Top Reads: May 2023

This month's issue features octopus brains, wind-powered shipping, Chat-GPT summaries, and sage wisdom from 90-year-olds.

Top Reads: May 2023
My favorite bike trail, Maryland, USA

[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! A quick life update: the tech layoffs came my way, and I've got a bit more time on my hands. I'm looking for full time, contract or consulting opportunities where I can build world-positive products that people love. If you want to catch up, let's chat.

With this extra time (and some hesitation), I've decided to enlist Chat-GPT to summarize this month's articles. I placed these summaries after the pulled quote in bold. My goal is to provide readers with more context and help me extract deeper insights. Let's do this!

1. Americans Have Become Less Willing to Explore Their Own Cities

Bloomberg CityLab | 5 minutes

David Ryder / Bloomberg

City dwellers need to reverse this trend and explore beyond their local area. For tips, check out this relevant article on How to wander.

“The recovery of mobility to pre-pandemic levels alleviated some of the loss, but the behavioral change persisted to the end of 2021. Fewer people are visiting attractions like museums, restaurants or parks that are outside their immediate mobility radius, and they’re spending less time among residents at different socioeconomic levels.” 

[Chat-GPT] The COVID-19 pandemic caused significant disruptions in people's mobility and exploration patterns within US cities, according to a study by MIT researchers. Analyzing mobile phone data from four cities, the study found that during the pandemic, the diversity of urban encounters declined as travel restrictions and health measures limited movement. While mobility levels recovered as restrictions eased, people remained less likely to explore new places with different socioeconomic characteristics. Instead, they reverted to familiar destinations. The persistent change in travel habits raises concerns about prolonged loss in income-diverse encounters, potentially exacerbating political polarization and diminishing social capital. City leaders are urged to consider the long-term effects and seek solutions such as improving transportation access to promote diversity and social cohesion.

2. The Internet Isn’t Meant To Be So Small

Defector | 9 minutes

Fernando Gutierrez-Juarez/picture alliance via Getty Images

Interesting take on the ongoing march of social networks as they become more centralized, siloed, and optimized. I encourage you to explore beyond your feed by following independent blogs, digital gardens and niche communities that match your interests.

“It is worth remembering that the internet wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't supposed to be six boring men with too much money creating spaces that no one likes but everyone is forced to use because those men have driven every other form of online existence into the ground. The internet was supposed to have pockets, to have enchanting forests you could stumble into and dark ravines you knew better than to enter. The internet was supposed to be a place of opportunity, not just for profit but for surprise and connection and delight.”

[Chat-GPT] The article discusses the launch of two new social media platforms, Lemon8 and Bluesky, which aim to replicate the experiences of popular apps like Instagram and Twitter, respectively. However, the author criticizes the trend of creating replicas of existing platforms instead of promoting genuine innovation. They argue that these imitations contribute to the shrinking of the internet and hinder the exploration and curiosity that once characterized online spaces. The article also highlights the death of Google Reader as a pivotal moment in this engineered shrinking, leading to a shift in article discovery and reliance on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The author expresses nostalgia for the early days of the internet when there was a vast array of websites and blogs to discover. They question the motivations of social media giants, emphasizing the pursuit of profit and control rather than fostering enjoyable and fulfilling online experiences. The launch of Bluesky is seen as a response to Twitter's decline in fun and user satisfaction, with early users appreciating the platform's more proactive moderation against hate speech and impersonation. However, the author remains skeptical about the long-term viability of these new platforms, given the profit-driven nature of Silicon Valley and the tendency for social media to prioritize growth over user experience.

3. What the President of Signal Wishes You Knew About A.I. Panic

Slate | 4 minutes

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by iLexx/Getty Images Plus and Chuew/Getty Images Plus.

This carefully selected piece explores the current narratives on AI risks. The headlines on existential risk overlook the reality that AI already threatens women and marginalized communities with job displacement, surveillance inequities and social immobility. We need to address these near term challenges as we plan for the long term risks.

