Briefly Noted

Things Read, Seen or Heard Elsewhere

Progress is great except when it traps you. Which is how an interesting theory about the origins of agriculture begins.

Here’s a concept I wasn’t familiar with: The Progress Trap. It was developed and explained by Ronald Wright in his book, A Short History of Progress. It essentially says that humans often create near-term solutions to long-term problems that eventually screw us over. 

Cars move us faster than horses. Oil moves trucks and ships so we transport mass quantities of goods around the globe. Petrochemicals, more generally, are used in 6,000 products and devices. PROGRESS! 

The trap, of course, is the environmental mess this created.

Here’s a theory about about progress traps and the origins of agriculture I was never exposed to. 

Via a fascinating essay by Paul Kingsnorth in Orion Magazine:

The earliest example [Wright] gives is the improvement in hunting techniques in the Upper Paleolithic era, around fifteen thousand years ago. Wright tracks the disappearance of wildlife on a vast scale whenever prehistoric humans arrived on a new continent. As Wright explains: “Some of their slaughter sites were almost industrial in size: 1,000 mammoths at one; more than 100,000 horses at another.” But there was a catch:

The perfection of hunting spelled the end of hunting as a way of life. Easy meat meant more babies. More babies meant more hunters. More hunters, sooner or later, meant less game. Most of the great human migrations across the world at this time must have been driven by want, as we bankrupted the land with our moveable feasts.

This is the progress trap. Each improvement in our knowledge or in our technology will create new problems, which require new improvements. Each of these improvements tends to make society bigger, more complex, less human-scale, more destructive of nonhuman life, and more likely to collapse under its own weight.

Spencer Wells takes up the story in his book Pandora’s Seed, a revisionist history of the development of agriculture. The story we were all taught at school—or I was, anyway—is that humans “developed” or “invented” agriculture, because they were clever enough to see that it would form the basis of a better way of living than hunting and gathering. This is the same attitude that makes us assume that a brushcutter is a better way of mowing grass than a scythe, and it seems to be equally erroneous. As Wells demonstrates, analysis of the skeletal remains of people living before and after the transition to agriculture during the Paleolithic demonstrate something remarkable: an all-around collapse in quality of life when farming was adopted.

Hunter-gatherers living during the Paleolithic period, between 30,000 and 9,000 BCE, were on average taller—and thus, by implication, healthier—than any people since, including people living in late twentieth-century America. Their median life span was higher than at any period for the next six thousand years, and their health, as estimated by measuring the pelvic inlet depth of their skeletons, appears to have been better, again, than at any period since—including the present day. This collapse in individual well-being was likely due to the fact that settled agricultural life is physically harder and more disease-ridden than the life of a shifting hunter-gatherer community.

So much for progress. But why in this case, Wells asks, would any community move from hunting and gathering to agriculture? The answer seems to be: not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They had spelled the end of their hunting and gathering lifestyle by getting too good at it. They had killed off most of their prey and expanded their numbers beyond the point at which they could all survive. They had fallen into a progress trap.

We have been falling into them ever since.

The essay in well worth your time if you sit confused or overwhelmed by the social, political and environmental state of the world and our place in it. Kingsnorth is a thoughtful critic with a clear-eyed view what it means to be standing at the edge of (or in) our various global upheavals. We’re not going to solve our crises, he suggests, but that doesn’t mean we need to fall into nihilism or despair.

Ugly online mobs have a beautiful real-world analog, flocks of birds.

When starlings flock, they ebb and flow, zig and zag, rise up, twist about and head off in new directions. Scientists call this avian dance a “murmuration”.

Let’s take a look.

Starlings flock on the English countryside

Here’s some of what we know about it:

In a murmuration, each bird sees, on average, the seven birds nearest it and adjusts its own behavior in response. If its nearest neighbors move left, the bird usually moves left. If they move right, the bird usually moves right. The bird does not know the flock’s ultimate destination and can make no radical change to the whole. But each of these birds’ small alterations, when occurring in rapid sequence, shift the course of the whole, creating mesmerizing patterns. We cannot quite understand it, but we are awed by it. It is a logic that emerges from — is an embodiment of — the network. The behavior is determined by the structure of the network, which shapes the behavior of the network, which shapes the structure, and so on. The stimulus — or information — passes from one organism to the next through this chain of connections…

… Scientists call this process, in which groups of disparate organisms move as a cohesive unit, collective behavior. The behavior is derived from the relationship of individual entities to each other, yet only by widening the aperture beyond individuals do we see the entirety of the dynamic.

