Thursday, January 25, 2018

Friday Thinking 26 Jan. 2018

Hello all – Friday Thinking is a humble curation of my foraging in the digital environment. My purpose is to pick interesting pieces, based on my own curiosity (and the curiosity of the many interesting people I follow), about developments in some key domains (work, organization, social-economy, intelligence, domestication of DNA, energy, etc.)  that suggest we are in the midst of a change in the conditions of change - a phase-transition. That tomorrow will be radically unlike yesterday.

Many thanks to those who enjoy this.
In the 21st Century curiosity will SKILL the cat.
Jobs are dying - work is just beginning.

“Be careful what you ‘insta-google-tweet-face’”
Woody Harrelson - Triple 9




The historian Samuel Edgerton recounts this remarkable segue into modern science in The Heritage of Giotto’s Geometry (1991), noting how the overthrow of Aristotelian thinking about space was achieved in part as a long, slow byproduct of people standing in front of perspectival paintings and feeling, viscerally, as if they were ‘looking through’ to three-dimensional worlds on the other side of the wall. What is so extraordinary here is that, while philosophers and proto-scientists were cautiously challenging Aristotelian precepts about space, artists cut a radical swathe through this intellectual territory by appealing to the senses. In a very literal fashion, perspectival representation was a form of virtual reality that, like today’s VR games, aimed to give viewers the illusion that they had been transported into geometrically coherent and psychologically convincing other worlds.

The illusionary Euclidean space of perspectival representation that gradually imprinted itself on European consciousness was embraced by Descartes and Galileo as the space of the real world. Worth adding here is that Galileo himself was trained in perspective. His ability to represent depth was a critical feature in his groundbreaking drawings of the Moon, which depicted mountains and valleys and implied that the Moon was as solidly material as the Earth.

A view is emerging among some theoretical physicists that space might in fact be an emergent phenomenon created by something more fundamental, in much the same way that temperature emerges as a macroscopic property resulting from the motion of molecules. As Dijkgraaf put it: ‘The present point of view thinks of space-time not as a starting point, but as an end point, as a natural structure that emerges out of the complexity of quantum information.’

A leading proponent of new ways of thinking about space is the cosmologist Sean Carroll at Caltech, who recently said that classical space isn’t ‘a fundamental part of reality’s architecture’, and argued that we are wrong to assign such special status to its four or 10 or 11 dimensions. Where Dijkgraaf makes an analogy with temperature, Carroll invites us to consider ‘wetness’, an emergent phenomenon of lots of water molecules coming together. No individual water molecule is wet, only when you get a bunch of them together does wetness come into being as a quality. So, he says, space emerges from more basic things at the quantum level.

Radical dimensions

The most basic way to tell the feminine kind of story is in the form of a whispered rumor at work. The carrier-bag novel can be understood as egalitarian forager-society gossip, reified, elevated and distilled into enduring emergent social truths. Signal and noise snowball, via a game of telephone, until the rumor becomes part of the collective unconscious, as an acknowledged truth with no author. If the hero’s journey brings narrative rents to heroes, carrier-bag tales allow narrative tax revenue to accrue to a Weltanschauung.

There is a pleasing symmetry here. Myth and truth. Stories with and without authors. Stories that hunt between contexts and stories that nest within a context. Self-consciously installed myths that never quite sink into their carrier-bag contexts as lived truths, and lived truths that never quite pop from their carrier contexts as as explicit beliefs or narrative patterns. New information versus open secrets. Narrative rents and context taxes. There-and-back-again finite game stories, play-to-continue-the-game infinite game stories (that last is a reference to James Carse’s finite/infinite game model, which is almost required reading around here now).

Boat Stories

I propose that it has become literally unthinkable to do good work in any interesting field with the premises of individualism, methodological individualism, and human exceptionalism. None of the most generative and creative intellectual work being done today any longer spends much time (except as a kind of footnote) talking, doing creative work with the premises of individualism and methodological individualism, and I’ll try to illustrate that a bit, primarily from some of the natural sciences.

