File Under “Good, Evil and the Neutrality of Tech”…

image

Two stories that spun me awake this morning, zipping through Zite and flipping through Facebook…

Harvard archeologists literally reconstruct the past with 3D tech (via Wired):

…”This is conservation and protection for the cultural world similar to that undertaken for the natural world,” Greene says. “3-D imaging can be used not only for objects, but also for standing monuments. Basically, broader access to 3-D scanning tools could create a kind of “version control” for material culture…”


Congressman calls for a ban on 3D printed guns. So, a problem that you didn’t know existed with a solution that won’t work. Great. (via Boing Boing)


…The congressman points out (correctly) that all-plastic 3D printed weapons would not be easy to spot using traditional methods, such as metal detectors….

The good news? Civilizations destroyed by build-a-guns can be reconstructed in a lab for future study.

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

RELATED

• The Fab Age: 3D Printing, Biomimicry, the Moon and More! by J. A. Ginsburg / Dot to Dot

On Imaginal Disks and Innovation: Business Lessons from the Science Pages

The poetry of metamorphosis is inescapable, even when pared down to the “just the facts ma’am” bare bones science. The transformation of chubby grubs into precision aerialists, or hungry caterpillars into nector-sipping butterflies and moths, or fish-ish tadpoles into operatic frogs is as matter-of-fact and breathtakingly wondrous as Cinderella’s pumpkin-turned-carriage and mice-turned-footman.

Surely there must be a wand involved. 

Metamorphosis, of course, is the original metaphor, and so mesmerizing and powerful that understanding the mechanics doesn’t seem to diminish the mystery. 

How does a caterpillar rearrange itself into a butterfly? What happens inside a chrysalis or cocoon?

First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out. But the contents of the pupa are not entirely an amorphous mess. Certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process. Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on. In some species, these imaginal discs remain dormant throughout the caterpillar’s life; in other species, the discs begin to take the shape of adult body parts even before the caterpillar forms a chrysalis or cocoon. Some caterpillars walk around with tiny rudimentary wings tucked inside their bodies, though you would never know it by looking at them.

— Feris Jabr, Scientific Amerian

Imaginal disks. Imagine that. The metaphor goes even deeper. 

Now imagine this: Metamorphosis is closer to a rule rather than an exception of life on Earth: By some estimates, as many as 90% of all insects (which dominate in the species count) shape-shift. Add in a few vertebrates and the tally may be as high as 65% of all species. 

Scientists are still puzzling the “why” details, but one theory suggests that by seeking different food sources, youngsters and the adults are not competing for the same limited resources, so there is literally more food to go around. 

IMAGINAL INNOVATION 

I have been thinking a lot about imaginal disks and innovation over the last few weeks: the unseen latent potential to transform from one business to another—a service to a good, a good to a service, past as prologue. 

"Think different"—Apple’s famous tagline—turns out to be the rallying cry of all things imaginal. It would have taken a sharp eye to have seen 20 years ago the proto music / video / books service, the smart phone empire or the tablet revolution within a niche player computer company. Of course, those developments depended on improvements in web technologies and bandwidth—which, to stretch the analogy, are a kind of new food source. Those proto-businesses were there, waiting for the right moment, the right environment, to grow. 

TO BE(E) THIS, OR TO BE(E) THAT: more from the biomimic business beat

Genes, it turns out, are more of a rough template of possibility, rather than roll-of-the-die certainty, and that the dance of Nature versus Nurture is considerably more dynamic and subtle than previously thought. 

Honeybees are the ultimate “twins” study: all the workers in a hive are genetically identical. Yet some spend their lives serving the queen, while others flit among the flowers. If it is not written in the genetic code, what determines this division of labor?  

This is one of those sleeper stories snoozing in the “sci-tech” section, but one that really, truly is quite a big deal with ramifications that go on to the horizon. 

Think of genes like little light bulbs that can be toggled on or off. A gene exists within an environment and changes in that environment can determine whether it toggles on or off. This is called epigenetics, ”the study of heritable changes that occur without a change in the DNA sequence” (epi from the Greek word meaning “upon”). In  other words, outside factors can affect genetic expression.

These toggle on/toggle off states—and the traits that they program—can be inherited, which is petty amazing. Perhaps even more amazing, though, is that these states and traits can change within a single lifetime. 

…(A)nalysis of the worker bees’ DNA revealed that foragers had one pattern of chemical tags on their genes, while those that stayed home had another. When bees swapped one job for the other, their genetic tags changed accordingly. Scientists call these patterns epigenetic states, because they work on top of the normal genetic code.

The study is thought to be the first to show that reversible chemical markers on genes might drive different behaviours in a living creature.

—Ian Sample, The Guardian

From the itty bittiest of cellular micro, to the macro of planetary climate change, environment can determine destiny. 

Is your head spinning yet? 

BACK TO BUSINESS

For the last year, I have been following the tech startup scene in my hometown Chicago fairly closely. There are about a dozen businesses that I have found particularly compelling, not just for the needs they address (although SpotHero, every time I pay less for parking downtown, I am so darn happy…), but also for their “imaginal disks.” The businesses that will go the distance will be those able both to scale up, and also have the potential to scale out: to transform and grow into suites of new businesses. 

Whether it is a travel service with a Harry Potter-ish potential that can grow its business as its target clientele ages (Travel 720), or an academic publishing platform that opens the door for all kinds of new journals (Scholastica), or a children’s clothing business that is building valuable “network equity” as it expands (Moxie Jean), these businesses are rich with latent possibilities. 

Like the bees, they have all the genes. We’ll just have to wait and see what toggles on. 

