The Week that Was (12-30-2017)

A man wearing a “Trust Me” t-shirt was arrested after stealing a car that was left unlocked on the street idling to warm up.

Mary Horomanski in Erie, Pennsylvania received her December electric bill and her, “eyes just about popped out of my head” when she saw that the total due was more than the entire GDP of Chile.

A hotel in Dallas put up 500 homeless for Christmas and welcomed them with a red carpet and lunch banquet.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Launch from Jesse Watson on Vimeo.

Someone trained a neural network to write Christmas Carols and the results were. . . interesting.

A Japanese chemist accidentally invented a type of glass that glues itself back together after cracking.

Far-right performance artist Milo Yiannopoulos’s autobiography was in the news as his publisher released editorial commentary on the manuscript in their defense. “stronger argument against feminism than saying that they are ugly and sexless and have cats” reads one comment, “The use of phrases like ‘two-faced backstabbing bitches’ diminishes your overall point,” was another.

A Florida patron of Crabby’s Seafood Shack called 911 to complain about the size of his portions. Twice.

Two friends who have known each other since grade school in Hawaii found out after 60 years that they are brothers.

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Jimi Hendrix & BB King in 1968

One of the pleasures of working from home over the holiday week is that I can to listen to music and explore the depths of an inherited music collection passed on from friends (thanks Alex, thanks Charlie) over the years.

Today I was dipping into the 330+ song Jimi Hendrix section and stumbled across this amazingly soulful version of Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone by Hendrix at an impromptu concert in NYC. Before you press play, let me set the scene.

It’s a few days after the assassination of MLK in Memphis, Tennessee. The nation is in shock. Jimi, who had been spending his days soaking in the New York blues scene, gets together with BB King who was also in town along with Buddy Guy, Al Kooper, Elvin Bishop and Paul Butterfield to put on a memorial concert that will go down as one of the greatest blues jam sessions ever caught on tape.

The entire performance is worth a listen but it is Jimi’s soulful rendition of Dylan’s requiem for the 60’s that is emotionally hair-raising. The performance  features Al Kooper on organ who came up with the riff that became that song’s signature when it was originally recorded.

When Jimi sings we can’t help but feel what Dylan’s biographer called the song’s “loss of innocence and the harshness of experience.” What a night that must have been.

The Week that Was (12-22-2017)

A man in London spontaneously burst into flames.

So much rain fell on Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi during Hurricane Harvey that the earth’s crust flexed.

People stealing packages left on front porches is such a big problem that one man has gone into business selling booby trap devices that set off a small explosive to deter would be thieves. Others have resorted to more creative solutions.

A California couple were pulled over in Nebraska on their way to Vermont. Patrick Jiron, 80, and Barbara Jiron, 83 were subsequently arrested when 60 pounds of high grade marijuana were found in the back of their Toyota Tacoma.  The couple claimed they were bringing Christmas gifts.

In January, recreational pot will be legal in California. Fast food chain Jack in the Box is already prepping for the influx of stoners with a new Merry Munchie Meal which they will test market at the price of $4.20.

You can now buy a bicycle that can pedal across water.

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China testing Black Mirror episode IRL

You know that Black Mirror episode about how your social network ranking has a direct impact on your access to an apartment, preferred rates, a spare seat on an airline?

Nosedive is a chilling tale of a dystopian world connecting the trend lines of the technology evolving all around us. What if your online behavior and relationships had real world consequences? That is in fact what is happening today in China.

Mara Hvistendahl details in Wired how mobile payments providers are working with the Chinese government to integrate subscriber payment history, connections, and other behaviors are harvested and used to calculate a version of social credit that governs access and mobility.

The State Council has signaled that under the national social credit system people will be penalized for the crime of spreading online rumors, among other offenses, and that those deemed “seriously untrustworthy” can expect to receive substandard services. Ant Financial appears to be aiming for a society divided along moral lines as well. As Lucy Peng, the company’s chief executive, was quoted as saying in Ant Financial, Zhima Credit “will ensure that the bad people in society don’t have a place to go, while good people can move freely and without obstruction.”

