Winter 2013 Playlist: Synth Krampus

by Jason Patočka on November 8, 2013

Merry-Krampus

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The Singularty Will Steal Your CakeWhat would life be like if we were able to create sentient machines?

Films have explored this subject endlessly, but when you see Watson kicking ass on Jeopardy, nobody really bats an eye.

“Thats cool.” we blithely yawn.

And then we go about our very busy routine, oblivious to how radically our lives change when technology sneaks up on us.

Should we be bothered with Watson’s nuanced orchestration of Bayesian algorithms?

IBM is currently tweaking Watson’s AI technology  to extrapolate medical information. They want to be able to optimize patient care and provide physician support by giving doctors a machine that can deliver the most relevant medical data directly at the point of care.

An entire universe of medical information, extrapolated in seconds and condensed into the world’s first AI physician assistant.

Pair this with mobile technology, and you would have one hell of a tricorder.

Are we building a world where we are slowly making ourselves irrelevant? Was Buckminster Fuller stating the obvious when he foresaw an end to labor?

The Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology just released a study earlier this week that noted that half of US Jobs could be replaced by automation within the next two decades.

Medicine clearly isn’t the only arena for this burgeoning new field of machine learning.  A considerable number of highly skilled knowledge professions are being automated.

Robots just aren’t replacing factory workers anymore.

Should there be reason for concern, fellow dinosaur?

Just the other day, my friend Liza Kindred of Third Wave Fashion fame hit me up on Twitter to ask me about The Singularity.*

If you’re new to the The Singularity, it is a term that refers to a time when machines just don’t become intelligent, but super-intelligent. Its a rather controversial subject among computer science and artificial intelligence philosophers, but it is a provocative thought experiment.

The Singularity meme managed to inject itself into the periphery of the mainstream thanks in part to the work of futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, who was recently hired to lead up a general AI project at the Wonka-esque labs of Google X.

Kurzweil’s most notable works include The Singularity is Near (which presents his hypothesis for computational requirements related to exponential growth of AI) and his most recent book How to Create a Mind, which is a response to the criticisms of the neuroscience community on what remains to be understood on intelligence itself, as well as how we might attempt building a mind in a computer.

He predicted the Singularity event to occur in the mid-2040’s in The Singularity is Near.  Recently, I’ve seen interviews where he’s stated he’s confident that it could happen as soon as the late 2020s.

Kurzweil may be the Singularity’s biggest cheerleader, but forecasting and engineering are two separate enterprsies.

Being able to build a sentient machine is far from certain.

His most vocal critics have been Paul Allen (of Microsoft and SETI philanthropy fame) PZ Meyers (of Pharyngula fame) and now, an entire cadre of neuroscience boffins who argue that we can’t possibly know how to build a brain because we don’t understand brains well enough to even approach reverse engineering them.**

The empiricist in me still doesn’t see a physical road-map for how we could create a deus ex machina, but just because something is improbable or shrouded in mystery doesn’t mean that it is necessarily impossible.  Hell, the heart of applied science makes impossibility a prerequisite for experimentation and engineering, and that’s a good thing.

Google certainly has interest, or else they wouldn’t have bothered to hire Kurzweil.  Furthermore, the recent $300 million per year commitment made by the United States towards the BRAIN Initiative demonstrates an ambition that aspires to yield as much impact as the Human Genome Project.

The path of discovery (let alone scale and applied science) may be formidable, but its a worthy endeavor and timing couldn’t be better. Biotechnology and tools like fMRI have given us new methods to understand previously obscure facts of the mind, and we’re continuing to venture into new computing architectures.

Some of these discoveries will leave you awestruck. After all, we’re able to create and erase memories in rats right now.

There are no guarantees.  Discovery has a nasty habit of uncovering new roadblocks.

Despite the controversy, we should start thinking about the consequences of what our society looks like if we are implementing widespread automation.  We’re already automating mass surveillance and warfare, and one can only speculate as to what the impact means in terms of labor, governance, and greed.

One of my favorite futurists, Jamais Cascio made a good observation at his Ensia lecture a few months back when he stated that we tend to overestimate the short-term forecast of technological impact, and underestimate the long term forecast of technological impact.

For the time being, the Singularity is mere fiction.  Anyone who says they can predict the future with any degree of certainty is making an absurd claim, no matter how educated the guess.

Yet, visionaries shouldn’t be ignored.