Research suggests the same flocking behavior exists in social media information cascades, harassment mobs and collective activism. Here, we do not know what the whole is doing, but we react to and emulate those around us. Basically, the “like”, “upvote”, and uncommented “repost” (among other actions depending on the platform) are largely performative displays of effortless camaraderie that others can see. 

We do them. We do them because we see others doing them. And others are doing them because we’re doing them. We zig and zag. We ebb and flow. We dart like murmuring starlings.

The algorithms created by our dominant platforms understand this. They try to pry a response from us. They set bait traps.


Twitter’s Trending Topics, for example, will show a nascent “trend” to someone inclined to be interested, sometimes even if the purported trend is, at the time, more of a trickle — fewer than, say, 2,000 tweets. But that act, pushing something into the user’s field of view, has consequences: the Trending Topics feature not only surfaces trends, it shapes them. The provocation goes out to a small subset of people inclined to participate. The user who receives the nudge clicks in, perhaps posts their own take — increasing the post count, signaling to the algorithm that the bait was taken and raising the topic’s profile for their followers. Their post is now curated into their friends’ feeds; they are one of the seven birds their followers see. Recurring frenzies take shape among particular flocks, driving the participants mad with rage even as very few people outside of the community have any idea that anything has happened. Marx is trending for you, #ReopenSchools for me, #transwomenaremen for the Libs Of TikTok set. The provocation is delivered, a few more birds react to what’s suddenly in their field of view, and the flock follows, day in and day out.

Aside: I joined Mastodon about six weeks ago. It famously does not have an engagement algorithm. Things trend but it doesn’t feel manipulative. It doesn’t feel angry or aggrieved. I also tend to have more engagement on individual posts than I did elsewhere (say, Twitter) even though I have thousands fewer followers. Take that as a survey of one.

The life advice from which all other life advice flows.
A sign in a Japanese bathroom with an English translation under it that reads, "Please urinate with precision and elegance."
Mistranslation example from the Museum of Wonky English via Open Culture

The life advice from which all other life advice flows.

On second thought, San Francisco decides killer robots aren't a good idea. Crazy that it got so far.

In the just because you could, doesn’t mean you should department, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors reversed course on a proposal that gave city police the authority to arm remote-controlled robots with lethal explosives to confront dangerous subjects. In other words, to kill them.

In a second round of voting on the matter – occurring just over a week after the first – the Board relented in the face of civil rights and activist opposition to the measure. Fortunately, they came to their senses and realized their authorization was a bit dystopian. It’s incredible though that this came so far.

Via Ars Technica:

Shortly after the initial news broke, a “No Killer Robots” campaign started with the involvement of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and other civil rights groups. Forty-four community groups signed a letter in opposition to the policy, saying, “There is no basis to believe that robots toting explosives might be an exception to police overuse of deadly force. Using robots that are designed to disarm bombs to instead deliver them is a perfect example of this pattern of escalation, and of the militarization of the police force that concerns so many across the city.”

As the Associated Press reports, Dallas police used the first lethal robot back in 2016 when they armed it with explosives and killed a holed-up sniper.

Over the years we’ve seen a gross militarization of our police. It’s part of a Pentagon program that distributes surplus army equipments to local law enforcement.

As Dean Preston, one of the San Francisco supervisors puts it, “There have been more killings at the hands of police than any other year on record nationwide. We should be working on ways to decrease the use of force by local law enforcement, not giving them new tools to kill people.”

No one really know how AI works. Too bad it's going to control more and more of our lives.

An ongoing concern has mutated into a problem: developers and scientists are having a hard time figuring out how the black box AI they’re creating actually works. Or, more specifically, how various systems reach the conclusions that they do.

Via Vice:

The people who develop AI are increasingly having problems explaining how it works and determining why it has the outputs it has. Deep neural networks (DNN)—made up of layers and layers of processing systems trained on human-created data to mimic the neural networks of our brains—often seem to mirror not just human intelligence but also human inexplicability.