"And remember that A.I. is not magic. It is based on concentrated computational power, concentrated data resources that are generated via surveillance, and the concentrated power of these companies. Again, we know where they live, we know where their data centers are, and it is eminently possible to put these technologies in check if there’s a will. So it’s not out of control, it is not out of our hands. And you don’t have to be a computer scientist to be able to have an informed opinion about how these are used, who gets to use them, and to what end."

[Chat-GPT] In this transcript, speakers discuss the concerns and risks associated with artificial intelligence (AI). While some AI pioneers and experts express fears about AI posing a threat to humanity, others like Meredith Whitaker, President of Signal and co-founder of the AI Now Institute, focus on the current risks related to AI. They emphasize that the concentration of power in the hands of a few corporations, driven by profit and growth, is a more immediate concern than speculative scenarios of hyper-intelligent AI. They also highlight issues such as data bias, lack of transparency, and accountability in AI systems. The discussion suggests that instead of fixating on hypothetical future threats, attention should be directed towards the present-day implications of AI and the need for regulation and responsible use.

4. Life Lessons from 1,000 Years

Sahil Bloom | 10 minutes

Image from Sahil Bloom post

What would a group of 90 year olds say to their younger selves? This podcast shares their wisdom.

“The responses were...incredible. They range from fun, playful, and witty to deeply moving. I'd encourage you to read through them with your loved ones and reflect on those that hit you the hardest.”

[Chat-GPT] The author shares their annual birthday exercise, where they seek wisdom from 90-year-olds by asking what advice they would give to their 32-year-old self. The responses received were diverse and impactful. Some of the advice includes enjoying the present, embracing love, taking care of one's body, prioritizing friendships, embracing change, and finding joy in simple things. The author encourages readers to engage in similar conversations with older relatives and reflect on the advice provided. The overarching message is to cherish life, prioritize love, and live with gratitude.

5. Inside the Secretive Life-Extension Clinic

WIRED | 11 minutes

Pasieka / Getty Images

Dubious science and obscure websites can’t hide the truth: some people will always be willing to try things that may extend their lifespans. But for now, these practices are loosely regulated and risky.

“If you can convince people that aging is a disease, it’s no surprise that some will clamor for a cure—and pay whatever they can for it. This, if anything, ought to underline exactly why medicine carried out under stringent regulations really is the best choice. “We need to protect patient populations,” says Brenner.”

[Chat-GPT] This article discusses the controversial work of BioViva, a US biotech company that claims to have developed gene therapies to reverse aging and treat age-related conditions such as Alzheimer's disease. The company's founder and CEO, Liz Parrish, has been promoting these therapies and advocating for their availability to the public. BioViva conducted a trial in which elderly patients were injected with "anti-aging" genes, with the goal of rejuvenating brain cells and reversing the effects of aging. When the trial results were published, BioViva claimed success in reversing aging, sparking both hope and skepticism within the scientific community. The article raises concerns about the lack of scientific evidence supporting BioViva's claims, the risks associated with unproven gene therapies, and the ethical implications of offering unlicensed treatments to terminally ill patients. The relationship between BioViva and its partner clinics, particularly Integrated Health Systems (IHS), is also questioned, as there is a lack of transparency and information about their operations. The article emphasizes the need for rigorous scientific research and regulatory oversight to ensure the safety and effectiveness of gene therapies and longevity treatments.

6. Quantum physics proposes a new way to study biology – and the results could revolutionize our understanding of how life works

The Conversation | 8 minutes

theasis / E+ via Getty Images

Our basic understanding of biology and chemistry is far from complete. At a quantum level, electron “spin” determines how the particle interacts with a magnetic field. Research on how to influence spin could pave the future of computing, wearables, and biotech. But for now, we know nothing (John Snow).

“In the future, fine-tuning nature’s quantum properties could enable researchers to develop therapeutic devices that are noninvasive, remotely controlled and accessible with a mobile phone. Electromagnetic treatments could potentially be used to prevent and treat disease, such as brain tumors, as well as in biomanufacturing, such as increasing lab-grown meat production.”

