Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

24 MARCH, 2011

The Atomic Cafe: Lampooning America’s Nuclear Obsession


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.

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11 MARCH, 2011

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


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.

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07 MARCH, 2011

5 (More) Must-Read Books by TED 2011 Speakers


What information curators have to do with the revenge of technology and synesthetic autism.

We spent the past week in sleep deprivation and intellectual overstimulation so you wouldn’t have to, reporting from TED 2011: The Rediscovery of Wonder and bringing back the most noteworthy highlights, soundbites and exclusive photos. Last week, we warmed up with 5 must-read books by some of this year’s speakers, and today we’re back with five more.


The pleasure of being right is one of the most universal human addictions and most of us spend an extraordinary amount of effort on avoiding or concealing wrongness. But error, it turns out, isn’t wrong. In fact, it’s not only what makes us human but also what enhances our capacity for empathy, optimism, courage and conviction. In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz approaches the subject of wrongness with equal parts wit and rigor, eloquently blending philosophical inquiry with social psychology and neuroscience to examine how the mind works.

However disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.” ~ Kathryn Schulz

From Shakespeare to Freud, Schulz examines some of history’s greatest thinkers’ perspectives on being wrong and emerges with a compelling counterpoint to our collective cultural aversion to wrongness, arguing instead that error is a precious gift that fuels everything from art to humor to scientific discovery and, perhaps most importantly, a transformative force of personal growth that we should embrace, not mask or stifle.


As information continues to proliferate, how we sift and filter it is of increasing importance in making sense of the world and framing what matters in it. And while human information curators (cough cough…) are working hard to separate the signal from the noise, the reality is that much of our information diet is being force-fed to us by algorithms that track and profile us, custom-serving us an information menu very different from our neighbor’s. In The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, Eli Pariser offers an eye-opening investigation of how this ultra-personalization is controlling and limiting the information we’re exposed to.

We’ve moved to an age where the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see. [...] We need the new information gatekeepers to encode a sense of civic responsibility into algorithms.” ~ Eli Pariser

This is an increasingly urgent question: Is the responsibility of those who serve information to give us more of what we already like and believe, or to open our eyes to new perspectives? And if it’s all algorithmically driven, is there even a place for such responsibility? From the role of content curators as moral mitigators of algorithmic efficiency to the underbelly of Google’s powerful personalization engines, which look at 57 data points before they serve us custom-cut search query results, The Filter Bubble is a timely and critical read for the informed information consumer.


Nearly 15 years old, science historian Edward Tenner’s Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences remains an essential exploration of what the author calls the “revenge effects” of technology — the unintended negative consequences of technological innovation. From oil spills to computer-induced carpal tunnel syndrome to the mass extermination of birds, Tenner draws on a wide range of everyday examples to deliver a thought-provoking study of Murphy’s Law as a grounding cautionary tale, even more important today in the midst of our blind techno-lust.


Astro-historian David Christian is considered the founding father of the Big History movement — the notion that in order to fully understand human history, we must integrate it with all disciplines and contextualize it in the larger history of time itself. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History is Christian’s ambitious effort to synthesize the universe’s 13 billion years in a single volume, spanning nearly 600 pages and featuring 45 stunning black-and-white illustrations and 9 beautiful maps.

We can share what we learn with such precision that it can outlast the individual and remain in our collective memory. That’s why we have a history. I call this ability ‘collective learning.’ It’s what makes us different.” ~ David Christian

Though certainly non-exhaustive — after all, how could one possibly compress the entire spectrum of existence into a single tome, however formidable its size? — the book is an excellent primer for macro-history and a necessary foundation for deeper understanding of our place in the universe.


Daniel Tammet is a high-functioning autistic savant with Asperger’s syndrome, capable of extraordinary feats of computation and memory, from learning Icelandic in a single week to breaking the European record by reciting the number pi up to the 22,514th digit. The 32-year-old Brit also has synesthesia, the rare neurological crossing of the senses that enables one to “see” music, “hear” color, or experience letters and numbers with motion and texture, which makes him one of only about 50 people living in the world today with both synesthesia and autism.

Born On A Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant offers a rare and fascinating look at this superhuman brain and how it goes through the human world.

Our personal perceptions are at the heart of how we acquire knowledge.” ~ Daniel Tammet

From the challenges of sustaining a long-term romantic relationship to the realization of being gay to the entrepreneurship of turning his unusual life into a living by building an online language-learning system, the book is a powerful perspective-shift as Tammet transcends the pathology of his condition to deliver eloquent and highly engaging storytelling that leaves you with equal parts awe and empathy.

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