Most AI systems are black box models, which are systems that are viewed only in terms of their inputs and outputs. Scientists do not attempt to decipher the “black box,” or the opaque processes that the system undertakes, as long as they receive the outputs they are looking for. For example, if I gave a black box AI model data about every single ice cream flavor, and demographic data about economic, social, and lifestyle factors for millions of people, it could probably guess what your favorite ice cream flavor is or where your favorite ice cream store is, even if it wasn’t programmed with that intention.

These types of AI systems notoriously have issues because the data they are trained on are often inherently biased, mimicking the racial and gender biases that exist within our society. The haphazard deployment of them leads to situations where, to use just one example, Black people are disproportionately misidentified by facial recognition technology. It becomes difficult to fix these systems in part because their developers often cannot fully explain how they work, which makes accountability difficult. As AI systems become more complex and humans become less able to understand them, AI experts and researchers are warning developers to take a step back and focus more on how and why a system produces certain results than the fact that the system can accurately and rapidly produce them.

As AI is inserted into greater areas of our lives where nuanced decision making should be paramount, we run into serious issues.

Here’s Cory Doctorow with a recent take:

I think that the problems of AI are not its ability to do things well but its ability to do things badly, and our reliance on it nevertheless. So the problem isn’t that AI is going to displace all of our truck drivers. The fact that we’re using AI decision-making at scale to do things like lending, and deciding who is picked for child-protective services, and deciding where police patrols go, and deciding whether or not to use a drone strike to kill someone, because we think they’re a probable terrorist based on a machine-learning algorithm—the fact that AI algorithms don’t work doesn’t make that not dangerous. In fact, it arguably makes it more dangerous. The reason we stick AI in there is not just to lower our wage bill so that, rather than having child-protective-services workers go out and check on all the children who are thought to be in danger, you lay them all off and replace them with an algorithm. That’s part of the impetus. The other impetus is to do it faster—to do it so fast that there isn’t time to have a human in the loop. With no humans in the loop, then you have these systems that are often perceived to be neutral and empirical.

Patrick Ball is a statistician who does good statistical work on human-rights abuses. He’s got a nonprofit called the Human Rights Data Analysis Group. And he calls this “empiricism-washing”—where you take something that is a purely subjective, deeply troubling process, and just encode it in math and declare it to be empirical. If you are someone who wants to discriminate against dark-complexioned people, you can write an algorithm that looks for dark skin. It is math, but it’s practicing racial discrimination.

I think the risk is that we are accelerating the rate at which decision support systems and automated decision systems are operating. We are doing it in a way that obviates any possibility of having humans in the loop. And we are doing it as we are promulgating a narrative that these judgments are more trustworthy than human judgments.

This idea of “empiricism washing” is important. Life is hard. Choices are difficult. People, generally, don’t like conflict. If math provides answers, no matter how problematic, we get to wash our hands of it and not feel the repercussions associated with our decisions. You didn’t get that loan? Sorry, the algorithm says you’re not worthy. A drone bombed your innocent village? Wasn’t our bad, it was the algorithm.

So you have an opinion. Good for you. That doesn't mean anyone needs to take it seriously.

Chiming in from 2012, Patrick Stokes reminds us that while opinions matter, they don’t necessarily need to be considered.

If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

What Stokes is getting at is the false-equivalence between experts and non-experts on the important issues of the day, especially those that require technical, legal or scientific expertise.

It’s an important distinction to remember in a (social) media environment of instant Google experts where a critical event occurs and suddenly near everyone has an opinion about it.

War? Public health crisis? Global economic downturn? Sure, we can have opinions about them. But these opinions should be based off the consensus of those with deep subject matter expertise.

Pick a hot button topic: Our reaction to covid or the source of climate change.

Our non-expert opinions on the science of these things don’t hold a candle to the epidemiologists and climatologists who study these things. Instead, where we can start listening is when we begin discussing the policy response – what we can or should do, or how we should react – to the general consensus of those experts.

Of course, we live in a cynical age. Here in America that means an anti-science and anti-intellectual stance that’s inflamed and exploited by certain media actors and politicians.

As Tom Nichols writes in The Death of Expertise, “These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had access to so much knowledge, and yet been so resistant to learning anything.”

Our relationship with shit – our shit – is creating a toxic environment. What to do about it?

For a while one my daughters’ favorite books was What Do They Do With All The Poo From All The Animals At The Zoo? It’s a fun(ny) book. How can it not be. It hits my four and 2.5-year-old right in the tickles.

But, seriously, what do we do with all the poo? The human kind.