Rarely do you hear about preparedness being a mistake in hindsight.

Disagree? Have something to add? Lets talk it out in the comments.

*Liza has an e-commerce book coming out with O’reilly soon. If you like to sell things online or are interested in tech revolutions in the style buisness, follow her or Third Wave Fashion on Twitter. Liza’s superpowers include being super friendly, tenacious, Professor-X-grade-professional, and kicking-ass in couture heels. She’s taught me a lesson or two in life. Truth.

**If you will allow me to go meta for a bit, I really do admire Ray’s tenacious ability to defend his positions. Any time something pops up in the media he’s on top of it, and he doesn’t resort to being petty or irate in his retort.  He always takes it in stride and is very polite, which is a rare thing in debate. Especially on the Internet.

 

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Belated Summer 2013 Playlist: Lust Sweats

by Jason Patočka on August 22, 2013

Lust_Sweats

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HatchigatsuTomatoSalad

Serves 4 – 6 spoiled foodies or lonely Roppongi Hills housewives. Versatile.

Hachigatsu is the word for August in Japanese. This salad’s namesake honors the peak seasonality of its ingredients. Snow peas, red onion, and tomatoes are all at optimal harvest in the twilight of summer. For the most part, the salad is standard izakaya fare, and could easily be made without the added step of cooking or marinating the tomatoes.

But why, oh why would you deny yourself the luxury of this easy extra step of indulgence? It takes your tomatoes from flirting innocence to full blown dominatrix for practically no effort whatsoever. Grilling the tomatoes brings out their sultry tastes-like-danger umami flavor.

With the impending briskness of fall right around the corner, you need one last summer fling. This salad delivers it without the divorce.

For me, the minimal amount of extra work is totally worth it. Because fuck boring-ass iceberg lettuce salads, that’s why.

Go pillage a garden, already.

Yuzu Kosho no Gaijin

Can’t find Yuzu Kosho? No problem. If you’re too couchlocked to treasure hunt at your local Asian supermarket – this weapons grade, cracker-ass adaptation has got you covered, round eye.

INGREDIENTS

1 cup finely grated lime zest (from about 16 limes)
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons finely grated grapefruit zest (preferably white)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons fresh grapefruit juice (preferably white)
2 tablespoons bottled yuzu juice (or use lemon)
1 green Thai chile, seeded, minced
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon honey

PREPARATION

Combine zests and salt on a cutting board. Chop, until a coarse paste forms. You could also just use a food processor if you’re crunched for time. Transfer mixture to a small bowl or a granite mortar & pestle.

Mix in remaining ingredients. Transfer to a small jar, cover, and chill like Barry and Levon.

PREP HACK: Can be made 2 weeks ahead. Keep chilled. Also a mind-blowing seasoning for fish.

Grill-Fired, Roppongi-kissed Tomatoes

Exactly like a French-kiss. Only more decadent, arguably more intoxicated, and more infatuated with Chanel.

INGREDIENTS

¼ cup grapeseed oil
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 tbsp. soy sauce or tamari
1 tbsp. red yuzu kosho (see above)
2 heaping tsp. sansho (aka Szechuan peppercorn)
1 tsp. kosher salt
4 medium vine ripened heirloom tomatoes, cored and halved crosswise
1 cup roughly chopped mitsuba, parsley, or cilantro leaves w/ stems

PREPARATION

1. Whisk oil, garlic, soy sauce, yuzu kosho, sansho, and salt in a 9? x 13? baking dish. Add tomatoes; toss to coat and lay cut side down in dish. Let tomatoes marinate at room temperature for 15 minutes.

2. Heat a charcoal grill or set a gas grill to high; bank your coals or turn off burner on one side. Reserve marinade and grill tomatoes, cut side down, on hottest part of grill until slightly charred, 2-4 minutes. Flip tomatoes and spoon reserved marinade over tops; continue to grill without flipping until tomatoes are slightly caramelized, 6-8 minutes. Garnish with mitsuba. If you can’t find mitsuba, rock out your tomatoes with parsley or cilantro.

