Weekend Briefing No. 339

Welcome to the weekend.

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Prime Numbers

1,900,000—The U.S. is experiencing the world’s largest coronavirus outbreak. It had more than 1.9 million new COVID-19 cases in July, more than double the number recorded in any other month.

17,500—The SpaceX capsule landed in the Gulf of Mexico 40 miles off the coast of Pensacola, slowing from a 17,500 mile per hour orbital speed to 350 miles per hour during reentry. It went down to 15 miles per hour at landing, and hit a maximum temperature of 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

12—As a result of lockdowns, the number of meetings that the average person goes to per day is up 13 percent. The good news is the length of the average meeting is down 20 percent, meaning that, on average, people are spending 12 percent less time in meetings per day.

City Brain

China is an ideal setting for an experiment in total surveillance. Its population is primarily online. The country is home to more than 1 billion mobile phones, all chock-full of sophisticated sensors. Each one logs search-engine queries, websites visited and mobile payments, which are ubiquitous. All of these data points can be time-stamped and geo-tagged. And because a new regulation requires telecom firms to scan the face of anyone who signs up for cellphone services, phone data can now be attached to a specific person’s face. China’s personal-data harvest even reaps from citizens who lack phones. In the countryside, villagers line up to have their faces scanned, from multiple angles, by private firms in exchange for cookware. I City Brain is, as the name suggests, a kind of automated nerve center, capable of synthesizing data streams from a multitude of sensors distributed throughout an urban environment. Many of its proposed uses are benign technocratic functions. Its algorithms could, for instance, count people and cars, to help with red-light timing and subway-line planning. Data from sensor-laden trash cans could make waste pickup more timely and efficient. Contact tracing algorithms could help contain a pandemic. It could also be used to create the perfect surveillance state. China’s ascent to artificial intelligence (AI) supremacy is a menacing prospect: The country’s political structure encourages, rather than restrains, this technology’s worst uses. The Atlantic (26 minutes)

Fawkes

Researchers are trying to foil facial recognition. A team of computer engineers at the University of Chicago has developed a tool that disguises photos with pixel-level changes that confuse facial recognition systems. The tool’s name is Fawkes, in honor of the Guy Fawkes mask favored by protesters worldwide, and converts an image—or “cloaks” it, in the researchers’ parlance—by subtly altering some of the features that facial recognition systems depend on when they construct a person’s face print. The team describes “cloaking” photos of the actress Gwyneth Paltrow using the actor Patrick Dempsey’s face, so that a system learning what Ms. Paltrow looks like based on those photos would start associating her with some of the features of Mr. Dempsey’s face. New York Times (7 minutes)

Hustle Economy

The COVID-19 pandemic crushed vast swaths of the economy, slashing consumer demand, closing businesses and vaporizing millions of jobs. But it’s been good to the nascent sliver of the digital economy that helps people channel their existing skills into sellable services and products—the “hustle economy.” Such products range from ebooks and meal plan templates to online classes, podcasts, membership clubs, newsletters and porn. Patreon added more than 100,000 new users between mid-March and July. OnlyFans reported daily six-figure sign-ups on its popular cam site. Etsy logged 115,000 new sellers in the first three months of the year, more than double the past two years’ user growth. Teachable, which lets people make and sell online courses, signed on 14,000 new creators between March and July, and in July reported its first quarterly revenue over $10 million. For workers, the premise of hustle economy work is equally seductive. Just like gig work, you can choose your own hours. But with the hustle economy, you can really be your own boss, and spend time only on projects you like and feel proud of. While both the gig economy and conventional employment stripped workers of their autonomy and agency, hustle economy platforms “empower” them. The movement’s rhetoric often, and ironically, echoes Karl Marx: Only liberated workers with control of production can soak up the full spiritual and financial benefits of their labor. OneZero (12 minutes)

America Defeated

Despite ample warning, the U.S. squandered every possible opportunity to control the coronavirus. And despite its considerable advantages—immense resources, biomedical might, scientific expertise—it floundered. While countries as different as South Korea, Thailand, Iceland, Slovakia and Australia acted decisively to bend the curve of infections downward, the U.S. achieved merely a plateau in the spring, which changed to an appalling upward slope in the summer. Almost everything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable. A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold. Chronic underfunding of public health neutered the nation’s ability to prevent the pathogen’s spread. A bloated, inefficient health care system left hospitals ill-prepared for the ensuing wave of sickness. Racist policies that have endured since the days of colonization and slavery left indigenous and black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID‑19. The decades-long process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their lives for their livelihoods. The same social media platforms that sowed partisanship and misinformation during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa and the 2016 U.S. election became vectors for conspiracy theories during the 2020 pandemic. The Atlantic (22 minutes)