Listen. Lina Zeldovich has some eye-opening scatology over at Aeon:

An average adult produces about a pound (or half a kilo) of poo a day. That means that New York City, with its official census population of more than 8 million, pumps out more than 8 million lbs (or 4 million kg/4,000 tonnes) of excrement a day. Tokyo surpasses that slightly with 8.3 million lbs daily. China’s capital Beijing, a huge urban conglomerate of 21.3 million dwellers, beats NYC and Tokyo combined. Now imagine the mind-boggling piles of excrement that the planet’s 7 billion people generate in just 24 hours. Multiply it by 365 days a year, and it will likely make you gasp: Holy crap!

What do we do with all this poo? For the most part, we try to distance ourselves from it as much as possible. The exact mechanisms of that process depend on where you live. In the Western world, we flush it down the toilet. In the less fortunate places, it’s left to decompose in pit latrines or underneath trees. But no matter the country or the culture, the common thread is that we try to move our ordure as far away from us as we can. We’re universally disgusted by it. It’s excrement. It’s yucky by definition. It’s appalling by sight and smell.

Her essay isn’t about the cholera, dysentery and intestinal worms that emerge when populations can’t properly dispose of human waste, although there’s that. Instead, it reimagines or, better, reintroduces us to what could be done with human waste if we had the stomach for it.

It also clues us into a concept: metabolic rift. With it, we trace the extraction of nutrients from one part of the world and the introduction or disposal of those nutrients to another. Basically, modern agriculture is redistributing nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – from one part of the world to another. This leaves soil exhausted where food is grown. And leaves lakes, rivers and oceans choked with algae blooms and decay where it’s eventually deposited.

From Zeldovich:

[B]ecause we don’t ship our shit back to where the food comes from, we keep perpetuating the redistribution of nutrients on the planet. Soils grow barren, so we use synthetic fertiliser, which isn’t anywhere near as good as the real shit, and also is very polluting to produce. In our quest to rid ourselves from our dangerous dark matter, we’ve broken the essential rules and laws of Mother Nature. By taking our poo out of the equation, we altered not only our agriculture, but the entire planet’s ecology.

It’s an interesting read. It’s one that touches on her family’s Russian farm, to how different societies collected human feces in the cities to be brought back out to the fields.

More important, and topical, it’s a call to action for contemporary society to rethink its relationship with human waste as we evaluate solutions for global food distribution in light of its negative environmental effects.

Pantone owns colors. This is weird.

Seeing how just about everything is commoditized, commercialized and capitalized, it really shouldn’t surprise me that Pantone, the color management company, holds rights to certain colors. This rubs me as odd thought. It would be like a music company copyrighting a chord.

I learned about it because Adobe is no longer integrating Pantone-owned colors for free. If you’re a designer, you’ll have to pay for a separate license for them to be included.

Via Kotaku:

Pantone has been around since the 1950s, the New Jersey company originally refining printing inks, then later inventing the Pantone Color Matching System, used worldwide by designers to ensure a creation’s color will be exactly as desired, no matter where or how it’s manufactured. So, of course in becoming the industry-standard for color-matching, the company naturally asserts ownership of all its 2,161 hues, defending its intellectual property and preventing its unlicensed use. This extends as far as preventing others from creating “Pantone-compatible” color systems. Or, to put it another way, they claim to own colors.

If I squint, I can see a color being part of a trademark when it comes to branding. For example, Mattel’s Barbie pink when it comes to the world of dolls (that’s Pantone 219C | #DA1884 for those keeping score at home).

But, as I said above, claiming ownership of 2,161 hues seems a bit much and similar in my mind to claiming various musical chords and their inversions.

D minor sus4, brought to you by Fender, if you will.

Here’s a brief video from Business Insider about some of the colors that different companies claim.

"We underestimate the stupid, and we do so at our own peril."

It’s hard to get a handle on stupid, and what it actually is. Fortunately, an economics history professor outlined the affliction way back in 1976. The problem is most of us weren’t listening.


Stupid people, Carlo M. Cipolla explained, share several identifying traits: they are abundant, they are irrational, and they cause problems for others without apparent benefit to themselves, thereby lowering society’s total well-being. There are no defenses against stupidity, argued the Italian-born professor, who died in 2000. The only way a society can avoid being crushed by the burden of its idiots is if the non-stupid work even harder to offset the losses of their stupid brethren.

