Links for May 14, 2023

What to Read and Listen to

🖥️ How Aristotle Created the Computer — The Atlantic

Chris Dixon's fascinating 2017 essay on the philosophers and logicians who created the intellectual foundation for modern computers is just as relevant today.

I'll let his introduction speak for itself:

The history of computers is often told as a history of objects, from the abacus to the Babbage engine up through the code-breaking machines of World War II. In fact, it is better understood as a history of ideas, mainly ideas that emerged from mathematical logic, an obscure and cult-like discipline that first developed in the 19th century. Mathematical logic was pioneered by philosopher-mathematicians, most notably George Boole and Gottlob Frege, who were themselves inspired by Leibniz’s dream of a universal “concept language,” and the ancient logical system of Aristotle.
How Aristotle Created the Computer
The philosophers he influenced set the stage for the technological revolution that remade our world.

👂 Listen to Images from the James Webb Space Telescope — Scientific American

When the James Webb telescope "sang" its first observations back to us last year, we recieved its communication waves and turned that information into photos — beautiful, stunning representations of the ancient cosmos.

But many people can't see those photos due to visual impairments. Instead, they rely on the alt text added to those photos when they're published online. It's a common practice for making websites accessible, but how do you describe the majesty, beauty, and science of such brilliant images?

Listen to (or read the transcript of) two science writers from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland wrestle with the challenge of making science accessible.

Both Blome and Carruthers say that ALT text represents a merging of science and art. But it’s also critical work, because no one should be left out of the experience of taking in our universe in a new way.
Listen to Images from the James Webb Space Telescope
It turns out that making new views of the universe accessible to those with vision impairment has required some deep thought—and carefully chosen words.

🎻 Yo-Yo Ma — Prelude, Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major — Song Exploder

Yo-Yo Ma needs no introduction, and his episode on Song Exploder is a must-listen for any music lover, even if classical music isn't typically what you listen to.

Ma has recorded Bach's first cello suite three times over the course of his career, and he talks with host Hrishikesh Hirway about how his interpretation of the piece has changed over time. It's remarkable to hear his evolution.

‎Song Exploder: Yo-Yo Ma - Prelude, Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major on Apple Podcasts
‎Show Song Exploder, Ep Yo-Yo Ma - Prelude, Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major - Dec 20, 2018

Tweet of the Week

I'm not alone in advocating for the importance of the humanities for folks in STEM disciplines. But the value of that cross-pollination also works in the other direction 😉

And your regular reminder that "art is whatever you can get away with."

Links for April 30, 2023

What to Read

🤑 Why the Super Rich are Inevitable — The Pudding

Part article, part interactive game, The Pudding's beautifully illustrated exploration of wealth inequality explores the mathematical basis for the emergence of the ultra-wealthy class.

A few decades ago, physicists got involved in studying inequality. They normally study the physical world – like how two balls might interact when they hit each other. But they started using their methods to study economics – a field now dubbed econophysics. Instead of looking at how two balls interact, they looked at how two people might interact in a transaction, and then modeled how that might play out on a large scale. This helped them model wealth distribution.
Why the super rich are inevitable
Why some mathematicians argue the economy is designed to create a few super rich people – unless we stop it.

📲 The Illusion of a Frictionless Existence — Kat Rosenfield

Kat Rosenfield shares a thoughtful reflection on the rise of young people's sense of fragility:

For 10 years between 2009 and 2019, I authored a teen advice column. At first, the problems being sent to me were more or less the same ones I struggled with during my own high school years: bullying, crushes, the desperate yearning to be your own person (or at least, to figure out who that person was). But a few years in, something changed, and the letters began to be imbued with a strange fearfulness—of awkward situations, of ordinary social conflicts, of having to hear, or articulate, the word “no.” Amid all this, there was one phrase that popped up, repeatedly, verbatim: “I shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable.”

At the time, I thought this was remarkable. And I thought: Oh, but you should. You do. You must.
The Illusion of a Frictionless Existence
Eliminating everyday annoyances may be creating the most risk-averse generation in history.

H/t to my dad for sharing this with me.

🚢 Low Background Steel — Hackaday

In addition to giving rise to the a-bomb and nuclear-powered pacemakers, the Atomic Era also increased the level of background radiation in Earth's air.

This in turn made steel produced since 1945 more radioactive. And since certain instruments are too sensitive to use this newer steel, a market emerged for older steel.

