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July 20, 2018

Thomas Edison’s endorsement of MIT

Someone alert MIT’s recruitment office: Thomas Alva Edison was a fan.

Here’s a 1916 letter from a father asking Edison’s advice about where to send his son who is “not a very studious boy” but is “mechanically inclined”:

Letter to Edison with his recommendation of MIT

Edison’s handwritten response says, as best I can make out:

My advice is to send him to the Mass Institute of Technology – Boston of all the young men out of college which I have employed those from the Mass Tech were far superior to all others.”

Source: “Letter from Harry C Shaaber to Thomas Alva Edison, October 30th, 1916,” Edison Papers Digital Edition, accessed July 20, 2018, http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/document/E1632AD./a>. The ever-vigilant Lewis Brett Smiler sent it to me.

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July 5, 2018

Empathy at three

Yesterday afternoon, our three year old grandson, who I’ll call Eliza because I’ve heard people have noticed a creep on the Internet recently, played with “Amos,” a 2.5yo child he had never met before. Amos is a sweet, fun child who was eager to join in. Eliza turned three a few days ago, so there was a noticeable age difference but not a huge gap. They played for hours out on the lawn, along with Amos’ wonderfully sociable and kind 6yo sister. It gave me full-body memories of watching our children play with their cousins on the very same lawn. There aren’t a lot of stretches when I’d say I was happy without adding some type of qualifier. Yesterday earned no qualifiers

Then, after maybe four hours of play, Amos swung a bubble wand and accidentally hit Eliza in the head with it. It’s a foot-long light plastic tube with a long slit in it, and Amos is only 2.5, so there was no damage, no mark, no blame. But, still, no one likes being beaned, especially by surprise.

Eliza started to make the quivering face of a child about to cry, but quickly realized what had happened. You could see him struggle not to cry. His mom — who was born empathetic — took him into the hammock where she was lying down and snuggled him. He spooned so she wouldn’t see that he was still stifling tears. But I could see. And his mom of course could tell. And so could Amos, who started getting upset because Eliza was.

Now, I’m Eliza’s grandparent and he and I are very close in both senses of the word. So I am undoubtedly one of the two most biased people in the world when it comes to him. On the other hand, I have the joy of knowing him well. And I am certain that Eliza was holding back the display of his emotions because he did not want to upset Amos.

I think we often overrate empathy. But not always. And what Eliza exhibited was not just empathy. It was empathy for the person who accidentally hurt him. It was empathy rising above his own contrary feelings. It was empathy in the moment, without pause, that helped the object of that empathy, Amos. It was empathy that could not be expressed as empathy .

So why did I wake up at 2:30 this morning and weep?

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July 4, 2018

Moral rights kill culture

<rant>

Moral rights of creators are inventions grounded in a bad analogy with property rights.

If you want to maintain your “moral right” to what you’ve written, then don’t publish it.

If you publish it, you are making it public. Thank you for doing so.

You will make money from it for some fixed period — a period designed to provide you (but not necessarily Stephen King) with sufficient incentive to continue to create and publish works, but a short enough period that creative works can be assimilated by the culture.

Why put limits on the author’s exclusive right to publish? To keep culture lively. Which is the same as keeping that culture alive.

Cultural assimilation requires the freedom to talk about your work, to reuse it, misuse it, abuse it, to get it terribly wrong, to make it our own as individuals, to make it ours as a culture.

Imagine a Renaissance in which “moral rights” were enforced. Can’t.

Moral rights kill culture.

(Note that this applies to works that are published as copies. Please don’t take a hammer to any irreplaceable statues. Thanks.)

</rant>

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

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June 19, 2018

Game addiction

From Jane Wakefield at the BBC:

Its 11th International Classification of Diseases (ICD) will include the condition “gaming disorder”.

The draft document describes it as a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour so severe that it takes “precedence over other life interests”.

Oy. IMO, this will go down in history as a ludicrous example of the hysteria we’re living through, which I take as strong evidence of the depth of the changes the Internet is bringing. It’ll be the example of cultural hysteria mentioned after the anti-comic-book hysteria of the 1950s.

That’s not to deny that some people suffer from the symptoms listed. But we don’t have a disease called “fingernail addiction” because some people chew their nails compulsively. Or TV addiction. These obsessive behaviors are (in my non-expert opinion) expressions of other issues, not caused by the object of the obsession. Or else games are a peculiarly finicky addictive substance. If only heroin were so selective!

