Thursday, November 12, 2015

Friday Thinking 13 November 2015

Hello – Friday Thinking is curated on the basis of my own curiosity and offered in the spirit of sharing. Many thanks to those who enjoy this. 

In the 21st Century curiosity will SKILL the cat.

As long as we discuss online education as a pedagogic revolution rather than an organizational one, we aren’t even having the right kind of conversation. The dramatic adoption of online education is not mainly a change in the content of classes. It’s a change in the institutional form of college, a demand for more flexibility by students who have to manage the increasingly complicated triangle of work, family, and school.

Outside a relative handful of selective residential institutions, the principal function of college is to train and credential people for work. An Associate’s or Bachelor’s is no longer one way of getting a good job. It is just about the only way of avoiding low wages or unemployment. The earnings premium for having a college degree has stagnated, but the punishment for not having one continues to grow. The digital revolution is happening because a high school degree is a ticket to not very much, while the traditional form of college no longer works for the people who need a certificate of employability.

...getting a diploma requires two skills — the ability to pass classes, and the ability to manage everything else about college — and that everything else is by far the harder job. This leads to the online paradox at community colleges: students taking online classes get worse grades, but are likelier to graduate, because students struggling in face-to-face classes are likelier to drop out altogether.

We already know what the college of the future will look like, because the non-traditional students are creating it now. It’s a hybrid of online and in-person classes, centered on the student and not the institution, with credits accruing from multiple schools, and adding up to a degree in alternating periods of attendance and absence.

Given the lousy fit between institutional assumptions and the actual lives of most students, we should applaud their inventiveness in using digital options to make college work for them. But we should also recognize our complicity in creating a system that works so badly in the first place. Online classes are no longer surprising, or experimental, or rare. By adopting them, students are telling us what they need our institutions to become.
Clay Shirky - The digital revolution in higher education has already happened. No one noticed.

A game is a bounded, specific way of problem solving. Play is more cosmic and open-ended. Gods play, but man unfortunately is a gaming individual. A game has a predictable resolution, play may not. Play allows for emergence, novelty surprise.
philosopher of science Shiv Visvanathan

"In science, if you know what you are doing, you should not be doing it. In engineering, if you do not know what you are doing, you should not be doing it. Of course, you seldom, if ever, see either pure state."

How can we design systems when we don't know what we're doing?

The most exciting engineering challenges lie on the boundary of theory and the unknown. Not so unknown that they're hopeless, but not enough theory to predict the results of our decisions. Systems at this boundary often rely on emergent behavior — high-level effects that arise indirectly from low-level interactions.

When designing at this boundary, the challenge lies not in constructing the system, but in understanding it. In the absence of theory, we must develop an intuition to guide our decisions. The design process is thus one of exploration and discovery.
Bret Victor - Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction

It is worth emphasizing in passing that the argument that humans are at risk from emerging technologies is in an important sense circular. Humans are increasingly both designer and designed; they are, in other words, increasingly an emerging technology in their own right. People are many things, but they are now, and certainly will be in the future, a design project. Thus, in a meaningful way the argument that people are at risk from emerging technologies becomes the argument that emerging technologies are at risk from emerging technologies, which makes little sense, and isnÕt very helpful analytically, or in guiding policy or practice.

Any technology potent enough to be interesting will inevitably destabilize existing institutions, power relationships, social structures, reigning economic and technological systems, and cultural assumptions. Previous waves of technological change - from steam and coal, to electricity, to rail and automotive technologies - have destabilized and restructured human and natural systems at all scales, interacting unpredictably with contemporary natural, human, and built systems.

Things are indeed different today, and the difference is fundamental and qualitative, not simply one of degree. Emerging technologies are making everything from individual molecules, to the human, to the planet itself, design spaces. Moreover, it is also likely that technological evolution, and all the concomitant changes in coupled institutional, social, economic, and cultural systems, will be more challenging and complex than anything humans have yet experienced.

...we can already identify several important principles. For example, we need to stop thinking of problems with solutions, and think more in terms of conditions that will require long-term, adaptive management.
Emerging technologies and the future of humanity- Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Before Jeremy Rifkin wrote his most recent book “Zero Marginal Cost Society” he wrote “The Third Industrial Revolution”. Both books are must reads as they layout a very solid line of evidence about the future. This article provides some interesting support. What’s important to note is that Rifkin has had a lot of influence on Germany’s future strategy as well.
China's New Five-Year Plan Embraces the Third Industrial Revolution
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has not only read Jeremy Rifkin's book "The Third Industrial Revolution" and taken it to heart. He and his colleagues have also made it the core of the country's 13th five-year plan announced in Beijing on Oct. 29.

"The future development of China," Premier Li told us at the outset of the "Understanding China" dialogues organized by the Berggruen Institute's 21st Century Council, "is about economic transformation and upgrading -- about expanding domestic consumption and advancing the new type of industrialization through the application of Internet technologies, urbanization and agricultural modernization. And it is about pursuing green growth. This will bring new opportunities to the balanced development of other economies and the world's sustainable development." The aim, in the words of the Chinese premier, is to move from "quantity" of growth to "quality."

Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of the economy, laid out for us the comprehensive dimensions of the plan that will guide China's development over the next half decade. The new buzzwords in his presentation could have been pulled right out of the series of essays by Rifkin -- and responses by global political and thought leaders -- that we have been publishing in recent weeks in The WorldPost. Zhang envisions linking up China's manufacturing and infrastructure through the resource and logistical efficiency enabled by the "Internet of Things" -- what the Chinese call "Internet Plus." He spoke of "circular" use of resources in which waste is recycled and about "weakening the urban concentration of Beijing" by integrating development through decentralized, smart infrastructure in the northern provinces surrounding the capital. Under the new plan, he said, the first criteria in the promotion evaluations of mayors, governors and party secretaries will be their "green" accomplishments.

This 1 ½ hour video is well worth the watch - a great discussion that makes clear that a market system cannot arise without a governance framework.
Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few - Robert B. Reich
Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich worries that the economic recovery is bypassing most Americans. Reich examines how the economic system that helped make our country strong is now failing us. And he lays out what’s needed to fix it.

This is a long academic paper looking looking at the future - worth the read.
Emerging technologies and the future of humanity
Emerging technologies are not the danger. Failure of human imagination, optimism, energy, and creativity is the danger.
Although it was not clear at the time, Bill Joy’s article warning of the dangers of emerging technologies was to spawn a veritable “dystopia industry.” More recent contributions have tended to focus on artificial intelligence, or AI; electric car and space technology entrepreneur Elon Musk has warned that AI is “summoning the demon”, while physicist Stephen Hawking has argued that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”. The Future of Life Institute (2015) recently released an open letter signed by many scientific and research notables urging a ban on “offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control.” Meanwhile, the UN holds conferences and European activists mount campaigns against what they characterize as “killer robots” (see, e.g., Human Rights Watch, 2012). Headlines reinforce a sense of existential crisis; in the military and security domain, cyber conflict runs rampant, with hackers accessing millions of US personnel records, including sensitive security clearance documents. Technologies such as uncrewed aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as “drones,” are highly contentious in both civil and conflict environments, for many different reasons. A recent US Army Research Laboratory report foresees genetically and technologically enhanced soldiers networked with their battlespace robotic partners and remarks that “the presence of super humans on the battlefield in the 2050 timeframe is highly likely because the various components needed to enable this development already exist and are undergoing rapid evolution”.

How is one to think about this outpouring of analysis, hypothesis, events, and existential angst? A useful first step is to realize that there are three levels to such discussions of technology. Level I is the instrumental level: a gun shoots a bullet and kills someone; a watch is used to tell time; a vaccine is used to prime an individual’s immune system to protect against a disease. Level II is the systems level: an uncrewed aerial vehicle conducting surveillance is part of a battlefield intelligence system; watches function in a globally standardized time system that was only institutionalized in the United States by an act of Congress in 1918; vaccinations are part of a public health system. Level III, the effect of a technology on individual psychology, society and culture, economic patterns, geopolitical status, and other Earth systems, is unpredictable and uncertain. One of the major drivers for standardized time, for example, was railroad technology, which was certainly not foreseen by those who first began developing steam locomotives. It is important to remember, however, that even if the specifics of Level III impacts cannot be predicted a priori, they will occur.

There maybe an acceleration in the development of Blockchain (crypto-currency e.g. Bitcoin platform) technology by major incumbents. This article has a nice infographic showing this movement.
The March Of Financial Services Giants Into Bitcoin And Blockchain Startups In One Chart
13 financial services firms made their first investment in the digital currency and blockchain space since the start of August 2015.
From American Express to BBVA to Goldman Sachs, major firms across the financial services landscape are making their first investments into bitcoin and blockchain startups.

The herd of new strategic investors is playing an increasingly important role in the health of the financing market for startups in the space. While deal activity dropped for the second consecutive quarter in Q3’15 to $87M, all five of the largest financing deals to blockchain and bitcoin startups in 2015 year-to-date included a corporate strategic investor. As TransAmerica Ventures CEO Georg Schwegler said recently,

“The encouraging part is that a lot of finance companies — banks and insurance — are becoming aware of the advantages of the technology finally.”

To illustrate, we analyzed CB Insights data to plot first investments by financial services firms in the space over time. As the chart illustrates, there’s been a plethora of first-time activity from corporates since August 2015. Another initiative not included on the chart below is R3 CEV, which counts 22 banks including Credit Suisse, JPMorgan and Deutsche Bank collaborating to advance ledger solutions and standards that meet banking requirements.

And another development related to the rapid grasping of the blockchain  by incumbent finance institutions.
Microsoft Says 4 Institutions Signed up for Ethereum-Powered Platform
Microsoft says that four large global financial institutions have already signed up to the Ethereum-powered blockchain tool on Azure.
The technology giant revealed the news, according to a Reuters report, at Devcon1, Ethereum’s developer conference currently ongoing in London during Nov. 9-13. Microsoft is one of the event’s sponsors and attendees.

Ethereum, one of the most anticipated Bitcoin 2.0 technologies- or Bitcoin 3.0 according to some accounts- officially launched three months ago. It is touted by its creators with the sentence: “What bitcoin does for payments, Ethereum does for anything that can be programmed.”

