Mutation 1

1. [AM] The valet parking Olympics

[AM] “At first glance, an Olympics organized entirely around valet parking seems absurd: a luxury service treated as a Decathlon. Yet the Valet Olympics draw attention to a line of work—or, as some would say, an emerging motorsport—that few ever pause to consider. Successful valets boast automotive skills unappreciated outside the parking lot. And valet parking is a hidden vein of economic opportunity that provides full-time work, first jobs, and summer employment to thousands. For immigrants from Nigeria, India, or Ecuador, or displaced by war in Iraq, the industry can supply a much-needed foothold in the United States, even launching a lifelong career. What’s more, as cities grow in size and complexity, America’s urban centers are becoming harder to navigate—with byzantine parking laws, dense downtowns that require real-life Tetris skills to park, and massive lots located blocks from the venues they serve. All of this makes valets, as they invisibly rearrange streets, the set designers of every busy cityscape. Giving them an arena to demonstrate their talents is, in this sense, a no-brainer.”

[RA]  The valet parking olympics reminded me of Rem Koolhaas’ work in Nigeria. Koolhaas thought that Lagos presented a model for the future where locals constantly looked for innovative ways to navigate urban blight, state restrictions and the need to hustle a dollar. The morphing of skills, literally any skill, into something sellable is key here.

[RA] “RK: For example, there was this railroad [he draws]. Initially the trains drove with some frequency, but the frequency diminished to the point where there were only two trains a day. However, the line had created a lot of communities, and therefore density – so every time the train was not driving, this whole area became a marketplace. At some point the train would drive, but at such a pace that you could sell things to the passengers as it went along – so the slowness was very functional in terms of creating opportunity of interaction and trade.”

[AM] The speed records of the world's fastest trains: “The SCMaglev train in Japan has a top speed of 603 km/h (375 mph). SNCF's high-speed TGV train in France has a top speed of 575 km/h (357 mph). The Shanghai MagLev train in China has a top speed of 501 km/h (311 mph).”

[RA] The Microsoft Office competition. Basically kids from all over the world battle each other to see who’s best at using Excel or word. This might be the most neoliberal kids competition ever invented.

[AM] Every 2-3 years, the Internet rediscovers the Japanese senior citizen who creates beautiful (like, actually) drawings with Microsoft Excel. Each time, I am amazed. From a new interview at his home: “I started painting with Excel in 2000. I set a goal. In 10 years, I wanted to paint something decent that I could show to people. There are many people who make fun of me. ‘Why are you making effort on something that is not useful, are you a fool?’ Yes, I am a fool.”

[RLP] Valet parking Olympics reminds me of a couple “Uber but for X” startups that offer valet parking. Luxe (who I believe has shut down but still has a website) is one. Another is DropCar. DropCar offers not only valet/parking service but auto repairs and maintenance, too. I think there are a couple of other similar apps out there, too, specific to individual cities. I wonder what valets in the “Olympics” article think of these apps, and if they’re worried about their jobs being taken by app-based workers?

[AM] Seems like probably not, but just wait for the robots? “[T]he demise last week of valet parking company Luxe, which followed the collapse of three of its competitors, shows the brutal economics of on-demand services and raises questions about the viability of the concept. Luxe raised $75 million and reached a valuation of about $160 million as investors competed to back on-demand startups in everything from restaurant take-out to health care and home repair… Dispatching a valet at a moment’s notice to park a car in the middle of a city is expensive and labor intensive, the executives said, with growth only leading to bigger losses.”

[CRDF] The Valet Olympics feels like foreshadowing of the inevitable rise of driving as sport. As cars become automated we'll invent new recreational reasons to keep driving; Dressage for Maserati.