3. Reserve remaining marinade for drizzling over your salad.

Hatchigatsu Tomato Salad

INGREDIENTS

4 grill-fired heirloom tomatoes (see above)
1 Japanese cucumber or ½ English cucumber, unpeeled
2/3 oz. (20g) renkon lotus root
¼ medium red onion
4-8 whole snow peapods
2 tsp. white sesame seeds, lightly tossed
1/2 cup coriander or mitsuba
1/2 cup sliced pickled shiitake mushrooms

Marinade for lotus root

1 cup (80ml) water
3 tbsp. rice vinegar
1 tsp. honey
a pinch of kosher salt

Dressing

1/2 cup Kewpie mayonnaise
scant ½ cup yellow miso
¼ cup (60ml) sudachi citrus, yuzu, or lemon & grapefruit juice
1 scant tbsp. (12g) soy or tamari sauce

PREPARATION

1. Combine lotus root marinade ingredients and bring to a boil. Immediately remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Peel and cut the lotus root with a knife or mandolin into ? inch (3mm) thick rounds and soak in rice vinegar water for 5 minutes. Briefly blanch in boiling water and soak in the lotus root marinade until flavored, about 20 minutes.

2. Slice red onion into very thin slices. If the onion is bitter, soak in ice cold water for 20 min to crisp it and remove aggressive flavor.

3. Have ice water ready in a small bowl. In a small saucepan, bring salted water to a boil and blanch the snow peas for about two minutes. (Or simply steam them.) Using a spider strainer, transfer to ice water and have them stop cooking. Remove from ice bath and dry with paper towels.

4. Take the grill fired tomatoes and slice them into wedges. Then lightly pound the cucumber on the cutting board with a rolling pin to soften it, this will allow the dressing to penetrate. Afterwards, seed and julienne cucumber into 1.25 inch (3.5 cm) lengths.

5. If you can’t find Kewpie brand mayonnaise from your Japanese grocer, use your favorite brand of mayo instead. Mix in miso, sudachi citrus juice (or substitute citrus – yuzu for example) and soy sauce, and adjust thickness by whisking in additional grapeseed oil.

6. Pat dry onion and snow peas. Arrange all vegetables on a serving plate. Drizzle dressing & remaining tomato marinade strategically throughout vegetables and then sprinkle a garnish of sesame seeds on top.

Check out these these lovely folks who just enjoyed this dish (along with some made from scratch Momofuku ramen) at my latest Sexy Party.

Serious business.

Nods to the following sources: Izakaya by Mark Robinson, Tadashi Ono, Keiji Mori.  Photos courtesy of Yumi Bringle.

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Spring 2013 Playlist: Lagrange Point Luau

by Jason Patočka on May 2, 2013

Lagrange Point Luau

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Delicious tacos.

Not a week goes by when I don’t stumble across some post that involves a couple of eager entrepreneurial beavers seeking a technical founder.

Naturally, my inner evangelist wants to buy these well meaning woodland creatures a cup of coffee, copies of Code Complete, Emerson’s Self Reliance, and an account on GitHub.

So pay attention feral business builders: the first task in finding a legendary dam builder is to become a dam builder yourself.

“But Patocka,” you say. “We have to focus on the big picture.”

Fair enough.  Let me frame it for you.

Programmers, engineers, and other demigods of high technology are in high demand.  World class engineers have their pick of opportunities.  So you at the very least need to have a basic understanding of what you need them to do.

A little bit of self motivation goes a long way.

You do this because you don’t want to be ignored.  Nothing drives a technical expert into a raging bloodlust like someone who is too lazy to care about managing details.

This is especially true about your product.  You know, that thing that is the nexus of your entire business model.

I once worked with a project architect who threw chairs across the room on a daily basis.

In front of clients.

Just because he hated the smug negligence.

So there’s that.

You also don’t want to get fleeced by outsourcing your build to some consultant or arbitraged keyboard grindhouse.

This is a categorically bad idea.  It sucks because you will have absolutely no idea how to fix your core product when something goes wrong.

Repeat after me: something always goes wrong.

Complexity demands it. If you outsource your R&D you’re only adding another layer of bureaucratic complexity.  What you think is a shortcut to scale is actually a critical point of failure.

A third party is theoretically something you have zero control over, no matter how much you are paying them.

In times of crisis, the last thing you want to do is jump through hoops just to track down the person who built it.

It will slow down your ability to quickly adapt towards product market fit.

Another common point of friction is when some genius makes promises to clients that either can’t be realized or is prohibitively expensive.

There is a time and place for agreeing to deliver on a formidable challenge, but most of the time absurd promises are made because  the chronically impatient can’t be bothered to learn.