Inside China’s Vast New Experiment in Social Ranking


Alabama Getaway

With last Tuesday’s ground-breaking repudiation of Roy Moore this past week in the Alabama special election a Facebook friend shared a few lines that opened up a journey down a rabbit hole that I had to share.

Thirty two teeth in a jawbone
Alabama cryin for none
Before I have to hit him
I hope he’s got the sense to run

If you know me, you know I’ve had an obsession with the Grateful Dead that spans many years. There are so many aspects of this band that make them an endless well of lore and history. While I get my own special satisfaction from their music it is the rich history of their songs and performances that makes them so fascinating. Like an intricate Tibetan mandala, the closer you look, the more you see.

Reason those poor girls love him
Promise them anything
Reason they believe him
He wears a big diamond ring

Go to Heaven was released in 1980 during the dying days of disco. Funkytown, Captain & Tennille, and the Commodores were in the Billboard 100 but green shoots of something new were coming through from Blondie, The Police, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Rolling Stone was impressed by the band’s cover photo which they felt was “very contemporary, very artsy, airbrushed soft-focus portrait” but not by the music which they dismissed as “uninspired fluff”

What many didn’t seem to realize is that the incessant pranksters were pulling an epic inside joke on the entire music industry. This was their last album under their disastrous record contract with Arista before they could go back to releasing live albums which curated the best music from the shows which they and their fans loved so much. Go to Heaven was the band’s giant kiss off.

Alabama getaway
Alabama getaway
Only way to please me
Turn around and leave
and walk away

Which brings me to Alabama Getaway. Ever the free love, why-can’t-we all-just-get-along types from Northern California, the band has always had a love/hate relationship with the South. Tracing their roots from jug bands and bluegrass pickers from folk America, many of their songs told tales of cowboys and the backwoods spirit of frontier folk. But while they celebrated the spirit of the individuals, they shunned the racist and divisive culture from where they came.

Majordomo Billy Bojangles
Sit down and have a drink with me
What’s this about Alabame
Keeps comin back to me?

I think Alabama Getaway, the opening song on Go to Heaven, is the band’s way of sneaking in a political message wrapped in a hard-driving Chuck Berry beat that would have fans in the South swinging their hips before they knew what hit them. References to male privilege, corruption, and lynching are woven throughout the cryptic verses, hidden in plain sight.

Heard your plea in the courthouse
Jurybox began to rock and rise
Forty-nine sister states all had
Alabama in their eyes

Neil Young didn’t do himself any favors by so directly confronting the South with his accusatory anthem Southern Man. I’m sure he stirred up quite a bit of controversy and probably wore out his welcome. Lynyrd Skynyrd even took his message and turned it into their own hit with Sweet Home Alabama’s rallying cry, “A Southern Man don’t need him around, anyhow.”

Alabama getaway
Alabama getaway
Only way to please me
Turn around and leave
and walk away

The Grateful Dead were more subtle. Like a Shakespearean court jester they will have you laughing and singing before their deeper message sinks in. Yes, they wanted to send a message but knew they would not be able to do so shouting down at people or dividing their fans against their friends. As any “social media consultant” will tell you today, the best way to crowdsource a movement is via your core fans. The only way to deliver this particular medicine was with a spoonful of sugar.

Why don’t we just give Alabama
rope enough to hang himself?
Ain’t no call to worry the jury
His kind takes care of itself

But none of this was really obvious to me until I carefully parsed the lyrics and consulted the lore. It was not until I looked into the history of this song that I unlocked the masterful prank being played. Go to Heaven was released on April 28, 1980. That very evening, the band made a special trip for a one-day concert at the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama. The first song? Alabama Getaway.

Twenty-third Psalm Majordomo
reserve me a table for three
in the Valley of the Shadow
just you, Alabama and me

It cracks me up to think that all these years the band would play this song all across the South with no one the wiser. Look at the photo on the album cover again. They are all trying desperately to keep from smirking, determined to play the part of cool disco kings – only Phil Lesh, in the back, can’t keep from cracking up. Merry Pranksters indeed.