So where do you get steel that was made before 1945 and hasn't been recycled and mixed into newer radioactive steel? Ships at the bottom of the ocean.

Low Background Steel — So Hot Right Now
The nuclear age changed steel, and for decades we had to pay the price for it. The first tests of the atomic bomb were a milestone in many ways, and have left a mark in history and in the surface o…

Tweet of the Week

Links for April 15, 2023

What to Read

🎶 Welcome address to freshman parents at Boston Conservatory — Karl Paulnack

Pianist and director of music division at Boston Conservatory Karl Paulnack shares a powerful testimony on just how critical music is:

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of "arts and entertainment" as the newspaper section would have us believe. It's not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can't with our minds.


H/t to my dad for sharing this with me.

🧠 What Kind of Mind Does ChatGPT Have? — The New Yorker

Computer scientist Cal Newport provides a great, non-technical explanation for how ChatGPT works. I've written previously about the power of consistent iteration, and the training that systems like ChatGPT go through are a great example of that.

What kinds of new minds are being released into our world? The response to ChatGPT, and to the other chatbots that have followed in its wake, has often suggested that they are powerful, sophisticated, imaginative, and possibly even dangerous. But is that really true? If we treat these new artificial-intelligence tools as mysterious black boxes, it’s impossible to say. Only by taking the time to investigate how this technology actually works—from its high-level concepts down to its basic digital wiring—can we understand what we’re dealing with. We send messages into the electronic void, and receive surprising replies. But what, exactly, is writing back?
What Kind of Mind Does ChatGPT Have?
Large language models seem startlingly intelligent. But what’s really happening under the hood?

🧑‍⚖️ These radically simple changes helped lawmakers actually get things done — Washington Post

The U.S. Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress may not sound like a group that could help lawmakers work together more effectively.

But it recently made meaningful steps towards that goal and did so with fully bipartisan membership:

The last select committee created to reform Congress, which focused on budgeting, passed exactly zero recommendations by the time it ended in 2018. So, how did this modernization committee become one of the most high-functioning bipartisan workplaces on Capitol Hill, creating what a Roll Call reporter called a “parallel congressional universe”? How did it manage to adopt, in just four years, 202 bipartisan recommendations, about two-thirds of which have already been executed or made significant progress in that direction? What in God’s name is going on over there?

And what, if anything, can the rest of us learn about how to get things done in our own divided institutions and families?

H/t to my mom for sharing this with me.


Tweet of the Week

Links for April 9, 2023

What to Read and Listen to

🤖 The AI Revolution Could Be Bigger and Weirder Than We Can Imagine — Plain English

Last week, I wrote about the optimistic, long-term view of the rise of AI. But I'll admit that our future, particularly in the near term, may be anything but rosy.

On his podcast Plain English, Derek Thompson talks to Charlie Warzel about the negative predictions for the future of AI and humanity as a whole:

‎Plain English with Derek Thompson: The AI Revolution Could Be Bigger and Weirder Than We Can Imagine on Apple Podcasts
‎Show Plain English with Derek Thompson, Ep The AI Revolution Could Be Bigger and Weirder Than We Can Imagine - Mar 21, 2023

📘 The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature — NY Times

Sarah Hart wrote a beautiful essay on the intersection of math and language:

Good mathematics, like good writing, involves an inherent appreciation of structure, rhythm and pattern. That feeling we get when we read a great novel or a perfect sonnet — that here is a beautiful thing, with all the component parts fitting together perfectly in a harmonious whole — is the same feeling a mathematician experiences when reading a beautiful proof.


Great literature and great mathematics satisfy the same deep yearning in us: for beauty, for truth, for understanding.

Hat tip to my dad for sharing this one with me.

Opinion | The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature
Understanding the often-overlooked links between math and literature can enhance your appreciation of both.

🧬 How Parents’ Trauma Leaves Biological Traces in Children — Scientific American

Rachel Yehuda shares her research on the children of holocaust and 9/11 survivors, which suggests that generational trauma can be transferred epigenetically — not just through parents' behavior.

[R]esearch by my group and others has confirmed that adverse experiences may influence the next generation through multiple pathways. The most apparent route runs through parental behavior, but influences during gestation and even changes in eggs and sperm may also play a role. And all these channels seem to involve epigenetics: alterations in the way that genes function. Epigenetics potentially explains why effects of trauma may endure long after the immediate threat is gone, and it is also implicated in the diverse pathways by which trauma is transmitted to future generations.