And then there is the luxury problem of being left high dry when Engineering Jesus suddenly walks on water and ascends into higher spheres of venture capital nirvana.

Angelic ascension and other miracles of HR poaching happen all the time.

Considering these scenarios, do you think it would be a good idea for you to learn as much as possible?  With the risk that you’re taking on by starting a new venture, you damn well better be.

So roll up those sleeves, poindexter.

The fragility of your business depends entirely on your willingness to get your hands dirty in every kind of R&D muck that you can possibly imagine.

Unsurprisingly, the path of the eternal student is also the path of the successful entrepreneur.  Its fundamentally about committing to the task of understanding every aspect of your business.

Its about constantly seeing things with a beginner’s mind.  Refuse to be intimidated.

Nobody expects you to be able to perform at the level of someone who has marinated in a solid diet of hardcore, production-hardened STEM for their entire careers.

Experience matters.  Its why you want to hire them.  Hiring people smarter than you is essential to success.

The good news is that nobody expects you to be a technology Bodhisattva.  But if you seek salvation in success, at some point you will need to practice curiosity and diligence.

Even if your prototype sucks, the fact that you even made the attempt to manifest release 0.1 into reality goes a long way to convince successful and established people that you are serious.

You will also save a lot of money.

All talented people were beginners once.  The best ones realize that they are always beginners.

True passion always manifests itself into physical, touchable reality.  The tenacity to get something started is the best case you could possibly make for attracting the sage expertise of experience.

The best investment you can make is always the one you make in yourself.

So stop begging people for a quick fix and get started.

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The Eye of the Surveillence State

“Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull. ”  ― George Orwell, 1984

Our public debate on the prevalence of drones in society is extremely oversimplified and dangerously narrow.

What the strong AI community has been discussing in caucus is starting to take traction in the mainstream.

The issues currently being packaged in mass media outlets don’t even begin to scratch the surface of how complicated a problem this is.

Let me summarize where the debate is at in the salons of existential risk right now, because what they are currently evaluating is where the news will be in five to ten years.

Drones scare people.  Understandably so.

It’s the first glimpse of shock and awe, Terminator style.

To use an aerospace analogy, even our most advanced robotic weapons systems today will resemble the Wright Brother’s bi-plane at Kitty Hawk in hindsight.

We don’t even know what the Moon landing equivalent is for this technology.  Its hard to predict what it will look like sixty years from now.

With these considerations in mind, how should we manage a technology that is originally purposed for use against terrorists and rogue states when it is being configured and deployed for use on our own citizens?

Will the legislative protections of today be adequate for the evolution of this technology?  How does one define terrorism, anyway?

Foresight matters.

Debates over the morality of automated warfare miss out on the three other adjacent trends in this new realm of information science and autonomous lethality.

One is the increasing prevalence of powerful sensor platforms and the big data collection mechanisms that create a pervasive surveillance state.

Second, is the question of examining how these technologies will evolve, both in terms of stealth and lethality.

Third, is the application of net-centric warfare.  The lethal effectiveness and persistent surveillance enabled by a single node (in this case, a drone) is one thing.  Swarm tactics and a seamlessly automated AI driven kill chain is something I don’t think we’ve fully come to appreciate yet.

Beyond these concerns, we have the added cherry on top of the clusterfuck sundae that is politics.

We’ll get to that. One thing at a time.

A Brief History of the Panoptic Leviathan

Ever since my undergraduate days, I have been a huge fan of Michel Foucault.  True to form, he never really considered himself a philosopher.  Instead, he fancied himself an archeologist of power and wrote a great deal on how power functions and subjugates societies.

Foucault’s interest in power led him to riff on the philosophical concept of the panopticon and its function in architecture. Now panoptic utility has found its way into the digital realm where our architecture has delved into the depths of the nanoscale.

Just as Manhattan-sized glacial shards cleave from our polar ice caps, there is an equally awesome consequence of willful negligence that circumvents constitutional protections of privacy and civil liberty in the United States.

And its all done in the name of security.

While some of my fellow citizens cry like a bunch of petulant children about their 2nd Amendment rights, they remain completely silent while the rest of protections established by the Constitution are circumvented or waived with the whims of a presidential signing statement or a paranoia-drunk congress.

Apologies for my global readers, but I want to emphasize that this isn’t an Obama vrs. Bush issue.  My fellow countrymen need to accept that erosion of liberty has been happily upheld by both administrations.