Pardon me, but I left my character in Tom Clancy’s Wildlands
sitting on the edge of an airfield, awaiting her 37th attempt to steal that frigging airplane.

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June 18, 2018

Filming the first boxing match

Joseph Fagan, an author, writer, TV Show host, and the Official Historian of West Orange Township, has given me permission to post his recounting of the legal waters surrounding the first filming of a boxing match. It’s a fascinating early example of finding analogies in order to figure out how to apply old laws to new technology — and also of how the technological limitations of a medium can affect content.

First filmed boxing match tested the legal waters in WO [West Orange, NJ]

By Joseph Fagan

On June 14, 1894, one hundred and twenty four years ago today, a boxing match was first captured on film. The event took place at Edison’s Black Maria studio giving the world’s first movie studio in West Orange the distinction of being the first place for a filmed boxing match in history. It was a staged six round fight between two lightweight boxers Michael Leonard and Jack Cushing. The filming of this fight at the Black Maria may have violated prize fighting laws but “the technology seemed to surpass the law in a way no one could have predicted”the technology seemed to surpass the law in a way no one could have predicted.

Although boxing was still illegal in New Jersey in 1894 the sport was growing in popularity. The New Jersey penal code had been amended in 1835 to specifically outlaw prize fighting. The art of pugilism as it was also known was banned in the United States at the time. It was illegal to organize, participate, or attend a boxing match. But the law was somewhat unclear on the legality of photographing a boxing match. By the time Edison’s moving picture technology had emerged the law had not yet adopted any provisions for the filming of a boxing match.

An assumption was made that since it was legal to look at a still photograph of a boxing match by extension it therefore was then legal to look at a motion picture of a boxing match as well. The New Jersey legislature could not have anticipated prize fighting films in 1835 when photography techniques were still in its infancy and mostly all experimental.

By the late 1880s the concept of moving images as entertainment was not a new one and not uniquely that of Edison. In 1893 he built the world’s first motion picture studio in West Orange known as the Black Maria. The films produced at this studio were not film as we know it today but short films made specifically for use in Edison’s invention the kinetoscope. This emerging technology not only commercialized moving pictures but also made history as it tested the known boundaries of New Jersey law regarding prize fighting.

The first kinetoscope parlor opened in New York City on April 14, 1894 in a converted shoe store. This date marks the birth of commercial film exhibition in the United States. Customers could view the films in a kinetoscope which sat on the floor and was combination peep show slot machine. Kinetoscope parlors soon increased in popularity and opened around the country. Production of a constant flow of new film subjects was needed at the West Orange studio to keep the new invention popular. Many vaudeville performers, dancers, and magicians became the first forms of entertainment to be filmed at the Black Maria studio.

The filming of the Leonard Cushing Fight demonstrated the potential illegality of the events at the Black Maria but there is no record of a grand jury investigation of the fight. The ring was specially designed to fit in the Black Maria and was only 12 feet square. The fight consisted of six one minute rounds between Leonard and Cushing. One minute was the longest the film in the camera would last so“ the kinetoscope itself was the time keeper” the kinetoscope itself was the time keeper. In between rounds the camera had to be reloaded which took seven minutes. The fight was essentially six separate bouts each titled by round number. In the background five fans can be seen looking into the ring. The referee hardly moves as the two fighters swing roundhouse blows at each other. Michael Leonard wore white trunks and Jack Cushing wore black trunks. Although a couple of punches seem to land both fighters maintained upright stances during the fight. Customers in kinetoscope parlors who watched the final round saw Leonard score a knockdown and was therefore considered the winner.

The first boxing match was filmed and produced by William Kennedy Dickson working for Edison. It remains unclear if Edison was actually at the fight and is reported to have been 40 miles away in Ogdensburg, NJ overlooking his mining operations. In my opinion I doubt very little happened at his West Orange complex without his knowledge or approval. Edison’s confidence is perhaps best understood in a 1903 quote. M. A. Rosanoff joined Edison’s staff and asked what rules he needed to observe. Edison replied, “” There are no rules here… we are trying to accomplish something.””” There are no rules here… we are trying to accomplish something.”

In the face of legal uncertainties regarding New Jersey law in 1894 plausible deniability may have helped Edison as he drifted into uncharted legal waters. No one was ever charged with a crime for filming the first prize fight in history at the Black Maria in West Orange. It simply set the course for future changes until the prohibition against prize fighting in New Jersey was eventually abolished in 1924.

Posted under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial license: CC-BY-NC, Joseph Fagan

Joseph Fagan can be reached at [email protected]

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Google Docs named versions

Google Docs’ version history functionality is getting to be really powerful and useful. Named versions help tame that power.

Google Docs automatically saves versions as you type so you can roll back to a prior state of your document at any point. In fact, you can roll back, copy a piece of it, roll forward, and paste in text from your past.

But because Google Docs makes so many versions and does so without asking you, suppose you want to go back to a version from earlier in the day before you cut that paragraph about secretly enjoying Paw Patrol? Google labels each automatically-created version with a time stamp, but you happened not to have memorized the precise time you made the change.

Now you can give a friendly name to a version. So let’s say you’re about to cut the Paw Patrol paragraph, but you’re not sure that you should. Before you make the cut, go to File > Version history > Name current version and give it a name such as “With Paw Patrol”. (If you want to be perverse, use the current hour and minute as the time. That’ll get you nowhere fast.) That name will show up in the list of versions under File > Version history > See version history.

Now when you cut the paragraph or make other changes, you’ll always be able to go back.

Meanwhile, Google will continue to automatically create new versions, capturing quite small increments of change. If you want to step back through the changes you’ve made since you named a version, click on the triangle to the left of the current version at the top of the version history.

Also, note that when you click on a version in the version history, it highlights the difference between the prior version and this one.

Note that comments are not saved with versions. Let me put this differently: When you restore a prior version, it will not have any of its comments. This is unfortunate.

Nevertheless, there are some big things not to like about Google Docs, but versioning definitely is not one of them.

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June 10, 2018

North Korean Bingo!

Why is this card guaranteed to lose? You might notice a pattern in it…

north korean talks bingo card

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May 16, 2018

[liveblog] Aubrey de Grey

I’m at the CUBE Tech conference in Berlin. (I’m going to give a first keynote on the book I’m finishing.) Aubrey de Grey begins his keynote begins by changing the question from “Who wants to get old?” to “Who wants Alzheimers?” because we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that aging is somehow good for us: we get wiser, get to retire, etc. Now we are developing treatments for aging. Ambiguity about aging is now “hugely damaging” because it hinders the support of research. E.g., his SENS Research Foundation is going too slowly because of funding restraints.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

“The defeat of aging via medicine is foreseseeable now.” He says he has to be credible because people have been saying this forever and have been wrong.

“Why is aging still a problem?” One hundred years ago, a third of babies would die before they were one year old. We fixed this in the industrialized world through simple advances, e.g., hygiene, mosquito, antibiotics. So why are diseases of old age so much harder to control? People think it’s because so many things go wrong with us late in life, interacting with one another and creating incredible complexity. But that’s not the main answer.

“Aging is easy to define: it is a side effect of being alive.” “It’s a fact of the operation of the human body generates damage.” It accumulates. The body tolerates a certain amount. When you pass that amount, you get pathologies of old age. Our approach has been to develop geriatric medicine to counteract those pathologies. That’s where most of the research goes.

aubrey de gray metabolism diagram

“Metabolism: The ultimate undocumented spaghetti code”

But that won’t work because the damage continues. Geriatric medicine bangs away at the pathologies, but will necessarily become less effective over time. “We make this mistake because of a misclassification we make.”

If you ask people to make categories of disease, they’ll come up with communicable, congenital, and chronic. Then most people add a fourth way of being sick: aging itself. It includes fraility, sarcopenia (loss of muscle), immunosenesence (aging of the immune system)…But that’s silly. Aging in a living organism is the same as aging in a machine. “Aging is the accumulation of damage that occurs as a side-effect of the body’s normal operation.”It is the accumulation of damage to the body that occurs as an intrinsic side-effect of the body’s normal operation. That means the categories are right, except aging covers column 3 and 4. Column 3 — specific diseases such as alzheimer’s and cancer — is also part aging. This means that aging isn’t a blessing in surprise, and that we can’t say that column 3 are high-priorities of medicine but those in 4 are not.

A hundred years ago a few people started to think about this and realized that if we tried to interfere with the process of aging earlier one, we’d do better. This became the field of gerontology. Some species age much more slowly than others. Maybe we can figure out the basis for that variation. But the metabolism is really really complicated. “This is the ultimate nightmare of uncommented spaghetti code.” We know so little about how the body works.

“There is another approach. And it’s completely bleeding obvious”: Periodically repair the damage. We don’t need to slow down the rate at which metabolism causes damage. We need to engineer a system we don’t understand. But “we don’t need to understand how metabolism causes damag”we don’t need to understand how metabolism causes damage. Nor do we need to know what to do when the damage is too great, because we’re not going to let it get to that state. We do this with, say, antique cars. Preventitive maintenance works. “The only question is, can we do it for a much more complicated machine like the human body?

“We’re sidestepping our ignorance of metabolism and pathology. But we have to cope with the fact that damage is complicated” All of the types of damage, from cell loss toe extracellular matrix stiffening — there are 7 categories — can be repaired through a single approach: genetic repair. E.g., loss of cells can be repaired by replacing them using stem cells. Unfortunately, most of the funding is going only to this first category. SENS was created to enable research on the other seven. Aubrey talks about SENS’ work on protecting cells from the bad effects of cholesterol.

He points to another group (unnamed) that has reinvented this approach and is getting a lot of notice.

He says longevity is not what people think it is. These therapies will let people stay alive longer, but they will also stay youthful longer. “”Longevity is a side effect of health.” ”“Longevity is a side effect of health.”

Will this be only for the rich? Overpopulation? Boredom? Pensions collapse? We’re taking care of overpopulation by cleaning up its effects, he says. He says there are solutions to these problems. But there are choices we have to make. No one wants to get Alzheimers. We can’t have it both ways. Either we want to keep people healthy or not.

He says SENS has been successful enough that they’ve been able to spin out some of the research into commercial operations. But we need to cary on in the non-profit research world as well. Project 21 aims at human rejuvenation clinical trials.

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Banks everywhere

I just took a 45 minute walk through Berlin and did not pass a single bank. I know this because I was looking for an ATM.

In Brookline, you can’t walk a block without passing two banks. When a local establishment goes out of business, the chances are about 90 percent that a bank is going to go in. The town is now 83 percent banks.[1]

pie chart of businesses

Lovely.

[1] All figures are approximate.

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May 10, 2018

When Edison chose not to invent speech-to-text tech

In 1911, the former mayor of Kingston, Jamaica, wrote a letter [pdf] to Thomas Alva Edison declaring that “The days of sitting down and writing one’s thoughts are now over” … at least if Edison were to agree to take his invention of the voice recorder just one step further and invent a device that transcribes voice recordings into speech. It was, alas, an idea too audacious for its time.

Here’s the text of Philip Cohen Stern’s letter:

Dear Sir :-

Your world wide reputation has induced me to trouble you with the following :-

As by talking in the in the Gramaphone [sic] we can have our own voices recorded why can this not in some way act upon a typewriter and reproduce the speech in typewriting

Under the present condition we dictate our matter to a shorthand writer who then has to typewrite it. What a labour saving device it would be if we could talk direct to the typewriter itself! The convenience of it would be enormous. It frequently occurs that a man’s best thoughts occur to him after his business hours and afetr [sic] his stenographer and typist have left and if he had such an instrument he would be independent of their presence.

The days of sitting down and writing out one’s thoughts are now over. It is not alone that there is always the danger in the process of striking out and repairing as we go along, but I am afraid most business-men have lost the art by the constant use of stenographer and their thoughts won’t run into their fingers. I remember the time very well when I could not think without a pen in my hand, now the reverse is the case and if I walk about and dictate the result is not only quicker in time but better in matter; and it occurred to me that such an instrument as I have described is possible and that if it be possible there is no man on earth but you who could do it

If my idea is worthless I hope you will pardon me for trespassing on your time and not denounce me too much for my stupidity. If it is not, I think it is a machine that would be of general utility not only in the commercial world but also for Public Speakers etc.

I am unfortunately not an engineer only a lawyer. If you care about wasting a few lines on me, drop a line to Philip Stern, Barrister-at-Law at above address, marking “Personal” or “Private” on the letter.

Yours very truly,
[signed] Philip Stern.

At the top, Edison has written:

The problem you speak of would be enormously difficult I cannot at present time imagine how it could be done.

The scan of the letter lives at Rutger’s Thomas A. Edison Papers Digital Edition site: “Letter from Philip Cohen Stern to Thomas Alva Edison, June 5th, 1911,” Edison Papers Digital Edition, accessed May 6, 2018, http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/items/show/57054. Thanks to Rutgers for mounting the collection and making it public. And a special thanks to Lewis Brett Smiler, the extremely helpful person who noted Stern’s letter to my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis, as a result of a talk she gave recently on The Novelist in the Digital Age.

By the way, here’s Philip Stern’s obituary.

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