The above passage provides the best summary of the article, but it's an easier read than my excerpt suggests.

How Parents’ Trauma Leaves Biological Traces in Children
Adverse experiences can change future generations through epigenetic pathways

Tweets of the Week

A wild use case for ChatGPT and its web browsing plugin:

Links for April 2, 2023

What to Read

🔼 When the Push Button Was New, People Were Freaked — JSTOR Daily

Today's mundane technology is often the source of yesterday's panic:

The doorbell. The intercom. The elevator. Once upon a time, beginning in the late nineteenth century, pushing the button that activated such devices was a strange new experience. The electric push button, the now mundane-seeming interface between human and machine, was originally a spark for wonder, anxiety, and social transformation.
When the Push Button Was New, People Were Freaked - JSTOR Daily
The mundane interface between human and machine caused social anxiety in the late nineteenth century.

👁️ Scientists Revive Human Retinas after Death — Scientific American

Researchers were able to restore communication between retinal cells postmortem. Their results have profound implications for the future of vision care and even how we think about death itself.

Few biological facts seem as irrevocable as brain death. It has long been assumed that when we die, our neurons die with us. But a new study on the neuron-packed tissue of the eye is beginning to challenge that dogma.
Scientists Revive Human Retinas after Death
Restoring eye tissue postmortem could pave the way for reviving other types of brain tissue

🧑‍🎨 Saving the Liberal Arts — David Perell and Jeremy Giffon

Perell and Giffon share a powerful reminder that school should do much more than prepare you for a job:

If we continue to value only useful skills, we’ll end up with work-obsessed technocrats who are blind to the transcendent and unfulfilled by the rat race of achievement.

Or maybe, that’s what’s already happening.

We can do better. An expansive vision was best described by Elena Shalneva, who wrote: “The real purpose of education is not to acquire skills. It is to develop the mind. Fill it with knowledge, yes — but also charge it with fire, like a torch, so that, long after we have left the student bench, the mind still gleams and glares and throws a challenge to the maddening mysteries of the world.”
Saving the Liberal Arts - David Perell
David’s essay explores why the liberal arts are valuable how to save them from obscurity. Read here.

Tweets of the Week

Links for September 4, 2022

What to Read

🎨 An A.I.-Generated Picture Won an Art Prize. Artists Aren’t Happy. — NY Times

Jason M. Allen recently became obsessed with creating AI-generated images using a program called Midjourney. What he did next caused a controversy:

Eventually, Mr. Allen got the idea to submit one of his Midjourney creations to the Colorado State Fair, which had a division for “digital art/digitally manipulated photography.” He had a local shop print the image on canvas and submitted it to the judges

“The fair was coming up,” he said, “and I thought: How wonderful would it be to demonstrate to people how great this art is?"

Several weeks later, while walking the fairground in Pueblo, Mr. Allen saw a blue ribbon hanging next to his piece. He had won the division, along with a $300 prize.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I felt like: this is exactly what I set out to accomplish.”

✈️ Standing Alert with the UPS Hot Spares — Gear Patrol

If you've ever wondered how UPS ensures your package gets delivered on time, here's your answer: They build slack into the system. Jan Tegler talks to the crewmembers who are on call for when things go wrong:

They’re part of the UPS “hot-spares” program, a contingency operation with roots extending back to the late 1980s, a handful of years after the shipping giant entered the global air freight business. How and by whom the program was created has faded from corporate memory but there’s little doubt it was modeled after the US Air Force’s alert force, exemplified by the fighter-interceptors of Air Defense Command during the Cold War and today’s NORAD structure.

The basic idea is simple. Hot-spare aircraft and crews are on alert to “protect” inbound and outbound “Next Day Air” volume, which amounts to nearly 1.6 million packages coming to Worldport (primarily) from collocated UPS air hubs and sort-hub facilities domestically and internationally every night.
Standing Alert with the UPS Hot Spares
When a UPS plane breaks down or the crew encounters problems, packages still need to be delivered.

🖼 Chicago’s Famous Paintings Are Becoming Pothole Mosaics Thanks To Artist Jim Bachor — Block Club Chicago

If art is whatever you can get away with, Jim Bachor is getting away with it:

You don’t have to visit a museum to see some of the world’s most renowned paintings — you can spot them in Chicago’s potholes.