— J. A. Ginsburg @TrackerNews

RELATED: 

Life at 10x and Beyond: Lichens, a Liverwort, a Microscope and Me…

(from the archives: This article was originally posted in July, 2008 on an iWeb blog called Germtales. Germtales went into cyber-hybernation. iWeb gave up the ghost… - j.a.g.)

It was bound to happen. The only wonder was it hadn’t happened sooner. Someone finally sat me down in front of a microscope and said, “Look!”

It was a “British Soldier” (Cladonia cristatella), a wee little thing, like the lichen in the photo above, with a bright red “fruiting body” cap. Aided by the unabashedly nosy lens of a dissecting microscope, I could see into all its folds. I could study the texture of its improbably lurid top, which “real size” was smaller than the head of a pin. Armed with a thin probe—the club from hell under magnification, especially with my clumsy touch—I could peer into all its secrets. The next few hours were lost in Lilliputian delight.

While lichenologist Rich Hyerczyk… No, that doesn’t do him justice. While Rich Hyerczyk, a lichen connoisseur and teacher of the “Lichens All Around Us!” class at the Chicago Botanic Garden, patiently took us through the basics of key guide identification, I happily oohed and ahhed, content for the time being simply to see these things exist.

Foliose. Crustose. Fruticose. The general shape-based classifications were fairly straightforward (looks leafy, looks crusty, looks shrubby). After that, it was alien territory: new words for previously unimagined things.

Soredia. Thallus. Xanthomendoza. Physcia. Candellaria. Squamule. Apothecia. Podetia. I was a stranger in a strange land and pretty darn happy about it.

One of my favorite parts of travel is taking a walk alone as soon as I arrive somewhere new—before anyone has a chance to tell me where I am.

Within minutes of stashing bags at a hotel in Bologna, I am exploring the side streets off the main square, finding book stores (five in 30 minutes, including the magnificent Biblioteca Salaboursa—where I could have lived happily ever after), gelato shops, bakeries, one notably saucy fountain, a few tucked-away churches and some fabulous street theater.

In Havana (scouting a segment on the Old Havana neighborhood for a sadly never-produced National Geographic series on the “World’s Most Endangered Places”), I walk along El Malecon to see the sea. A honk from at least a block away jolts me from my shimmery thoughts: The driver of a 1950-something Buick with question-mark brakes warns me to safety.

LICHEN-LAND

Traveling to the land of lichens has been every micron as interesting and unexpected. Like many good journeys, this one began with a wrong turn and a touch of serendipity.

This past spring, groves of miniature and somewhat Seussian palm trees took over an old strawberry pot I use for moss roses. I put off planting for weeks, so adorable where their charms. Thinking they were lichens and wanting to know more, I signed up for the class.

Alas, my erstwhile lichen turned out to be liverwortMarchantia polymorpha—but no matter. I was hooked on these strange little lichen plants and completely enthralled by their symbiotic society of fungi, algae and, every once in a while, cyanobacteria (microbes with a talent for photosynthesis).

A lichen doesn’t have parents so much as partners. An estimated 13,500 species of fungi seek out just a handful of algal species (and cyanobacteria) to capture and nurture in order to harvest the sugars they produce. In turn, the algae, now protected by fungal armor, are given the opportunity to travel, colonize and conquer the world. These odd-couples can make a go of it just about anywhere. There are lichens on rocks in the Arctic that live for hundreds and even thousands of years. In fact, crustose lichens—the ones that grow on rocks—are literally one with their rocks. The line between inorganic and organic is breathtakingly modest.

If you split a lichen’s fungus and algae apart, the fungus will die while the algae survives —provided there is enough water and conditions are right. It is basically the same story, writ larger, with humans and our commensal, “beneficial” microbes. Lose the gut bugs that help with digestion, produce Vitamin K, and, by their very presence, keep “bad” microbes at bay, and we’re toast. Microbes on skin, teeth, in vaginas and other surprising places play equally key roles. (Women on antibiotics are more vulnerable to yeast infections because the microbes that keep the yeast in check are gone.)

Birds, bees, alligators, cows, snakes and puppies — the animals need the microbes, but the microbes don’t necessarily need the animals.

It gets a little easier to accept the role as the “fungal half” when you start to see Life more as a series of social networks than tooth and claw competitions. Lynn Margolis (whose biology/geology-spanning career is itself as symbiotic as what she studies) and her son, Dorion Sagan, have written several books detailing the Nature’s propensity for partnerships. Symbiosis rules, right down to the cellular level and even into the genome (Symbiotic Planet, Acquiring Genomes).

IN THE FIELD (OR NEARBY…)


Most of the lichens around Chicago are on bark or wood, so we took a short field trip to a patch of forest on the Garden’s grounds. It took a while for the class to get beyond the parking lot. We spent half our time scanning the bark of a particularly lichen-friendly locust with our 10x loupes and magnifying glasses. Everywhere we looked—even on concrete curbs—we found thriving colonies of lichens.

It was a rainy morning, which puffed up the lichens’ algae, making colors more intense. We went through the key: Was a lichen foliose or crustose? (only one fruiticose that day). Was it easy to peel off the substrate surface? Was it greenish or yellow? What color was its underside? Did it have apothecia (cups full of spore-filled sacs) or soredia (fringes of fungal/algal cells ready to blow away and reproduce)? We identified 29 species in 3 hours. We learned that Anisomeridium polypori gives White oak its white bark. We even found a lichen, Phaeocalicium polyporaeum growing wiry black fringe on a “turkey tail” fungus (Trichaptum biforme). In the realm of the alien, this one stood out: Its fruiting body readily apparent, but the exact location of its body body still something of a mystery.

After class, I spent another hour and a half wandering the Garden alone, loupe in hand, kneeling over benches and cement walls, assuring my future as an eccentric. I marveled at “LBM’s” (little brown mushrooms) dotting a lichen-covered linden tree, noted the relative giant-ness of mosses, and followed the intrepid trekking of ants and spiders. The Garden was filled with dozens of species never mentioned on identification plaques. Everywhere I looked there was more. I was Horton. And boy was I hearing a whole bunch of Who’s.