2. [AM] To make a soybean work more like an olive takes a lot of work

[AM] “Soybean oil is high in linoleic acid, which means it goes rancid fast. So manufacturers have long been partially hydrogenating their oil to extend shelf life and improve frying capability. Now that legislation has banned the trans fats caused by partially hydrogenated oil, soybean processors are looking for alternatives. This new gene-editing technique means that it will be shelf-stable without having to be hydrogenated… These variations increase shelf life up to five times longer, and increase fry-life threefold, with no need for hydrogenation.”

[RM] The fact that we’re genetically modifying soybeans to comply with the new trans-fat rule—which has kind of flown under the wire? How many folks here already knew that, thanks to an Obama-era policy, trans fats were banned in the United States on January 1, 2018?—reminded me of this great pair of stories from Baltimore. Berger’s Cookies are a locally manufactured Balt-Wash delicacy—they are thin crescents of vanilla dough with a hulking dollop of perfect fudge icing—and they were, alas, loaded with transfats. The owner desperately tried to construct a new, trans-fat-free recipe for the cookies in the fall, before discovering that his suppliers had quietly removed transfats from the offending icing and margarine over the summer.

[AM] “Baltimore’s Berger Cookie lovers have erupted at the thought of altering their beloved treat to remove trans fat, taking to social media to lament the change they assumed was forthcoming and talking of stockpiling cookies before the recipe changes. But it’s already too late.”

[RM] This story made me think about how much the food system has changed in the past decade—remember Super Size-Me?. But it also made me think about how people perceive the costs of the government: The networks of small businesses that make regional but industrialized foods may perceive federal regulation to be more onerous than it is, simply because they’re not as organized as large companies.

[TW] Rancidification of soy bean oil makes me think about the processes of oxidation in the human body - when our body can’t deal with the free radicals, it can lead to oxidative stress which then leads to oxidative damage. I am really obsessed with understanding how to holistically counteract free radicals, and I’ve been reading a lot about Sulforaphane, it’s a magical compound that is gazillion times more potent than resveratrol and curcumin combined and it’s generates a powerful anti-oxidant channel that leads to cellular homeostasis. It also does a million other things like power cholesterol, heart disease, improves diabetes, boosts immune system, protects the skin from the sun and more. 

[AM] Huh. There’s so much to learn about living processes. A 2012 paper in Experimental and Toxicologic Pathology concludes: “The study on sulforaphane has been increasing due to accumulating evidences about its beneficial effects on health. Today, sulforaphane shows diverse therapeutic actions making it a strong candidate for human therapeutic application.” 

[TW] So based off of my research, I’ve concluded that the most effective way to get Sulforaphane is through raw broccoli (it's def not good or affordable in supplement form). So all my smoothies (made with my Vitamix woohoo) are now filled with organic raw broccoli. The knife blades of a blender blending the broccoli is critical because it’s the CUTTING of the broccoli that induces the production of Sulforaphane (thus frozen or cooked broccoli is useless). 

3. [AM] I remain unconvinced about the magical powers of VR, but if anyone can create something transcendent with it, I would bet on Iñarritu.

[AM] “‘Nothing actually exists. It’s an invention of your wired brain and it’s a kind of phenomenon between your consciousness, your memories, and your own understanding of yourself and how you project yourself in others. The ability that you have, or don’t have, to do that,’ he said. Carne y Arena, which became the first VR film to receive an honorary Oscar back in November, is meant to be an individual undertaking. Iñárritu’s long-time collaborator, three-time Academy Award winner, cinematographer Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki was part of the equation behind the camera once again.”

[RLP] This reminds me of a 2013 interview with Lubezki, talking about lighting in the movie “Gravity”. The article’s a bit dated now but at the time, virtual lighting was a relatively new concept and he talks about how he used it in that movie:

[AM] “Some parts of the movie are photography and some parts are not. But the fact remains that there is a need for a cinematographer. You can call it ‘algorithmography’ or whatever you want, but there is still a person overseeing the images. It doesn’t happen by itself. We did a lot of research as we were doing the movie. There are amazing methods for doing what I would call ‘post lighting,’ where you shoot a face with multiple cameras at really high speeds, and as you are shooting the actor, you are lighting the face with thousands of different lights and hundreds of different options for lighting.”

