Weekend Briefing No. 284

Welcome to the weekend.

Prime Numbers

32 – Game of Thrones smashed the record of 27 Emmy Award nominations held by NYPD Blue in 1994 with a total 32 nominations this year.

11 – 1 pound of clothing emits 11 pounds of greenhouse gasses. A study from Levi’s found 40 percent of the climate impact of a pair of jeans is notched after manufacture when it’s in consumer hands.

2.2 – Crime increases by 2.2 percent on days when the heat passed 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The effect was more significantly seen when it came to violent crime, which increased 5.7 percent.

Neuralink Progress

Readers of the Weekend Briefing will know that I’m obsessed with Neuralink. (Check out Weekend Briefing 168 for a deep dive.) This week Elon Musk’s Neuralink, the secretive company developing brain-machine interfaces, showed off some of the technology it has been developing to the public for the first time. The goal is to eventually begin implanting devices in paralyzed humans, allowing them to control phones or computers. The first big advance is flexible “threads,” which are less likely to damage the brain than the materials currently used in brain-machine interfaces. The system presented this week, if it’s functional, may be a substantial advance over older technology – BrainGate relied on the Utah Array, a series of stiff needles that allows for up to 128 electrode channels. Not only is that fewer channels than Neuralink is promising — meaning less data from the brain is being picked up — it’s also stiffer than Neuralink’s threads. That’s a problem for long-term functionality: the brain shifts in the skull but the needles of the array don’t, leading to damage. The thin polymers Neuralink is using may solve that problem. However, Neuralink’s technology is more difficult to implant than the Utah Array, precisely because it’s so flexible. To combat that problem, the company has developed a neurosurgical robot capable of inserting six threads (192 electrodes) per minute automatically. In photos, it looks something like a cross between a microscope and a sewing machine. For Musk, the central problem of interacting with AI is actually “bandwidth.” You can take in information much more quickly than you push it out via your voice or your thumbs, but you’re already connected to a machine. Hence, his goal is for this system to allow humans to more quickly communicate with machines directly from their brains to AI. YouTube (19 minutes)

Libra Congressional Hearings

Wednesday’s House hearing focused heavily on practical concerns about how Libra will work, whereas the prevailing tone of the Senate’s go-round the day before reflected many senators’ distrust of Facebook and its motives. The company’s track record on privacy suggests that it is “dangerous,” said Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, adding that it showed “breathtaking” arrogance that it now wants to run its own global bank. “We’d be crazy to give [Facebook] a chance to experiment with people’s bank accounts, and to use powerful tools they don’t understand, like monetary policy, to jeopardize hard working Americans’ ability to provide for their families,” he said. MIT Technology Review (7 minutes)

Yeezy

Three years ago, Kanye West was $53 million in debt, just before canceling the back of a lucrative arena tour and checking into a Los Angeles hospital for over a week with symptoms of sleep deprivation and temporary psychosis. This year, mostly because of the shoes, Forbes pegs his pretax income at $150 million; his team insists the number is even higher, partly due to his Yeezy apparel. In any case, it’s by far the best stretch of his career, good for No. 3 on the Forbes Celebrity 100 list. West credits his turnaround to religious beliefs (“being in service to Christ, the radical obedience”)—and, on occasion, to being bipolar. Call him creative, call him chaotic—just don’t call him crazy. Like some entrepreneurs with conditions like ADHD and Asperger’s, he sees his diagnosis not as a hindrance but as a “superpower” that unlocks his imagination. Forbes (16 minutes)

$1

In 2001, Indian pharmaceutical company Cipla was offering to sell a cocktail of AIDS drugs for $350 a year per patient, or roughly $1 a day, as compared to Western prices of between $10,000 and $15,000 a year. But this was being blocked by the multinational drug makers that held the patents, who were being backed by the Bush administration. As GlaxoSmithKline’s CEO Jean-Pierre Garnier declared of Cipla and the Indian generics companies at a 2001 health care forum, “They are pirates. That’s about what they are. They have never done a day of research in their lives.” Some in Big Pharma accused Hamied of trying to grab market share in Africa, to which he responded: “I am accused of having an ulterior motive. Of course, I have an ulterior motive: before I die, I want to do some good.” Quartz (8 minutes)

Homelessness in SF

The official results of San Francisco’s point-in-time homeless count for 2019, which took place one night in January, were quietly released Friday by the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. And the numbers confirm what we had already learned in May: There was a 17% uptick in the number of homeless in the city since 2017. Contrary to popular belief, 70% SF homeless are from SF, not from out of town. Officials say they can’t keep pace with the number of people who become homeless in a city where the median sales price of a house hovers at $1.4 million and median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is around $3,700. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they had been living in a place they or their partner rented or owned, or with family or friends immediately prior to becoming homeless. 89% are unemployed, but that means that 11% are employed and they can’t find adequate housing. There are a significant number of individuals that were counted who said they had jobs but still had to live out of their vehicles. SFist (4 minutes)

Audiophile

It was recently revealed that audiobook sales rocketed by 43% in 2018, while those of print books declined (by 5%) for the first time in five years. In this time-poor, podcast-friendly world, audiobooks are booming. So, do they change our relationship with the written word? Let us first retain some historical perspective by noting that Homer’s Iliad was essentially an audiobook before it was ever written down. Oral literary culture long precedes the book and there are many reasons for its rising popularity. Some people I spoke to use audiobooks to send them to sleep after a stressful professional day; others listen while walking, or looking after a baby, or as an alternative to TV. Audiobooks can be thought of as yet another way of connecting readers and authors. In non-fiction, especially, we’re seeing audiobooks really register with people who may not have the time or inclination to pick up a print book, but devour audiobooks because they are hungry for new ideas, narratives and experiences. If it helps more people experience an author’s work, it’s something to celebrate.” To which even the grouchiest prosophile writer can only respond: hear, hear. Guardian (9 minutes)

Sober Curiosity

Sobriety! It’s changing. Drinkers worldwide are slowing down, but not drying out entirely. The temperance movement for the new millennium is all about “sober-curiosity,” dabbling in a lower alcohol lifestyle that’s Instagram-friendly, but still indulgent—and full of market opportunities for, go figure, beverage makers. Following a climb in “deaths of despair” in the US and UK, drinkers are trying a more enjoyable approach to alcohol abstinence. Pour yourself a low-ABV cocktail and let’s dive in. Quartz (18 minutes)

Bookshelf

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs. Born on a farm and named in a field by her parents―artist Chrisann Brennan and Steve Jobs―Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s childhood unfolded in a rapidly changing Silicon Valley. When she was young, Lisa’s father was a mythical figure who was rarely present in her life. As she grew older, her father took an interest in her, ushering her into a new world of mansions, vacations, and private schools. His attention was thrilling, but he could also be cold, critical and unpredictable. When her relationship with her mother grew strained in high school, Lisa decided to move in with her father, hoping he’d become the parent she’d always wanted him to be. Part portrait of a complex family, part love letter to California in the seventies and eighties, Small Fry is a poignant coming-of-age story from one of our most exciting new literary voices. Amazon

About the Weekend Briefing

A Saturday morning briefing on innovation & society by Kyle Westaway – Managing Partner of Westaway and author of Profit & Purpose.

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