Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

25 MARCH, 2011

40K Books: 99-Cent Essays by Million-Dollar Authors

By:

Trying out the Italian cyberpunk job, or how to buy brilliance for under a dollar.

Over the last few months we’ve taken a few trips to the frontier of electronic publishing to see how various digital developers are building out the landscape. One such new settler is 40K Books, so named because its 99-cent essays and novellas take 40 minutes to just over an hour to read. The Milan, Italy-based startup has put out a series of original works in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, both from new writers and established authors and thinkers like Bruce Sterling and Paul Di Filippo. Its non-fiction selections focus on the consequences of and ways in which our “culture is going digital,” while the short fiction skews toward futurist, sci-fi topics. We were sold by 40K’s bold graphic style but stuck around for the imaginative content of the work itself. Here are three favorites from the first run of releases.

FROM WORDS TO BRAIN

MIT graduate student and neuroscientist Livia Blackburne penned the fantastic essay From Words to Brain (Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?), which uses the children’s classic “Little Red Riding Hood” to investigate the complex neural connections that take place while we read. Like the TEDBooks series, Blackburne’s piece contains big ideas in a compact, engaging, and accessible package.

For most of human history, written language didn’t even exist. Reading as a cultural invention has only been around for a few thousand years, a snap of a finger in evolutionary terms. We have not, and will not, within any of our lifetimes, evolve a genetic program for reading. Yet our brains are so adept at this skill that it become as reflexive as seeing itself.”

SELLING STORIES SUCCESSFULLY

British marketing professor Stephen Brown authored the highly entertaining piece Selling Stories Successfully, at once a manifesto for “self-promotion and shameless authorpreneurship” and an exploration of what makes for good contemporary fiction. We took assiduous notes – or rather annotated our digital text – while reading this guide for writers who want to see their work get onto shelves and screens.

You have to persuade people to buy it, both literally and metaphorically. You’ve woken up to the fact that storytelling and storyselling are two completely different things. As J.G. Ballard once ruefully observed: ‘any fool can write a novel but it takes real genius to sell it.'”

BLACK SWAN

Master of cyberlit Bruce Sterling spins this enthralling tale about an Italian technology blogger, his unexpected hacker ally, and their discovery – something that threatens to revise history as we know it. We started reading Black Swan and couldn’t put down our Kindle until the last word.

I could explain now, in grueling detail, exactly what memristors are, and how different they are from any standard electronic component. Suffice to understand that, in electronic engineering, memristors did not exist. Not at all. They were technically possible – we’d known that for thirty years, since the 1980s – but nobody had ever manufactured one. A chip with memristors was like a racetrack where the jockeys rode unicorns.”

After these action- and insight-packed reads, we’re very much looking forward to seeing what stakes 40K Books pitches next.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

24 MARCH, 2011

The Atomic Cafe: Lampooning America’s Nuclear Obsession

By:

What vintage bomb survival suits have to do with Dr. Stragelove and Richard Nixon.

The recent tragedy in Japan has triggered a tsunami of terror, founded and unfounded, about the potential risks of nuclear reactors. While there are people better equipped than us to explain the precise implications of the situation, we thought we’d put things in perspective by examining the flipside of these dystopian fears: The exuberant optimism about nuclear power in mid-century America.

The Atomic Cafe (1982) offers clever satire of America’s atomic culture through a mashup of old newsreels and archival footage from military training films, government propaganda, presidential speeches and pop songs — remix culture long before it became a buzzword. From congressmen pushing for nuclear attacks on China to mind-boggling inventions like the “bomb survival suit,” the darkly humorous film revolves around the newly built atomic bomb and pokes fun at the false optimism of the 1950s, showing how nuclear warfare made its way into American homes and seeped into the collective conscience from the inside out.

Though the collector’s edition DVD is a winner, the film — which became a cult classic often referred to as the “nuclear Reefer Madness” and compared to Kubrick’s Dr. Stragelove — is also available for free online in its entirety:

The Atomic Cafe is a poignant reminder that all social reactions, whatever their polarity, are always a complex function of the era’s cultural concerns, political propaganda and media mongering, rather than an accurate reflection of the actual risks and opportunities at hand.

Please note that none of this is meant as commentary on or an effort to invalidate the debilitating human tragedy in Japan. In fact, we’re diverting Brain Pickings donations this month to the American Red Cross in support of the relief efforts there. Our thoughts remain with the people of Japan as they piece their lives back together.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

11 MARCH, 2011

Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine & the Quest to Know Everything

By:

What the perceived masculinity of robots has to do with the future of human knowledge.

Earlier this month, we looked at the superhuman capacities of the human brain, from the quest to hack memory and remember everything to the extraordinary mind of an autistic savant. For the past four years, IBM scientists have been putting their own very human minds together to build the ultimate superhuman artificial intelligence: A supercomputer known as Watson. In an ultimate litmus test for Watson’s computational cognition, they set out to prep and pit it against the world’s best players in a round of Jeopardy. And they granted one man rare access to document it all: Journalist Stephen Baker.

In Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything, he captures the fascinating process of trying to teach a machine language, knowledge and common sense, wrapped in a narrative that reads part like a sports story, with its riveting championship ups and downs, and part like the living incarnation of yesteryear’s science fiction, but is at its heart about the passion for and future of human knowledge.

Jeopardy is just a showcase for a new type of machine. Look, we’re going to be living with these things, working with them, and using them as external lobes of our brains. Final Jeopardy follows the education of one such machine. Readers, I’m hoping, will get a feel for its potential as well as its limitations. And that will help them understand what skills and knowledge they’ll need to carry around in their own heads. Of course, I’m also hoping they’ll enjoy the story.” ~ Stephen Baker

Watson and Google are very different animals. Google uses your brain to help you find an answer. It asks you for really, really clear instructions that a computer can understand, and then it leads you to a webpage and leaves it up to you to find the answer. Watson, on the other hand, has to make sense of the English itself, the really complex English of a Jeopardy clue. Then it has to hunt, find an answer, and determine if it has confidence that it’s the right answer or not, and whether it has enough confidence to bet on it. It’s a much more sophisticated process.” ~ Stephen Baker

Amazon has a revealing Q&A with the author and Omnivoracious has an excellent two-part podcast, where Baker talks about the fascinating ins-and-outs of this monumental quest.

There was lots of debate within IBM about Watson’s name and image. How human should it be? Many worried that the public would view Watson as scary: a machine that learns our secrets and steals our jobs. So they decided to limit Watson’s human qualities. They would give its friendly, masculine avoice a machine-like overtone. And its face, if you could call it that, would simply be a circular avatar—no eyes, nose or mouth, just streaming patterns representing flowing data. Despite these choices, I’ve noticed that fellow Jeopardy players immediately start to respond to Watson as another human — and not necessarily a friendly one. It’s playing the game, after all. And it usually beats them.” ~ Stephen Baker

Absorbing, dynamic and just the right amount of uncomfortable, Final Jeopardy is as much a rigorously researched lens for the process of sicence and technology as it is a subtle yet palpable moral and philosophical inquiry into the future of humanity.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.