Alabama getaway
Alabama getaway
Only way to please me
turn around and leave
and walk away

If you want to listen to the Grateful Dead playing Alabama Getaway at that concert in Birmingham in 1980, visit this page and click play. It’s the first song.

The week that was (12-15-2017)

A mummy of a “senior official” from 3,500 years ago was uncovered in Egypt. Wonder if they buried him with his paperwork.

Scientists at the Arctic University of Norway found a shark swimming in the North Atlantic estimated to be over 512-years old. What happened in 1505? Martin Luther had yet to present his 95 thesis that kicked off the Reformation.

Every material scientist’s favorite wonder compound, graphene, will be used to make the first running and fitness shoe. 200 times stronger than steel, the one-atom thick material will, “deliver a combination of traction, stretch and durability never seen before in sports footwear. 2018 will be the year of the world’s toughest grip.”

inov-8 graphene shoes due out in 2018

When tone-deaf Silicon Valley faced a shortage of women at their year-end parties, they hired models to stand in and balance the mix. Los Angeles, facing a shortage of hardcore football fans for the LA Rams, put out a casting call for  stand-in fans.

“One whiff and you’re stiff” says a local who lives in Ireland, near the factory that makes the drug Viagra and claims the fumes from the plant give him a unique contract high.

In Tokyo, the police are tracking down a monkey who has eluded capture since mid-October and has now made its way North from Yokohama into Tokyo.

In Hamden, Connecticut police are asking for the public’s help in solving an armed robbery of a bag of cheeseburgers.

To prevent injury, Marks and Spencer in the UK has developed an avocado with softer skin and no pit.

A UN official who tours the globe investigating extreme poverty said that areas of Alabama are suffering the most dire sewage disposal crisis of any place he has visited in a developed country. This week they at least got rid of some of it.

An anonymous person dropped a single gold Krugerrand worth about $1,200 in a Salvation Army kettle in South Carolina.

A Japanese company has developed a drone that will hover over worker’s desks when it’s time to go home to prevent them from overworking. The drone will play Auld Lang Syne but I think the annoying buzz is what will really do the trick.

Meanwhile, the SF branch of the SPCA had second thoughts about it’s use of autonomous security robots to suffle away homeless from its downtown campus and parking lot.

France’s education minister has announced that cell phone will be banned from school describing the government’s decision as a matter of “public health.”

A longtime SoMa communal gathering spot, San Francisco’s cafe-laundry institution Brainwash has closed permanently. Meanwhile, another SF institution, the Elbo Room in the Mission is testing new waters with an East Bay branch in Oakland.

A 54-year old man in Ireland came up with the best reason for skipping jury duty, and it was granted, “Then you GO and you GO with my blessing.”

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AlphaZero Masters Chess in Just 24 Hours

DeepMind, the same outfit that built AlphaGo, the AI platform that learned Go through supervised study of the game and went on to famously beat the top ranked player Lee Sedol has built an algorithm that now plays chess.

What is even more incredible about this new “AlphaZero” AI is that it learned how to play chess through unsupervised learning. Instead of teaching it chess by feeding in key games and tactics, the designers just taught it the rules and let the algorithm figure out the best moves all on its own, by playing itself.

Because it no longer needed to wade through and analyze historical data and also because it developed it’s own approach which was ruthlessly efficient. When AlphaZero was applied to Go, it surpassed AlphaGo within 3 days. AlphaZero was beating the strongest chess computer programs within 24 hours.

instead of a hybrid brute-force approach, which has been the core of chess engines today, it went in a completely different direction, opting for an extremely selective search that emulates how humans think.

Chess News writes about the development after reading a scientific paper published about the research accomplishment.

In the diagram above, we can see that in the early games, AlphaZero was quite enthusiastic about playing the French Defense, but after two hours (this so humiliating) began to play it less and less.

Chess News goes on to write about the broader impact of this breakthrough and what this means for the future of a generalized AI that can learn on its own.