Sadly, they show no sign of stopping.

First there was the Patriot Act.

Then there was that time when Mark Klein uncovered room 641A, and we discovered that spying wasn’t simply limited to monitoring international communications without a warrant.  Subsequently, Congress covered its ass with amendments to FISA.

Despite clear constitutional precedent safeguarding these rights, he lost his petition before the US Supreme court and many of these practices continue to this day.

Suspension of Habeas Corpus. Warrantless Wiretapping.  Construction of NSA data centers that are theoretically capable of storing an entire Libraries of Congress’ capacity of data for every single person on the planet.

And then there’s this outrageous bullshit called CISPA.

Its not like they’re doing it entirely in secret, but they are doing everything they can to circumvent transparency and civil oversight.

This isn’t a trail of breadcrumbs.  Its a trail of fucking loaves.

And its likely to get far more invasive.

Now we have the means to acquire all of this data for storage through the convenience of what Jamais Cascio calls the participatory panopticon.

Today our data is conceded every time we open a web browser or carry a GPS enabled mobile device.

Tomorrow, its not only going to be about what you carry, but about the crowds of people that may be recording you through Google Glass.

Why is this important?

The central tenant to pursuing these systems isn’t related to some nefarious scheme or conspiratorial plot.

The driving force behind all of this is the question of proliferation.  We’re increasingly seeing trends that enable non-state actors and even individuals to have access to weapons of mass destruction.

A chemical or nuclear attack would make 9/11 look like a casual stroll around the Taj Mahal.

We live in an age where our governmental leadership has a mandate to ensure that doomsday doesn’t take place.

Its a damn near impossible task.  Yet the past decade has not been about finding balance between liberty and security.  Its been about an aggressive pursuit of power.

What is deeply concerning is the rise of the Surveillance State and its ability to use these data collection practices to automate lethal actions completely in secret.

Of course, nobody is talking about how this new age of panoptic warfare could also be used by non-state actors or individuals.

Robotic warfare itself is a force multiplying WMD.

What happens when it follows the path of nuclear weapons and proliferates in the hands of ideologically driven rogues?

No technology of warfare remains exclusive.

Artificial Intelligence in the Kill Chain

To be fair, our legislators are in a tenuous position. How does one balance the paradox between civil liberties and the genuine threat of asymmetric warfare with weapons of mass destruction?

Should legislators be able to use lethal force to assassinate American citizens without trial, completely within the shroud of classified national security?

Sounds reasonable, given the ambitions of crazy zealots and the threats of WMDs.

Yet, I don’t think we are accounting for how this technology will evolve.  Sadly, congress is not composed of a body of forward thinking technologists.

In the past legislators tried to plan 50 years into the future and think of existential problems that might jeopardize civil liberties and the common good.  Even with the occasional anomaly of McCarthyist witch hunts.

At height of the Cold War, despite the ever present threat of mutually assured destruction – our leaders made an attempt to balance liberty and security.

Now they just take model legislation that’s been written by industry, under the assumption that due diligence has already been done and move onto their primary focus of getting re-elected.

The profitability of the military industrial complex may not have the best interest of human beings in mind.

Technological evolution is extremely profitable. It also enables new aspects of the power paradigm. Therefore, a wise course of action should account for how these technologies will evolve.

One of the biggest problems that Commanders have in theater at the moment is the fact that they can’t see inside buildings, caves, and other enclosed spaces.

Commanders hate blind spots and will take every element of surprise that an opportunity presents. If they see strategic advantage in tracking enemy combatants using robots the size of a flea, they will fund it.

Thus, DARPA’s vision for robotics goes well beyond what most people think about when they envision a robot. It follows Feynman all the way down to “plenty of room at the bottom.”

This realm includes the interesting multidisciplinary intersection between robotics, materials science, bio-mimicry, and molecular biology.

Today, it may be drones flying at an altitude of 10 kilometers, but tomorrow it could very well be robotic insects, synthetic organelles, and artificial cells.

Automated turrets are already finding their way on the Korean DMZ.

And then there is the application of network effects.

If you think about it from a tactical systems perspective, it’s less about the individual node, its more about the swarm and how these systems could operate autonomously in concert.

This is a terrifying force multiplier if you think about it.

A prominent Georgia Tech roboticist named Ron Arkin argues that autonomy is actually an advantage because it removes human error from the kill chain and in some instances it can remove the bureaucratic hold-ups of command.