Simultaneously, there has been an explosion within the biologies of multispecies becoming-with, of an understanding that to be a one at all, you must be a many and it’s not a metaphor. That it’s about the tissues of being anything at all. And that those who are have been in relationality all the way down. There is no place that the layers of the onion come to rest on some kind of foundation.

Haraway -Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with Trouble

Within weeks of conception, cells from both mother and foetus traffic back and forth across the placenta, resulting in one becoming a part of the other. During pregnancy, as much as 10 per cent of the free-floating DNA in the mother’s bloodstream comes from the foetus, and while these numbers drop precipitously after birth, some cells remain. Children, in turn, carry a population of cells acquired from their mothers that can persist well into adulthood, and in the case of females might inform the health of their own offspring. And the foetus need not come to full term to leave its lasting imprint on the mother: a woman who had a miscarriage or terminated a pregnancy will still harbour foetal cells. With each successive conception, the mother’s reservoir of foreign material grows deeper and more complex, with further opportunities to transfer cells from older siblings to younger children, or even across multiple generations.

Far from drifting at random, human and animal studies have found foetal origin cells in the mother’s bloodstream, skin and all major organs, even showing up as part of the beating heart. This passage means that women carry at least three unique cell populations in their bodies – their own, their mother’s, and their child’s – creating what biologists term a microchimera, named for the Greek fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent.

The self emerging from microchimeric research appears to be of a different order: porous, unbounded, rendered constituently. Nelson suggests that each human being is not so much an isolated island as a dynamic ecosystem. And if this is the case, the question follows as to how this state of collectivity changes our conscious and unconscious motivations. If I am both my children and my mother, if I carry traces of my sibling and remnants of pregnancies that never resulted in birth, does that change who I am and the way I behave in the world? If we are to take to heart Whitman’s multitudes, we encounter an I composed of shared identity, collective affiliations and motivations that emerge not from a mean and solitary struggle, but a group investment in greater survival.

We are multitudes

Knowledge-mobilizing space (ba)
“Having all the different departments work on the project together meant things went slow, but the ba was great, and the breakthrough wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

Ba is about the arrangement of elements to create connections that are more likely to produce new knowledge or experiences. While wa focuses on relationships, ba is concerned with how knowledge is formed and shared. If wa is about social and interpersonal harmony, ba is about ensuring that people’s knowledge and experience can be put to good use.

The open-office concept is a reflection of ba as a design principal. Japanese offices are often very open with many workers sharing a large table and workspace. This arrangement allows for the rapid sharing of information, sometimes by accident. The Japanese also prioritize interdisciplinary teams because they believe that the concentration of different ways of seeing the world will lead to breakthroughs. There is often a lack of efficiency when bringing together different specializations, but ba requires shared space for different relationships and experiences to be brought forward.

To endow our lives with ba, we might follow social media accounts that are outside of our experience or tastes, attend events or conferences outside of our specialization, and meet and interact with people we might not normally meet. Ba asks us to be open to interruptions and distractions when our temptation is to be closed and focused. The assumption is that what we know is only valuable if it rubs up against what other people know.

The Japanese words for “space” could change your view of the world

In the first month of 2018 - it helpful to have some foundation for optimism. That the world has in fact made progress - which means we can make more progress. Very importantly Pinker points out all the reasons many many people fall to a pessimistic default position.


Optimism about human progress in the World is rational and measurable : peace, life expectancy, literacy, wealth, etc. ARE improving. :D
Lecture given in April 2017 with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

This is a great 25 min video by Donna Harraway.

“Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble”

Sympoiesis, not autopoiesis, threads the string figure game played by Terran critters. Always many-stranded, SF is spun from science fact, speculative fabulation, science fiction, and, in French, soin de ficelles (care of/for the threads). The sciences of the mid-20th-century “new evolutionary synthesis” shaped approaches to human-induced mass extinctions and reworldings later named the Anthropocene. Rooted in units and relations, especially competitive relations, these sciences have a hard time with three key biological domains: embryology and development, symbiosis and collaborative entanglements, and the vast worlds of microbes. Approaches tuned to “multi-species becoming with” better sustain us in staying with the trouble on Terra. An emerging “new new synthesis” in trans-disciplinary biologies and arts proposes string figures tying together human and nonhuman ecologies, evolution, development, history, technology, and more. Corals, microbes, robotic and fleshly geese, artists, and scientists are the dramatis personae in this talk’s SF game.