The UC Berkeley professor developed five universal laws of stupidity. Important for those of us who’ve been trying to put our finger on what, exactly, makes a stupid person stupid have the The Third (and Golden) Law:

A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

Read more at QUARTZ, or learn more about Cipolla and his work.

Ghost’s canine bots are the scary older brother of every other dog robot you’ve ever seen, and a good reminder that we're getting increasingly efficient at finding ways to kill ourselves.

Don’t call it a dog robot. Instead, its makers refer to it as a Quadrupedal Unmanned Ground Vehicles, or ground drone if you want something that rolls a bit easier off the tongue. This particular model is called the Vision 60.

Vision 60 robots via Ghost Robotics on Twitter

Ghost’s Vision 60 robots will soon patrol Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. While the company says they don’t intend to arm these robots, other robots have been for years now:

“Robots were first utilized in ground combat during the war in Afghanistan, starting in 2002. Hermes was a 20-kilogram robot kitted out with cameras and, where needed, a grenade launcher and a 12-gauge shotgun.”

It all captures the imagination with images of a not so future dystopia floating through the head. The question isn’t whether armed robots will patrol land, sea and sky, it’s when they’ll become autonomous. The Army is working on autonomous tanks, the Navy is developing weapons capable autonomous ships, and the Air Force Skyborg program is doling out cash to develop autonomous combat drones.

Our current generation of “dumb” robots is already changing power dynamics on the battlefield.

For example, Azerbaijan just leveraged its drone force to defeat its stronger neighbor Armenia in their border war:

In a matter of months… [the conflict became] perhaps the most powerful example of how small and relatively inexpensive attack drones can change the dimensions of conflicts once dominated by ground battles and traditional air power.

It also highlighted the vulnerabilities of even sophisticated weapons systems, tanks, radars and surface-to-air missiles without specific drone defenses. And it has raised debate on whether the era of the traditional tank could be coming to an end.

The sci-fi future is very present. Iran’s media is leveraging the not so farfetched idea that one of their top scientists was killed by a machine gun controlled via satellite.

Of course, they have their reasons. Namely, putting the assassination in the realm of supernatural technology deflects citizen anger that foreign elements (read: Mossad) wander the country unimpeded.1

Still, why not? The technology the Iranians refer to exists. With the amount of money being poured into weaponizing machine learning and artificial intelligence, remote autonomous assassination systems can’t be far behind.

Somewhat related: A French military ethics committee says the country can develop “augmented soldiers”.

  • When Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in November, Iran’s media reported he was killed in an ambush. A few weeks later they changed their story to say artificial intelligence, facial recognition and a satellite controlled machine gun shot him down.

“This virus has humbled me as a professional and a person,” said Michelle Odden, associate professor of epidemiology at Stanford. “I did not think this level of failure in a federal response was possible in the United States.”

Earlier this year a meme made the rounds on the state of America, circa 2020. Unlike funny dances or songs or some sort of cancel culture takedown, those posting reflected on their life and times.

The conversation was tied to the Democratic primaries. Specifically, if primary voters would push Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to the nomination; how far left was too far left for the general voting public; and why, curious beltway pundits wanted to know, were voters open to democratic socialism in the first place. In particular, they wanted to know why so many millennials supported these ideas.

To which a typical response looked a bit like this:

Bump up a generation to Gen-X and you had responses like this:

Life is not good and America is not great, economically speaking.

Which brings me to the Michelle Odden’s quote to the New York Times in their recent coronavirus epidemiologist survey.

Listen: “I did not think this level of failure in a federal response was possible in the United States.”

I don’t disagree with the sentiment, I do, however, with the degree. We’re missing a word. As in: I did not think this level of failure in a federal response was possible in the United States again.

So far this century we’ve had the dot-com crash, 9/11, the chaos and mismanagement of the Iraq war, an inept response to Hurricane Katrina, the financial crash, and now an incompetent COVID response that’s pushing us toward 300,000 deaths.

Go back in time to our post World War II glory years and we have what: civil unrest and assassinations in the sixties; the Vietnam War and the economic malaise in the seventies; escalating drug wars, mass incarceration and growing economic inequality in the eighties and nineties; decades long wage stagnation for the majority of Americans and a health care system that creaks along unable to care for vast populations in the Most Powerful and Prosperous Nation the World Has Ever Known™.1

This country is like a storied sports team resting on long past laurels. We were champions once, we swagger, before muddling through another period of mediocrity.

