Top Reads: February 2023
This month's issue includes population growth trends, underground bike parking garages, and AI songwriting.
[Did a friend forward this your way? Every month, I curate the best articles in tech and social impact – with a few takes here and there. If you're into it, please subscribe!]
Hi, all. I just returned from a trip to Chile, a beautiful country that left me in awe. I was fortunate to visit Torres del Paine, Santiago and Valparaíso – all were stunning.
As always, it's good to be home. Let's get to it!
1. Population Decline Isn’t a Problem (and ‘More Babies’ Isn’t a Solution)
NYT | 5 minutes
The slowing population growth in many countries may present challenges, but is natural. Humanity needs to consider the idea of carrying capacity here on spaceship Earth.
“Fewer people on the planet, of course, may reduce humanity’s ecological footprint and competition for finite resources. There could even be greater peace as governments are forced to choose between spending on military equipment or on elderly pensions. And as rich nations come to rely more on immigrants from poorer countries, those migrants gain greater access to the global prosperity currently concentrated in the developed world.”
2. The Sober Potential and Rising in Southeast Asia
Christopher’s Newsletter | 8 minutes
Southeast Asia is having a moment. China remains the major economic power in the region, but countries like Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia are exciting places to watch.
“A key distinction my meetings underscored is the movement not merely of capital, but the quiet encouragement of broader global ecosystem builders – talent, banking, money managers, lawyers, accounting firms and more. Major global tech and cloud computing companies – including those from China – have built significant data serving operations here to meet global market demand for safe harbor of data security and protections. The competitive advantage is not bristling or boasting, but steadily proving that this is the most reliable and open place to do business.”
3. Amsterdam’s underwater parking garage fits 7,000 bicycles and zero cars
The Verge | 7 minutes
Amsterdam leads the way in the war on the personal vehicle. I recall the bike lanes everywhere on a visit 10 years ago and would love to return.
“A timelapse released by the city of Amsterdam shows this marvel of engineering being built. Workers had to first drain the water in front of the 19th-century station before laying the garage floor and installing giant columns, shipped in by barge, to support the roof that would eventually be submerged.”
4. Lab-Grown Meat Has a Bigger Problem Than the Lab
Bloomberg | 9 minutes
There’s a fierce policy battle happening around alternatives. Despite these headwinds, I believe lab grown meat will be as prevalent as oat milk in the next 5-10 years.
“Refusing to engage with the issue could ultimately cost cultured meat companies, and maybe the rest of us, too. The companies still have a long way to go before their pilot projects lead to affordable mass production, but if they can overcome those barriers in the next decade or two, they stand to reinvent the trillion-dollar meat business and humanity’s relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom. If they’re wrongly dismissed as Frankencancer, or simply rejected because they weird people out, then overprocessed veggie burgers will remain our best alternative for a long, long time.”
5. MDMA and Psilocybin Are Approved as Medicines for the First Time
WIRED | 6 minutes
The first country to approve these drugs for medicinal use, Australia will now be on the frontier of nationally legalized psychedelics. Until The Last Of Us becomes reality, that is... (I'm behind, no spoilers!)
“Some worry that Australia may be putting the cart before the horse in terms of the safety and long-term effects of these treatments. “We haven’t even looked at any longer term data yet,” says Ruffell. “The longest data that we have is 12 months. We don’t really know what happens later down the line.” But on the other hand, “the benefit, particularly for the treatment-resistant conditions that they’re talking about — PTSD and depression — could be really huge,” says Perkins.”
6. At This School, Computer Science Class Now Includes Critiquing Chatbots
NYT | 6 minutes
These chatbots are becoming ubiquitous. Kudos to this teacher for helping her students consider the shortfalls and risks of AI driven systems to equip them for a wild future.
“Across the United States, universities and school districts are scrambling to get a handle on new chatbots that can generate humanlike texts and images. But while many are rushing to ban ChatGPT to try to prevent its use as a cheating aid, teachers like Ms. Shuman are leveraging the innovations to spur more critical classroom thinking. They are encouraging their students to question the hype around rapidly evolving artificial intelligence tools and consider the technologies’ potential side effects.”