•••••••••••••

The analogy turned out to be uncomfortably apt. Despite their ability to survive on the most forlorn surfaces in the harshest of climates, and despite their seeming irrepressibility, it turns out some lichens are, in fact, repressible. In the presence of sulphur dioxide and other man-made pollutants, some species pack it in and disappear, making lichens good, easy-to-monitor indicators of environmental health.

But it goes even deeper than that. Dozens of bird species, along with some small mammal species, seek out lichens to line nests and burrows, possibly as a defense against disease and parasites. There are hundreds of active compounds in lichens, some of which are antibiotic. Usnea, for example, is a staple of Chinese and homeopathic remedies. Then there are the reindeer that live on a diet of lichens. Kill the lichens and Santa will have to find alternate transportation.

PATIENCE AND POSSIBILITIES


Back in the lab on the last day of class, we were ready for the 100x microscopes - the ones designed to reveal the daintiest of details. I was given a note card onto which a few chips from a picnic table had been glued back in 1992. I carefully squirted a drop of water onto some unpromising round black bumps I was told were the fruiting bodies of Amadina (nee Buella puntata) and watched as they gelled up enough to tease off with a probe and place onto a microscope slide. Another drop of water, a slide cover and a firm press to break open the fruiting bodies and we were ready for a look-see. Amazingly, stunningly, gobsmacking miraculously there they were: 8 translucent spore sacs to a bunch, just as advertised.

My bench-mate managed to find an actual individual spore. It was perfect. Who knows whether it was viable, but it might have been. Sturdy cell walls. Distinct cell markings where they were supposed to be. Life goes on.

As I drove home that night with the windows rolled down, listening to cicadas and glancing at summer-sky stars, it seemed a given that life would be everywhere throughout the universe. Life on Mars? Lichens on Mars? I wouldn’t bet against them.

—J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

RELATED

Photo credit for Suessian Liverwort and the Lichen on Tree: J.A. Ginsburg / CC BY-NC-ND


Publish, Perish & Disruptive Innovation: Scholastica’s Better Answer

Disruptive innovation is fun—especially when the industry being disrupted is hopelessly lame. Few industries can match academic publishing on that score: (in)famously slow, pricey and capricious. Scholars, or their university departments, can pay thousands of dollars to submit a paper for review, then wait months, or longer, to find out whether it has been accepted, and then months, or longer, navigating the back and forth of peer review. When a paper finally is published, more often than not, it is sequestered behind a high subscription pay wall, inaccessible to those who might benefit most from the research. 

"Publish or perish"—the time-honored credo of academic upward mobility—has been turned out on its head. One could perish, or at least go broke, trying to publish. 

Thousands of scientists, including a trio of Fields medal-winning mathematicians, have staged a boycott of Reed Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishers, citing intolerable greed and monopolistic practices. When the world’s top math geeks can’t make sense of the numbers, you know something’s really wrong 

Free open access journals such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS) provide a publishing alternative, but the real game-changer may come from Chicago-based startup Scholastica, which provides a low cost, easy to use, fast and feature-rich publishing platform.

Setting up a journal is free. Scholastica’s revenues come primarily from submissions fees, which cost just $5 for a law review and $10 for an academic paper. Although the law review price is actually higher than average, the research paper fee is orders of magnitude cheaper. 

Peer review, the cornerstone of academic publishing, relies on reputational currency. Reviewers are unpaid scholars who take on the onerous task analyzing others’ research both out of professional interest and to increase professional stature.

Scholastic offers an advantage here as well. The web is brilliant for tracking reputational currency. From AirBnB and TripAdvisor to TaskRabbit and Facebook “likes,” we have become a culture that loves to share ratings. 

The nuts and bolts of putting together a first rate journal still require considerable effort, but with costly and time-consuming logistical hurdles removed from the equation, the focus can go back to the mission: documenting and sharing knowledge. 

Although journal publishers using the platform can charge subscriptions if they choose, the lower cost structure means they still out-compete traditional publishers on price. They can also have an ongoing publishing program, pushing out new articles all the time, rather than waiting for a set pub date. 

Together with online educational services such as Coursera, video tutorial pioneer Khan Academy, the Open Science movement, and the emergence of an open source textbook market, Scholastica is part of a tech-enabled trend that challenges the educational status quo. This goes beyond offering an alternative to expensive educations that fewer and fewer can afford. It is about better ways to teach, learn and share research. 

Still, the forces of academic inertia are among the strongest in the universe…

…The biggest obstacle is the role that these journals play in academia itself, and how important publishing in a specific journal can be when it comes to promotions, granting of tenure, research grants and other aspects of academic life. Even some researchers who support the Elsevier boycott have said they will continue to publish in its journals because they feel that they have to.

Until that structure changes, or until enough researchers and academics decide they don’t care about the system and start to publish their work freely, the current system is unlikely to disappear any time soon. But just like the rest of traditional media industry, it is looking shakier and less stable all the time.

— Mathew Ingram / GIGAOM

•••••••••

As a platform, Scholastica is neutral: One could create a journal about almost anything. The Journal of Makerspaces, for example. Or The Journal of Urban Farmers, or Tech Incubators, or Pets, or perhaps The Journal of Humanitarian Tech. Transparent reputational currency can be used determine value, making it easier for readers to sniff out bogus, politically slanted or corporate-sponsored research. 