This is a wonderful 15 Min TED Talk by David Deutsch - for anyone interested in the foundations of good scientific knowledge - this is a delight.

A new way to explain explanation

For tens of thousands of years our ancestors understood the world through myths, and the pace of change was glacial. The rise of scientific understanding transformed the world within a few centuries. Why? Physicist David Deutsch proposes a subtle answer.

This is a great podcast conversation that is both very comprehensive, and insightful - anyone interested in deepening their understanding will find this rewarding.

Fred Ehrsam | Cryptocurrency's Past, Present & Future

Cryptocurrency: From Basic Definitions to Expert Issues in One Mighty Interview
You’d have to be living in some kind of a news blackout not to have heard chatter about cryptocurrencies recently. The granddaddy of ‘em all – BitCoin – has appreciated roughly 2000% over the past twelve months. This puts the total value of all BitCoin close $300B, making it more valuable than roughly 490 of the companies in the Fortune 500 – and far more valuable than any of the banks that were deemed too big to fail during the financial crisis.

So what in the world is going on here? As with all large markets, nobody fully knows. But my interviewee in this episode, Fred Ehrsam, knows this area better than almost anyone. In 2012, he co-founded CoinBase, which is by far the world’s largest consumer-friendly service for storing and trading cryptocurrencies (though its users include many large nonconsumers as well).

Although our interview is a spontaneous conversation, Fred and I both put methodical thought into sequencing our topics, as well as the level of depth that we treat each with. The result is a robust introduction for who know nothing about cryptocurrencies, which can also truly fire the neurons of experts in this field. Will AI’s start running on the block chain? Could a full-fledged Uber, Lyft, or AirBnB competitor exist as a cloud-based Smart Contract? And how might the emergence of Ethereum stand in certain a line of historic events that stretches back before the Bronze Age?

This may be coming to a superstore near us soon. Sensors, Internet of Things, AI and more.

Walmart is taking a direct shot at Amazon and making checkout lanes obsolete

Walmart is rolling out its "Scan & Go" technology to 100 additional stores by the end of January.

The technology enables shoppers to scan and pay for items without checkout lanes, registers, or cashiers.

Amazon and Kroger have been developing similar technology. Kroger is rolling out its own "Scan, Bag, Go" service to 400 stores this year.

The progress in robots continues on an exponential scale benefiting from other advance in other domains. There are two short videos as well.

Harvard's milliDelta Robot Is Tiny and Scary Fast

In terms of sheer speed and precision, delta robots are some of the most impressive to watch. They’re also some of the most useful, for the same reasons—you can see them doing pick-and-place tasks in factories of all kinds, far faster than humans can. The delta robots that we’re familiar with are mostly designed as human-replacement devices, but as it turns out, scaling them down makes them even more impressive. In Robert Wood’s Microrobotics Lab at Harvard, researcher Hayley McClintock has designed one of the tiniest delta robots ever. Called milliDelta, it may be small, but it’s one of the fastest moving and most precise robots we’ve ever seen.

Delta robots have two things about them that are particularly clever. The first one is that despite the highly dynamic nature of a delta robot, its motors are stationary. Most robot arms are made up of a series of rigid links and joints with motors in them, which is fine, except that it makes the arm itself very heavy. Moving all the motors to the base of the robot instead means that there’s way less mass that you have to move around, which is how delta robots can, in general, accelerate so rapidly and move so precisely. The second clever thing is that the end-effector of a delta robot—the bit where the arms come together—can stay parallel to the work surface (delta robots are a type of parallel robot). This makes delta robots ideal for pick-and-place operations, since they maintain the orientation of the thing you’re picking up.