7. I had ChatGPT write a Decemberists song
Colin Meloy’s Machine Shop | 5 minutes
Colin Melody of the Decembrists explores how ChatGPT applies to songwriting. The song is okay, but lacks the quiet melancholy that makes the band unique. Meanwhile, gaming companies are asking voice actors to sign away the rights to their voice. You can’t take the artist out of the art.. yet.
“Getting the song down, I had to fight every impulse to better the song, to make it resolve where it doesn’t otherwise, to massage out the weirdnesses. I wanted to stay as true to its creator’s vision as possible, and at the end, there’s just something missing. I want to say that ChatGPT lacks intuition. That’s one thing an AI can’t have, intuition. It has data, it has information, but it has no intuition. One thing I learned from this exercise: so much of songwriting, of writing writing, of creating, comes down to the creator’s intuition, the subtle changes that aren’t written as a rule anywhere — you just know it to be right, to be true. That’s one thing an AI can’t glean from the internet.”
8. The Controversial King of Hardcore Climbing
GQ | 25 minutes
This month's long read covers a record-breaking mountaineer whose fame may have gotten to his head.
“Nims started out humble. The humility wore off. Like the punch line to that joke about how you know there’s a Navy SEAL in the room: He tells you of his deeds, his world records, his daring rescues. He has compared himself to Muhammad Ali, Usain Bolt, Neil Armstrong, and Robin Hood, and speaks slogan-ese with a fluency that could reanimate Ron Popeil. Achieve your new possible! Always a little higher! Giving up is not in the blood! These and other phrases are printed on everything from coffee cups to the mission patches Nims velcros to the one-piece down summit suits worn by his mountaineer clients.”
9. Restoring an ancient lake from the rubble of an unfinished airport in Mexico City
MIT Technology Review | 18 minutes
This ambitious and challenging project in Mexico City will have a big impact on local climate resilience.
“Echeverria’s vision for the park is part of a wave of projects that have upended the traditional goal of ecosystem restoration: returning ecosystems to the state they were in before humans damaged them. Instead of seeking to roll back the clock, Echeverria is creating an artificial wetland that aims to transform the future of the entire Valley region, drawing lessons from both Tenochtitlan and modern Mexico City on how thriving cities can coexist with flourishing ecosystems.”
10. Squid-inspired smart windows could slash building energy use
Anthropocene Magazine | 3 minutes
A fascinating example of biomimicry in the physical world. The economics will likely need a boost, but that’s where policies like the IRA come in!
“Krill and squid mechanically move pigments in their skin to actively change their skin’s appearance. The device emulates that by moving various liquids—dye solutions, glycerol, and carbon powder suspensions—through channels carved into thin plastic sheets.”
11. Saw a UFO? You Can Report It on This App
Vice | 4 minutes
There's an app for that! I doubt this is a high growth business, but it's an interesting, thoughtful application for people who want to speculate about alien life. I finally saw Nope and this article was timely for me.
"The idea is that a person who sees something strange in the sky will be able to use the Enigma Labs app to report it in a standardized way. When a user opens the app, they’re urged to fill out a series of prompts describing what they’ve seen. It starts with the basics (Where did you see this thing and how long was it in the air?) before asking the witness for video or photos of the object and allowing them to fill out a blank prompt where they can tell the whole story."
Bonus: A Visual Timeline of AI Predictions in Sci-Fi
The Visual Capitalist | 6 minutes
Science fiction has come true for some AI innovations. More may come in the future.
“Today’s infographic from Noodle.ai takes a look at how some movie and television predictions for AI’s capabilities have taken hold in the real world.”
Okay, that's plenty for this month. Let me know if there's other stuff you want to see! This newsletter is free, but does take some effort. If you're into it, please consider buying me a slice of pizza.
I'll leave you with a photo of Valparaíso, the jewel of South America. !Ciao!