Seven years ago, when traveling to Italy, I experienced the vagaries of data and its weird, unimaginative influence on our lives. Since then, the absurdity of what data-driven intelligence throws at us on a daily basis has increased exponentially. I wrote about it in an essay, 40 kilometers. It was part of a series of essays I wrote about data, its implications, and the emergence of limited-intelligence algorithms. If you are interested, here are some links to those articles in my archives.

Somehow that article, 40 kilometers, from seven years, ended up in the email inbox of my good friend Steve Crandall, who wrote a wonderful email reply in response. I thought it would be worth sharing and asked for his permission. Here it is:


The ‘data-driven world that we find all around us has little to do with science where data is highly contextualized and serendipity is welcomed and even hunted.  I think the notion of art is will be, or at least should be, important.

Operating as a simple person I like to make a distinction between awe and wonder. Both have multiple definitions, so I use my own.  Awe is a feeling of overwhelming majesty or even fear that seems to be beyond what we can understand or control. Wonder is a deep feeling of curiosity that leads to questions that can be addressed.  It’s scale may be big or small, but it can be consuming at any scale.  

Wonder is what I’m after and some of the paths have been decades long.  As a student in Pasadena I’d go on a long bike ride down to one of the beaches with the cycling club once or twice a month.  Being wasted from the ride and contemplating a more strenuous return I’d get lost watching gulls or the waves and surf.  I’d wonder about waves and that led me down a few paths.  The path I was taking wouldn’t naturally bump into fluid dynamics, but I started learning about the Navier-Stokes equation .. core in the study of fluid dynamics.  There were people to talk to and papers to read. The equations look simple, but are usually too difficult to solve analytically or exactly numerically in most real-world cases.  You learn tricks and the importance of the Reynolds Number as a guide for cheating.  I started to understand why the waves were doing what they did, but that led to other questions including the gulls.   

A few decades later I did some work on the flight of sports balls – particularly volleyballs as they’re one of the most interesting cases and that led to a friendship with Sarah Pavan and talks so far from my world that new sets of questions and thoughts sparkled into being.  Those waves were a long-term serendipity gateway and there have been dozens more.  I don’t know if a computer can help me in the wonder and initial serendipity part, but computer mediated communication, and synchronous is often the best kind, has certainly been an amplifier. So much of it is finding and bringing other wondering minds to the dance.


Steve’s right — what we called data-driven intelligence is not really intelligence. Instead, it is a somewhat simplistic rendering of the conclusions from the data. It lacks the ever-changing context and serendipity — something I experienced on that long drive to Siena.

July 7, 2021, San Francisco

Read article on Om.co: 40 Kilometers

  1. Another one bites the dust! There was a time when I madly listed for the Prada Phone by LG. It was like iPhone before iPhone.  LG recently announced that it was leaving the phone business for good. Such a shame. LG never “capitalized on the household name recognition” and “was beset by an inferiority complex to crosstown rival Samsung,” writes Roger Cheng, in this close examination of what went wrong at LG. This great read — and it highlights that to win, you need to overcome self-doubt. Research firm TrendForce data shows that LG made 30.6 million smartphones in 2020 – a 2.4% market share that equals ninth place in the global ranking of smartphone brands based on 2020 production volume.
  2. Abandoned Disasters: The unseen climate disaster in plain sight — that is how I would describe the growing problem of abandoned oil and gas wells. The Girst has conducted a wide-ranging investigation and found that, led by Texas and New Mexico, these abandoned wells are accelerating the release of dangerous methane into the environment, in addition to polluting the groundwater. This story is so horrifying, and it made me angry. The short-sighted nature of our society and our agencies is infuriating. Have a read, and decide for yourself.
  3. What great branding by pasta-maker Barilla. Listen to Spotify and make perfect pasta. Moody day linguine is my favorite. 
  4. What compels us to jot down poetry and poetic thoughts in our Notes app, of all places? I didn’t know, so I read this article.
  5. I was on Stacey Higginbotham’s podcast and we talked about ARM’s new chip architecture and future version of Bluetooth, apart from the usual banter between two former colleagues.  ARM, by the way, is the company whose IP is powering most of the smartphones on the planet, amongst other things. 
  6. The unexpected history and miraculous success of vaccines is a great read from Matt Ridley, one of my favorite writers. It is also a great reminder that humans have always resisted vaccination, and through history, have greeted them with scorn and suspicion. 
  7. Why such a big fuss about the Moun-g-2 particle experiment. If you are a science-savvy and physics enthusiast, a good explainer from Symmetry magazine.
  8. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence has a new report. 756 pages. It is worth reading, especially if you think the future and American influence are tied to technology. 
  9. “I believe in open source, and if WordPress isn’t a good fit for you, there are other great open source communities. We also have a great relationship with some of our proprietary competitors, and I have huge respect for the teams at Shopify and Squarespace, and even though we compete, I’ve always seen them operate with integrity, and I’d recommend them without hesitation.” Matt Mullenweg, CEO Automattic. Wix and Their Dirty Tricks – Matt Mullenweg

QUOTE OF THE DAY

“The kinds of programs that we have now, AI algorithms, don’t have the ability to replace a human. A human is still going to be the best at being able to generate creative, interesting stories and to be able to compose a unique song.” Dr. Jane Wang, senior research scientist, DeepMind . [via LDV Capital]


These are strange days — imagine that if Zoom met the $600-a-share price target set by analysts, then it would have a market capitalization that will exceed that of AT&T. While you ponder that, welcome to yet another Friday in the pandemic. It is so hot in San Francisco that I can’t think straight. How is that for an excuse for not writing today? Instead, I am sharing three good reads. 


Who owns the song when AI creates the song? Who owns the music when you use AI to create a song or some art. Tyler Hayes tries to answer the question in this report. [Tyler Hayes] 

The pandemic has proved to be a boon for streaming video services. Limelight Networks, a content delivery network, notes that nearly (47 percent of people worldwide subscribed to a new streaming service in the last six months. An average global viewer is watching almost eight hours (seven hours, 55 minutes) per week. In my previous publication, w named this cord-cutting, and it is one of the many reasons we see the slow death of the Great American Cable Bundle. [Bloomberg]

As a diabetic, I know one fact: no sugar is the only good sugar. However, that doesn’t stop researchers from working on a low-calorie variant of real sugar. This long read in the New Yorker is a brilliant exploration of those efforts. [The New Yorker.]

What remains are the things that cannot be relegated to machines and algorithms, copied from others, or reduced to formulas, directions, and recipes: the artist remains—the singular human individual capable of creative ideas, original thoughts, deep contemplation, and unique expressions of complex ideas, philosophies, and emotions.

Guy Tal