So where does this leave chess, and what does it mean in general? This is a game-changer, a term that is so often used and abused, and there is no other way of describing it. Deep Blue was a breakthrough moment, but its result was thanks to highly specialized hardware whose purpose was to play chess, nothing else. If one had tried to make it play Go, for example, it would have never worked. This completely open-ended AI able to learn from the least amount of information and take this to levels hitherto never imagined is not a threat to ‘beat’ us at any number of activities, it is a promise to analyze problems such as disease, famine, and other problems in ways that might conceivably lead to genuine solutions.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Rochester have figured out a way to inject information into a monkey’s brain.

The week that was (12-8-2017)

A 77-year old man in Japan has taken up a new hobby, painting . . . with Microsoft Excel.

A researcher at Yale has figured out the secret to turn conservatives into liberals.

A 5-pound avocado grown in Hawaii has broken the world record, “We just cut giant slices out of it like avocado steaks and served them around” says Pamela Wang, the proud owner.

For the first time ever, the Olympic torch will be passed to a South Korean robot.

The last Blockbusters in the world is about to close.

It’s called a “tube scarf” in the fashion world but to me it looks like they just made off with the sleeve of the Jolly Green Giant’s sweater.

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Encore Gig : Camperforce

Migrant workers in 2017 now work for Amazon and live out of an RV. The Guardian reports that older workers, unable to afford rising rent and medical expenses, hit the road to work at Amazon distribution centers in exchange for a place to park their RV and water, sewage and electrical hookups. They call them the camperforce.

In other news, Amazon appears to be working their drivers so hard they don’t have time to relieve themselves. In this one instance in Sacramento, the driver ended up delivering a very different kind of package.

“The delivery company supervisor came out in his personal car and was not prepared for cleanup,” Bautista posted on Facebook. “He was in shock when he saw the size of ‘it.’ He ended up scooping it up with a plastic bag, but didn’t want to take it with him (it smelled really bad).”

Amazon said in a statement, “This does not reflect the high standards we have for delivery service providers.” and gave Bautista a Amazon gift card for her troubles.

Maybe that’s the long term play for Amazon Key.

Reuters Tracer combs Twitter for news

According to internal research, Reuters determined that 10-20% of news broke first on Twitter.

Reuters, the news agency that first scooped its rivals with the use of carrier pigeons, is seeing good results from an algorithm to sift through Twitter (over 12 million tweets/day,  2% of total volume) to search for signal in the noise. Reuters Tracer is the system summarized in MIT’s Technology Review, How Reuters’s Revolutionary AI System Gathers Global News

The first step in the process is to siphon the Twitter data stream. Tracer examines about 12 million tweets a day, 2 percent of the total. Half of these are sampled at random; the other half come from a list of Twitter accounts curated by Reuters’s human journalists. They include the accounts of other news organizations, significant companies, influential individuals, and so on.

The next stage is to determine when a news event has occurred. Tracer does this by assuming that an event has occurred if several people start talking about it at once. So it uses a clustering algorithm to find these conversations.

Of course, these clusters include spam, advertisements, ordinary chat, and so on. Only some of them refer to newsworthy events.

So the next stage is to classify and prioritize the events. Tracer uses a number of algorithms to do this. The first identifies the topic of the conversation. It then compares this with a database of topics that the Reuters team has gathered from tweets produced by 31 official news accounts, such as @CNN, @BBCBreaking, and @nytimes as well as news aggregators like @BreakingNews.

At this stage, the algorithm also determines the location of the event using a database of cities and location-based keywords.

Once a conversation or rumor is potentially identified as news, an important consideration is its veracity. To determine this, Tracer looks for the source by identifying the earliest tweet in the conversation that mentions the topic and any sites it points to. It then consults a database listing known producers of fake news, such as the National Report, or satirical news sites such as The Onion.

Finally, the system writes a headline and summary and distributes the news throughout the Reuters organization.

Three recent events and their corresponding Tracer’s and Reuters alerts.

More details (and attached screenshots) sourced from the paper, Reuters Tracer: Toward Automated News ProductionUsing Large Scale Social Media Data