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

This week, Tim O’Reilly provided much-needed perspective in his essay “The End of Silicon Valley As We Know It.” If you can overlook the clickbait title, this essay is among the most valuable things you can read to understand our present and think about our future. While there has been much hoopla about folks leaving Silicon Valley, new distributed work philosophies, and other daily headlines, these are primarily distractions from a deeper, more profound change afoot in what we call Silicon Valley.

The Algorithmic Accountability Index: Ellery Roberts Biddle and Jie Zhang have created an accountability index for the algorithmic economy. They looked for companies’ answers to some fundamental questions about algorithms: How do you build and train them? What do they do? What standards guide these processes? An essential piece. 

How the race for autonomous cars started: We might be on the brink of the future where we all zoom around in self-driving cars and other autonomous vehicles. It is easy to forget that, 16 years ago, autonomous driving was a chaotic dream. In his new book, Driven: The Race to Create the Autonomous Car, Alex Davies chronicles what brought us to this moment. Wired magazine recently ran an excerpt, and you should check it out.

Did Tech prevent the World from a bigger meltdown?: While we have read many articles about technology becoming a dominant force in our lives during the pandemic, this article in Foreign Policy asks (and answers) the question from a different angle. I liked the nuanced argument, and that is why I recommend it for your weekend reading.

The cassette tape creator is dead: In time, what was a disruptive technology becomes a part of our life that we don’t even notice. One hundred billion units later, cassette tape is one of those technologies. It kicked off the ability to personalize the curation of music. You can draw a straight line between those tapes and Spotify playlists. Lou Ottens, the engineer who created the cassette tape, died recently. Ottens also helped create the compact disc, which ultimately killed the cassette tape. His obituary is a reminder that only very few are fortunate enough to create technology that touches everyone’s lives.

The Cost of Lies

What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we will mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that, if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories? In these stories, it doesn’t matter who the heroes are. All we want to know is who is to blame.

Those are the opening lines of Chernobyl, the much talked about HBO miniseries. Valery Legasov, the chief of the commission investigating the infamous nuclear disaster, utters them before committing suicide. Even after binging all of the first four episodes (the fifth and final one is on Monday, June 3rd), I couldn’t get those initial lines out of my mind. Continue reading “The Cost of Lies”

Worth Reading: Stan Smith, Algorithms, and John Oliver

We had a beautiful and sunny weekend in San Francisco — a much-needed break between endless days of drizzle. And that meant a chance to walk around and clock in my 10,000 steps. It also meant less reading and even less writing. Nevertheless, I am kicking off the week by sending you some good stuff to read, perhaps on your lunch break or when you’re commuting back from work. Continue reading “Worth Reading: Stan Smith, Algorithms, and John Oliver”