Just stay clear of the shady practices of Nicholas Ivanovich Lobachevsky (which, it should be pointed out, would get one booted off the Scholastica site as a TOS violation) and you’ll be fine: 

RELATED:

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

Bouncing Onward: Climate, Consequences, Crops, Memes & Resilience

It is amazing what summer soaker can do. Three or four of such storms over the course of a few days can bring back the seemingly dead. For weeks I have given feeble garden hose life support to frying hosta lilies and parched grass, always making sure to water a spot near a robins’ nest so the parents would have a fighting chance of finding a few worms and grubs to feed their peeping young. Some days, the water in the hose would get so hot, I would spritz the sidewalks for few minutes to avoid scalding the already scorched.

Now it’s all green lawns, revived trees and perked up posies, reveling in gloriously normal temperatures that gently rise into mid-80s during the day and settle into the 60s for snugly cicada-serenaded sleep at night.

This is summer as it ought to be. Summer as it used to be, at least in my little sliver by Chicago. Yet even though the view out the window looks like the poster child of resilience, it is more a reminder that what was once reliably normal is fast becoming a rarity to be treasured.

Over 4,700 weather records have been broken in the US so far this year. The withered corn crop, once on track to be the largest in history will now be the largest loss in history. And with demand for all commodity crops increasing right along with global population, even little wiggles can amplify across world markets. The catastrophic floods in Pakistan a couple of years ago sent cotton prices soaring, even though Pakistan ranks a distant fourth as a supplier.

The Great American Corn Pop of 2012 is a much, much bigger deal and will translate into higher food prices, higher fuel prices (another ethanol promise broken), more hunger, more debt, more unrest and more misery in a cycle that will be tough to break.

The drought tipped the balance of a global food system already in a delicate state,   made vulnerable to petro chemical-dependent soils, fast-depleting aquifers, pesticide-impervious "superweeds," an increasingly monopolistic agri-food supply chain, a resurgence of crop pests and rising fuel costs.

Extreme and unpredictable weather causes highways to buckle, concrete to crack, rail ties to kink, bridges to bend and rivers to become unnavigable. Even if you manage to grow a crop, there is still the challenge of getting it to market

A DANGEROUS MEME

How do you adapt to such a fast-moving target? Even if we were able turn off our collective car ignitions and switch instantly to renewable power sources, there are more than enough greenhouse gases swirling around the Earth’s atmosphere to cause mischief for decades to come. The disaster is so overwhelmingly obvious that now Koch-sponsored scientists have seen the grim light. Still, there are politicians who continue to bray for more mining and drilling.

In a tour de force numbers analysis in Rolling Stone magazine, Bill McKibben follows the money:

…We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically above ground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.

—Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math

Sustainability, which implies a baseline stability—the very thing we are fast losing—is giving way to the meme of resilience: the idea that somehow we will be able to recover from the inevitable disaster looming and “bounce back.” It is the seductive promise of Dorothy waking up safe in her bed in Kansas, with Toto ready to resume his rightful place in her arms once more.

But the tornado that rocked Dorothy’s world is nothing compared to the tornadoes, direchoes, record monsoons, massive droughts and rapid ice melts rocking ours. Even the parched park lawn now showing signs of green grizzle isn’t bouncing back, but  evolving, bouncing onward. Weeds with better root systems are making the most of their competitive advantage. Unless someone rips up the sod and reseeds, that lawn has changed for good.

Resilience is also a neutral concept, a point that is often overlooked. What bounces onwards may not be to everyone’s liking, such as weeds, bunny rabbits, pathogens, drug cartels and oil companies.

So the question is not whether we can return to a comfortable status quo: We can’t. Rather it is Status quo vadis? Where are we going?

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

RELATED:

• Global Risks 2012 / World Economic Forum (pdf and additional web resources)

The Good, the Bad and the Myopic: What Nora Ephron has to do with Techweek

Techweek 2012 is a wrap. Despite some organizational stumbles, the sheer mass of programming and the crowds guaranteed good things would come of it. They certainly did for me.

Techweek ran the gamut, from Howard Tullman’s tour-de-force talk on the data-sliced present/future, full of utopian potential and dystopian risk, to Dennis Manarchy’s stunning oversize Vanishing Cultures portraits, an homage to the present/past of both people and technology. It was wonderful to meet and reconnect with people, to talk about projects, business models, progress. And god bless those ever-resourceful Task Rabbits who brought the Wow Bao buns: brilliant marketing—really, truly I will use you when the need next arises.

Yet throughout the event, there were little off-notes of sexism, most likely unintentional, but nonetheless there.

  • Only 7 women on the Techweek 100 list
  • An all male panel of judges for the 2012 Final Five Launch competition
  • Only one woman entrepreneur in the Final Five pitch

Which is neither to say that there are not a lot of talented men on the Chicago tech scene, or that all of the men on the list didn’t deserve to be there. Rather, it is point out that the number of talented women on the scene is on the rise. And though plaid and t-shirted men still outnumbered women strolling the trade show aisles and attending lectures, I would guesstimate that at least a quarter of attendees were women. 

There are more women enrolling in Code AcademyThree of what I think are among the most promising startups in Chicago happen to be women-run:

This is something to celebrate. Yet when numbers skew so badly—only 7% of the techs-to-know in Chicago are women? really?—it raises questions.

I probably would have let this slide, but for a quote of Nora Ephron’s that I read this morning in an obituary. In a graduation address to her alma mater, Wellesley College, she talks, with her trademark razor sharp wit, about changes in attitudes toward women and by women since was a student in the early 1960s. Then she gets to the rather serious nut:

"What I’m saying is, don’t delude yourself that the powerful cultural values that wrecked the lives of so many of my classmates have vanished from the earth. Don’t let the New York Times article about the brilliant success of Wellesley graduates in the business world fool you — there’s still a glass ceiling. Don’t let the number of women in the work force trick you — there are still lots of magazines devoted almost exclusively to making perfect casseroles and turning various things into tents.

Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don’t take it personally, but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: get back, get back to where you once belonged. When Elizabeth Dole pretends that she isn’t serious about her career, that is an attack on you. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you — whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.”

So it makes a difference. There are good things happening on Chicago’s women-in-tech front. More good things need to happen. And we all need to do a better job both seeing and acknowledging them.

—J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

(originally posted on Built in Chicago)

On Order from Chaos and Purpose from Principle: Holovaty, Victor and Connections

image

I am not a geek. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to know what geeks are thinking, even if I can’t quite follow along on all the details. Programmers—as political consultant-turned-author Clay Johnson points out—are the new scribes. Quite literally, they give shape to content, define form that defines function and create tools that can reveal, or obscure.

If I have any special talent, it is a curiosity and willingness to walk through doors where, superficially at least, I have no business. Sitting in a room full of programmers fueled on Groupon-sponsored pizza, pop and tiny packets of hermetically sealed Skittles—as I did the other night listening to a talk by EveryBlock founder, Adrian Holovaty—qualifies.

Holovaty’s passion is liberating useful data from unruly copy. With “just the facts, ma’am” focus, he teases information order from narrative chaos. And he is brilliant at it. Cell by database cell, details collect over time, providing all sorts of often startling insights in the aggregate, from crime patterns to the arc of a war. There is a spare-truth poetry in data structure, the bare bones of news.

Yet it was s flick to a talk by another programmer, Bret Victor, about “Inventing on Principle” that proved the richest data nugget of the evening. “Watch this when you get home,” Holovaty urged, pointing to a slide with screen grab of a video.

So I did.

The video, shot in the dim glaring light of a hotel ballroom, lacks even the barest hint of the warm, slick production values typical of a TED talk, and at nearly an hour, clocks in at three times the length. Yet the brilliance shines through.

Victor, clearly a hero, if not a legend, among the programming crowd, was news to me. His lecture at the Canadian University Software Engineering Conference (CUSEC) last January transcends programming. It is about ideas, creativity, purpose, ethics, guiding principles and making a difference.

In short, it is for all of us.

Ideas are very important to me. I think that bringing ideas into the world is one of the most important thing that people do. And I think great ideas—in the form of great art, stories, inventions, scientific theories—these things take on lives of their own, which give meaning to our lives… What sort of tools could a healthy environment for ideas grow?

…Creators need immediate connection to what they are creating. That’s my principle….There can’t be any delay and there can’t be anything hidden.

Victor dazzles his audience with a series of programming demos to prove his point. An image of a tree appears on a page next to its corresponding code. All the values—height of tree, number of leaves per branch, height of mountains, color of sky—are rigged to slide bars, allowing the programmer to see immediately the effects of changes. No more edit, compile, run, check…lather, rinse, repeat.

Playing around, he sees that adding and subtracting the number of blossoms on the tree creates a shimmery effect that could be used in animation.

How would I ever have discovered that if I had had to compile and run between every change? So much of art—so much of creation—is discovery. And you can’t discover anything if you can’t see what you’re doing. … So having this immediate connection allows ideas to surface,  to develop in ways that would be impossible before.”

Victor next clicks open magnifying glass that shows how each line of code affects the image. Hold it over the image and, pixel by pixel, it highlights the corresponding line of code.

I can make these ideas as quickly as I think of them. And that is so important to the creative process, to be able to try ideas as you think of them. If there is any delay in that feedback loop between thinking of something and seeing it and building on it, then there is this whole world of ideas that will just never be. These are thoughts that we can’t think.

Then it is onto video games, animating a character’s bounce so that he slides neatly into a little box. 

image

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to bounce off my turtle. Pause the game. And now hit this button here, which shows my guy’s trail. So now I can see where’s he’s been. And when I rewind, this trail in front of him is where he’s going to be. This is his future. When I change the code, I change his future. So I can find exactly the value I need. And when I hit “play,” he slips right in there.

Victor continues with an an animation demo on an iPad, where, with a gentle touch, he guides a leaf to swirl and fall, no keyframing required (as one currently learning how to keyframe in Final Cut Express and pretty much hating every minute of it, I want this, please…).

image

This is all just the warm up.

Victor continues, first visualizing an algorithm as it is coded…

The people that we consider skilled software engineers are just those people who are really good at playing computer… But for writing our code on a computer why are we simulating what a computer would do in our head? Why doesn’t the computer just do it and show us?

That’s what it might be like to write an algorithm without a blindfold on.

…and then a completely new way to map out an electrical circuit.

image

Two golden rules of information design: show the data and show comparisons.

There’s nothing hidden. There’s nothing to simulate in your head. So what we have here is a different way of representing a circuit… Instead of being made out of little squiggly symbols, it’s made out of data. And I think it’s important to ask: Why do we have these little squiggly symbols in the first place? Why do they exist? They exist because they’re easy to draw on pencil on paper. This is not paper. So when you have a new medium, you have to rethink these things. You have to think how can this new medium allow us more immediate connection to what we’re making. How can this new medium allow us to work in such a way so we can see what we’re doing? It’s really the same situation with programming.

…This principle—immediate connection—is not even about engineering. It’s about any type of creation.

The audience, completely enthralled, is now ready to hear Victor’s deeper message, one that resonates even for the code-phobic.

When I see ideas dying, it hurts. I see a tragedy. To me it feels like a moral wrong. It feels like an injustice. And if I think there is anything I can do about it, I feel it is my responsibility to do so. Not opportunity. But responsibility. Now this is just my thing. I am not asking you to believe in this the way that I do.