[CRDF] This interview reminds me of this outline of the ethics of VR journalism by Zahra Rasool of Al Jazeera, and why having people of color behind the camera might be the only way that VR will become the empathy machine everyone is so excited about. 

[AM] Rasool says the 360 VR view is a prod to consider the scope and ethics of a project. “The 360 view sees everything in its scope, which means that when the camera is set up in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, it has the capacity to capture many more people who haven’t given consent. How do we work around this? When we shot ‘I Am Rohingya,’ whenever people came up to ask what we were doing, we answered honestly. We explained that while the camera was focused on our subject, Jamalida, some of them would be in the shot. Those moments were also key for making sure we understood that through this film, we were representing an entire community; the need for high-quality, honest reporting was even greater as we were telling a story not only about our subject, but about an entire community.”

[SH] Agree that Iñárritu is one to watch in the VR realm! It's interesting that folks always report an experience of "walking in the shoes" of another: there's an assumption that simulation is a reliable way into another's experience, and that simulation leads to desired ends. VR has been celebrated for its potential to simulate things like depression or migraines, for example. I tend to think of VR as a more immersive form of "wheelchair for a day" events and other simulation exercises that are commonly used for disability "awareness" purposes, even though there's little evidence that they create the kinds of dimensional experiences that they intend, at least in their most common forms. 

[SH] “By disabling participants and simulating problematic experiences, given their new limitations, participants learn how difficult it is to maneuver a wheelchair, how frustrating it is to be unable to hear or read, how frightening it is to be visually impaired, or how impossible it is to participate in activities without the use of their hands. They focus on what people with disabilities cannot do rather than on what they could do with appropriate access, technology, or skills. Critics of these types of simulations do not deny there are some difficulties associated with living with disabilities. However, they object to simulations that represent only a negative experience rather than a whole, contextual one.”

[SH] All of this has me thinking about one of the historical operations of many art forms—that of estrangement. That is: you see a film or a performance or some artifact and you get defamiliarized from your expectations as a way to exit ordinary life and its constraints, to reconnect with something essential. Svetlana Boym has this idea that there's a difference between estrangement "from the world," versus estrangement "for the world." The former is that pure shock-and-decentering that happens when you take in some jarring narrative or enigmatic object—like, What just happened? Now I'm awake! And the latter is more like, What just happened? Oh look, here I am again on this mysterious planet, my fate tied up with every other living thing. Now I'm awake and returning with equipment to do better. At least I think that's what she means. Here's hoping VR can get there?

[AM] Boym: “Imagination might not be the panacea for building up the public realm, which also relies on collective solidarities, political rights, and flexible institutions. However, flights of imagination are not as unsafe as they are often made out to be; in fact, they are necessary in order to imagine the world anew, to make life worth living. Arendt never ceased to repeat that, after the Second World War and the unimaginable scale of inhuman destruction in the twentieth century, we lost the yardsticks with which to measure out common world. The answer, however, is not restorative nostalgia, the reinvention of national tradition, or the resacralization of the disenchanted modern world. We cannot simply restore the broken vertebrae of common communication, covering up the scars and gaps. So what is to be done? Arendt uses an architectural banister: she proses to ‘think without a banister.’”

[SH] I remain interested in VR—if for no other reason than it might push any of us to be much more specific about what empathy even means. I'd welcome getting clearer!

[RM]  I had a frisson of joy to see Sara linking empathy and estrangement. This isn’t quite covered by the story—and you hint at it Alexis, so apologies for going off here—but I find certain VR proponents’ idea of a “passive empathy,” let’s call it, extremely and regrettably asinine. I’m not sure I can construct a full-fledged theory of empathy, but it seems to me that it is, above all else, work—the arduous reaching out of one mind to understand the state and situation of another. But people are lazy, and it takes some kind of shock to get them to make that leap. What can issue that shock? Art and religion, certainly, but VR proponents seem to have a primitive theory of what the ensuing VR art will look like—a belief that you only need to see through another’s eyes to understand their point of view. This feels like it reduces someone else’s churning interior self into a pair of eyeballs, basically, with maybe a few special effects (sand on your feet!) as gravy. 

