Media

The Spirit Lives On: Elinor Smith

Monocle Entrepreneurs - Friday 23rd October 2020
We profile Elinor Smith, the daredevil pilot who had an incredible career in the air, set multiple world records and continued to fly planes up until the age of 89.

See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

Categories: Media

Rostype Fonts — Rosario, Argentina

IdN - Thursday 22nd October 2020

“The main inspiration behind our Potra font was space, the future, time and the universe. With simple and rounded strokes, we sought to generate a technological and futuristic aesthetic. Regarding morphology, an attempt was made to imitate the path that a shooting star generates in its displacement.”
Categories: Media

Essential Life-Learnings from 14 Years of Brain Pickings

Brain Pickings - Thursday 22nd October 2020
On the weight of the world and the weight of the sky.

Brain Pickings was born on October 23, 2006, as a short email to seven friends. Seven years and several incomprehensible million readers into its existence, I began what has since become an annual tradition — a distillation of the most important things I have learned about living while reading and writing my way through life; private learnings offered in the public commons, in the hope that these thoroughly subjective insights of a single consciousness might be of succor or salve to another. It is the only overtly personal writing I do on Brain Pickings. (Though, of course, the whole of it remains a deeply personal exercise in processing my own life and annealing my own ideas through the lives and ideas I celebrate in writing.) We are, after all, made of the same stuff.

One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s pioneering 19th-century astronomical paintings. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

Each year, I have drawn one new learning from that particular season of life. Each year, it has swelled into an existential challenge to prune the vastness, the lushness, the interleaved complexity of experience into a single blade of simple but not simplistic insight into the nature of life, glimpsed from the solitary pinhole of this one life. The challenge has never been more colossal than this past year — the most trying I have lived through, by orders of magnitude. Depression has lowered its leaden cloudscape over me again and again since I was fifteen, but no other year has lidded life more ominously, as the staggering collective grief we are living through together densified the black fog of private loss. In such seasons of life, one is pressed against the limits of one’s being, pressed eventually against the understanding — no, more than understanding and less than understanding: the blind elemental fact — that no matter the outer atmosphere of circumstance, one must lift the inner cloudscape by one’s own efforts, or perish under it.

I chose, by that blind instinct of survivalism we mistake for choice, to lift.

Against this contextual backdrop, here is the central learning drawn from a year so discomposing yet so vital and transformative a verse from the poetry of life. (You can read the previous thirteen here.)

14. Choose joy. Choose it like a child chooses the shoe to put on the right foot, the crayon to paint a sky. Choose it at first consciously, effortfully, pressing against the weight of a world heavy with reasons for sorrow, restless with need for action. Feel the sorrow, take the action, but keep pressing the weight of joy against it all, until it becomes mindless, automated, like gravity pulling the stream down its course; until it becomes an inner law of nature. If Viktor Frankl can exclaim “yes to life, in spite of everything!” — and what an everything he lived through — then so can any one of us amid the rubble of our plans, so trifling by comparison. Joy is not a function of a life free of friction and frustration, but a function of focus — an inner elevation by the fulcrum of choice. So often, it is a matter of attending to what Hermann Hesse called, as the world was about to come unworlded by its first global war, “the little joys”; so often, those are the slender threads of which we weave the lifeline that saves us.

Delight in the age-salted man on the street corner waiting for the light to change, his age-salted dog beside him, each inclined toward the other with the angular subtlety of absolute devotion.

Delight in the little girl zooming past you on her little bicycle, this fierce emissary of the future, rainbow tassels waving from her handlebars and a hundred beaded braids spilling from her golden helmet.

Delight in the snail taking an afternoon to traverse the abyssal crack in the sidewalk for the sake of pasturing on a single blade of grass.

Delight in the tiny new leaf, so shy and so shamelessly lush, unfurling from the crooked stem of the parched geranium.

I think often of this verse from Jane Hirshfield’s splendid poem “The Weighing”:

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

Yes, except we furnish both the grains and the scales. I alone can weigh the blue of my sky, you of yours.

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The Science of How Alive You Really Are: Alan Turing, Trees, and the Wonder of Life

Brain Pickings - Wednesday 21st October 2020
“The more a creature’s life is worth, the less of it is alive.”

When the young Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954) lost the love of his life, Christopher, to a bacterium contracted from cow’s milk, the grief-savaged future father of computing comforted his beloved’s grief-savaged mother by telling her that “the body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.” For the remainder of his life, he never ceased contemplating this binary code of body and spirit — a preoccupation fanned by this leveling loss in young adulthood, but ignited in childhood, by a book he had been given at age ten, a book he later told his own mother was what opened his mind and heart to science.

Alan Turing (far left) with classmates at Waterloo Station on the way to the school carriage. (Turing Digital Archive)

Published the year Turing was born, impishly described by its author as being “mostly about things that you do not learn in school,” Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know (public library) by Edwin Tinney Brewster invited young minds to step through the portal of science and contemplate not why life is — the domain of Sunday school theology — but what life is and how it came to be that way. Before there were scientists, it fell on the “natural philosophers” — men (for they were only men) typically trained in theology — to make sense of nature’s phenomena and processes. Born in the middle of the nineteenth century, only a generation after the person for whom the word scientist was coined — the polymathic Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville — Brewster devoted his life to aiding humanity’s great migration from the epoch of religion to the epoch of reality.

Light distribution on soap bubble from an 19th-century French science textbook. Available as a print and as a face mask.

The young Turing was captivated by Brewster’s playful analogies and his elegantly reasoned expositions of biological realities, worded so simply as to border on the poetic. How the chicken gets inside the egg, why we grow and grow old, what plants know — these wonders of life impressed the boy’s imagination with a lifelong passion: Unbeknownst to most, the father of modern computing devoted a substantial portion of his mind to an obscure branch of the biology of life known as morphogenesis — the process by which living organisms take their shape — which he illustrated in a series of hauntingly beautiful hand-drawn diagrams.

Alan Turing’s little-known diagrams of morphogenesis.(Turing Digital Archive)

The book’s most captivating chapter, titled “How Much of Us Is Alive,” explores not the existential puzzlement of the question — that is best left to the poets and the artists of life — but the science, the staggering and counterintuitive reality, of aliveness. Brewster writes:

How much of a tree is alive? Certainly not the outer bark. That falls off in dry scales, or can be scraped off down to the white layers within, and the tree be none the worse. Certainly not the wood. One often comes across old trees that have lost limbs or been carelessly pruned, which are entirely decayed out on the inside, so that nothing is left but a thin shell next the bark. Yet these trees grow as vigorously as ever, and bear leaves and fruit like a solid tree. The bark is dead; and the wood is dead. Between the two is a thin layer, perhaps a quarter inch thru, which is alive. On one side, it is changing into dead wood. On the other side, it is changing into dead bark. The new wood is alive, and the new bark. Between them is something neither wood nor bark, but just living tree-stuff. The green leaves also are alive, and the green twigs, and the blossoms, and the growing buds. But at least half of every living tree is already dead; while the larger and longer lived a tree is, the smaller proportion of it is alive at one time.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

What is true of trees, Brewster observes, is true of us. (And not only because we see so much of ourselves in trees.) We exert vast portions of our anxious creative energy on devising antidotes to our elemental fear of death — some mightier than others — and yet much of the bodies we live in is not, strictly speaking, alive at all:

Our hair and nails are not alive at all, and that our outer skin, the thin skin, that is, which we tear off when we bark our shins, is fully alive only on the inside. Our “bark” in fact, is very like a tree’s. Each has a soft, thin, living layer on the inside, which grows, hardens, dies, forms a water-tight layer over the rest of the body, cracks into scales, and drops off. Where one forms cork, the other forms horn. Indeed the cork stoppers of our bottles are made from nothing more than an especially thick corky bark of a certain kind of oak, like the especially thick and homy soles of all bare-footed savages and some bare-footed little boys.

With an eye to the biological fallacy at the heart of the famous biblical teaching that the life of every creature is its blood — refashioned in Bram Stoker’s iconic line from Dracula, “The blood is the life!” — Brewster counters:

The blood itself is dead. The watery part is just soup; water and salt and fat and jelly. The minute, coin-like, red blood corpuscles carry the oxygen of the air from the lungs all over the body. But there are similar oxygen-carriers, likewise dead, in bottles in the drug-stores. The corpuscles are dead cells alive once, and like the hard skin cells, a great deal more useful dead than alive.

After delineating how the same holds true of our teeth and the rest of our bones, Brewster draws out his analogy of cells as “living bricks” — with the caveat that even living cells are not fully alive, for the jelly of water and salt coursing through them is “just water and salt” — and adds:

We are, then, built of living bricks, but of living bricks set in dead mortar. We saw that the great trees, complex and long lived, have more wood and bark and other dead substances in them than the shrubs, herbs, and grass. These in turn are less alive than the lowly water plants and yeasts and molds which have no wood or bark at all. The same is true of animals. The jelly-fishes and infusoria have neither skin, hair, bones, nails, nor blood, and are pretty much all alive. So the more a creature’s life is worth, the less of it is alive.

The image of the “living bricks” particularly fascinated the young Turing, but it also struck him as somehow incomplete. Something was missing there, something didn’t add up to the mystery of consciousness, the wonder of what we are. In the mortar of his uncommon imagination, this incompleteness leavened the rise of modern computing. It is impossible to conceive of a Turing machine — that revolutionary mathematical progenitor of artificial intelligence — without brushing up against such elemental questions about the nature of aliveness, as Turing himself did when he gently threw his famous and formidable gauntlet of a test, asking whether a computer could ever “enjoy strawberries and cream, make someone fall in love with it, learn from experience, use words properly, be the subject of its own thought [or] do something really new.” The triumph of history is tracing the roots — ancient and alive — of our present condition in the world. The triumph of self-understanding is tracing the roots of the formative influences that make us who we are, that shape the people who shape the world.

Alan Turing as a young man donating = loving

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Categories: Media

Byredo

Monocle Entrepreneurs - Wednesday 21st October 2020
Ben Gorham, who grew up between Stockholm, Toronto and New York, is founder and creative director of Byredo, a brand he launched in Sweden in 2006. When his dream of playing professional basketball didn’t work out, Gorham went to art school and later started making fragrances to elicit memories. Producing scents, homeware and clothing, Byredo has retail outposts around the globe and launched a makeup line in October.

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Categories: Media

BÜRO UFHO — Singapore

IdN - Wednesday 21st October 2020

“We want to evolve 3D type beyond basic depth extrusions, so we view them as type sculptures, where we not only design the frontal face of a type, but all its facets. How would the type look from an angle as a real-life installation? How do we make it delightful when people walk around these fabrications in the real world and then discover the words when they view them at the correct angle? These are our considerations and the motivations behind our type designs.”
Categories: Media

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 7 – Jack Shanahan

Steve Blank - Wednesday 21st October 2020

We just held our seventh session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern WarJoe FelterRaj Shah and I designed the class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies – Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy.

Today’s topic was Military Applications of Artificial Intelligence.

Catch up with the class by reading our summaries of the previous 6 classes here.

If you can’t see the slides above, click here.

Our guest speaker was General Jack Shanahan LTG (ret), former Director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC).

Some of the readings for this class session included: Can The Pentagon Win The AI Arms Race?, The Ethical Upside To Artificial Intelligence, The Coming Revolution In Intelligence Affairs, Artificial Intelligence For Medical Evacuation In Great-Power Conflict, Congressional Research Service, Artificial Intelligence And National Security.

AI and The Department of Defense
As a lead up to this class session we’ve been talking about the impact of new technologies on the DOD. AI is constantly mentioned as a potential gamechanger for defense.

General Shanahan founded the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (the JAIC) to insert AI across the entire Department of Defense. The goal is to use AI to solve large and complex problem sets that span multiple services; then, ensure that all of the DOD has real-time access to libraries of data sets and tools. A key part of the strategy was to work with commercial companies to help build these solutions.

Prior to the JAIC General Shanahan ran Project Maven, an unintentional dry-run for how the DOD and commercial companies could partner (or not) to build AI-enabled apps. Maven partnered with Google to build a computer vision tool for imagery analysts to automatically detect objects/targets. The relationship ended when Google employees forced the company’s withdraw­­­ from the project.

There were lots of lessons on both sides — about transparency, about why companies in the 20th century had “federal systems divisions” that worked exclusively on government projects, while the rest of their company pursued commercial business — as well as a lot of relearning lessons the Valley had forgotten (see The Secret History of Silicon Valley).

This entire class session was a talk by General Shanahan and Q&A with the students. It’s interesting to note how many of his observations echo ones Chris Brose and Will Roper made in the previous sessions.

I’ve extracted and paraphrased a few of his key insights below, but there are many others throughout this substantive discussion. I urge you to read the entire transcript and watch the video.

Tactical Urgency and Strategic Patience
We have a relatively small window to transform our respective Defense Department from Industrial Age hardware-centric organizations, to Information Age software-centric, more risk tolerant ones. That demands the right combination of tactical urgency and strategic patience, but there’s no question we have to move with alacrity on this right now.

War is a very uncertain endeavor run by humans. If we find ourselves on the verge of a conflict with China in 20 years, the idea that we might have a fully AI-enabled force by then will not by itself guarantee victory. If on the other hand, in that same 20-year period, China has a fully AI-enabled force and we do not, I believe we will incur an unacceptably high risk of defeat.

Project Maven – Start With the Problem – Automate Imagery Analysis
We didn’t start Project Maven with an AI solution. We started with a problem: far too much information coming in from the intelligence enterprise; intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance. It was done manually — intensive, mind-numbing work with analysts staring at video screens for 12 hours at a shift. They couldn’t ever get through that much. It was really hard for analysts to absorb that amount of data and the data was increasing – in volume, speed and in tempo — and it was coming from all sources simultaneously, from unclassified to the highest classification levels.

We weren’t looking to do a 1x solution, a 5x solution or even a 10X solution. We wanted a 100X solution. We needed something that would really change the way we did processing exploitation and dissemination of all this intelligence coming in from all these platforms and centers in the world.