So no, the level of failure doesn’t surprise because it happens over and over again. Instead, it just leaves me frustrated that we can’t at least be competent. Unfortunately, we’re lead by a shameless Machiavellian conspiracy cult on one side and a group of incompetents on the other.

Somewhat Related: Mark Becker, former Chairman of Wisconsin’s Brown County Republican Party, writes about a conversation he had with Ron Johnson, that state’s Republican senator. The article is ostensibly about Johnson’s inability to publicly acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory (political suicide, he says) but an aside caught my attention.

Democrats don’t love our country, says Johnson, because they want to change it. “[Y]ou can’t love something you want to fundamentally change,” Johnson tells Becker.

I’m not a Democrat but I can flip this ignorance on its head: you can’t change something unless you truly love it.

  • I don’t mean to imply that the forties or fifties were halcyon golden days (see, race, gender). Instead, with some exceptions, it was a period where the country seemed to be able to come together for a prolonged period to achieve common goals.

For all its unknowns, the glorious constant of space is its surprises. For instance, when astronomers discovered what color it is.

Back in the early aughts, two astronomers color-sampled 200,000 galaxies and discovered that the epic majesty that is space averages out to… beige.

Specifically, #fff8e7 on your HEX color picker.

Cosmic Latte
Inspired? This is the color of space.

As Wired explained at the time, “To find this average color, Glazebrook and Baldry gathered light from galaxies out to several billion light years. They processed the light to break it into the various colors similar to how a prism turns sunlight into a rainbow. They averaged the color values for all the light and converted it to the primary color scale seen by the human eye.”

The beige eventually got a name that sounds like something to order from a new age cafe: Cosmic Latte.

The actual study that lead to the discovery was an attempt by Karl Glazebrook and Ivan Baldry to explore the history of star formation. By looking at light values emitting from the cosmos, the two could infer the age of stars in different galaxies. Basically, old stars and young stars emit and absorb elements at different rates. This is then reflected in the corresponding light spectrum surrounding them.

Here’s how the two illustrate it in a brief write-up.

The cosmic spectrum shows what elements are emitted or absorbed.
Oxygen, Hydrogen, Sodium and Sulphur all have different lightprints.
A technical glitch on a Chinese video streaming platform reveals a young, popular vlogger is actually a much older woman.

What the filter giveth, the filter taketh away.

Via The BBC:

Fans of a popular Chinese video blogger who called herself “Your Highness Qiao Biluo” have been left stunned after a technical glitch during one of her live-streams revealed her to be a middle-aged woman and not the young glamorous girl they thought her to be.

The revelation has led to discussions about standards of beauty across the country’s social media platforms.

The blogger, who initially boasted a follower count of more than 100,000 on Douyu, is believed to have used a filter on her face during her appearances, and had been renowned for her “sweet and healing voice”.

China’s Global Times said she had been “worshipped” as a “cute goddess” by some members of her loyal audience with some fans even giving her more than 100,000 yuan ($14,533, £11,950).

However, live-streaming platform Lychee News says the incident happened on 25 July, during a joint live-stream with another user, Qingzi on the Douyu platform…

… [A]t some point, it seems the filter being used by the vlogger stopped working and her real face became visible to her viewers.

More: Chinese vlogger who used filter to look younger caught in live-stream glitch, via The BBC.

An architect creates a seesaw at the US-Mexico border to show what happens on one side affects what happens on the other... Oh, and kids have fun.

Two professors created a seesaw on the border fence between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico to demonstrate that “the actions that take place on one side have a direct consequence on the other side,” according to their post on Instagram.

Via The Guardian:

[T]he seesaws are the invention of Ronald Rael, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and Virginia San Fratello, an associate professor of design at San José State University, who first came up with the concept 10 years ago.

In an Instagram post that has received tens of thousands of likes, children and adults can be seen playing and interacting on both sides of the fence using the seesaws, which provide “a literal fulcrum” between the countries, according to Rael. He said the event was about bringing “joy, excitement and togetherness at the border wall”.

More: Pink seesaws reach across the divide at US-Mexico border, via The Guardian.

A spacecraft not much bigger than a loaf of bread is demonstrating that sailing the cosmos is a possibility.

The spacecraft’s not much bigger than a loaf of bread and it has a boxing ring-sized solar sail propelling it through space.

LightSail 2, a project from The Planetary Society, a space advocacy group, successfully opened its solar sails earlier this week and is now floating through space. The project is meant to demonstrate the potential solar sails have for long distance space travel.

Via Science Alert:

If you’re not familiar with solar sail technology, the idea is relatively simple, at least in theory.

A solar sail utilizes the momentum of the photons coming from the Sun, much the same way that a sailboat captures the energy in the wind. The light sail doesn’t capture the photons. The photons bounce off of the reflective surface and propel the sail. It’s lightweight, simple technology that has great potential.

In the vacuum of space, it works. There’s no resistance to the spacecraft’s momentum, so over time, as more and more photons bounce off it, its speed increases. All without carrying any fuel or other propulsion system…

…They also gain more and more momentum as they travel. They can continue to accelerate as long as photons are hitting them. A solar sail spacecraft can reach speeds that a chemical rocket can never reach, even though, obviously, they can’t escape the gravitational pull of Earth on their own.

Here’s a look at the microthin sail.

LightSail 2’s 344 square foot sail when deployed. By The Planetary Society.

And here’s a brief history of solar sailing. It starts all the way back in 1608.

By The Planetary Society.

Follow along at The Planetary Society.

A brain implant that transmits video directory to the visual cortex is allowing some formerly blind patients to see.

A brain implant that transmits video directory to the visual cortex is allowing some formerly blind patients to see.

Via The Daily Mail:

“Previously all attempts to create a bionic eye focused on implanting into the eye itself. It required you to have a working eye, a working optic nerve,” Shortt told the Daily Mail.

“By bypassing the eye completely you open the potential up to many, many more people.

“This is a complete paradigm shift for treating people with complete blindness. It is a real message of hope.”

The six participants in trials of the Orion Visual Cortical Prosthesis System had a 60-electrode panel implanted in the visual cortex at the back of their brains. Doctors then spent months with them using computers to map their visual fields. Basically, they were reteaching the visual cortex how to process images.

Once the mapping was complete, the participants were given eyeglasses with small video cameras on the front.

“It was an incredible moment,” said one participant who saw his wife and children for the first time. “It was very humbling.”

More: A Cure for Blindness

As Los Angeles its green future, here's a look at the light rail system it had over a 100 years ago.

As Los Angeles ponders a green, electric future, it might consider times past. The city is targeting the 2028 Olympics to drastically expand its public transportation system with a $28 billion infrastructure project.

Seems, though, something of its type once existed. LA had a light rail system over a hundred years ago. It looked something like this.

Created by Jake Berman, the map shows the Pacific Electric Railway system as it existed before World War I.

As LA Magazine notes:

L.A.’s transit history is chock-full of depressing and hilarious (but mostly depressing) missteps, encounters with myopia, and instances of sabotage, none more notable than the destruction of the Pacific Electric Railway System. The 1,000-plus-mile network of streetcar lines, which stretched from the ocean all the way to Redlands, was gradually dismantled, either by a nefarious cabal of pro-automobile interests or because of Americans’ changing transportation preferences, or some combination of the two.

Something to consider next time you’re stuck bumper to bumper on the 405.

And now for something beautiful: the International Space Station crosses the sun.

And now for something beautiful: the International Space Station crosses the sun

The International Space Station crosses in front of the sun. By NASA/Rainee Colacurcio.

If you haven’t spent time with it, check out NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day. It’s a throwback, old-timey site holding an archive of amazing.

Welcome to the current state of deepfake videos where you could ask yourself how much more screwed could we be? And the answer would be, none, none more screwed.

Welcome to the current state of deepfake videos where you could ask yourself how much more screwed could we be? And the answer would be, none, none more screwed.

Via Drew Harwell, The Washington Post

Top artificial-intelligence researchers across the country are racing to defuse an extraordinary political weapon: computer-generated fake videos that could undermine candidates and mislead voters during the 2020 presidential campaign.

And they have a message: We’re not ready.

The researchers have designed automatic systems that can analyze videos for the telltale indicators of a fake, assessing light, shadows, blinking patterns — and, in one potentially groundbreaking method, even how a candidate’s real-world facial movements — such as the angle they tilt their head when they smile — relate to one another.