Local mosaic artist Jim Bachor is known for filling potholes with small, colorful mosaics. His latest street art series is called “Master pieces,” and it recreates famous artworks people ordinarily would see at the Art Institute of Chicago

“There’s kind of an interesting juxtaposition there, of bringing masterpieces from a museum into the reviled pothole,” Bachor said. “That was kind of funny.”

See also: Guerrila Public Service

Chicago’s Famous Paintings Are Becoming Pothole Mosaics Thanks To Artist Jim Bachor
Jim Bachor loved mixing highbrow art pieces with his mosaics-in-a-pothole style: “It’s just a little bit of joy that you didn’t expect in a ridiculous space.”

Tweets of the Week

A reminder that effective communication speaks to others' benefits:

Links for August 14, 2022

What to Read

🤔 Making the Impossible Possible The Prepared (title mine)

Long time readers know that changing the stories we tell ourselves is a primary topic around here. The first step to doing something you think is impossible: Decide that it might be possible.

But what happens if you never buy in to the impossible story to begin with? The Prepared shares a couple amazing examples of people who solved problems while unaware of the fact that no one had ever found solutions before:

In the early days of electric lighting, robust frosted light bulbs were considered impossible and were occasionally assigned to new General Electric engineers as a fool’s errand. Marvin Pipkin didn’t realize this and created the first commercially viable frosted light bulb in 1925. Similarly, in his first year of grad school George Dantzig solved two unsolved statistics problems after arriving late to class and assuming they were homework.
2022-07-25 — The Prepared
Kane Hsieh on fish, frosted light bulbs, and the urban explorer’s code of conduct.

🫠 Economists must get more in touch with our feelings — Financial Times

In recent decades, economic inequality has risen sharply. Perhaps, then, we shouldn't be surprised that a similar bifurcation shows up at the extremes of people's self-reported wellbeing:

Jon Clifton, the head of Gallup, which has been tracking wellbeing around the world for many years, notes a polarisation in people’s life-evaluations. Compared with 15 years ago (before the financial crisis, smartphones and Covid-19) twice as many people now say they have the best possible life they could imagine (10 out of 10); however, four times as many people now say they are living the worst life they can conceive (0 out of 10). About 7.5 per cent of people are now in psychological heaven, and about the same proportion are in psychological hell.

Non-paywalled link

Subscribe to read | Financial Times
News, analysis and comment from the Financial Times, the worldʼs leading global business publication

Tweets of the Week

A brief, must-read story about creative problem solving:

Via @JamesClear

Links for July 31, 2022

What to Read

Escaping the Trap of Efficiency: The Counterintuitive Antidote to the Time-Anxiety That Haunts and Hampers Our Search for Meaning — The Marginalian

Maria Popova shares her experience with a mindfulness teacher who tasked her with imagining she had only a year to live, then only a day and only an hour. How would you spend that time?

As you scale down these nested finitudes, the question becomes a powerful sieve for priorities — because undergirding it is really the question of what, from among the myriad doable things, you would choose not to do in order to fill the scant allotment of time, be it the 8,760 hours of a year or a single hour, with the experiences that confer upon it maximum aliveness, that radiant vitality filling the basic biological struggle for survival with something more numinous.
Escaping the Trap of Efficiency: The Counterintuitive Antidote to the Time-Anxiety That Haunts and Hampers Our Search for Meaning
“Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster… Since finitude defines our lives… livi…

🏋️‍♂️ We're Always Training Something — Zen Habits

Leo Babauta shares a reminder that our daily practices quickly slip into long-term habits. And by examining how we spend our days, we can retrain ourselves to spend our lives with greater intention.

I’m pointing this out because it gives us an opportunity — we can put awareness and intentionality into what we’re training, every day. This can change how we do everything, which can create a different way we’re showing up for our lives, and a different set of results.
We’re Always Training Something - zen habits
By Leo Babauta Every day, we go through a set of actions that is training our minds in the long term. Sometimes we’re training intentionally: we meditate, practice focus, get ourselves to start a workout, resist temptations, etc. Mostly, though, we’re training unintentionally: when you press snooze…

What to Watch

📦 The Riddle That Seems Impossible Even If You Know The Answer — Veritasium

Derek Muller breaks down the 100 Prisoners Riddle's mind-bending answer in this animated video.

Imagine, for a moment, that there are 100 prisoners numbered 1-100. One a time, they must each enter a room with 100 boxes (numbered 1-100) with slips of paper inside. Those slips of paper have the numbers 1-100 on them and are randomly distributed.

