Tech Fascination Capture


A somewhat cheeky line connects the many points along what I’ll call our Tech Fascination Capture. Describing that line can be tricky, but that’s what blogs are for, so here goes.

Interpretive problems that computers cannot solve, or rather those they can solve that aren’t the important ones, are at the center of a cognitive gap that is only increasing – and doing so fueled by our gaze and awe. We can’t seem to figure out why or how Russian troll farms might have swayed the most recent U.S. presidential election, if not others. Will artificial intelligence and the occupations lost to robots be good/a net value/desired? Self-driving cars – will we get there safely?

Much of this mystery is obscured by the need for a single answer to any one question, of course. But we are also frightened by the prospect of a single answer to multiple questions. This fear is a sort of disbelief itself, based on our own uncertainty about what we know from what we’ve learned, plus this more recent tendency to fall back on what everyone knows to be true. I’m actually unsure about the origin of that dynamic, though I am unafraid to speculate.

But, one thing is certain (and demanding of emphatic, if parenthetical, punctuation!): the answers lie in the questions themselves.

On social media misinformation, we don’t seem to want to contemplate the very top-level tradeoff: is the ability to connect with people worth the price of manipulation? That is, transmission of information and disinformation flow through the same tube – whether we believe one is sacred and the other profanely immoral or not is of not consequence whatsoever. There is one tube/portal; these are its uses; do you want to play?

Will robots kick us to the curb and take our places? Who programs what robots can do? What will machine learning do about the should question? Is there such a thing as robot creativity, outside of MFA programs, that is?

Self-driving cars: so few startups and new products have anything to do with actual technology anymore that this one – which does – should (ha!) be attached with a free-rider proviso. The billions of dollars and pixels that accrue to its pursuit all ignore the same problem with driverless cars: unanticipated events. If a couple, holding hands, is jay walking and a young mother is in the crosswalk with her carriage on the same section of a street simultaneously, who gets run over? It all happens in an instant, plus bikes, buses, other cars (are there bad self-drivers?), weather, darkness… the idea that these variables can be solved is an answer to a solution, not a problem.

This is not to suggest understanding our capture is simple. But let’s think about it.

Slaves built your house

When it all began is as clear of a question as when it might end. Actual Nazis on violent parade (is there another kind of Nazi parade?) in a public square has brought the question of white supremacy out of the shadows for the time being. Hopefully the moment lasts a while longer to permit for force the reckoning it begs. Original, unrepented, institutionalized sin remains our bedrock foundation and WE continue to allow ourselves to benefit from it. Every ‘safe’ street and every ‘good’ school in every boring suburb was constructed on advantages denied to black, brown and red people in the name of God and country. We can continue to exist but we cannot continue to exist in this way.
The descendants of slaves will never not hold the moral high ground. All the beatings, whippings, killings, and arbitrary cruelty that was slavery now looks back from every set of eyes through the fence. The perpetuation of white domination without reckoning with the past is illegitimate, predicated on the keeping the book of history a sealed volume. The longer this goes on, the stronger the scent of fear and defensiveness about who we are. By ignoring this history all around us, we perpetuate a crime against those who built this country without ever enjoying its rights and advantages, the shelter they built. We all remain in the storm, but some of us are now flinching at the slight discomfort of the metaphorical version.
All American institutions, and let us note the special case of the South, now sit upon the remnants of the slave power. As we celebrate the past, as citizens do of all nations with buildings and monuments, while not recognizing the contributions and implications of enslaved people, we remain blinded to our own story, our true selves, ignorant of who we are and what brought us to the present moment.

All difficulties of the reckoning – the statues, the street names, the building names, the towns and town squares – none of them compare to the reality upon which they were built. We have tried so desperately to stomp out all traces of this memory that it is remarkable that any exist; yet they still crop up in accidental discoveries – bodies buried, markers uncovered, genealogy traced. The Pavlovian reactions and knee jerk resistance are understandable; it is better if we don’t think about it. But the reaction is also wrong. We need to think about it. We need to know who we actually are. To assume that everything is fine now, equal, fair, is a lie. Pulling down statues should be just the beginning.
Image: From an amazing animation at Slate. Wow – most of the confederate monuments didn’t come until later. I wonder why?