But for all that progress, the researchers say they remain vastly overwhelmed by a technology they fear could herald a damaging new wave of disinformation campaigns, much in the same way fake news stories and deceptive Facebook groups were deployed to influence public opinion during the 2016 election.

More: Top AI researchers race to detect “deepfake” videos: “We are outgunned”
Those food shots you see on Instagram aren't about eating what's in the photo. Instead, they showcase the privilege of being somewhere where such food exists to begin with.

Those food shots you see on Instagram aren’t about eating what’s in the photo. Instead, they showcase the privilege of being somewhere where such food exists to begin with.

Via Charlotte Druckman, Eater

Food thrives on social networks because of its easy, graphic appeal and pan-demographic interest — we all have to eat, right? But while Facebook has become a repository of time-lapse recipe videos for quick weeknight dinners that often prominently feature, for some reason, canned biscuit in dough, and Pinterest traffics largely in mason jars, do-it-yourself projects and the protein-packed simplicity of an egg baked inside half an avocado, Instagram has thrown its lot in with spectacle.

Over-the-top, intensely trend-driven, and visually arresting, Instagram food is almost always something to be obtained, rather than cooked or created. It’s elusive and aspirational, something instantly recognizable yet only minimally available, the product of a long line (a ramen burger or matcha croissant) or a trans-continental flight (going all the way to Tokyo for a Gudetama waffle). Its appearance in your timeline signals status: You went to the place. You got the thing. You’re the kind of person who lives that kind of life. 

This is why Instagram stunt food works: It transforms an indulgent meal or snack from a physical activity to a status performance. In the most successful of Instagram food operations, the posting of a particular item signals both affluence and leisure. Lines can stretch for hours for rainbow bagels with birthday cake cream cheese, or milkshakes bedecked with an entire movie theater snack counter’s worth of candy, so if you’ve obtained one, not only did you spend $15 on a pile of novelty sugar, but you can afford to spend two hours on a Tuesday waiting for it, not to mention the time required to lovingly photograph it in natural light. 

The most notable thing about these feats of digital culinary showmanship, though, is what they don’t signal at all: the actual eating of food.

More: Instagram Food Is a Sad, Sparkly Lie
"Men and women of the United States, this is a momentous hour in world history. This is the invasion of Hitler's Europe—the zero hour."

NBC announcing that D-Day has begun.

“Men and women of the United States, this is a momentous hour in world history. This is the invasion of Hitler’s Europe—the zero hour.”
Meet the space-weather forecaster leading the charge to help us understand solar flares and geomagnetic storms before it’s too late.

My God, yes, we need a space weather channel.

File under things you don’t know you need until you start to think about it. Technology Review profiles Tamitha Skov, who runs a YouTube channel dedicated to forecasting space weather.

Via Erin Winick, MIT Technology Review:

Space weather can create spectacular auroras. But it can also disrupt and disable satellites that provide services like GPS. It can affect electrical grids, or even threaten astronauts onboard the International Space Station with dangerous levels of radiation…

For most of us, paying attention to space weather is about preparation. Just as you’d want advance warning of when your power or internet might go out because of a hurricane, you’d probably want to know when a solar storm might have the same effect. The people of Quebec didn’t get that warning in 1989, when a geomagnetic storm caused a 12-hour citywide blackout. Neither did the residents of Malm, Sweden, in 2003…

…Knowing the space forecast is especially important if you live near the poles, or in a country like Brazil, which faces frequent disturbances to GPS because of the plasma bubbles that form along the equator, and atmospheric fluctuations that affect radio signals.

Here’s Skov and her forecast in action.

More: Space weather affects your daily life. It’s time to start paying attention.
Three decades after Jian Liu shot 60 roles of film of China's 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, he finally has them developed and released to the world.
Student protesters by Jian Liu

Three decades after Jian Liu shot 60 roles of film of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, he finally has them developed and released to the world.

Via Tiffany May, The New York Times:

For years, [Jian Liu] tried to forget the bloodshed he had seen and locked away his memories in the 60 rolls of film — about 2,000 photos — he had shot using an analog camera.

By releasing his images publicly, Mr. Liu joins a small group of Chinese historians, writers, photographers and artists who have tried to chronicle the chapters in Chinese history that the party wants erased from public memory.

“Reflection is only possible in a democratic and peaceful place,” he said. “Under autocratic rule, it is impossible for you to discuss this.”

More: Photos of the Tiananmen Square Protests Through the Lens of a Student Witness