My point here is that these words that I’m using—injustice, responsibility, moral wrong—these aren’t the words we normally hear in a technical field. We do hear these words in association with social causes. So things like censorship, gender discrimination, environmental destruction, we all recognize these things as moral wrongs. Most of us wouldn’t witness a civil rights violation and say, “Oh good! An opportunity.” I hope not. Instead, we have been very fortunate to have had people throughout history, who recognize these social wrongs and saw it as their responsibility to address them.

.. As a technologist, you can recognize a wrong in the world. You can have a vision of a what a better world can be. And you can dedicate yourself to fighting for a principle. Social activists typically fight by organizing, but you can fight by inventing.

…So you can choose this life. Or maybe it will end up choosing you. It may not happen right away. It can take time to find a principle because finding a principle is essentially a form of self-discovery—that you’re trying to figure out what your life is supposed to be about, what you want to stand for as a person.

… And finally, if you choose to follow a principle, a principle can’t be any old thing you believe in. You’ll hear a lot of people say they want to make software easier to use. Or they want to delight their users. Or they want to make things simple. That’s a really big one right now. Everyone wants to make things simple. And those are nice thoughts and kind of give you a direction to go in, but they’re too vague to be directly actionable.

… I believe creators need powerful tools. It’s a nice thought. It didn’t really get me anywhere. My principle is that creators need this immediate connection. So I can watch you changing a line of code and I can ask, “Did you immediately see the effect of that change? And again, all those demos that I showed you came out of me doing that, of me following this principle and letting it lead me to exactly what I needed to do.

So if you’re guiding principle embodies a specific insight, it will guide you. And you’ll always know if what you’re doing is right.

There are many ways to live your life. That’s maybe the most important thing to realize in your life, that every aspect of your life is a choice. There are default choices: You can choose to sleepwalk through your life and accept the path that’s been laid out for you. You can choose to accept the world as it is. But you don’t have to. If there is something in the world you feel is wrong, and you have a vision for what a better world would be, you can find your guiding principle. And you can fight for a cause.

So after this talk, I’d like you take a little time and think about what matters to you. What you believe in. And what you might fight for.

••••••••••••

For the last couple of days, I have done just that. I think my guiding principle has always been about the importance of connections: across disciplines, applications, interests, cultures, geography, need. Now, it will be that much more intentional.

Which means there is a lot of work to be done, a lifetime of doors to open.

Yes.

—J.A Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

••••••••••••

RELATED

(Source: principle)

Libraries on the Digital Edge: NYPL Labs, eBook Wars & “Friendly Fire”

Few things are quite as delicious as a serendipity day in New York City (even minus snagging a lottery ticket for "Book of Mormon." Hasa Diga Eebowai…) 

I had flown in for a conference, unexpectedly arriving just in time for the start of Social Media Week—an annual celebration of the power and joy of digital connection—which this year took place in a dozen cities, from Hong Kong to Paris…to New York.

And it is how I came to be at the incomparable New York Public Library one sunny afternoon, learning all about NYPL Labs. Think MIT Media Lab meets librarians on a mission and you will begin to have an idea if what’s going on. It turns out the stacks are rife with geeks. 

The library’s vast and often quirky archives provide delicious fodder for creating free online tools that not only bring new functionality to collections, but also expand and redefine the library’s public. Anyone with a connection to the web can now be an NYPL patron.

"Patron"— that is how librarians refer to their customers and it sets the tone. Librarians are the original triple bottom line thinkers, measuring success in number of patrons served, ideas sparked and information shared. In the digital age, libraries are being re-imagined as information hubs and API platforms with profound and profoundly wonderful implications.

The NYPL panel highlighted three projects:  

  • The Map Warper: a tool to harmonize and create new maps from the library’s collection of over 10,000 scanned historical maps

… (U)sers both inside and outside the Library can virtually stretch old maps onto a digital model of the world à la Google Maps  or OpenStreetMap , thus creating a new copy that is not only aligned with spatial coordinates on the Earth, but normalized across the entire archive of old maps… All of this is done collaboratively, through the piecemeal efforts of staff, volunteers, and interns, a group of roughly 1,500 participants worldwide. 

—Matt Knutzen, geospatial librarian

The implications are literally mind-boggling. Imagine, for example, using these maps to chart industrial development over time, then pairing them with epidemiological maps of cancer clusters. To use my friend Robert Kirkpatrick’s term, suddenly you could begin to piece together the picture of a “slow crisis” unfolding. Dots that couldn’t before be connected, now can.

  • What’s On the Menu: a semantically searchable database based on over 40,000 NY restaurant menus from the 1840s to the present.

The New York Public Library’s restaurant menu collection is one of the largest in the world, used by historians, chefs, novelists and everyday food enthusiasts. Trouble is, the menus are very difficult to search for the greatest treasures they contain: specific information about dishes, prices, the organization of meals, and all the stories these things tell us about the history of food and culture.

To solve this, we’re working to improve the collection by transcribing the menus, dish by dish. Doing this will allow us to dramatically expand the ways in which the collection can be researched and accessed, opening the door to new kinds of discoveries. We’ve built a simple tool that makes the transcribing pretty easy to do, but it’s a big job, so we need your help.

As one librarian put it, “Imagine the historic Yelp.” Yum. 

  • The Stereogranimator: a tool that turns historic stereographs (stereo photographs) into 3D images on the web

I am told this remarkable application is directly inspired by Reaching for the Out of Reach, my project which ultimately amounts to a 21st century raid of the New York Public Library’s archive of 19th century treasure. That is to say, my project was inspired by the library’s collection first. This kind of mutually beneficial relationship between archivist & user would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago. How did we get here?

—Joshua Heineman

How indeed. Each of the projects relies on volunteers—lots of volunteers—to be fully realized, bringing a whole new level of public participation to public libraries. These are literally tools created by the people, for the people.