The whole argument combines the old fallacy that reading literature makes you a better person with a kind of primitive, implicit argument that the thicker the media, the better. The VR argument for passive empathy seems to imply that movies are better at generating empathy than music, which is itself better at generating empathy than books. But is that true in anyone’s experience? And did any of those pleasing old myths about literature and culture survive the Somme, or Buchenwald? 

[TW] I am really vibing off of Sara’s and Robinson’s comments on VR - YES to everything you both have said. It reminds me of one of my fave talks I have ever written where I challenge tech claims that VR will create empathy. I start off with talking about the invention of linear perspective in 15th cent. Europe and how the Jesuits tried to one-up the Chinese with it and then I weave into the history of mirrors and connect it to VR at around 22:15 where I compare two VR films, 6x9 and Confinement, made about the same topic: solitary confinement. I show why Confiement fails and 6x9 succeeds at creating empathy. Produced by Francesca Pannetta, 6x9 didn’t just rely on technology of VR. Like Iñarritu, Francesca collaborated with people who have been through solitary confinement and did things outside of the headset to drive home the message, such as drawing upon physical objects and extending the experience with something experiential like an exhibit or talk.  

[AM] From the description: Gaze at the toilet, and the voice of a former female prisoner will urge: ‘Every day … take a bath, it’s called a bird bath.’ Linger on a book: a thick one is like ‘hitting the lotto’ in solitary, a voice informs. Focusing on a letter awakens the voice of another former inmate, reading aloud from something he had written to his girlfriend. ‘Dear Shiann … Shiann, I need help … I know my name and what I look like I just don’t know who I am on the inside.’”

[RM] Excerpt from my talk: “We’ve been outsourcing empathy. That’s partially because we misunderstand what empathy really involves.When people say VR will produce empathy, or an app or tech will produce empathy, that definition of empathy is often based on an old scientific translation of the German word Einfühlung, which means the ability to imitate internally what you see externally. This imitation version of empathy is all about mimicking. When you mimic something or someone, you don’t really have to understand it to be good at it -- you just have to copy it…And with VR tech, the hypothesis is that if you see something clearly enough, like if you see someone suffering, your emotional state will mimic that suffering state also. Which is crazy! This is different from the social science definition of empathy which is not the ability to reflect what we see, but the ability to understand how other people see the world from their own  perspective .This is the work of  perspective shifting. If we use this version of the definition, then we know that trying to create a machine to shortcut us to empathy is inherently un-empathetic.”

These are unformed thoughts, and I’m probably preaching to the choir here. But that’s all to say: I’m really happy to see Iñarritu working with VR—but when VR succeeds, it will be as an art form that has learned from other art forms, including film and immersive theater. And it will succeed only as an art form; that is, in the short term, we can’t expect it to fix the world, or to generate magical empathy; it can only make the world more bearable.  

And also: I remember that Disney World has had something similar to immersive technology for my entire lifetime—and they used it to make Muppet*Vision 3-D. Childhood fondness requires me to add: Muppet*Vision 3-D was probably my favorite attraction at Disney World when I was four. But Moby Dick, or even Moana, it ain’t.

[AM] Au contrair. From the Tampa Bay Times, May 31, 1991: “This is a 14-minute film that doesn’t stop intruding into the audience’s space. You’ll get sprinkled, wind-blown, have soap bubbles waft by your face — and then there’s that menacing, remote-control, banana cream pie that floats out, too close for comfort.”

4. [AM] On “late exterminism,” and ways to fight it.

