The Free-Range Technologist #21
A rough semester is coming to an end. This semester was the roughest for me so far, and probably for my students. A huge amount of turnover in the college meant extra work for those of us teaching large lectures. Stress over Covid, mask policies, and inconsistent leadership also turned the amount of work and strain up to 11 for everyone. Yet, I had so many days of joy and discovery with my students! I wish I could share all the great experiences we had and the inspiring and entrepreneurial projects my students are starting. They give me great hope for the future of our small planet 🌍.
Studs Terkel Radio Archive
I remember reading Studs Terkel's book Working in high school, and listening to the re-broadcast of his interviews on the local AM station at night. He always treated people with respect, whether they were garbage men, prostitutes, or presidents. I recently discovered that WFMT has now placed an archive of his interviews online. Check it out here: https://studsterkel.wfmt.com/
Nationwide Wastewater Monitoring Network
Wastewater-based COVID-19 monitoring. At times the wastewater data tracks with the clinical cases, other times it foretells it. Looks like we might be in for a rough winter. Website: https://biobot.io/data/
📚 Book Reviews
Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century
by Tim Higgins
Power Play is an exceptionally well-researched book that starts in the early 2000s with the notion that if one strings a bunch of laptop lithium-ion batteries together, it will be a great way to create an electric car. A lot of the story revolves around founders Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning and battery genius J.B. Straubel. However, this book is mainly about Elon Musk, and the entire story is told in his shadow. Tyrant or Genius? Skillful Leader or just lucky?
The reader is generally on their own to decide, but Higgins doesn't hold back from pointing out where Musk's rash behavior caused problems with the culture and production schedule. And when Musk seemed incapable of learning from previous mistakes (often because he didn't think that he had made any mistakes, someone else was to blame), lessons from one production hell were not learned, so another production hell was always on the horizon. For example, even after producing the Model S and Model X, the Model 3 production line started without any standardized assembly method for workers or quality control along the line.
While I realize that it is stupid to short a story stock like Tesla, this book makes me think that Musk's empire might be in more danger than it appears. Meanwhile, I will definitely NOT be considering a Telsa when we get our first electric vehicle.
If you are interested in the history of companies and technology, then I highly recommend it. I listened to this as an audiobook, and it is narrated well. If you are not interested in the details of electric car tech, then I would not recommend this one.
BTW, the author, Tim Higgins, is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.
The Platform Delusion: Who Wins and Who Loses in the Age of Tech Titans
by Jonathan A. Knee
This book challenges many common ideas about big-tech monopolies (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Netflix). For example, they are undefeatable companies surrounded by "moats" that will forever keep out the competition. Or that all these companies enjoy the benefits of network effects, economies of scale, and can "growth hack" forever.
For example, network effects are non-existent or not very strong for certain giants like Netflix (The Netflix "friends" project failed long ago) or Amazon (Amazon reviews are so polluted and unregulated that they can be meaningless). And for both Netflix and Amazon, the competition is catching up quickly.
In the areas in which Big-Tech does seem to have dominance, Dr. Knee examines why and how these advantages came to be and, most importantly, what companies are finding success competing with Big Tech (Shopify over Amazon, for example). And why companies are learning that by partnering with Facebook, Google, and Amazon, they create customers for the "platforms" and not for themselves!
It will take me a long time to summarize all my notes and quotes from this book (Always a good sign). I will say that I had a little harder time with the first 50 pages as I was trying to make sure I understood the economic ideas the author was explaining. The rest of the book contains many stories about these "platform" companies and the upstarts that challenge them on the "platform's" ground.
If you are interested in Tech and Business, I highly recommend this book. You might not agree with everything in it, but it will challenge your assumptions with rigorous analysis.
Deep Fakes: The Coming Infoclaypse
By Nina Shick
Unfortunately, the subject of this book is not Deepfakes. There are one or two chapters that examine deepfakes, but most of the book is about how disinformation campaigns carried out via social media influenced the 2016 election and is driving Americans (and everyone) to become more tribal. (I think Deekfakes were a trending topic when the book was written, and the title made sense from a marketing standpoint.)