Entry into the school of your choice ™

It’s back to school time! Lunch pails and school slates may have given way to Uber eats and iPads, but one anachronism that remains is the ability for donors to get their kids into the best schools. With the Trump Justice Department launching a dubious new project targeting discrimination against white students in university admissions policies, I’m not going to explain why a diverse population in any university is not just a nice thing, but inarguably a crucial component in a country or society’s progress. Straight-up affirmative action cannot even be used college admissions, and yet still the white kids suffer.
But I do wonder how all Harvard (or any college where this happens) students and alumni are not diminished when a rich guy can make a large donation to assure admission for his under-achieving offspring? Maybe this clumsy attempt to mollify the persistent mythology of oppressed white students will accidentally put the spotlight on just how uneven admissions processes – and other, nefarious types of preference – in the round remain. There is something rigged about the process, just not probably what is commonly believed.

Emergent Forms of Other Belief


The Crisis Theme that seems to be the default, unchangeable background of everything these days can be exhausting. None of us seems to know how to handle social media – is it for self-promotion? sharing opinions? business? the fck is a status update? connecting instead of conversing – beyond obsessive attention to it or turning it off completely. That the tools have been created to make other people rich appears to be a mere byproduct, but is it? Do I need to read an article on it that my friends agree with to believe that? Every news item from the Dunce-in-chief to climate change to what’s wrong with the Democratic party to health care to guns hermetically seals us in a state of doubtful knowing. And like quicksand, if you try to get out of it too desperately, you’re only pulled back all the more. For those who insist on creating, it can be be double-trouble: your battle is not to react against but still ‘do something.’ What does that mean?

Friend of the blog Jed Perl lays out in an inadvertent cautionary tale in this Rauschenberg review, The Confidence Man of American Art:

It was as a genre-buster—an artist who crossed boundaries and cross-pollinated disciplines—that Rauschenberg was embraced in the 1960s. More than fifty years later, there are more and more artists who seem to believe, as he apparently did, that art is unbounded. The only difference is that our contemporaries—figures such as Jeff Koons, Isa Genzken, and Matthew Day Jackson—have traded his whatever-you-want for an even more open-ended and blunt whatever. A creative spirit, according to the argument that Rauschenberg did so much to advance, need not be merely a painter, a photographer, a stage designer, a printmaker, a moviemaker, a collagist, an assemblagist, a writer, an actor, a musician, or a dancer. An artist can be any or all of these things, and even many of them simultaneously. The old artisanal model of the artist—the artist whose genius is grounded in the demands of a particular craft—is replaced by the artist who is often not only figuratively but also literally without portfolio, a creative personality-at-large in the arts.

One can argue that there are historical precedents for this view. Picasso enriched both his painting and his sculpture by working back and forth between the two disciplines. And the work that Picasso did in the theater certainly precipitated significant shifts in his painting.

Just so, and there is much more. And I do not come to praise Rauschenberg or to bury him. One point can be that, for better or worse, he imagined himself and what he was doing. Sure he was affected by his culture and the times in which he lived. But Jed is correct – the question is where the question (whatever it is) takes the artist. If it runs you back into into the insufferable quandary of boredom or futility, it wasn’t the right question. We can work our way through this time, as others have other times, but not by taking it on directly. Okay maybe, if you’re Zola. But you’re not. So don’t do that at all. Ignore it? Abdication is consent. Also – nothing will change. That’s one reason to like the ‘confidence man’ citizen’s arrest of Rauschenberg. It’s a hefty charge. But that’s okay – you don’t need to [first] accept any of the givens about anyone or thing in order to get somewhere. And this is not about progress, anyway. It’s about getting to all some of that other space, all around you, that seems inaccessible. That’s what can be frustrating – and it’s not even true. It’s just a thing someone has created and you’ve allowed to be in your way, that you need to [yes] use your discipline to think beyond. And [yes] to make something.

Image: Portrait of Apollinaire as a Premonition, by Giorgio de Chiricio, 1914

Today is Towel Day

In tribute to the great Douglas Adams.
And while we’re at it:

“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”
“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”
“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”
“What?”
“I said,” said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, “have you got any gin?”
“I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.”
Ford shrugged again.
“Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happenned to them,” he said. “They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.”
“But that’s terrible,” said Arthur.
“Listen, bud,” said Ford, “if I had one Altairian dollar for every time I heard one bit of the Universe look at another bit of the Universe and say ‘That’s terrible’ I wouldn’t be sitting here like a lemon looking for a gin.”

No specific gin or lizard endorsement.

