the same way that temperature arises from the movement of microscopic particles, gravity emerges from the changes of fundamental bits of information, stored in the very structure of space-time.”

So far the math checks out for this theory and best of all, it can even be used to explain Dark Energy as well, that mysterious force that may be responsible for speeding up the expansion of the Universe.

According to Phys.Org:

“One of the ingredients in Verlinde’s theory is an adaptation of the holographic principle, introduced by his tutor Gerard ‘t Hooft (Nobel Prize 1999, Utrecht University) and Leonard Susskind (Stanford University).  According to the holographic principle, all the information in the entire universe can be described on a giant imaginary sphere around it.  Verlinde now shows that this idea is not quite correct—part of the information in our universe is contained in space itself.  This extra information is required to describe that other dark component of the universe: Dark energy, which is believed to be responsible for the accelerated expansion of the universe.  Investigating the effects of this additional information on ordinary matter, Verlinde comes to a stunning conclusion. Whereas ordinary gravity can be encoded using the information on the imaginary sphere around the universe, as he showed in his 2010 work, the result of the additional information in the bulk of space is a force that nicely matches that attributed to dark matter.”

Not to get all religious on you but the idea of Dark Matter is one that always bothered me the same way a belief in God has always bothered me.  We couldn’t fully explain the way the Universe worked using physics so we just made something up to fill in the blanks.  Similarly, whenever early man came across something that he didn’t understand he would just chalk it up a higher power.  Don’t know why it’s raining?  It’s simple.  The Rain Gods made it rain.  Clearly that’s not the right approach though.  There’s obviously a firm mathematical based explanation for everything, even something as mysterious as Dark Matter, as this new theory of Emergent Gravity shows.  Hopefully, those among us still simple minded enough to believe in the idea of God will figure that out sooner rather than later.  In the interim it’ll be interesting to see how this theory holds up to more rigorous testing and what comes out of it.

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Is Emergent Gravity the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#977 – Zipline

Drones are going to be a large part of our future.  That much is certain.  What’s less certain is in what capacity.  Will they be used for corporate espionage and other nefarious pursuits?  Or more mundane tasks like taking selfies for us?  Will they just remain the purvey of weekend tinkerers and hobbyists?  Or will we be subjected to watching highlights from a drone racing league on Sportscenter? Will Amazon and Pizza Hut use them to deliver us goods and services?  Or will they actually transport us around as glorified driverless taxis?

Only time will tell but of all those use cases the one that seems to be gaining the most traction is drone as delivery method.  Especially when it comes to delivering critically needed medical supplies to hard to reach places.  That’s where a new startup known as Zipline comes in. Launched in 2014, Zipline began delivering medicine and blood in Rwanda last year to great success.  The hope is that they can now get past FAA regulatory hurdles governing the usage of drones in order to expand their operations to the United States.

To start out Zipline’s pilot program, or in this case pilotless program, will begin operating in Maryland, Nevada, and Washington state.  The long term plan is garner the support of the FAA in order to roll out the program across the U.S.  Considering the state of healthcare in this country in rural areas Zipline is a really big deal.  But how does it work?

According to the Verge:

“Zipline’s electric-powered drones, called “Zips,” can carry up to three pounds of blood or medicine, and can fly for up to 75 miles on a single charge. Hospitals can order blood or medicine via text message, and have them delivered by parachute from a Zip. The 22-pound planes navigate using GPS and cellular networks, and can make deliveries within 30 minutes, negating the need for on-board refrigeration.”

It remains to be seen how drones will influence our society but it’s encouraging to know that they won’t all be about delivering pizzas and taking selfies.  They may just save some lives too along the way.

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Is Zipline the Greatest Idea Ever?

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