Microsoft joined forces with ConsensYs, a Brooklyn-based startup that is building tools based on Ethereum, to allow clients of its Azure service to experiment with new applications such as smart contracts. Banks and insurance companies are among the targeted clientele. The names of the four institutions that joined were not disclosed.
The idea is to give clients the opportunity to easily play around with blockchain-based applications without much investment- a “fail fast, fail cheap” model. Users even with no knowledge or experience with cryptocurrency would be able to build contracts, whose terms are automatically executed, in 20 minutes.

“Working with our customers that wanted to start playing around with blockchain technology, the major pain point that we kept hearing from them was that it was just too hard to get started, and too expensive,” said Microsoft’s director of tech strategy for financial services, Marley Gray.

Azure is Microsoft’s cloud-based business service, which supports multiple programming languages and provides for the creation of custom applications on Microsoft’s infrastructure.

The company has been increasingly shifting focus to its cloud services amid slowing demand for its Windows operating system.

This may seem like an arcane article about the blockchain - but for anyone interested in the future of the digital environment and its emerging economic systems, it may be of great interest.
Machine Trust Language (MTL): Human-Machine Collaboration
Andreas Antonopoulos’s articulation of network-enforced trust primitives could be extended more broadly into the concept of Machine Trust Language (MTL). While blockchains are being popularly conceived as trust machines, and as a new mode of creating societal shared trust, Andreas addresses how at the compositional level, this trust is being generated. The key idea is thinking in terms of a language of trust, of its primitives, its quanta, its elemental pieces, its phonemes, words, and grammar that can be assembled into a computational trust system.

Blockchains are a network-centric trust system that can make and enforce promises. A network is not just a decentralized architecture; a network can have functional properties built into it. Network-centric or network-enforced functionality can thus enable a more complex level of activity. As XML standardized, facilitated, and undergirded Internet I: the Internet of information transfer, MTL could similarly for the Internet II: the Internet of value transfer.

Trust Primitives: Technical Details
The atomistic building blocks of trust, trust primitives, arise from blockchain scripting languages; they are the programming functions or opcodes used to specify different situations.

Google is definitely a complex company and when it does stuff like in this article it’s hard not to trust it’s intentions. But just as important - is the recognition that open-source approaches are the most robust and fastest way to increase innovation.
Google Just Open Sourced TensorFlow, Its Artificial Intelligence Engine
TECH PUNDIT TIM O’Reilly had just tried the new Google Photos app, and he was amazed by the depth of its artificial intelligence.

O’Reilly was standing a few feet from Google CEO and co-founder Larry Page this past May, at a small cocktail reception for the press at the annual Google I/O conference—the centerpiece of the company’s year. Google had unveiled its personal photos app earlier in the day, and O’Reilly marveled that if he typed something like “gravestone” into the search box, the app could find a photo of his uncle’s grave, taken so long ago.

The app uses an increasingly powerful form of artificial intelligence called deep learning. By analyzing thousands of photos of gravestones, this AI technology can learn to identify a gravestone it has never seen before. The same goes for cats and dogs, trees and clouds, flowers and food.

The Google Photos search engine isn’t perfect. But its accuracy is enormously impressive—so impressive that O’Reilly couldn’t understand why Google didn’t sell access to its AI engine via the Internet, cloud-computing style, letting others drive their apps with the same machine learning. That could be Google’s real money-maker, he said. After all, Google also uses this AI engine to recognize spoken words, translate from one language to another, improve Internet search results, and more. The rest of the world could turn this tech towards so many other tasks, from ad targeting to computer security.

Well, this morning, Google took O’Reilly’s idea further than even he expected. It’s not selling access to its deep learning engine. It’s open sourcing that engine, freely sharing the underlying code with the world at large. This software is called TensorFlow, and in literally giving the technology away, Google believes it can accelerate the evolution of AI. Through open source, outsiders can help improve on Google’s technology and, yes, return these improvements back to Google.

“What we’re hoping is that the community adopts this as a good way of expressing machine learning algorithms of lots of different types, and also contributes to building and improving [TensorFlow] in lots of different and interesting ways,” says Jeff Dean, one of Google’s most important engineers and a key player in the rise of its deep learning tech.
Google’s move is significant. That’s because Google’s AI engine is regarded by some as the world’s most advanced—and because, well, it’s Google. Google is five to seven years ahead of the rest of the world. If they open source their tools, this can make everybody else better at machine learning.

And here’s another advance on the computational capacity front.
Tiny NVIDIA Supercomputer to Bring Artificial Intelligence to New Generation of Autonomous Robots and Drones
Jetson TX1 Module Runs Deep Neural Networks for Computer Vision, Machine Learning and Navigation, While Drawing Little Power
NVIDIA today unveiled a credit-card sized module that harnesses the power of machine learning to enable a new generation of smart, autonomous machines that can learn.

The NVIDIA® Jetson™ TX1 module addresses the challenge of creating a new wave of millions of smart devices -- drones that don't just fly by remote control, but navigate their way through a forest for search and rescue; compact security surveillance systems that don't just scan crowds, but identify suspicious activity; and robots that don't just perform tasks, but tailor them to individuals' habits -- by incorporating capabilities such as machine learning, computer vision, navigation and more.

Jetson TX1 is the first embedded computer designed to process deep neural networks -- computer software that can learn to recognize objects or interpret information. This new approach to program computers is called machine learning and can be used to perform complex tasks such as recognizing images, processing conversational speech, or analyzing a room full of furniture and finding a path to navigate across it. Machine learning is a groundbreaking technology that will give autonomous devices a giant leap in capability.