Autonomous systems that don’t suffer from fatigue, morale, or the fog of war.  They can kill without emotion.

Its perfect for trying to contain a superior force, and the tireless eye of the machines is perfect for trying to curtail the proliferation for WMDs.

And now these tools designed for a battlefield are being deployed by law enforcement.

Apparently soccer moms have become mujaheddin?

Why are we taking technology that is originally designed for use against our adversaries and configuring it for use against citizens?

The all seeing eye is gradually being turned inward.

Where do We Go From Here

Fundamentally, we need to start participating in a dialogue that reflects reality and not some alternate universe of political posturing.  We also have to fix Congress so that these sweeping changes to civil liberties that have occurred over the past decade can no longer occur in secret.

We shouldn’t resort to some sort of dystopian future that uses guerrilla resistance as a fall back strategy.  The answer is not stockpiling assault rifles.

Your Second Amendment rights won’t protect you from a swarm of drones that target you across your various signatures on the electromagnetic spectrum. An AR-15 won’t mean fuck all when these systems can vaporize you from seven kilometers at cruising altitude.

Those who perpetuate the conceal-carry suburban commando fantasy should take notes from the Taliban.  These mountain dwelling guerrilla warfare experts are outraged largely because these strikes are tactically superior and effective.

These complaints come from bands of battle hardened cavemen who have been at war for their entire life – not the guy who spends his weekends managing his fantasy football roster.

As such we need to pursue a peaceful and sane solution in restoring the legislative framework that prevents the corrosion of liberty from the forces of greed.

The best recourse that we have is fixing our broken ass Congress.  We need to minimize the potential for existential risk before it happens.

Our first priority is to clarify what can cause someone to be labeled an enemy of the state or a terrorist and what can’t.  We also have to define the rules of engagement.  We have to ensure transparency.

As they exist today – rules of engagement, command and control, and chain of command regarding lethal autonomy is very much in the grey area. Peter Singer wrote a great deal about this in his great book Wired for War.

Jeffery Thurnher wrote a pretty good legal overview over at Joint Force Quarterly that is worth reading. To my knowledge, use of these systems is governed by policy and the discretion of commanders – not law.

If the laws of the battlefield haven’t fully scoped this technology, what does that say about deploying it in the civilian space?  Surreal.

The US Congress has a Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus that advocates for the drone industry.  Never mind the duty that legislators may have in upholding civil liberties and privacy of citizens.

I’m far from being a Luddite, but our laws do need to adapt to the frontiers of discovery, and profit alone should not be the sole factor in governance.

Pressure these people.  Currently there was a bill in Virginia that was sponsored by the ACLU and the Virginia Federation of Tea Party Patriots that needs support elsewhere.

Third, we’re long overdue for a Constitutional Convention.  There needs to be an explicit privacy clause in the Constitution of the United States of America, among other amendments that will curtail our current state of perverse corruption.

To quote Benjamin Franklin, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

As it stands today, we’re forfeiting liberty at a record pace, and the watchful eye of the machines gives me little comfort, let alone security.

*Suggested Reading:

PW Singer’s Wired for War
Ron Arkin’s Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots
Wallach and Allen’s Moral Machines
Patrick Lin’s Autonomous Military Robotics: Risk, Ethics, and Design
Julian Assange’s Cypherpunks
Lawrence Lessig’s Republic, Lost

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You smelt it, you dealt it.

The other day, I had the tortuous experience of sitting through a surreal form of office space limbo called the modern meeting.

Did you know that in nature, if you get close enough to a black hole, theoretically you pass a point of no return where even light can’t escape?

That’s called an event horizon, and it has an analog in business.

And it will be the death of us all.

The meeting singularity knows no boundaries. Its cold, calculating and indiscriminate. If there is even the smallest hairline fissure in your general expectations of management, before you know it – the ship buckles, and attention span vaporizes in a cloud of brainfarts.

There are no escape pods.

That my friend, is a terrible fate.

In the early stages, this lack of focus can be totally innocent. Yet if left unchecked it will metastasize into a whole host of other potentially critical business issues like morale and bureaucratic friction. If there are experienced or influential people around the table, it costs you credibility.

Unprofessional behavior adds cost.

As such, in order to safeguard yourself from being ambushed by a galaxy swallowing meeting, you really should apply meeting vetting criteria.

Lets load for bear, shall we?