[AM] “Thompson’s 1980 essay ‘Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization’ described the nuclear arms race as an autonomous, self-reproducing, irrational force fed in equal parts by the United States and the Soviet Union. As Thompson defined it, this force — exterminism — ‘designates [the] characteristics of a society — expressed, in differing degrees within its economy, its polity and its ideology — which thrust it in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes.’ Meant as a unifying call to action against a phenomenon that was pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war, ‘Notes on Exterminism’ was widely read and hugely influential, not least on the European disarmament movement that Thompson would soon help lead.

[RA]  Late exterminiom sounds like the prelude to J.G. Ballard’s post-apocalyptic novel Hello America. (Ridley Scott and Netflix have apparently optioned the title.)  Here’s a super old NY Times review that feels apt:

[AM] TOO REAL: “The members of the expedition forge on across a vast American desert, the result of global ecological tinkering by the Europeans, driving old Buicks and camping in long-deserted Howard Johnson motels. They meet a madman who imitates Charles Manson and dreams of being President while he plays with holograms of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe and marshals a military machine. ‘'He was the delinquent adolescent in the occupational therapy class, playing an elaborate video game with his gunships, eager to use up all the free plays in the world before the ICBM signalled the ultimate tilt.’”

5. [AM] The world's oceans have dueling oceanic surveillance systems to help submarines target their weapons.

[AM] “According to technical briefings posted on oceanology institute’s website, the Chinese system is based on a network of platforms – buoys, surface vessels, satellites and underwater gliders – that gather data from the South China Sea, and the Western Pacific and Indian oceans. That information is then streamed to three intelligence centres – in the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, the southern province of Guangdong, and a joint facility in South Asia – where it is processed and analysed. For submarines patrolling the sea route, or ‘road,’ element of China’s global trade and infrastructure development plan known as the ‘Belt and Road Initiative,’ the system’s ability to not only measure, but also predict temperature and salinity at any location, any depth and at any time will be invaluable.”

[RS] The Global Drifter Program — Which of course I love primarily for its name and secondarily b/c the drifters, which -- among other things -- keep track of ocean trash, eventually run out of power and become… ocean trash.

[AM] “A new study demonstrates that a significant fraction of drifters in the time period January 2004 through December 2008 may have undiagnosed drogue loss, resulting in significantly greater windage than experienced by drogued drifters.”

[AM] “drogue, noun: a device, typically conical or funnel-shaped with open ends, towed behind a boat, aircraft, or other moving object to reduce speed or improve stability. Early 18th century (originally a whaling term denoting a piece of stout board attached to a harpoon line, used to slow down or mark the position of a harpooned whale): perhaps related to drag.”

[SH] Speaking of surveillance, I just saw some beluga whales at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and was enchanted by the reminder that their powers of echolocation are in the fatty organ on top of their heads. I thought the staff there were using slang to refer to the whale's "melon," but that's the technical term! Then I was digging deeper into their watchful self-defense by unihemispheric slow wave sleep and found that there's at least a distantly related but measurable phenomenon in humans called the "first night effect"—when you sleep in a novel environment, part of your brain can stay in a semi-alert state for the first night. Makes intuitive sense, of course, but didn't know there was science behind it.

[AM] Why do we need to sleep? “Biologists call this need ‘sleep pressure’: Stay up too late, build up sleep pressure. Feeling drowsy in the evenings? Of course you are—by being awake all day, you’ve been generating sleep pressure! But like “dark matter,” this is a name for something whose nature we do not yet understand. The more time you spend thinking about sleep pressure, the more it seems like a riddle game out of Tolkien: What builds up over the course of wakefulness, and disperses during sleep? Is it a timer? A molecule that accrues every day and needs to be flushed away? What is this metaphorical tally of hours, locked in some chamber of the brain, waiting to be wiped clean every night? In other words, asks Yanagisawa, as he reflects in his spare, sunlit office at the institute, ‘What is the physical substrate of sleepiness?’”