LESS IS LESS


By contrast, some publishers, notably Penguin, are severely restricting sales of ebooks to libraries, casting public libraries as a Napster-ish villain threatening to undermine their business model. Nevermind that lending content has always been the library’s raison d’etre. The lightening fast transfer of electrons makes them nervous.

"Please don’t let the library patron be the victim of friendly fire in the ebook wars," pleaded Library Journal’s Barbara Genco at the recent Tools of Change conference in New York.

Friction. This is a word we are hearing more and more and more. Today’s theme is “Fast / Forward / Change.” If you are a public librarian today, the excuse, or concern, that we hear every day about more friction. Slow it down. It’s too easy to borrow ebooks from libraries. To us, that means “Change / Slowly / At a Glacial Rate” And if I can return to my misspent youth, it translates into "Forward into the Past." (Firesign Theater).

Not only is this approach wrong, it is wrong-headed. Genco, guns a’blazing with data, tore into publishers’ short-sighted policies. 

The “power patron”—defined as someone who visits the library at least once a week—reads on average 26 books per year: 16 from the library and 10 purchased.

Drilling down a bit further, about a third of them use the library to discover new genres and writers. Thirty-seven percent purchase books they have previously borrowed. And a stunning 61% buy books by authors whose works they have previously borrowed. This is “discoverability” gold—more valuable than ever given the number of bookstore closures. Nothing beats roaming the shelves, or the “hand-selling” of a librarian or fellow patron’s recommendation.

It is hard to fathom why an author would want to sign on with a publisher determined to restrict access. It’s not even a matter of penny-wise, pound-foolish. It’s just foolish.

"The public library market is possibly one of the largest sleeping giants in the publishing industry today," noted Genco. 

Let’s not kill the giant.

— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

The Information Diet: You Are What You Read…Really (so read this)

If this is indeed the Information Age, then we are in big trouble. In a talk titled “Is SEO Killing America?” at last week’s Tools of Change digital publishing conference in New York, former political strategist, open source information advocate and author Clay Johnson compared the commodification of information (content farms) to the industrialization of agriculture—with similarly disturbing results.

Agriculture’s relationship to obesity has a lot to do with media’s relationship with ignorance.

From Fox News to the Huffington Post, editors are much less concerned with the actual content of content than they are whether it is what the readers want. It doesn’t take long for the tail-wags-dog-wags-tail-wags-dog spiral to get to the point where we all know too much about things Kardashian and not nearly enough about anything that actually matters. To use Johnson’ analogy from his new book, The Information Diet, we have grown fat and digitally diabetic dining on junk news. It turns out we are not only what we eat, but also what we info-consume.

Food companies want to provide you with the most profitable food possible that will keep you eating it—and the result is our supermarket aisles filled with unimaginable ways to construct and consume corn. Media companies want to provide you with the most profitable information possible that will keep you tuned in, and the result is airwaves filled with fear and affirmation. Those are the things that keep institutional shareholders that own these firms happy.

—The Information Diet

It is not a pretty picture. And, yes, SEO (Search Engine Optimization), the insidious practice of using keywords to game search results, is driving this race to the inane. The only metric that counts is popularity. “The problem is no one is searching for the Pentagon Papers,” notes Johnson, “No one is searching for high quality investigative reporting.”

Instead, we have “The AOL Way,” where content is bait, journalists assembly line workers, readers “hits” and, says Johnson, “editorial integrity is market inefficiency.”

The intent of the AOL Way is to decrease the costs and increase the profitability of the company produces. According to the plan, each editor should use four factors to decide what to cover: traffic potential, revenue potential, turn-around time, and at the bottom of the list, editorial quality. All editorial content staff are expected to write between 5 and 10 stories per day, each with an average cost of $84, and a gross margin (from advertising) of 50%.

— The Information Diet

AOL is hardly alone in shredding the once sacred line between newsroom and advertising department, but its clarity of mission is breathtaking.

And that mission is made that much easier by machine learning: the holy grail of figuring out what a consumer wants, then making sure that’s all s/he gets, sucking any potential serendipity out of the system. The cacophony that begins with our clicks—our votes of interest—starts an echo chain from which there is no easy escape.

Even snarkier: profiling disguised as customization. Sex, age, political leanings, religion, nationality, ethnicity, income, reproductive state—all can be guessed from data. Retailer Target recently found itself in the embarrassing position of knowing about a teen’s pregnancy before her father. That level of granular-to-the-individual target marketing can quickly shift from helpful (that teen could probably use coupons for lotions and vitamins) to flat out frightening, leading to a kind of information apartheid: the filter bubble as filter wall, making it increasingly more difficult to find common ground. 

When applied to news, it can lead to what Johnson calls “reality dysmorphia,” a mismatch between what we deeply believe is true and what is in fact truth, reinforced by:

  • agnotology: culturally induced doubt—a co-option of “innocent until proven guilty” used to great effect by Big Tobacco, Big Oil, climate-deniers, et al.
  • epistemic closure: e.g., A is bad. A thinks B is good. Therefore B is bad. End of discussion.
  • filter failures: e.g, the unseen hand of algorithmic tyranny editing your Facebook newsfeed

Instead of broadening our horizons, technology is being used to narrow them.
Instead of the promise of a renaissance, we are heading straight for a dark ages.

So what’s the solution to this? I’m not here just to scare the heck out of you. That would be a job for FOX News or MSNBC. I’m here to ask you to help me to create a “whole news movement.” To make a “slow news movement.” To make a movement of high end consumers of information that demand that their media changes. We as the reader need to upgrade.

In Michael Pollan-esque haiku: “Consume deliberately. Take in information over affirmation.”

Which isn’t to say that a little junk news nibble every now and again is so bad. But if that’s all there is, well, we could have had it all…

RELATED:

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

Baby Clothes, Sharing, Paradigm Shifts & Collaborative Consumption (with addendum, 2/17/12)

(9/12: UPDATE. Great things have happened for Good Karma over the last six months, including a residency at the Excelerate Labs accelerator program and a reincarnation as Moxie Jean, an online consignment business.)