With its 1 teraflops of performance -- comparable to the fastest supercomputer from 15 years ago -- Jetson delivers exceptional performance for machine learning, computer vision, GPU computing and graphics, while drawing very little power.

"Jetson TX1 will enable a new generation of incredibly capable autonomous devices," said Deepu Talla, vice president and general manager of the Tegra business at NVIDIA. "They will navigate on their own, recognize objects and faces, and become increasingly intelligent through machine learning. It will enable developers to create industry-changing products."

Available as a module, Jetson TX1 is also built into a Developer Kit, which enables hobbyists and professionals to develop and test highly advanced autonomous devices. This makes it easy to transition from development to manufacturing and production.

One more development related to deep learning - and human language acquisition. What’s important here is to imagine the next decade’s mobile device, services and the Internet-of-Things.
A network of artificial neurons learns to use human language
The ANNABELL model: A cognitive architecture of interconnected artificial neurons, able to learn to communicate using human language starting from a state of 'tabula rasa' only through communication with a human interlocutor.

A computer simulation of a cognitive model entirely made up of artificial neurons learns to communicate through dialog starting from a state of tabula rasa -

A group of researchers from the University of Sassari (Italy) and the University of Plymouth (UK) has developed a cognitive model, made up of two million interconnected artificial neurons, able to learn to communicate using human language starting from a state of 'tabula rasa', only through communication with a human interlocutor. The model is called ANNABELL (Artificial Neural Network with Adaptive Behavior Exploited for Language Learning) and it is described in an article published in PLOS ONE. This research sheds light on the neural processes that underlie the development of language.

Another aspect of seasonal disorders arises in our transportation systems. Here’s one vision of addressing those cities woes.
A Fleet of Flying Robots Will Repair Potholes In This U.K. CIty
A drone army could wage a war on crumbling streets.
Imagine riding a bike through a modern city street and, instead of having to swerve to avoid a Swiss-cheese of potholes, you instead have to swerve to avoid a municipal worker drone as it swoops down to repair the road. That’s the dream of engineers in the U.K., who see a future of "self-repairing cities."

A team from the University of Leeds in England wants to develop autonomous repair drones that will flit around the city, spotting problems and repairing them as they go. The project seems almost absurdly optimistic, but the university has won a $6.4 million grant to finance the work.

"We want to make Leeds the first city in the world to have zero disruption from street works," says the School of Civil Engineering’s Professor Phil Purnell in a release. "We can support infrastructure which can be entirely maintained by robots and make the disruption caused by the constant digging up the road in our cities a thing of the past."

And here’s another drone coming online soon - one that may signal a profound change in maritime operations.
DARPA to Test Its Autonomous Submarine-Hunting Ocean Drone
DARPA has built a payload carrying underwater drone that is capable of tracking submarines, and they plan to begin testing in early 2016.
DARPA will begin testing on the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) in San Diego early next year. ACTUV is a 132-foot, 140-ton unmanned submarine-hunting ocean drone designed to autonomously track stealth submarines from the surface.

Currently it is still under construction, at 90 percent completion, on the Oregon coast. DARPA says that ACTUV will be significantly cheaper than a naval destroyer, costing $15,000 per day to operate compared to a destroyer’s $700,000 per day operational cost.

The ACTUV’s main function will be to trail submarines automatically traverse its surroundings and trail submarines. Currently DARPA seems to be leaving open the possibility of weaponizing the vehicle in the future. Although DARPA is not explicitly saying that the ACTUV is a weapon, it will be able to carry a relatively large payload and have independently deploying systems. The discretion likely stems from the Pentagon’s autonomous weapons directive that prohibits the use of lethal and semi-lethal force by autonomous machines.

This is a 5 min video of a new sensor that let’s us imagine living in the digital environment connected in the Internet of Things - well worth the view.
EM-Sense: Touch Recognition of Uninstrumented Electrical and Electromechanical Objects
Most everyday electrical and electromechanical objects emit small amounts of electromagnetic (EM) noise during regular operation. When a user makes physical contact with such an object, this EM signal propagates through the user, owing to the conductivity of the human body. By modifying a small, low-cost, software-defined radio, we can detect and classify these signals in real-time, enabling robust on-touch object detection. Unlike prior work, our approach requires no instrumentation of objects or the environment; our sensor is self-contained and can be worn unobtrusively on the body. We call our technique EM-Sense and built a proof-of-concept smartwatch implementation. Our studies show that discrimination between dozens of objects is feasible, independent of wearer, time and local environment.

This is good news for consumers and the rights of fair use.
Victory for Users: Librarian of Congress Renews and Expands Protections for Fair Uses
The new rules for exemptions to copyright's DRM-circumvention laws were issued today, and the Librarian of Congress has granted much of what EFF asked for over the course of months of extensive briefs and hearings. The exemptions we requested—ripping DVDs and Blurays for making fair use remixes and analysis; preserving video games and running multiplayer servers after publishers have abandoned them; jailbreaking cell phones, tablets, and other portable computing devices to run third party software; and security research and modification and repairs on cars—have each been accepted, subject to some important caveats.

The exemptions are needed thanks to a fundamentally flawed law that forbids users from breaking DRM, even if the purpose is a clearly lawful fair use. As software has become ubiquitous, so has DRM.  Users often have to circumvent that DRM to make full use of their devices, from DVDs to games to smartphones and cars.

The law allows users to request exemptions for such lawful uses—but it doesn’t make it easy. Exemptions are granted through an elaborate rulemaking process that takes place every three years and places a heavy burden on EFF and the many other requesters who take part. Every exemption must be argued anew, even if it was previously granted, and even if there is no opposition. The exemptions that emerge are limited in scope. What is worse, they only apply to end users—the people who are actually doing the ripping, tinkering, jailbreaking, or research—and not to the people who make the tools that facilitate those lawful activities.

The section of the law that creates these restrictions—the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's Section 1201—is fundamentally flawed, has resulted in myriad unintended consequences, and is long past due for reform or removal altogether from the statute books. Still, as long as its rulemaking process exists, we're pleased to have secured the following exemptions.

Here’s a great article from Clay Shirky - another step into the looming revolution that is the digital environment.
The digital revolution in higher education has already happened. No one noticed.
The digital revolution in higher education has happened. In the fall of 2012, the most recent semester with complete data in the U.S., four million undergraduates took at least one course online, out of sixteen million total, with growth up since then. Those numbers mean that more students now take a class online than attend a college with varsity football. More than twice as many now take a class online as live on campus. There are more undergraduates enrolled in an online class than there are graduate students enrolled in all Masters and Ph.D. programs combined. At the current rate of growth, half the country’s undergraduates will have at least one online class on their transcripts by the end of the decade. This is the new normal.

The first for-credit classes appeared online in the 1980s, but for decades after, such classes were concentrated in a few institutions. That period has ended.More than 95% of colleges and universities with over five thousand students offer online classes for credit. In the same way online dating went from “Eww, weird” to being as ordinary as two tickets to a movie, online education has stopped being “The Future” and has become a perfectly routine way to learn.

You wouldn’t know this from public conversation, where online courses are discussed as something that might be a big deal some day, rather than as ordinary reality for one student in four. The dramatic expansion of online classes has been largely ignored because it’s been driven by non-traditional students, which is to say students who are older and have more responsibilities than the well-off adolescents college has always stood ready to serve.

If you’re reading this, you were probably a smart kid who did well at a good school, and that description extends to almost everyone you know. The gap between the conversation about college and its reality exists because the people who drive that conversation — you and me and our friends — mostly talk about elite schools.

This is a fascinating concept that has significant potential to transform our concept of community living. The article is aimed at Millennials - but I think we’ll see this sort of urban living applicable to many people. The graphic of the plans is interesting.
Dorms for Grownups: A Solution for Lonely Millennials?
In a new model of living, residents will have their own “microunits” built around a shared living space for cooking, eating and hanging out
This office looks like a pretty typical co-working space, what with the guy with a ponytail coding in one corner, the pile of bikes clustered in another, and the minimalist desks spread across a light-filled room. Troy Evans opened this space, CoWorks, in a downtown building here in February.

Coworking is probably a familiar concept at this point, but Evans wants to take his idea a step further. On Friday, on the top two floors of the building, he’s starting construction on a space he envisions as a dorm for Millennials, though he cringes at the word “dorm.” Commonspace, as he’s calling it, will feature 21 microunits, which each pack a tiny kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living space into 300-square-feet. The micro-units surround shared common areas including a chef’s kitchen, a game room, and a TV room. Worried about the complicated social dynamics of so many Millennials in one living unit? Fear not, Evans and partner John Talarico are hiring a “social engineer” who will facilitate group events and maintain harmony among roommates.

Forget communes or co-ops. Millennials, Evans says, want the chance to be alone in their own bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens, but they also want to be social and never lonely (hence #FOMO).   

“We’re trying to combine an affordable apartment with this community style of living, rather than living by yourself in a one-bedroom in the suburbs,” Evans, who is 35, told me.

Some parts of Commonspace are sure to appeal to twentysomethings looking for friends in the city. Evans plans to create an online recruiting process that will help him select applicants who fit into the community. Residents will be able to communicate with each other through Facebook groups and Slack channels, and will come together through weekly dinners and pub crawls and will be able to garden together on the rooftop garden.   

The apartments will be fully furnished to appeal to potential residents who don’t own much (the units will have very limited storage space). The bedrooms are built into the big windows of the office building—one window per unit—and the rest of the apartment can be traversed in three big leaps. Residents will only have to sign up for six months to start. Evans and Talarico hope to also rent out some of the units on Airbnb to get fresh faces moving through the space.

Here’s is a short article on increasing life expectancy and mortality rates. While the article notes the statistical rise - it doesn’t talk about the health improvement likely to emerge in the coming decades.
Your Kids Will Live Longer Than You Thought
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, life expectancy at birth in the United States was 78.8 years in 2013 — 76.4 years for men, 81.2 years for women. But I have good news. Those statistics don’t mean what you probably think they mean.

In fact, an American child born in 2013 will most likely live six or more years longer than those averages: boys into their early 80s, girls into their late 80s.
Any life expectancy calculation is based on a series of probabilities: If you’re currently 21, what are your odds of living to 22; if you live to 22, how likely are you to make it to 23; and so on. In the most commonly cited life expectancy statistics, which actuaries call period life expectancy, the death rates at each age are held fixed over time. That is, a baby girl born Jan. 1, 2016, who lives to see 2076 is assigned a probability of dying in 2076 that equals the probability of a woman who is currently 60 years old dying next year.

Of course, the assumption that 60-year-olds in 2076 will be no healthier than 60-year-olds today is unlikely to be correct. ….

So this statistic is useful for measuring the health of a country’s inhabitants, but it’s not useful if what you want to know is how long your new child will live. For that, you need to look at cohort life expectancy, a statistic that adjusts for the fact that death rates tend to decline over time as health and safety improve. According to the Social Security Administration, that’s 83.1 years for boys born in the United States in 2015, and 86.8 years for girls.

But wait, I have more good news: Those estimates are probably not optimistic enough. The Technical Panel on Assumptions and Methods established by the Social Security Advisory Board, an independent government agency that advises Social Security’s trustees on matters including actuarial assumptions, says Social Security is systematically underestimating future declines in mortality rates, and therefore underestimating the likely life spans of young Americans. (Demographic estimates, of course, are necessary to project future revenues and expenses for the program.)

In the long run, the Social Security Administration assumes the “mortality improvement rate” will be 0.71 percent — that is, the odds of dying at a given age will fall, on average, that much each year. Remember, that’s a rate of relative improvement, and at most ages the odds of dying are low, so the numbers won’t move around very much. If a person your age had a 1 percent chance of dying in a given year, the S.S.A.’s assumption of 0.71 percent annual mortality improvement would imply a 0.9921 percent chance of death the following year for people a year younger than you — just a little bit safer.

The technical panel thinks 0.71 percent isn’t high enough, and that Social Security should assume an improvement rate of 1 percent a year, which better reflects past improvements in health. Over time, that small difference would compound into a meaningful increase in life expectancy. By 2090, this change in assumptions would add two and a half years to life expectancy, relative to the assumptions currently used by Social Security.

A signal that the domestication of DNA is already here and accelerating? There’s a 1 min video - must see
Do-it-yourself CRISPR genome editing kits bring genetic engineering to your kitchen bench
CRISPR genome editing is one of the most significant, world-changing technologies of our era, allowing scientists to make incredibly precise cut n' paste edits to the DNA of living organisms. Now, one synthetic biologist from NASA plans to make it as accessible as a home science kit, so you can bio-hack yeast and bacteria on your kitchen bench.

If you're not up to date with how CRISPR gene editing works, take a quick look at this excellent MIT video. In short, CRISPR/Cas9 is a radically fast and easy way to precisely cut and replace DNA sections in a living organism. It has revolutionised biomedical research and opens up all kinds of opportunities for gene therapy and genetic engineering.

Dr. Josiah Zayner, a research fellow in NASA's synthetic biology lab, believes that if CRISPR is the key scientific tool of the future, it's the tool amateur scientists should be experimenting with at home, today.

Zayner says the kits will contain everything a budding scientist needs to carry out CRISPR experiments on yeast or bacteria. For US$130, you can have a crack at re-engineering bacteria so that it can survive on a food it normally wouldn't be able to handle, or for $160, you can get your eukaryote on and edit the ADE2 gene of yeast to give it a red pigment.

Here’s another milestone in the progress toward DNA tailored therapies.
Baby close to dying from leukemia has no signs of cancer 2 months after designer cell therapy
Doctors need to see if the success is sustained
A baby whom doctors thought almost certain to die has been cleared of a previously incurable leukemia in the first human use of an "off-the-shelf" cell therapy that creates designer immune cells.

One-year-old Layla had run out of all other treatment options when doctors at Britain's Great Ormond Street Hospital  gave her the highly experimental, genetically edited cells in a tiny 1-milliliter intravenous infusion.

Two months later, she was cancer-free and she is now home from hospital. The gene-edited cell treatment was prepared by scientists at the hospital and University College London together with the French biotech firm Cellectis, which is now funding full clinical trials of the therapy due to start next year.

It is designed to work by adding new genes to healthy donated immune cells known as T-cells, which arm them against leukemia. Layla's mother told media that the only options the family would not accept was inaction.

This next article is not about gene-editing … yet - but represents an important step in understanding aging.
Biologists discover the key mechanism that triggers human ageing
And they could use it to help slow or reverse the process.
Scientists have discovered that the deteorioration of the tightly-packed bundles of DNA that are responsible for our normal cell functioning is actually reversible, and figuring out how this process works could enable new treatments for age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Researchers from the Salk Institute in the US and the Chinese Academy of Science made the discovery while studying the underlying causes of Werner syndrome - a genetic disorder that causes affected individuals to age more rapidly than normal.
People with this condition suffer age-related diseases early in life, such as cataracts, type-2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancer, and often die prematurely in their 40s or 50s.

The team found that the genetic mutations responsible for this syndrome caused densely packed DNA - known as heterochromatin - to become destabilised, which serves to disrupt normal cellular functions and caused the cells to age prematurely.
“This disruption of normal DNA packaging is a key driver of ageing,” senior researcher Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, from the Salk Institute, said in a press release.

“This has implications beyond Werner syndrome, as it identifies a central mechanism of aging - heterochromatin disorganisation - which has been shown to be reversible.”

“What this study means is that this protein does not only work in a particular genetic disease, it works in all humans,” Belmonte told Alice Park at TIME. “This mechanism is general for aging process.”
The team’s findings were reported in Science.

I am fascinated by what seem to be an acceleration of our understanding of just how entangled we are with our micro-nano ecologies - the microbiomes in and around us This knowledge is accelerating as the technologies of DNA sequencing and observation become cheaper, faster and more powerful. This is another article elaborating recent research in this domain.
Our Dust, Ourselves
Dust talks. That clump of gray fuzz hiding under the couch may look dull, but it contains multitudes: tiny errant crumbs of toast, microscopic fibres from a winter coat, fragments of dead leaves, dog dander, sidewalk grit, sloughed-off skin cells, grime-loving bacteria. “Each bit of dust is a microhistory of your life,” Rob Dunn, a biologist at North Carolina State University, told me recently. For the past four years, Dunn and two of his colleagues—Noah Fierer, a microbial ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Holly Menninger, the director of public science at N.C. State—have been deciphering these histories, investigating the microorganisms in our dust and how their lives are intertwined with our own.

The scientists began with a small pilot study, recruiting forty families in the Raleigh-Durham area to swab nine locations in their homes. When the researchers analyzed these cotton swabs and sequenced the fragments of bacterial DNA that they contained, they found that even the most sparkling houses were teeming with microbial squatters—more than two thousand distinct types, on average. Different rooms formed distinct ecological niches: kitchens were popular among the bacteria that grow on produce, whereas bedroom and bathroom surfaces were colonized by those that typically dwell on the skin. (In a troubling discovery, Dunn and his colleagues learned that, from a microbiological perspective, toilet seats and pillowcases look strikingly similar.)

In many ways, these findings were predictable. What the researchers had some difficulty making sense of was the variation that they observed between homes. “What, really, is determining what lives in your house versus my house?” Dunn asked. To answer that question, they expanded the study to a larger, more diverse set of homes—about eleven hundred in total, from across the continental United States—and asked volunteers to swab the trim around their interior doorways. “We focussed on that because nobody ever cleans it,” Fierer told me. “Or we don’t clean it very often—maybe you’re an exception.” (I am not.) To provide a point of comparison, each volunteer also collected dust from an exterior door and then mailed the samples to Fierer’s Colorado lab.

….geographic correlation was so strong that Dunn and Fierer have since shown, in a separate paper, that they can use fungal DNA to determine, to within about a hundred and fifty miles, where in the United States a dust sample originated.

This 3 min video is a must watch - especially with the commentary
Plant Neurobiology - Commentary
Michael Pollan discusses how timelapse photography reveals the hidden life of plants.

Here is an interesting research finding challenging the current view about seasonal affective disorder - its treatment - that maybe hints at its cause? If talk works better than ‘light’ maybe its cause is a lack of connectedness.
In preventing return of winter blues, talk outshines light
In the long term, cognitive behavior therapy is more effective at treating seasonal affective disorder that light therapy, considered the gold standard, a study found. Two winters after the initial treatment, 46 percent of research subjects given light therapy reported a recurrence of depression compared with 27 percent of those who were administered CBT. Depressive symptoms were also more severe for those who received light therapy.

Here is one more bit of evidence - pointing out that our social roots involve a lot more than competition and selfishness.
Japanese researchers find chimps caring for disabled infant
A chimpanzee mother cared for her disabled infant in the wild in Tanzania, Japanese researchers reported in a study published this week, research they hope will help in understanding the evolution of social care in humans.

A team of Kyoto University researchers discovered that a "severely disabled" female chimpanzee baby was born in a group in Tanzania's Mahale Mountains National Park in 2011, and recorded behaviour of the group for about two years.

"The observed infant exhibited symptoms resembling Down syndrome, similar to those reported previously for a captive chimpanzee," they said in an abstract of the study published Monday in the online edition of Primates, an international journal of primatology.

"The mother's compensatory care for her infant's disabilities and allomothering of the infant by its sister might have helped it to survive for 23 months in the wild" when the infant disappeared and was believed to have died, they said.

Here’s 4 min video about how Edmonton is dealing with their waste products and it’s not about the oil sands.
From Curb to Fuel: ​ Edmonton's Waste to Biofuels and Chemicals Facility
Learn how Edmonton sorts out municipal waste for composting and recycling and sends the rest to be turned into biofuels at the world's first municipal Waste to Biofuels and Chemicals Facility, owned and operated by Enerkem Alberta Biofuels.

And as if we didn’t already know this - this is what should be guiding our future energy policies.
Solar energy costs continue to plunge across the world
Two stunning auction results in India and Chile in the last week have underscored the extraordinary gains that large-scale solar has made against its fossil fuel competitors…  latest developments in prices for unsubsidised solar energy, based on auctions across the world and comes to pretty spectacular findings.

In both countries, India and Chile, solar is now clearly the cheapest option compared to new coal-fired power stations. In Chile, where the auction was open to all technologies, fossil fuel projects did not win a single megawatt of capacity. And the auction produced the lowest ever price for unsubsidised solar – US6.5c/kWh.

In India, US firm SunEdison won the entire 500MW of solar capacity on auction in the state of Andhra Pradesh, quoting a record low tariff for India of INR 4.63/kWh (US7.1c/kWh). Again, this was unsubsidised. And again, it beats new coal generation, particularly generation using imported coal.