Harvard’s delta robot takes all of this cleverness and shrinks it down into a fearsome little package. The 15 mm x 15 mm x 20 mm robot weighs just 430 milligrams, but it has a payload capacity of 1.3 grams. It can move around its 7 cubic millimeter workspace with a precision of about 5 micrometers. What’s really impressive, though, is the speed: It can reach velocities of 0.45 m/s, and accelerations of 215 m/s2, meaning that it can follow repeating patterns at a frequency of up to 75 Hz.

There have been a number of serious claims that we are entering an age of abundance - like Rifkin’s “Zero Marginal Cost Society” - this article is a significant signal that this is the case - The consequence is that we need to develop a radically new economic framework and economic theory.
Chinese manufacturing has become so efficient that a new polar fleece blanket costs a mere $2.50 retail -- compared to $2.00 for a recycled blanket.
Between 2000 and 2015, global clothing production doubled, while the average number of times that a garment was worn before disposal declined by 36 percent. In China, it declined by 70 percent.

No One Wants Your Used Clothes Anymore

A once-virtuous cycle is breaking down. What now?
For decades, the donation bin has offered consumers in rich countries a guilt-free way to unload their old clothing. In a virtuous and profitable cycle, a global network of traders would collect these garments, grade them, and transport them around the world to be recycled, worn again, or turned into rags and stuffing.

Now that cycle is breaking down. Fashion trends are accelerating, new clothes are becoming as cheap as used ones, and poor countries are turning their backs on the secondhand trade. Without significant changes in the way that clothes are made and marketed, this could add up to an environmental disaster in the making.

Nobody is more alert to this shift than the roughly 200 businesses devoted to recycling clothes into yarn and blankets in Panipat, India. Located 55 miles north of Delhi, the dusty city of 450,000 has served as the world's largest recycler of woolen garments for at least two decades, becoming a crucial outlet for the $4 billion used-clothing trade.

Panipat's mills specialize in a cloth known as shoddy, which is made from low-quality yarn recycled from woolen garments. Much of what they produce is used to make cheap blankets for disaster-relief operations. It's been a good business: At its peak in the early 2010s, Panipat's shoddy manufacturers could make 100,000 blankets a day, accounting for 90 percent of the relief-blanket market.

Another movement in fundamental science and theory - this is a good summary of current debates regarding evolutionary theory.
Edward O Wilson claimed that human culture is held on a genetic leash. The metaphor was contentious for two reasons. First, as we’ll see, it’s no less true that culture holds genes on a leash. Second, while there must be a genetic propensity for cultural learning, few cultural differences can be explained by underlying genetic differences.
In a single mating season, ‘fads’ can develop in the qualities that individuals find attractive in their partners

Evolution unleashed

Is evolutionary science due for a major overhaul – or is talk of ‘revolution’ misguided?
If you are not a biologist, you’d be forgiven for being confused about the state of evolutionary science. Modern evolutionary biology dates back to a synthesis that emerged around the 1940s-60s, which married Charles Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection with Gregor Mendel’s discoveries of how genes are inherited. The traditional, and still dominant, view is that adaptations – from the human brain to the peacock’s tail – are fully and satisfactorily explained by natural selection (and subsequent inheritance). Yet as novel ideas flood in from genomics, epigenetics and developmental biology, most evolutionists agree that their field is in flux. Much of the data implies that evolution is more complex than we once assumed.

Some evolutionary biologists, myself included, are calling for a broader characterisation of evolutionary theory, known as the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES). A central issue is whether what happens to organisms during their lifetime – their development – can play important and previously unanticipated roles in evolution. The orthodox view has been that developmental processes are largely irrelevant to evolution, but the EES views them as pivotal. Protagonists with authoritative credentials square up on both sides of this debate, with big-shot professors at Ivy League universities and members of national academies going head-to-head over the mechanisms of evolution. Some people are even starting to wonder if a revolution is on the cards.

This is a whole new way to think of ‘brain imaging’ - focusing on image content - where will this go in the next couple of decades? Two short video are totally fascinating.

This Neural Network Built by Japanese Researchers Can ‘Read Minds’

It already seems a little like computers can read our minds; features like Google’s auto-complete, Facebook’s friend suggestions, and the targeted ads that appear while you’re browsing the web sometimes make you wonder, “How did they know?” For better or worse, it seems we’re slowly but surely moving in the direction of computers reading our minds for real, and a new study from researchers in Kyoto, Japan is an unequivocal step in that direction.