If understanding the Mueller report is what you are interested in, I recommend this book. It is well-written and researched. However, if you are interested in Deepfakes, there are much better resources online (start with this one from the California Law Review).
This book had a good discussion about how deepfaked non-consensual pornography is used to silence and intimidate women journalists. The case of Indian writer Rana Ayyub is explored in detail; you can also read about it here .
👨🏫 Featured Talks and Articles
I had the opportunity to be on some brilliant podcasts this past month, including:
Every Breath Counts: Will Artificial Intelligence (AI) Save or End the World?
The Open highway: Bitcoin? Algorithms? NFTs? WTF Are They??
A letter of mine to the editor of the Financial Times was published.
Financial Times subscribers can read here or anyone can download a pdf here.
I recently scrapped all my old Columbia Daily Tribune columns from a database archive and published them on medium (If you want to know how I backdated the posts, watch this video). Here are a couple of gems worth sharing.
This column was talked about the metaverse before the metaverse was a thing! Second Life might be the next Web.
I won an award for this one (presented by the Litentent Governor who I attacked in the column. Awkward! ) and I also got hatemail for nearly a year from Scientologists around the world. Scientology exhibit won't help the mentally ill.
This memorial for a friend and educator still motivates me to follow his example. Education of rural Missouri children is Jim Tice's legacy.
And these were my attempts at humor:
Dull-witted columnist can't understand modern naming conventions
Cartoon penguin highlighted important life lessons (I still tear up when I read this one, Opus meant a lot to me).
📆 Upcoming Talks and Articles
I will be presenting a short course for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Mizzou: The Future of Money: Central Bank Digital Currencies. Monday, January 10, and Monday, 24 from 1-2:30 pm. Registration details will be available at: https://extension.missouri.edu/programs/osher-lifelong-learning-institute
I will be presenting at the Mizzou Teaching Renewal Week (: Teaching Machine Learning and AI, Hands-on exercises for non-technical audiences. January 13th 2:00pm-2:50pm, registration details.
I will be presenting a brown-bag session for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Mizzou: Deepfakes and the future of content creation, society, and business: January 21 from 11:30 - 1:00. Registration details will be available at: https://extension.missouri.edu/programs/osher-lifelong-learning-institute
I will be presenting a lecture at the College of Business International Week: Balkanization and Borders in Cyberspace on Monday, February 21st at 1 pm in Room 205. Let me know if you are interested in attending and I will get you the details (and perhaps even free parking!)
I will be hosting a number of events via on.zoom.us . These are optional events for my online class that I open up for the public via the on.zoom.us platform. They include:
Meet the Learning Machine (Evening Event, Feb 8th)
Meet the Learning Machine (Weekend, Morning Event, Feb 12th)
Blockchain And Bitcoin (Weekend, Morning Event, Feb 26th)
Blockchain And Bitcoin (Evening Event, March 1st)
🔗 Links of the Week
Important and/or fascinating stories about technology and fun stuff. (Share your must-reads. Just drop me a line or tweet them to me.)
My colleague Randy S gives a great talk about the Hyatt Hotel walkway collapse and the questions that great journalists ask (he was an editor at the KC Star at the time and shared a Pulitzer Prize with the team of reporters and editors). This podcast interview with Rick Serrano talks about the event 40 years on:
Falcon 9 Endless Takeoff and Landing from SpaceX Inspiration 4 Mission
An extraordinary deep-sea sighting: The giant phantom jelly. From Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. The world is so full of life!
I am a big believer in Sauna use. This is a deep dive into more research on the benefits of getting hot from Rhonda Patrick.
As always, be sure to hit reply and tell me what you have been up to, what you are reading, and what neat stuff you have discovered lately! I always look forward to getting responses from you all, hearing about what you have been creating recently, and the resources/lifehacks you are using!! And thanks to the 900+ colleagues and friends who read my monthly emails!