Seed Links 1

1. The valet parking Olympics

“At first glance, an Olympics organized entirely around valet parking seems absurd: a luxury service treated as a Decathlon. Yet the Valet Olympics draw attention to a line of work—or, as some would say, an emerging motorsport—that few ever pause to consider. Successful valets boast automotive skills unappreciated outside the parking lot. And valet parking is a hidden vein of economic opportunity that provides full-time work, first jobs, and summer employment to thousands. For immigrants from Nigeria, India, or Ecuador, or displaced by war in Iraq, the industry can supply a much-needed foothold in the United States, even launching a lifelong career. What’s more, as cities grow in size and complexity, America’s urban centers are becoming harder to navigate—with byzantine parking laws, dense downtowns that require real-life Tetris skills to park, and massive lots located blocks from the venues they serve. All of this makes valets, as they invisibly rearrange streets, the set designers of every busy cityscape. Giving them an arena to demonstrate their talents is, in this sense, a no-brainer.”

2. To make a soybean work more like an olive takes a lot of work

“Soybean oil is high in linoleic acid, which means it goes rancid fast. So manufacturers have long been partially hydrogenating their oil to extend shelf life and improve frying capability. Now that legislation has banned the trans fats caused by partially hydrogenated oil, soybean processors are looking for alternatives. This new gene-editing technique means that it will be shelf-stable without having to be hydrogenated… These variations increase shelf life up to five times longer, and increase fry-life threefold, with no need for hydrogenation.”

3. I remain unconvinced about the magical powers of VR, but if anyone can create something transcendent with it, I would bet on Iñarritu.

“‘Nothing actually exists. It’s an invention of your wired brain and it’s a kind of phenomenon between your consciousness, your memories, and your own understanding of yourself and how you project yourself in others. The ability that you have, or don’t have, to do that,’ he said. Carne y Arena, which became the first VR film to receive an honorary Oscar back in November, is meant to be an individual undertaking. Iñárritu’s long-time collaborator, three-time Academy Award winner, cinematographer Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki was part of the equation behind the camera once again.”

4. On “late exterminism,” and ways to fight it.

“Thompson’s 1980 essay ‘Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization’ described the nuclear arms race as an autonomous, self-reproducing, irrational force fed in equal parts by the United States and the Soviet Union. As Thompson defined it, this force — exterminism — ‘designates [the] characteristics of a society — expressed, in differing degrees within its economy, its polity and its ideology — which thrust it in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes.’ Meant as a unifying call to action against a phenomenon that was pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war, ‘Notes on Exterminism’ was widely read and hugely influential, not least on the European disarmament movement that Thompson would soon help lead.

5. The world's oceans have dueling oceanic surveillance systems to help submarines target their weapons.

“According to technical briefings posted on oceanology institute’s website, the Chinese system is based on a network of platforms – buoys, surface vessels, satellites and underwater gliders – that gather data from the South China Sea, and the Western Pacific and Indian oceans. That information is then streamed to three intelligence centres – in the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, the southern province of Guangdong, and a joint facility in South Asia – where it is processed and analysed. For submarines patrolling the sea route, or ‘road,’ element of China’s global trade and infrastructure development plan known as the ‘Belt and Road Initiative,’ the system’s ability to not only measure, but also predict temperature and salinity at any location, any depth and at any time will be invaluable.”

6. Life springing into being is such an improbable and weird event that no theory seems close to explaining much. The most widely held theory appears to be falling apart.

“Perhaps most importantly, an RNA-only world could not explain the emergence of the genetic code, which nearly all living organisms today use to translate genetic information into proteins. The code takes each of the 64 possible three-nucleotide RNA sequences and maps them to one of the 20 amino acids used to build proteins. Finding a set of rules robust enough to do that would take far too long with RNA alone, said Peter Wills, Carter’s co-author at the University of Auckland in New Zealand — if the RNA world could even reach that point, which he deemed highly unlikely. In Wills’ view, RNA might have been able to catalyze its own formation, making it ‘chemically reflexive,’ but it lacked what he called ‘computational reflexivity.’”