A team from Kyoto University used a deep neural network to read and interpret people’s thoughts. Sound crazy? This actually isn’t the first time it’s been done. The difference is that previous methods—and results—were simpler, deconstructing images based on their pixels and basic shapes. The new technique, dubbed “deep image reconstruction,” moves beyond binary pixels, giving researchers the ability to decode images that have multiple layers of color and structure.

On the other hand - here’s another way to think about neural imaging.

Dream machines: how IT is changing the world of neuroscience

We talk to computer scientist and entrepreneur Jamil El Imad about the cutting-edge intersection of neuroscience and IT
Floating before her eyes is a menu and the words “Choose your dream”. She sees a range of scenarios: a Buddhist monastery high in the Himalayas, the bright white sands of a deserted Hebridean beach, a steaming Icelandic hot spring, a fragrant Californian redwood grove. With a nod, Emma selects an Alpine meadow, and enters the dream scenario.

At first she sees nothing but a drifting white mist, but as she relaxes, feeling the tension draining from her neck and shoulders, her heart rate slows, her breathing becomes shallower, and the fog begins to part. She sees first a carpet of wildflowers spreading out before her. As she concentrates, the mist rolls back to reveal the full scene. She looks up at the clear sky and sees birds overhead. She hears the mountain breeze and cowbells in the distance. A valley somewhere in Austria is spread out before her. Emma sits back on her sofa, and feels herself like a feather on the wind, a thousand miles from her troubles.

It sounds like the opening to a Philip K Dick novel or a treatment for the next season of Black Mirror, but actually the technology Emma might one day use exists right now in prototype form.

It’s called the Dream Machine, it’s designed to improve mindfulness and concentration, and it’s the brainchild of computer scientist and serial entrepreneur Jamil El Imad. It is the result of his work at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) on the Human Brain Project, a multi-year programme that is bringing together researchers from across Europe to advance the fields of neuroscience and computing.

This is another fascinating signal in the continually evolving knowledge of DNA and living systems.

Brain Cells Share Information With Virus-Like Capsules

The Arc gene, which is critical for animals’ ability to learn from experiences, has an incredible origin story.
...a gene called Arc which is active in neurons, and plays a vital role in the brain. A mouse that’s born without Arc can’t learn or form new long-term memories. If it finds some cheese in a maze, it will have completely forgotten the right route the next day. “They can’t seem to respond or adapt to changes in their environment,” says Shepherd, who works at the University of Utah, and has been studying Arc for years. “Arc is really key to transducing the information from those experiences into changes in the brain.”

Despite its importance, Arc has been a very difficult gene to study. Scientists often work out what unusual genes do by comparing them to familiar ones with similar features—but Arc is one-of-a-kind. Other mammals have their own versions of Arc, as do birds, reptiles, and amphibians. But in each animal, Arc seems utterly unique—there’s no other gene quite like it. And Shepherd learned why when his team isolated the proteins that are made by Arc, and looked at them under a powerful microscope.

He saw that these Arc proteins assemble into hollow, spherical shells that look uncannily like viruses. “When we looked at them, we thought: What are these things?” says Shepherd. They reminded him of textbook pictures of HIV, and when he showed the images to HIV experts, they confirmed his suspicions. That, to put it bluntly, was a huge surprise. “Here was a brain gene that makes something that looks like a virus,” Shepherd says.

Scientists have in recent years discovered several ways that animals have used the properties of virus-related genes to their evolutionary advantage. Gag moves genetic information between cells, so it’s perfect as the basis of a communication system. Viruses use another gene called env to merge with host cells and avoid the immune system. Those same properties are vital for the placenta—a mammalian organ that unites the tissues of mothers and babies. And sure enough, a gene called syncytin, which is essential for the creation of placentas, actually descends from env. Much of our biology turns out to be viral in nature.

While this is focused on mice - it does look like a good weak signal in the progress toward understand aging.