These bids follow an auction in the US last month by the Texas city of Austin, which contracted to build 300MW of large-scale solar PV at a price of less than US4c/kWh. Even after backing out a tax credit, this is still less than US6c/kWh, and still beats gas and new coal plants, if anyone was planning to build one.

This is something we may well become used to in the near future.
A Texas Utility Offers a Nighttime Special: Free Electricity
In Texas, wind farms are generating so much energy that some utilities are giving power away.

Briana Lamb, an elementary school teacher, waits until her watch strikes 9 p.m. to run her washing machine and dishwasher. It costs her nothing until 6 a.m. Kayleen Willard, a cosmetologist, unplugs appliances when she goes to work in the morning. By 9 p.m., she has them plugged back in.

And Sherri Burks, business manager of a local law firm, keeps a yellow sticker on her townhouse’s thermostat, a note to guests that says: “After 9 p.m. I don’t care what you do. You can party after 9.”

The women are just three of the thousands of TXU Energy customers who are at the vanguard of a bold attempt by the utility to change how people consume energy. TXU’s free overnight plan, which is coupled with slightly higher daytime rates, is one of dozens that have been offered by more than 50 retail electricity companies in Texas over the last three years with a simple goal: for customers to turn down the dials when wholesale prices are highest and turn them back up when prices are lowest.

Totally Cool
Here’s a great visual about a set of magnets that can do some amazing things - a MUST SEE and something people with kids may want to get for them. It will be a Kickstarter on 19th Nov.


  1. Hi John, re your first article here

    You say "Online classes are no longer surprising, or experimental, or rare. By adopting them, students are telling us what they need our institutions to become"

    This follows the opening statement "As long as we discuss online education as a pedagogic revolution rather than an organizational one, we aren’t even having the right kind of conversation. The dramatic adoption of online education is not mainly a change in the content of classes. It’s a change in the institutional form of college, a demand for more flexibility by students who have to manage the increasingly complicated triangle of work, family, and school."

    Doesn't this mean that we have to re-orient the system? If the students are trapped within a system which forces them to 'need' online courses, rather than real interdependent relationships, aren't we just doing the wrong things righter by sub-optimising to their 'needs'.

    I know this is a big challenge, for it means that the Instituions themselves might need to step away from the 'commercial imperative' to sell online content in the interests of society and the planet at large - this to me is the bigger challenge.

    A friend of mine says (see )

    “A true institutional innovation will require the sloughing off of old ways of producing scholarship, and will adopt new definitions for what scholarship means, and what roles the university should play. This includes how progress and prestige are measured within the institution, and how faculty, staff, and administration balance the diffusion of knowledge within and across communities and regions with their commitment and ability to listen to, and take cues from, the citizens they serve. This in turn shapes entrepreneurial knowledge within the community, and the diffusion process itself. By drastically adjusting roles, incentives, and mores, universities and colleges will take a substantial step toward becoming more comfortable with perpetual institutional re-invention -- a practice many of the most innovative organizations and firms engage in continuously in order to adapt to their changing environment.”

    I'm just concerned that giving people (students) what they think they 'need' to survive in the current paradigm is not going to be enough for a future we can live in, let alone be employed in... Kind regards, Neil

  2. Hi Neil,
    First many thanks for the comment – you ask a great question. Let me try to answer as I understand it.

    One of the key points Shirky makes is not that online is better than ‘in school’ but that it’s better than nothing. So one of the needs online classes are serving is actual access to education. I believe that the future of education in the 21st Century has to be free access for all levels. This is because with the speed of change, knowledge, technology and science progress worker/citizens will need serious access to learning and occupational recalibration throughout their lives. The day of a life with ‘front-end’ education that enables cruising forth on a career are over.

    For the same reasons – knowledge generation now has to be not just multi-disciplinary – but trans-disciplinary. New disciplines arising in the doing of science – disciplines without faculty, journals, even peers.

    A life of continual learning could easily become overwhelmingly burdensome unless both occupation and learning are primarily (not exclusively) intrinsically driven. Loving what you are learning and doing is like bicycling downhill – can’t stop the urge to learn. While learning driven by extrinsic demands easily feels like work piled on work – like bicycling uphill.

    So yes – I think the educational system has to be ‘re-imagined’ completely (I like the phrase ‘wrong things righter’). Beginning with primary education to inspire passion, curiosity, and love of learning & doing (in all domains – arts, sports, mind). And an educational system geared to all sorts of life stages – child, youth, adult, parent-nurturer, elder.

    Yes we have to be less oriented to ‘industrial’ occupational structures and more to trajectories/domains of interest-knowledge. Who know what occupations will be vital in a decade that don’t exist now, or that will be extinct, or that will have to be skilled-up, skilled-down, recalibrated-completely.

    I think you are completely right in your concern - giving people (students) what they think they 'need' to survive in the current paradigm is not going to be enough. It won’t be. Students at minimum will have to be enabled to ‘love to learn’ – to have a curiosity, passion and trajectories of interest, will need to focus on their strengths and be socially literate (e.g. E.Q.) to work in teams, collaborations, of other people’s strengths.
    There is of course lots more to say and innumerable details and nuances. But I think we are seeing the sorts of challenges of future of education.

    Thank you for the reference to your friends paper.