The 6 Rules of Meeting Validation

All meetings that I attend need to adhere to the following universal guidelines. Sometimes there are exceptions to these rules but I try to make sure exceptions are few and far between. Much of this came from the excellent book Rework, which I strongly recommend.

1. The Rule of Minimal Viable Meetings

The first rule of having successful meetings is to have as few meetings as possible.

Encourage colleagues and students to become problem solving prodigies.  Lots of times meetings are called because we don’t empower people to solve their own problems.  They feel like they have to insulate themselves within a chain of command.

Abdicated decisions are not decisions.

Give them the confidence they need to solve their problems independently.  Let them be the first person that attempts to diffuse the bomb.

Its why you hired them.

If they get stumped, have them contact an expert.  If it escalates, it escalates.

This initial firewall is worth its weight in diamonds.

2. The Rule of Explicit Problems

Meetings are never called to gather consensus and identify what the problem is. Meetings are only called to remedy specific problems and figure out the why behind them.

Being asked out to Power Point Prom is about as much fun as it was being asked out to actual prom. In hindsight, you will regret it.

Figure it out, zero in on what you are going to solve and get your post-mortem on.

3. The Walkout Rule

If the meeting organizer can’t explain the the meeting’s objective in the first five minutes of the meeting, everyone has the right to walk out.

Flipping the bird is optional, but encouraged.

4. The Rule of Professional Courtesy

I never cease to be completely floored when people ask for time without presenting an agenda.

To be included:

Who: If they’re strangers, introductions and hyperlinks to bio’s, blogs or LinkedIn profiles might be nice. You can also use this time to ensure you have the right skills at the table.

What: What is the explicit problem you are going to solve?

Where: If its off site, locations on Google maps kick ass.  If it’s the weekend it better not be in a boardroom. Unless you’re a sadist.

When: See 20 minute rule.

Why: This is your value proposition.

How: This is where you outline discussion on solving said problem and assign tasks.

Send it to everyone at least a day in advance. Obvious, really.

No agenda. No meeting.  Period.

5. The 20 Minute Rule

The vast majority of meetings should take no more than 20 minutes.

GE CEO emeritus Jack Welch disagrees with this.  If he had his way, he would prefer that you marinate, take your time to get to know people, and point out problems related to the human aspects of managing purely through the metric of efficiency.

There is some truth to this. Sometimes there are exceptions to this rule, but they should be outliers and not the norm. Finding balance is an art.  Error towards respecting people’s time.

Don’t underestimate the power of time saving tools like g-chat and Asana.  This isn’t to say that old fashioned face-to-face interaction isn’t important, but virtual tools save time and resource overhead.

In either scenario, you have to account for minds to be present, attentive, and focused.  Brevity doesn’t allow attention spans to wander.

6. The Rule of Empty Suits.

The meeting organizer needs to ensure that the right skill sets are present.  You perform surgery with surgeons, anesthesiologists, and surgical nurses.  You don’t perform open heart surgery with interpretive dance artists.

If they don’t need to be there, don’t invite them.

Everyone in the meeting needs to take notes and everyone leaves the meeting with something to do.

If they don’t have a task at the end of the meeting, you never should have invited them in the first place.  That’s on you.

Take time to effectively assess and vet everyone’s contribution towards the desired goal.  Everyone will appreciate this.

Don’t be a Twonk

These guidelines were totally absent on my most recent fated afternoon.  I did my best not to look enraged but that’s only because I was daydreaming about being hoodwinked and enslaved by cenobites in a less painful dimension of existence.

Despite monopolizing an entire business unit’s time, within five minutes it was clear that everyone’s time was going to be wasted.

The people gathered around the table didn’t have the talent needed to tackle the problem and only one person was taking notes. One poor sucker was dialed in via conference call. Only two people walked away with an assignment.

What was that assignment you ask? They had to put together a subsequent meeting to follow up.

All that time invested, and nothing to show for it.

Avoiding all of this is easy.  All you have to do is send a link to this article next time you get asked to sit in a room where you know your very atoms will become speghettified by the sheer weight of despair.

Enjoy thy sanity.

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In case you don’t read Hacker News, there’s been a rather public feud going on over John Broder’s New York Times review of Tesla Motor’s Model S.  The tweetpocalypse has branched into several notable streams of consciousness, and as someone who both thrives on pissing contests and technopolitan discourse, this is a topic that I can’t resist weighing in on.