There are plenty of inspired ideas swirling around, but only occasionally does one come across an idea that also charms. Good Karma, a new web-based subscription service for used baby clothes, manages to mix bargain-hunting and environmental responsibility with the irresistible adorable-ness of small-fry fashion. Really, what’s not to love?

The service, still in beta, offers “bundles” priced from $19.99 to $69.99 per month. Each includes seven freshly washed and inspected outfits, which can be returned  in a postage pre-paid bag once outgrown. According to the website, babies typically burst through 6 or 7 sizes in a fleeting 24 months, so the clothes are useful for just a matter of weeks. 

Subscriptions for “wardrobes”—options include either 21 or 28 outfits—top out at $97.99 per month, still just a small fraction of what the clothes would cost brand new.

Good Karma builds on—and dramatically expands—the time-honored tradition of passing along used but still usable baby clothes to family and friends. In fact, co-founder Sharon Schneider’s entrepreneurial epiphany came while packing up her 18 month-old daughter’s outgrown outfits to ship to a sister who had just had a baby.

Now, though, there is no need to actually have any baby clothes stashed away to share: Anyone can buy a gift subscription. In the 21st century, it doesn’t take a village to raise a child, but a network.

Good Karma is part of the growing trend of “collaborative consumption” (though in this case, serial consumption might be a more apt term), where value shifts from product to function, i.e., it’s not the drill you need, but the hole; it’s not the CD, but the music.

"Technology makes sharing frictionless and fun," notes innovation strategist Rachel Botsman, who not only coined the term “collaborative consumption,” but also co-wrote a book explaining it.

"Reputational capital" is the grease that makes the system run. In an economy based on sharing, swapping and peer-to-peer (P2P) sales, it is the equivalent of a credit score. Every transaction leaves a digital trail, grading the participants: Were the goods delivered? Was payment made? Was the service worthwhile? 

Botsman’s colleague, Lauren Anderson, recently went toe to toe with a somewhat skeptical Andrew Keen for TechCrunch, who wondered what will happen to people (such as himself) who don’t particularly care to share. How much of this is breathy hype? Although the numbers have grown dramatically for car-sharing over the last decade, for example, it remains a marginal player.

Yet despite Keen’s spot on curmudgeonous concerns, this grassroots, tech-enabled trend is fast becoming part of the mainstream mix.

… More interesting will be the incumbent retailers and manufacturers’ response to successful P2P markets. I wouldn’t be surprised to find automobile dealers offering their cars for rental on collaborative consumption market places. Or hotel chains acquiring apartments to rent them on P2P exchanges.

The ultimate beneficiaries of this competition and additional selection will be the consumer and the environment. Optimizing our resources will change the way we live. In 1900, 41% of the natural resources entering the US economy were recycled. Today, that figure is 13% [2]. Meanwhile, the US population has increased 357%. We simply cannot continue on this path.

One of the best ways to return to a sustainable way of life is to maximize asset use through collaborative consumption market places. By providing economic incentives to maximize efficiency, binding large communities to shared causes and decreasing total consumption, collaborative consumption will become a keystone of a sustainable American society.

Tomasz Tunguz, MIT Entrepreneurship Review

Certainly a keystone for baby fashionistas…

ADDENDUM (2/17/12)

Good Karma’s good karma was in full force the other night, winning a literal “sack of cash” (three thousand one dollar bills…) at Common Pitch, a competition for collaborative consumption start-ups, which was held in conjunction with Social Media Week—New York. The beer-buzzed hipster-heavy crowd at Brooklyn Bowl was as taken as the panel of judges with GK’s clever dovetailing of social goodness (e.g. sourcing clothes donated to school fundraising drives, re-purposing worn out clothes into bibs and quilts) and bargain-hunter’s bounty (saving parents over $1,000 on clothes over baby’s first two years). Virtuous circles rock.

Several entrants focused on monetizing access through P2P networks (bicycles via Spinlister, car-pooling via Zimride and wifi access via KeyWifi). Others, including WebThriftStore, Itemology and fashion site UNUM, riffed on developing marketplaces. And then there was Zoko, billed as a “Kickstarter for parties,” founded by a bunch of party-hearty Yalies for whom the collective good means a collective good time. Laissez les bons temps rouler

Speaking of which, the evening also included a nod to Sir Richard’s, the Tom’s Shoes of condoms, offering a buy-one / give-one model designed to improve birth control access in the developing world. Beyond its “SNL” skit first impression, this is a clever melding of marketing and mission that could actually make a difference, both in terms of public health and preventing unwanted pregnancies.

The two-and-a-half year old Boulder, Colorado-based company just announced its first major donation: a half million condoms to Haiti distributed through Paul Farmer’s organization, Partners In Health. Renamed “KORE”—local slang for “I’ve got your back”—the packaging includes Haitian Kréyòl messaging and visual instructions.

“Within the last year, Partners In Health has treated more than 6,300 HIV-positive patients in Haiti. Reinforcing the importance of condom use and ensuring that condoms are available and accessible is key in our battle against the spread of HIV/AIDS. PIH is deeply grateful for Sir Richard’s partnership in this mission,“ said Christopher Hamon, Haiti Procurement Coordinator for Partners In Health…

…According to data released by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Haiti has seen a spike in pregnancies following the 2009 earthquake. In the study, conducted in July 2010 of 2391 women in 120 camps, almost 12 percent reported being pregnant. Unfortunately, two thirds of the pregnancies were unwanted.

Collaborative smarts.

RELATED:

  • Common / collaborative brand and creative community for accelerating social change

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews