From Tunis to Tahrir and Beyond

Vint Cerf warns if we don’t build better systems for data, “people will lose trust in the internet, in which case its utility will begin to dissipate.”

Cerf is Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist and a father of the internet (standards and technologies he co-created in the 70s still form the basis of the net today). He believes the internet itself is not a right, but rather an enabler of rights.

One such enabler, Google’s Project Loon, will connect the world’s most remote areas with broadband balloons traveling at the edge of space. If successful, it could help to circumvent bans imposed by authoritarian regimes, as seen during the Arab Spring.

“I harbor this hope as a technologist, that there will be tools available to let people make their conversations private on an end-to-end basis,” Cerf says. “To open up what would otherwise be a very closed environment.”

The Sun Is Always Shining

Scientific research suggests that everything about human awareness (sight, sound, even time itself) is all a construction of the mind. So what are the pitfalls of treating these constructs as objective truths? According to Mahāmudrā Buddhist teaching, explored by clinical psychologist Daniel Brown in The Sun Is Always Shining, a video by Claudia Biçen, the more enamored we are of our selves, the more fixed we are in our own “realities,” limiting the possibilities of our awareness.

Source: Aeon

TED thread on Sustainable Cities

Before George McCarthy left the Ford Foundation to run the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, he led a TED Conversation on sustainable cities. Buried, it’s easy to miss.

He looks at how rapid urbanization can spur social change, inviting readers to reflect on the meaning of inclusive cities, “so that together we can bring attention to transformative urban innovations.”

The practice of scaling up is debated, in particular how small-scale solutions can work (or not) for big problems. Good ideas, though I wonder how an immersive format could have helped the exchange.

A History of Future Cities

David Brook’s A History of Future Cities looks at four Eurasian cities modeled after the West. I’m interested in what Brook says about regional influence in this interview.

He recalls seeing two commercial spaces stacked on a corner — a restaurant above a vegetable market — in Flushing, the “Chinatown of Queens.” This orientation means the establishment can feed more people than either space could on its own. This contemporary urbanism brought from China, he says, is the reverse of what happened 150 years ago, when Americans brought their architecture to Shanghai. (China’s Shanghai Tower, an example of sustainable vertical urbanism, takes “urban stacking” to a new level.)

I’m fascinated by innovation’s ability to rewrite itself across place and time — how the interplay of globalization, connectivity and multiculturalism recycles some ideas but not others. On the histories of Dubai, Mumbai, Shanghai and St. Petersburg, Brook says, “While these cities all initially hoped to impersonate the West and thereby catch up to it, they were also free of some of the historical constraints of the Western places they copied, which gave them the capacity to leapfrog into the future.”

What can we learn from vastly different places and times? Brook says, “We can build a global future that is neither neocolonial nor placeless… adopting site-specific best practices that may have initially arisen on the other side of the world rather than forms imposed from above.” Sky’s the limit.

Facebook Down

Pre-internet studies show how people tend to shut up about policy issues when they think their views might not be shared. This is called the “spiral of silence.” In 2013, the Pew Research Center polled social media users after Edward Snowden blew the whistle on government surveillance. According to the report, Facebook users were half as likely as others to share their political views in face-to-face (F2F) settings.

Source: Pew Research Center

Craig Venter, Egoist

Published by Science 2.0 Mar 29, 2011

Craig Venter is brilliant. Brilliant enough, you might say, to enter the ranks of literary gods. So brilliant, he might not even know it.

minimal-cell-craig-venter-lifeform
Image: The Minimal Cell, Craig Venter’s New Synthetic Life Form · Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman (2016)

Venter wants to patent the human genome—all 2.9 billion base pairs of it. And why not? The pioneering geneticist is, after all, the man responsible for sequencing it. Venter first set his sights on the intellectual rights in the 90s while president of Celera Genomics. Later, the company’s soured partnership with the publicly funded Human Genome Project served as a forecast of how genomics research might evolve as a competitive business enterprise, if the stakes ever went up. And they did.

In 2000, Celera won the genome race when Venter et al. produced a complete set of somewhere around 25,000 protein-coding genes ahead of schedule (98.5% of the projected total turned out to be other stuff). The genomics industry exploded, I got my first lab job and the rest is, as they say, history.

Since the best scientists are often the most tenacious, for Venter, decoding the recipe for humans wasn’t enough. Flash forward ten years to 2010. It wasn’t exactly the year we made contact, but Venter made history (again) when his team became the first ever to create synthetic life. I’d say that beats meeting aliens. The bacterium-based life form was fitted with four unique “watermarks”—hidden in the DNA—to keep it traceable in case it ever got out. Venter played up the new technique, going so far as to embed an email address for whomever decoded the message first. And what was the message?

Venter may have wanted something personal and meaningful to brand his progeny—something more interesting than the average security question. What was the name of your first pet? In what town was your high school located? Or better yet, an infamous world leader or influential philosopher.

Enter James Joyce. “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” The memorable line from his semi-autobiography, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was one of the four watermarks. The gesture, it turns out, wasn’t good enough; the Joyce estate is suing the scientist for copyright infringement. The irony. But this story goes beyond the typical legend and legality.

Invention, while often seen as derived solely from logic and reason, has a strong creative component as well. Venter, if he wanted, could change the code’s mappings to reveal Yeats instead of Joyce. Or Kafka or Borges or Melville (have your pick) as long as the message was identical in length. Inscribing DNA with a literary quote isn’t exactly mind-blowing from a technological view. The cultural implications, on the other hand, are nothing short of inspiring.

Venter may be the guy who gave life to man’s first bona-fide creation. But to discover a literary genre in genetic code? Now that’s a triumph.