The case itself has been discussed ad nauseum, so I’m not going to go into it here. I’m not here to declare a winner.  What I will do is point out the stark differences in the clash of civilizations.

David Vinjamuri wrote a piece over at Forbes titled “Why Your (Billionare) CEO Should Not Run PR” which is a pretty good read, despite how I think its patently bad business advice.

I don’t deny the power of Edward Bernays, but I do have a problem with trying to prescribe a reactionary marketing whitewash over the very 21st century practice of being data driven.

Why should Musk retreat into damage control and sacrifice the megaphone that’s generated by the stupefying volume of publicity that a controversy generates?  Especially when he can showcase product features and Tesla’s embrace of the scientific method?

This is how you market and defend a business in the age of social media.

Evidence. Not spin. Zero bullshit.

Its quite possible that Broder had an anomalous experience.  Its hard to tell with a sample size of one.

Its possible that he had biases and expectations for what the vehicle could and could not do. Broder may be an environmental journalist, but car guys (especially car journalists) are a nutritiously stalwart lot.

You do know that they still lustfully reminisce and collect vehicles made at the dawn of the century, right?

And its only fair to point out that Musk also has biases.  Yet at least he took the effort to build features into his product that could cut through biases and get through to some level of objective truth.  At least he’s encouraged other reporters to repeat the experiment to see if they get a similar result.

The reasonable man assumes that you won’t get a straight story from either of them, but you can repeat a problem.  If that repeatable problem doesn’t live up to the promise you’ve made to people then fair enough – thats the time to apologize and go back to engineering.

The moral here is to not be reactionary.

If Mr. Vinjamuri thinks that Tesla’s ability to drill into the specific data of his trip is spooky, heaven forbid that he use Facebook anything else of the internet.

This is what Tesla does.  Its not a Detroit ethos.  Its Silicon Valley ethos.  One model of thinking believes growth is a race to the bottom of industrial age business practice.  The other seeks growth by adding value with technological evolution.

But all of this misses the point.

As David Roberts points out, we don’t live in the 20th century anymore. Many of the behaviors we take for granted are probably going to need to change.

Welcome to the age of transition, car guys.

I know that classic cars still hold powerful ties of status and identity.  Yours is a very nostalgic culture that values performance and I get that.

Your performance issues shouldn’t be ignored.  But herein lies the point – did you see all of that that data you can extract?

Lets be honest, this isn’t a question of performance.  Its a question of convenience.  And the answers to the convenience questions have everything to do with our macroeconomic infrastructure.

This is a problem larger than your commute.  So bear with me.

An overwhelming majority of peer reviewed scientific consensus tells us that the age of cheap oil is over.  If you don’t want to deal with spreadsheets and peer reviewed journals, that’s your issue.  Just don’t claim that your ignorance is better than knowledge.

Just look at the migration of the fossil fuel industry.  It continues to extract fossil fuels in more remote and dangerous places, and its expanding its harvesting practices to include net loss extraction techniques.

All you have to do is cross reference annual reports, examine what the scientists are saying, and look at a map.  Or at the very least Google some pictures of tar sands mines.

These economic realities have been proven time and time again, but somehow remain debatable – largely in part to the public relations playbook. When an industry has trillions invested in a single resource that underpins the entire viability of their business model, what do you expect?

Musk is taking on an incredible level of risk with this venture.  Tesla still has a long way to go before it will get market share beyond early adopters and those who can afford the luxury of the most technologically advanced evolution of the American automobile to date.

But where there is risk, there is profit.  And if you hit on that magic formula that addresses macroeconomic problems as well as the problems of the individual consumer, you’ve hit a goldmine.  Its a business model built on abundance instead of scarcity.

Its too bad that the average consumer can’t see the impending paradigm shift. Or journalists for that matter.

The good news is that Tesla’s stock is temporarily on sale.

ProposedTeslaSuperchargerLocations

*Withstanding Robert’s observations, it strikes me as obvious how this entire argument is not about the Model S.  Rather, its about how our driving culture needs to adapt to the evolution of the fueling station.  Tesla isn’t just about a car, its an entire closed-loop system. Its not ubiquitous now, but if it can scale-  its a force that has potential to disrupt both Ford and BP simultaneously.

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Winter 2013 Playlist: Juche Valentines

by Jason Patočka on February 5, 2013

Dysfunctional Valentines

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