[Chat-GPT] The article discusses the field of quantum biology and its potential to control physiological processes using the quantum properties of biological matter. Quantum effects, which occur at the atomic and molecular level, have been shown to influence biological functions such as enzyme activity, magnetic field sensing, and electron transport in biomolecules. While quantum effects typically disappear in complex biological systems, recent research indicates their presence and impact. Studying quantum biology requires tools to measure short time scales and subtle quantum states. The author's work focuses on manipulating the quantum properties of electrons through tailored magnetic fields, which has shown effects on various physiological processes. The article suggests that understanding the interaction between quantum causes and physiological outcomes could lead to noninvasive therapeutic devices controlled by mobile phones. The interdisciplinary nature of quantum biology requires collaborative efforts and could provide new insights into life processes and the development of quantum technologies.

Check out my favorite newsletter discovery tool, The Sample.

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7. The Climate Crisis Gives Sailing Ships a Second Wind

The Atlantic | 19 minutes

Illustration by Owen D. Pomery

The global shipping industry will be hard to decarbonize in the years ahead. Nearly half of shipping involves transporting coal and oil to burn elsewhere. Speaking of outdated ships, check out these 3D scans of the Titanic.

"What if shipping’s history could inspire its future? For centuries, the cargo industry ran on clean wind power—and it could again. As the climate crisis has escalated, and the pandemic has exposed weaknesses in global supply chains, the movement to decarbonize shipping has spread. What was once the dream of a few enterprising idealists has become a business opportunity that startups and sprawling multinationals alike are chasing."

[Chat-GPT] The movement to decarbonize the shipping industry has gained momentum as the climate crisis worsens and the COVID-19 pandemic exposes vulnerabilities in global supply chains. Startups and multinationals alike are exploring ways to make shipping more environmentally friendly, including reviving wind power as a means of propulsion. One company, Timbercoast, has restored a 90-year-old sailing schooner called the Avontuur and uses it to transport cargo, such as coffee and olive oil, with a minimal carbon footprint. Other companies, such as Cargill, are experimenting with wing sails that can reduce fuel consumption by up to 30%. While wind propulsion alone won't bring shipping to zero emissions, it could significantly reduce pollution and reshape the economics of the industry.

8. Ecuador Strikes a Landmark Deal to Save Nature, and Some Cash

NYT | 5 minutes

John Haner / The New York Times

The global finance world is experimenting with new vehicles to fund conservation and climate resilience. This path could be an interesting option for certain countries with unique and biodiverse regions.

“Debt-for-nature swaps been around since the 1980s, but they appear to have new momentum. Recently, such deals have created marine protected areas or funded other conservation measures in waters off Belize, Barbados and Seychelles." 

[Chat-GPT] Ecuador has made a historic debt-for-nature deal to reduce its debt burden and fund marine conservation around the Galápagos Islands. The deal involved converting $1.6 billion worth of bonds, purchased by Credit Suisse at a significant discount, into a $656 million Galápagos Marine Bond. This arrangement is the largest debt-for-nature swap in history and will enable Ecuador to save over $1 billion in future interest and principal payments. The funds will be used to finance marine conservation efforts in the Galápagos region, protecting the unique biodiversity of the islands. Debt-for-nature swaps are gaining momentum globally as a way to address the biodiversity crisis and provide financial resources for conservation in debt-ridden countries. However, critics argue that such deals represent only a fraction of the countries' debt and that the burden of ecological crises still falls disproportionately on poorer nations.

9. We’re one step closer to reading an octopus’s mind

Ars Technica | 7 minutes

A. Martin UW Photography

The octopus has nine brains, and an intelligence that evolved independent of mammals. This research is fascinating, and hopefully gets us closer to treating these animals as peers.

