Links for December 5, 2021

📱 Springboard: The Secret History of the First Real Smartphone – The Verge

Though the iPhone is widely considered the first modern smartphone, one company had many of the ideas that would eventually come to life in our pocket computers . . . ten years too early.

This 30 minute documentary is a fascinating exploration of the company that was once one of the fastest growing businesses in American history.

A decade before Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, a tiny team of renegades imagined and tried to build the modern smartphone. Nearly forgotten by history, a little startup called Handspring tried to make the future before it was ready. In Springboard: the secret history of the first real smartphone, The Verge’s Dieter Bohn talks to the visionaries at Handspring and dives into their early successes and eventual failures.

🦠 Could Covid Lead to Progress? – NY Times

It’s important to remember that mRNA vaccines were a promising, if unproven, line of inquiry for years before the pandemic hit; no one could say for sure that they even worked. But now BioNTech has announced that it’s ramping up development of a malaria vaccine using messenger RNA as the delivery mechanism, and Moderna and partners announced that they’re beginning trials of two mRNA candidate vaccines against H.I.V. Malaria kills roughly 400,000 people a year, H.I.V. nearly a million, and both diseases disproportionately affect the young. If the successful mass rollout of the Covid vaccines winds up accelerating the timeline for these other vaccines, the impact on human life will be enormous.

🧁 The Pastry A.I. That Learned to Fight Cancer – New Yorker

A Japanese system for identifying pastries in 2012 paved the way for much more. Computers have only recently learned how to see, and their ability to do so is really based on their ability to learn from large data sets:

AlexNet was a neural network, “deep” because its simulated neurons were arranged in many layers. As the network was shown new images, it guessed what was in them; inevitably, it was wrong, but after each guess it was made to adjust the connections between its layers of neurons, until it learned to output a label matching the one that researchers provided.

[. . .]

Deep learning had been around for years, but was thought impractical. AlexNet showed that the technique could be used to solve real-world problems, while still running quickly on cheap computers. Today, virtually every A.I. system you’ve heard of—Siri, AlphaGo, Google Translate—depends on the technique.

🐦 A Mindblowing Tweet

Via @EmmaGZRoberts

Links for November 28, 2021

🪄 Becoming a Magician – Autotranslucence

It's hard to pull a single representative quote from this beautiful essay. The author weaves together personal anecdotes with the idea that magic is a metaphor for personal growth.

Not only is any sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic; any sufficiently advanced technologist seems like a magician. In order to write the new version of this life description, I need to imagine a version of myself who, by definition, I cannot understand. If I understood her she wouldn’t be magical.

[. . .]

The ‘describe the version of you that seems impossible right now’ trick I described above is largely an attempt to bypass that part of my brain that dismisses the work of magicians as crazy and starts allowing it to make the necessary shifts required to become the kind of magician I am envisioning.

🌐 Weeklypedia

Weeklypedia is "a digest of the most-edited Wikipedia articles and discussions from the last week." It's an interesting snapshot of what's trending on the internet, with fewer of the click-baity topics that tend to take over on other sites. Link

🐦 A Relevant Tweet

Speaking of committing to things enough for them to take off:

Links for November 21, 2021

😷 Reading the mind with a mask? Improvement in reading the mind in the eyes during the COVID-19 pandemic – PubMed

Spending more time relying on reading people's eyes to gauge their emotions enhances your ability to do so. Our brains are extremely adaptable:

These results suggest that in addition to individual's interest and motivation in understanding other's mental state, continuous everyday experiences can result in an improved capacity for reading mental and emotional states by looking into individuals' eyes.

Via @AdamMGrant

☢️ Can Nuclear Fusion Put the Brakes on Climate Change? – New Yorker

Speaking of not committing fully enough to an initiative, nuclear fusion has been stuck with limited funding for decades, despite its promises. The U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration estimated that the low end of funding for nuclear fusion (about $1 billion per year) would lead to fusion never being a viable technology. That's roughly what's been spent, so for years, cheap and relatively safe energy has seemed just around the corner.

Fission is when an atom—most commonly uranium or plutonium—breaks in two. Fission generates waste that remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years; in contrast, the little bit of waste that fusion generates remains radioactive for only a few decades. Fission is pretty powerful, as evidenced by atomic bombs; fusion is much, much more powerful.


The process of fusion sounds dangerous to a layperson—a sun in a magnetic bottle?—but it is easier to extinguish than a match.

🐦 A Useful Tweet

A great reminder on the importance of compounding:

Keep going.
A black and white bar chart with the text "this is pointless" right before the chart starts compounding.


Links for November 14, 2021

🔗 Computers that Can Make Commitments – Chris Dixon

One of the challenges of talking about blockchains (the underlying technology that enables Bitcoin, for example), is that conversations about it often devolve into explaining the underlying protocols.

Chris Dixon has a great article explaining that the value of a blockchain is simply that it allows computers to make commitments:

Traditional computers are ultimately controlled by people, either directly in the case of personal computers or indirectly through organizations. Blockchains invert this power relationship, putting the code in charge.

If you're not yet familiar with blockchains, I also highly recommend Seth Godin's piece on why blockchains matter, which is an accessible, non-technical introduction.

📲 Hello? This Is Colombia’s Antimachismo Hotline. – NY Times

A new hotline in Bogotá takes calls from men struggling with jealousy, control and fear — and challenges long-held assumptions about masculinity.

🐦️ A Feel-Good Tweet

Links for November 7, 2021

👻 The Wandering Soul – Radiolab
Radiolab's recent podcast episode explores one of America's tactics for waging psychological warfare. I had to share, not just because it's a powerful story, but because it also lies at the intersection of a couple topics I wrote about recently: ghosts and the history of cassettes.

As the Vietnam war dragged on, the US military began desperately searching for any vulnerability in their North Vietnamese enemy. In 1964, they found it. It was an old Vietnamese folktale involving a ghost, eternal damnation and fear - a tailor made weaponizable myth. And so, armed with tape recorders and microphones, the military set out to win the war by bringing this ghost story to life.

Today, the story of these efforts and their ghosts that still haunt us today.

🖼 For Sale: One Real Warhol Print, Hidden Among 999 Fakes – Smithsonian Mag

Collective MSCHF sold the 1,000 drawings for $250 each in a stunt designed to draw attention to authenticity in the art world.

An ingenious piece of art and mischief. Reminds me of this quote from Marshall McLuhan: “Art is anything you can get away with."

🐦 A Feel-Good Tweet

Via @EmmaGZRoberts


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