The Free-Range Technologist Feb 2021

Sharing the Things I'm Learning & Using

I hope you and yours have been able to stay safe and keep upbeat as we head into 2021. I think the new year has given me more energy and optimism about the future. Since the new year, I have been on a reading blitz, and I'll update you on a couple of the best books and articles in this issue and the next.

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!

Discoveries and Lifehacks

🕹️Article: A Game Designer's Analysis Of QAnon

I continue to be baffled by the QAnon believers, which now includes some members of Congress !! But this article provides at least one good model for understanding why people can get sucked into these conspiracy theories and waste their time trying to fight non-existent "deep-state" actors. "When I saw QAnon, I knew exactly what it was and what it was doing. I had seen it before. I had almost built it before. It was gaming's evil twin. A game that plays people., "writes Reed Berkowitz.

Weblink: A Game Designer's Analysis Of QAnon

📚List: My New Favorite SubStacks

Despite being around for a while, SubStack is having a renaissance, as journalists decide to strike out on their own and find that their writing can find an audience big enough to support themselves. As Kevin Kelley famously pointed out, you only need 1000 true fans.

Here are some of the ones that I have subscribed to and would recommend that you check out:

The Platformer by Casey Newton.

Insight by Zeynep Tufekci.

The Interpreter by Amanda Katz.

Letters from an American by Heather Cox Richardson.

🕵️Tracking Detector: Blacklight

This tool comes from The Markup, a "nonprofit newsroom that investigates how powerful institutions are using technology to change our society." Blacklight lets you see what information a website is tracking about you. Many trackers are benign: they're often used to track basic information about website visitors. Others are more nefarious, tracking you across the web, from one site to another, using that data and meta-data as input into targeted advertising algorithms. It is also a great tool to educate yourself about how these trackers work!

Weblink: Blacklight

🔍 A New Search Engine:

Related to blacklight is a new search engine, Neeva. Yes, I said search engine. There is more to the world than just Google and Bing! Neeva improves on search in several ways, but its primary selling point is privacy. It does not track you as you search; they don't sell ads and block tracking pixels and cookies.

When Niva is eventually released, there will be a fee associated with it. We are not used to directly paying for search but instead pay indirectly for search engines via our search history, allow ourselves to be surveilled as we browse the internet and through all the ads we see or click.

Neeva is currently in an open-beta; you can sign up to be part of their beta test/deployment. Neeva personally on-boards everyone via zoom, so you have a chance to ask some questions about the service, and they help you configure your computer, iPad, iPhone, etc.

I've been testing for the past two weeks, and it works remarkably well.

Neeva can be linked to Dropbox, thereby including your dropbox files in search results. I love this feature since it will search in all my dropbox files, even those that are not synced to my local machine, which is excellent because the amount of data I have archived to Dropbox far exceeds my hard disk space. This feature makes Neeva a nice one-stop-shop for my searches.

For an interview with the founder of Neeva, check out this one from Recode.

Website link:

Book Reviews

🚦Green Lights by Matthew McConaughey.

Green Lights is an exciting snack of a read. This autobiographical tale is well written and funny/crazy. It will answer a lot of the questions you didn't know you had. Like: Who has a wet dream and sees it as a sign to buy a one-way ticket to Africa the next morning? Matthew Fucking McConaughey, that's who!

In the printed book, McConaughey includes scans of his journals, poems, scribbles, etc. None of these additions seemed to engage me. So I skipped them. But in the main text, he talks about his life and his philosophy on various challenges the world throws at him. And how sometimes "red lights" turn into "green lights," or perhaps they were green all along??? He's a little bit crazy, but probably we all should be a little bit crazier. I wouldn't recommend buying unless you are a true Matthew McConaughey fan. Instead, I would pick this up at your local library for a weekend. If you want a short preview, listen to McConaughey on the Tim Ferris show.

Amazon Link: Green Lights

⚡Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil.

Energy and Civilization was one of the books recommended by Bill Gates last year. After watching "Bill's Brain," which included an episode on energy and climate, I decided it was worth reading. Professor Smil has made a career out of studying energy and growth and has authored many books on these subjects.

Energy and Civilization provides a detailed description of the history of energy and human civilization back to the times when hunter-gatherer societies made stone tools. He looks at the relative advantages of different tools, comparing the energy efficiency of various designs. Smil explores the basics (moving water, harnessing fire) and the more advanced (Steam engine, internal combustion engine, solar, etc.) forms of energy. He provides a couple of chapters devoted to how the ability to harness and convert energy gave humans the ability to build civilizations and cities.

This is a fascinating book. However, I would recommend if you are particularly interested in the history of energy and the mechanics of how one type of energy is transformed into another. This book is relatively dense, and there are not many stories to move the reader forward. It took me a couple of months to read.

Amazon Link: Energy and Civilization

🛢️The New Map: Energy, Climate and the Clash of Nations by Daniel Yergin

Unlike Smil's book, in The New Map, there are many interesting stories to carry the reader forward, and I found it easy to read despite the geopolitical details (maps are included!). Yegin begins with the shale oil revolution in the US and then moves back and forth in time to describe the current energy landscape and how countries get their energy (or export it). The New Map is a fascinating book, and until I read this book, I did not understand the scope of issues around energy and climate change. The book also illuminates why certain countries align with other countries and why certain countries, such as the US, are putting sanctions on allies importing natural gas from sources such as Russia (Google "Nord Stream 2" for more info).

The first 70% of the book outlines the geopolitical maps of energy: America's map, Russia's map, China's map, and Maps of the Middle East. The last part of the book provides a roadmap to the future of energy, discussing topics such as automation, electric cars, self-driving cars, and the climate challenge ahead. If you are interested in the politics of climate change, I would highly recommend this book.

Amazon Link: The New Map

🤔Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein.

A generalist myself, I found a lot to like about this book. However, there may be some confirmation bias in thinking that everything he writes about a generalist's power is brilliant. None the less, he provides several excellent examples about why generalists often see connections that specialists miss.

And don't think that it is one way or the other, you are not always a generalist or confined to being a specialist. You may be a generalist in certain areas and a specialist and others. Or even better, you may be a generalist who has a few areas of specialty and/or has friends who are specialists in lots of different areas. There are also several intriguing ideas presented about decision making, finding the right match for your life/career, and debunking some of the notions about the value of "grit." I would highly recommend this book.

Amazon Link: Range

Exploring-->Learning-->Building--> Sharing

In 2020, I was on over 30 podcasts or radio/youtube shows speaking about Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, how AI is weaponized on social media platforms, and Higher Education's future. If you are interested in talking more about your areas of interest on various podcasts, here is my advice: What I have learned from being on 30 podcasts this year.

So far in 2021, I have been on several shows, including my regularly occurring role on the Paul Pepper show, where I continually blow Paul's mind about AI's latest developments. In January, we discussed AI-generated Art !

I also started what will be a reoccurring appearance on the Customer Discovercast show/podcast discussing "The State Of Artificial Intelligence."

If you are interested in more, check out my newly re-designed web site (Thanks to Lorah L!).

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 800+ colleagues and friends who read my monthly (not quite! ) emails!

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Take care,

Scott ()