Fifty Years In

Like smartphones teach us to be dumb – to not know things, to not be able to find our way except by using the device – we are also learning how to forget the past. Or how to remember it inaccurately, disconnected from the forks in the road where our path darkened and we lost something irretrievable, something we did not make nor deserve but that came from us and birthed us, was us, the best and the worst, that pushed us in the right direction because we were scared to go on our own until we learned we could pull ourselves there if we could just join enough hands.
April 4, 1968, the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, TN, the alternately riotous and trippy sixties, the whole twentieth century, came crashing to a sudden end.
Now, 50 years into the 21st we wonder how long it’s going to last. This should not be our mindset; it wasn’t his. Is there an ideal that’s not an ideology? Is there optimism greater than hope?
Can we contemplate the breadth of shared possibility? How much justice will the market allow? The answers are not in your phone.

Back At The Front, The Next Generation

NRG freedomI think if I was setting a new story in Florida, inventing a needlessly fictional version of Florida Man, he would work in a [solar-powered] cabinet pull plant in Even, Florida:

So did the legislators underestimate the popularity of Amendment 4? Did they think they’d assuage public opinion by putting it on the ballot, getting points, and then it wouldn’t pass? Or have the green energy entrepreneurs begun out-lobbying the utilities and Big Oil? Whatever it is, something big has changed. That Amendment 4 was put before the public at all, and that the public trounced the lobbyists, announces a sea change in which sordid deals in back rooms by the Carbon Moguls with fresh-facced and clueless state senators are no longer determinative. The people are getting a say, and they want to make it easier and cheaper to go solar.
The next big item on which voters will get a say is Amendment 1, this fall. It seeks to punish those who opt for solar power on the specious argument that non-solar customers shouldn’t have to bear the burden of upgrading the electricity grid or other infrastructural changes that will come with the extra solar energy.

Who knows? Maybe it’s a bit different with that rising tide gently lapping at your chamber door.

Image: I can’t believe that image actually exists.

Floating Solar

SOLAR-masterThe next innovation in solar power capture is here there:

But floating solar arrays are becoming more popular, with installations already operating in Australia and the United States, and more planned or under construction.

The growing interest is driven in part by huge growth in the solar market in recent years as the cost of the technology has dropped quickly.

Floating solar arrays — they are often referred to as “floatovoltaics,” a term trademarked by one company — also have advantages over solar plants on land, their proponents say. Renting or buying land is more expensive, and there are fewer regulations for structures built on reservoirs, water treatment ponds and other bodies of water not used for recreation. Unlike most land-based solar plants, floating arrays can also be hidden from public view, a factor in the nonprofit Sonoma Clean Power Company’s decision to pursue the technology.

The floating arrays have other assets. They help keep water from evaporating, making the technology attractive in drought-plagued areas, and restrict algae blooms. And they are more efficient than land-based panels, because water cools the panels.

“The efficiencies are what motivated us to look at this,” said Rajesh Nellore, the chief executive of Infratech Industries, which has completed the first section of a floating solar plant in Jamestown, Australia, that will eventually cover five water treatment basins.

And evidently, fish love them. The anti-evaporation properties alone are the worth the ticket. Plus: energy. Let’s rip up the freeways, build spill ways and fill ’em up with PV cells.

Lego my LIGO

Congratulations to the scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory for the discover that confirms a fundamental premise of how gravity operates:

Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted gravitational waves 100 years ago. The theory states that gravity—the warping of space and time by mass—would manifest as ripples.
The waves detected by LIGO came from the collision of two black holes more than 1 billion years ago.
Physicists have long had indirect evidence that such infinitely tiny waves exist, but never had technology capable of detecting and measuring them. A gravitational wave is about 10,000 times smaller than the width of a proton.

You could say that the real work begins now, plotting out the next moves in this new direction. But that unnecessarily plays down the magnitude of this accomplishment. It took real work to get this far. 100 years later, Einstein was right. Now there’s a ripple.

Image: impression of a gravitational wave generation, via the BBC.

Too Solar to Fail

Following on the news that Paris is spending €1bn to revamp/fix/heal Les Halles comes more news that the City Of Light is getting even more serious about where that light gets it power:

paris

The French government plans to pave 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of its roads with solar panels in the next five years, which will supply power to millions of people.

“The maximum effect of the program, if successful, could be to furnish 5 million people with electricity, or about 8 percent of the French population,” Ségolène Royal, France’s minister of ecology and energy, said according to Global Construction Review.

La route photovoltaïque indeed. 14 feet of solarized roadway would be enough to supply the electrical needs of one household. Way to go, Republique Francaise. Here,  take this road.