Unidentified Arial Phenomenon

It’s been officially confirmed by the U.S. Senate: The Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force exists, and its goal is to standardize collection and reporting on sightings of unexplained aerial vehicles. While retired officials involved with the effort—including Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader—hope the program will seek evidence of vehicles from other worlds, its main focus is on discovering whether another nation, especially any potential adversary, is using breakout aviation technology that could threaten the United States. Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is the acting chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told a CBS affiliate in Miami this month that he was primarily concerned about reports of unidentified aircraft over American military bases—and that it was in the government’s interest to find out who was responsible. He expressed concerns that China or Russia or some other adversary had made “some technological leap” that “allows them to conduct this sort of activity.” Mr. Rubio said some of the unidentified aerial vehicles over U.S. bases possibly exhibited technologies not in the American arsenal. But he also noted: “Maybe there is a completely, sort of, boring explanation for it. But we need to find out.” New York Times (8 minutes)

QEYSSat

Earlier this summer, Honeywell came out of nowhere to announce it’s built the world’s most powerful commercial quantum computer. Evidently, Honeywell and the Canadian Space Agency have been in chats about launching one into space. The satellite will perform quantum key distribution, which is traditionally done over fiber networks (thus limited to a transmission range of ~125 miles). Here’s how it will work: An optical ground station sends a quantum key into space, Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite (QEYSSat) receives and verifies it, then transmits the key to another ground station. The launch, while 18–24 months away, will be North America’s proof of concept for space-based quantum communication. China launched the first quantum satellite, Micius, in 2016. Morning Brew (5 minutes)

Critical Theory

There has been an evolution of postmodern thought from the 1960s—until it became the doctrine of social justice today. Beginning as a critique of all grand theories of meaning—from Christianity to Marxism—postmodernism is a project to subvert the intellectual foundations of Western culture. The entire concept of reason—whether the enlightenment version or  even the ancient Socratic understanding—is a myth designed to serve the interests of those in power, and therefore deserves to be undermined and “problematized” whenever possible. Postmodern theory does so mischievously and irreverently—even as it leaves nothing in reason’s place. The idea of objective truth—even if it is viewed as always somewhat beyond our reach—is abandoned. All we have are narratives and stories, whose meanings are entirely provisional, and can in turn be subverted or problematized. There are no universal truths nor objective reality, just narratives that are expressed in discourses and language that reflects one group’s power over another. There is no distinction between objective truth and subjective experience because the former is an illusion created by the latter. So instead of an argument, you merely have an identity showdown, in which the more oppressed always wins because that subverts the hierarchy. These discourses of power, moreover, never end; there is no progress as such, no incremental inclusion of more identities into a pluralist, liberal unified project; there is the permanent reality of the oppressors and the oppressed. And all that we can do is constantly expose and eternally resist these power structures on behalf of the oppressed. On the other hand, liberalism offers a non-zero-sum pluralism. It suggests that reform is always better than revolution; that empirical truth is on the side of the genuinely oppressed; that we should never fear understanding things better because progress is both possible in a liberal democracy and more securely rooted than in other systems. Ideally this springs from a lively, informed debate and isn’t foisted on society by ideologues. Andrew Sullivan (14 minutes)

Bookshelf

Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose. Have you heard that language is violence and that science is sexist? Have you read that certain people shouldn’t practice yoga or cook Chinese food? Or have you been told that being obese is healthy, that there is no such thing as biological sex or that only white people can be racist? Are you confused by these ideas, and do you wonder how they have managed so quickly to challenge the very logic of Western society? In this probing and intrepid volume, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay document the evolution of the dogma that informs these ideas, from its coarse origins in French postmodernism to its refinement within activist academic fields. Today this dogma is recognizable as much by its effects, such as cancel culture and social media dogpiles, as by its tenets, which are all too often embraced as axiomatic in mainstream media: Knowledge is a social construct; science and reason are tools of oppression; all human interactions are sites of oppressive power play; and language is dangerous. As Pluckrose and Lindsay warn, the unchecked proliferation of these anti-enlightenment beliefs present a threat not only to liberal democracy but also to modernity itself. While acknowledging the need to challenge the complacency of those who think a just society has been fully achieved, Pluckrose and Lindsay break down how this often-radical activist scholarship does far more harm than good, not least to those marginalized communities it claims to champion. They also detail its alarmingly inconsistent and illiberal ethics. Only through a proper understanding of the evolution of these ideas, they conclude, can those who value science, reason and consistently liberal ethics successfully challenge this harmful and authoritarian orthodoxy—in the academy, in culture and beyond. Amazon

Most Read Last Week

Emperor of Mars—This Times interview of Elon Musk is fun. It covers life with Grimes and Baby X, Trump, Tesla, tunnels, short shorts, stock surges, Facebook fumbles and everything else under the sun.

Building a Quality Relationship—The most powerful predictors of relationship quality are the characteristics of the relationship itself—the life dynamic you build with your person.

Trust Equation – Trust = (Credibility + Reliability + Authenticity) / Perception of Self Interest

About the Weekend Briefing

A Saturday morning briefing on innovation & society by Kyle Westaway—Managing Partner of Westaway and author of Profit & Purpose. Photo by Pierre Châtel-Innocenti.

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Weekend Wisdom

How can you tell when a political ideology has become the equivalent of a religion?Andrew Sullivan

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