Study Pinpoints Potential “Master Regulator” of Age-Related Cognitive Decline

Upping a gene’s expression in rat brains made them better learners and normalized the activity of hundreds of other genes to resemble the brains of younger animals.
For more than three decades, Philip Landfield has been chipping away at a central question, namely, “why the electrophysiology of hippocampal connections is impaired in aged animals,” as the University of Kentucky neuroscientist puts it. It’s far from an esoteric problem, given that electrical impulses sent across neuronal connections strengthens synapses over time, forming the physical basis of learning and memory—meaning that less-efficient electrical transmissions are linked to cognitive decline.

With a study published today (December 18) in the Journal of Neuroscience, Landfield says he thinks his team is now close to finally getting to the bottom of the phenomenon that caught his attention in the late 1970s. The answer, according to the new study, involves a family of genes known as FKBP and its regulation of calcium release within neurons. What they found was that increasing expression of one of the genes enhanced the rats’ learning ability and altered the expression levels of hundreds of other genes normally affected by aging, bringing them back to activities typical of younger animals.

“We’re . . . fascinated by the fact that just restoring this one molecule can reverse so many aspects of brain aging,” Landfield says.

Among the study’s implications, notes Gregory Rose, a neuroscientist at Southern Illinois University who served as one of the paper’s peer reviewers, is that it casts doubt on a now-popular idea that neuroinflammation is key to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers “normalized a lot of a gene expression pattern, but equally importantly, what was not normalized were any of the genes that are upregulated with aging that have to do with neuroinflammation,” Rose tells The Scientist, suggesting that “if people are looking for symptomatic relief [for Alzheimer’s], reducing neuroinflammation is not going to solve the problem.”

The looming antibacterial-resistance crisis - may have some breakthroughs in the near future - this is one of them.
Historically, it’s a search riddled with accidental discoveries. The fungal strain that was used to manufacture penicillin turned up on a moldy cantaloupe; quinolones emerged from a bad batch of quinine; microbiologists first isolated bacitracin, a key ingredient in Neosporin ointment, from an infected wound of a girl who had been hit by a truck. Other antibiotics turned up in wild, far-flung corners of the globe: Cephalosporin came from a sewage pipe in Sardinia; erythromycin, the Philippines; vancomycin, Borneo; rifampicin, the French Riviera; rapamycin, Easter Island. By persuading the right microbes to grow under the right condition, we unearthed medicinal chemistry that beat back our own microscopic enemies. But despite technological advances in robotics and chemical synthesis, researchers kept rediscovering many of the same easy-to-isolate antibiotics, earning the old-school method a derisive nickname: “grind and find.”


Brady is creating drugs from dirt. He’s certain that the world’s topsoils contain incredible, practically inexhaustible reservoirs of undiscovered antibiotics, the chemical weapons bacteria use to fend off other microorganisms. He’s not alone in this thinking, but the problem is that the vast majority of bacteria cannot be grown in the lab—a necessary step in cultivating antibiotics.

Brady has found a way around this roadblock, which opens the door to all those untapped bacteria that live in dirt. By cloning DNA out of a kind of bacteria-laden mud soup, and reinstalling these foreign gene sequences into microorganisms that can be grown in the lab, he’s devised a method for discovering antibiotics that could soon treat infectious diseases and fight drug-resistant superbugs. In early 2016, Brady launched a company called Lodo Therapeutics (lodo means mud in Spanish and Portuguese) to scale up production and ultimately help humanity outrun infectious diseases nipping at our heels. Some colleagues call his approach “a walk in the park.” Indeed, his lab recently dispatched two groups of student volunteers to collect bags full of dirt at 275 locations around New York City.

Using high-throughput DNA sequencing, scientists then searched these libraries and their census turned up such astronomical biodiversity that they began adding new branches to the tree of life. By some estimates, the earth harbors more than a trillion individual microbe species. A single gram of soil alone can contain 3,000 bacterial species, each with an average of four million base-pairs of DNA spooled around a single circular chromosome. The next steps followed a simple logic: Find novel genetic diversity, and you’ll inevitably turn up new chemical diversity.

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