Each prisoner can open up to 50 boxes looking for their number, then must leave the room exactly as they found it.

If every single person locates their number, they all are freed. But if just one of them fails, the group remains inprisoned.

They must leave the room exactly as they found it and cannot communicate, except for strategizing ahead of time.

On the surface, each of them has 50/50 chance of finding their number, which means the group has a (½)^100 chance (that's a decimal with 30 zeroes after it, followed by an eight).

What can they do to improve their odds of success to over 30%?

The answer reminds me of this quote from mathematican Hannah Fry:

Mathematics is about abstracting away from reality, not replicating it. And it offers real value in the process. By allowing yourself to view the world from an abstract perspective, you create a language that is uniquely able to capture and describe the patterns and mechanisms that would otherwise remain hidden.

Via Farnam Street

Tweets of the Week

Art ❤️ science:

Have a great week,‌‌‌‌‌‌

Links for July 17, 2022

What to Read

💩 Giving a Shit as a Service — Allen Pike

In a globalized society, there's an abundance of services from massive companies that lack the extra level of care you might expect from a smaller operation. Allen Pike shares a mental model for the value you can get from smaller service providers:

In some ways, that’s the fundamental value proposition of a small boutique, whether it be a furniture shop or a software studio. Giving a shit as a service. Sure, you can always get a commodity good from off the shelf – when you’re selling soybean oil by the 100 ton lot, nobody wants to have a conversation with you about the subtle flavour profiles of different bean oils. But sometimes, you want to buy from someone that’s obsessed about the final product.
Giving a Shit as a Service
A mental model for service businesses.

🎞 What Are Quota Quickies? — The Cinema History Blog

Post-WWI Britain had a problem: Its film industry, which was previously a global leader of the emerging art form, was struggling and faced stiff competition from American studios.

So parliament signed a bill called the Cinematograph Films Act, which mandated that by 1936, 20% of all films shown in cinemas had to be British.

These were films that raced through production in order to hit the quota.
Films were churned out in a matter of days. Budgets were tiny.
And… most of them weren’t that great. Surprisingly. [...]

Did It Work?
To everyone’s surprise, it did. Sort of.

See also: Strathern's insight — "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."

What Are Quota Quickies? – The Cinema History Blog

(Thanks to my friend Jim for sharing this bit of history with me.)

Tweets of the Week

Second-order effects are everywhere.

Head into this week with the kind of confidence that lets you name COVID variants:

Links for July 10, 2022

What to Read

🏢 The Office Tower Has a New Job to Do — Bloomberg

When we shape the spaces we inhabit, they shape us in return. And office building designers are at the forefront of what a future of remote work means for the commercial heart of so many of our cities:

Transitioning office towers to branded consumer lifestyle experiences is one of several approaches that have been advanced for reinvigorating moribund downtowns, such as commercial-to-residential conversions that turn office space into living space. Ramon Marrades, an urban economist who’s the director of the nonprofit Placemaking Europe, sees the rapid acceleration of this trend as “an attempt from real estate linked to global capital to reinvent itself as quick as possible.”

If it succeeds, the add-more-amenities approach could enliven business districts with new derivations of privately owned public space — a zoning tool introduced by New York City in 1961 that encourages developers to make indoor or outdoor parts of their properties open to the general public in exchange for additional floor area. But the proliferation of these hybrid semi-public urban features has also raised concerns about exclusion and privacy.


📉 Where Did the Long Tail Go? Ted Gioia

I've written previously about the long tail — the idea that businesses and creators can increasingly thrive by leveraging the internet to reach niche audiences.

Ted Gioia argues that we are trending in the opposite direction:

[T]he Long Tail is a cruel joke. It’s a fairy tale we’re told to make us feel good about all those marginalized creative endeavors. Their happily-ever-after day will come—or so we are promised—because the Long Tail will rescue them.

But it won’t. We live in a Short Tail society. And it’s getting shorter all the time.


🙈 Most Afraid to Fail — Infinite Play

Nat Eliason asks and reflects on a thought-provoking question in this short piece:

If you are fortunate or unfortunate enough to wonder:

“What should I spend my time working on?

Then perhaps a better question is:

“Where am I most afraid to fail?”

For more on embracing failure, see "Set Out to Be Wrecked."


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Reflections on creating systems to sustainably grow your impact on the world.
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