“Perhaps even more surprising was that several brain wave signatures mimicked those in humans and other mammals. “We now had an opportunity to observe memory formation in the octopus and compare it to mammals, to identify common motifs or distinct idiosyncrasies in brains that have developed completely independently,” explained Dr. Tamar Gutnick, the paper’s first author and a visiting scientist at the University of Naples. This project “gave us the chance to study brains with complex behaviors and cognition that are evolutionarily separated from vertebrates by at least 500 million years,” Kuba added. “This gives us a chance to see general principles on how brains need to work [to be considered intelligent].”"

[Chat-GPT] A recent study by researchers at the University of Naples Federico II and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology has successfully tracked and analyzed the brain waves of three captive octopuses, providing valuable insights into the complex behavior and intelligence of these cephalopods. The study revealed unique brain wave patterns in octopuses that had not been observed before, as well as some brain wave signatures that were similar to those seen in human brains. By studying the brains of octopuses, researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the evolution of intelligence and the cognitive abilities of these fascinating creatures. The findings from this study could also have implications for conservation efforts and improve our treatment of octopuses in the wild.

10. Author Jason Reynolds on book bans, racism and Spiderman

NPR | 7 minutes

Zeke Peña

Great interview on the latest themes in the Spider-verse. I'd recommend the audio version to get full context directly from the author.

"But when it came time to write this book, the only thing that I could think about was what's happening when it comes to censorship and banning and challenging of the books that so many of us write for young people. Specifically, for a lot of us, it doesn't always feel like you're banning the book itself. Sometimes it feels like you're banning the people that those books are about, that you're saying that those lives are lives that should only exist in the shadows."

[Chat-GPT] In an interview with Jason Reynolds, the author discusses his new book, "Miles Morales Suspended: A Spider-Man Novel." The book explores the experiences of Miles Morales, a teenage Spider-Man who faces suspension from school after disagreeing with his history teacher. Reynolds emphasizes that the book is designed to appeal to a wide audience, with limited words per page and illustrations for comic book fans, as well as prose for those who prefer longer-form reading. The interview delves into the themes of the book, including the challenges faced by young people today, the response to attempts to censor history in the classroom, and the fear of discovery and backlash when new ideas emerge. Reynolds highlights that the real villain in the story is darkness, a lack of information, and the insecurities and blockades of adults that can hinder the growth and understanding of young people.

11. Future space food could be made from astronaut breath

MIT Technology Review | 5 minutes

Interstellar Lab

Innovations in food for space missions may create opportunities to feed a growing population here on the surface. Meanwhile, the debate over space as a global commons rages on.

“To solve the problem of feeding astronauts on long-duration missions, NASA started the Deep Space Food Challenge in January 2021, asking companies to propose novel ways to develop sustainable foods for future missions. About 200 companies entered—a field that was whittled down to 11 teams in January 2023 as part of phase 2, with eight US teams each given $20,000 in funding and three additional international teams also recognized. On May 19, NASA announced the teams that will progress into the final phase of the contest, with a handful of winners to be announced in April 2024 following more detailed tests of their proposals.”

[Chat-GPT] NASA's Deep Space Food Challenge aims to develop sustainable and nutritious food options for long-duration space missions. With the goal of feeding a crew of four for three years, the competition has selected 11 teams to progress to the final phase, including US-based finalists Air Company and Interstellar Lab. Air Company has designed a system that uses carbon dioxide expelled by astronauts to produce alcohol, which is then used to grow edible food like a protein shake. Interstellar Lab has developed a modular system called NUCLEUS, which allows astronauts to cultivate vegetables and insects for food in space. Another finalist, Mycorena from Sweden, produces mycoprotein from fermented fungus as a sustainable protein source for 3D-printed foods. The competition highlights the need for innovative and sustainable food solutions as missions to the moon and Mars become a reality.

Bonus: Contract TK - a comedy show created by the writers on strike

Think about how much time you spend watching TV. Then think about how the people who write that content are overworked and underpaid. Then watch and share this informative, funny video by the writers on strike.

Thanks for reading! Please hit reply with thoughts on the AI-powered summaries. And for sci-fi film nerds out there, enjoy this clip of the original recording of the Wilhelm scream (think: stormtrooper gets hit with a blaster).

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Til next month,


Street art, East London, UK