We went out and solicited everything we could find in the Department of Defense. There was tremendous AI work going on in the research labs, but nothing available for doing processing exploitation and dissemination in the near term. The problem was, while the military research labs were doing some of the best research in the world, it wasn’t getting across the classic technology valley of death. (I like to talk about Maven and the JAIC as “AI Now,” and then places like DARPA and the military research labs as “AI Next.”)

Where else did this AI technology exist? DIUx, In-Q-tel and others pointed out to us, “You lament about how much information you’re having to take in and process. Look at how much information YouTube takes in every single day. Your problems are not an overwhelming problem. There are solutions available in commercial industry.”

So how do you take technology from commercial industry, adapt it for the Department Defense purposes, and do it fast enough and do it at scale across the entire Department of Defense? The only way we could do that was to start bringing in those commercial technologies faster and faster.

So, Project Maven started us on the path of bringing an AI-enabled solution for the purpose of intelligence. Largely computer vision in going after the intake from drones. At first tactical drones, then mid-altitude drones, eventually to high altitude manned airplanes and even commercial imagery, working with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

The JAIC – Go at Scale and Speed
After a couple of years of doing Project Maven, Bob Work (then-deputy Secretary of Defense) was itching to move just beyond intelligence. He said Maven was never designed to be only about the intelligence enterprise, we needed to bring in every single mission in the Department of Defense, and we needed to go much faster. There was a revolution happening in commercial industry and the DOD was not was not getting it.

I was chartered to stand up the JAIC in a form that Joe and Raj, and I’m sure Steve would appreciate. Somebody signed a memo saying, “Go stand up a joint AI Center. You don’t have any people, you don’t have any money, you don’t have anywhere to live, but you’ll figure it out.”

Lean, MVPs and the DOD
Project Maven became the basis for what we did in the JAIC. We started with a cross-functional team. In commercial tech you call that an integrated product team, It’s acquisition with software engineering with UI/UX. This idea of U/UX user interface/user experience, a ruthless focus on user experience, the DOD has never been very good at that.

It’s also learning how to put things on contract fast and get things done and field them quickly. It was whatever you can do to get away from the classic DOD stovepipe way of doing business to a much more agile software approach.

Josh Marcuse and the Defense Innovation Board were instrumental in helping us see what those agile principles were and how we could get moving and go fast. And we took the classic commercial tech approach of building minimal viable products: Get something that will work good enough. Let the user know what they’re going to get as opposed to just forcing something down their throat claiming that it was much better than it really was.

Minimal Viable Products
The idea of minimal viable product is not what the department of defense has lived with, it’s out there in pockets. But we need to be much better at that.

What’s “good enough” when we field these capabilities? It was never for us to say. It was for the users of the capabilities to tell us.  We would give some parameters like, “This is a 95% test and evaluation solution. Do you accept it?” “I don’t know. Let me try it out.”

The other reason that we wanted to push AI-enabled capabilities out to the field as quickly as possible is because until users get to play around with it, it’s just science fiction. You hear all these grandiose stories about what AI is. But few people are saying what AI is not. And in the Department Defense it’s more about what it’s not than what it is. There’s so much more we must do to get people to use those capabilities. As soon as they touch it, they say, “Well, if it can do that, what about this?” Every time they’ve said that, we said yes, it can be it can be done. So we’ll make this product better and better in a rapid sort of agile approach of continuous integration, continuous delivery.

That is the future for the Department of Defense. If we don’t get that right, we’re doomed because AI capabilities left to themselves six months down the road will become useless. Just like any commercial software, it’s got to be a continuous development cycle. So that idea of MVP, putting capabilities in the user’s hand, letting them tear it apart, tell us what worked, what didn’t work, what they’d like to see better. That was really the core concept about Maven, and then the JAIC.

The idea of Ops and Intel working closer together, those two worlds merging, is the holy grail idea of ops/Intel fusion. These AI-enabled capabilities are getting us closer and closer to that environment. And this idea of user-defined operating picture is with us today. The performance of that will increase exponentially over the next couple of years.

Continuous Integration, Continuous Development, Continuous Delivery
The other thing about AI is that you train it against one set of data that will reflect, to some extent, the real world. But once you put it in the real world you learn it never works as advertised. The first time you use it in Afghanistan you realize you never trained it against data that had women wearing full-length black burkas, it didn’t know what those were. Interesting little problem. So you get real-world data, feed it back into the algorithm and it performs better and better. A second, third time, so on, and so on. It was all about the user defining what success look like.

You need a cycle of continuous integration, continuous development and continuous delivery.

We were proud at Project Maven that the first updates of our initial algorithms were out the door in four to five months and then got better and better and better — in some cases about every two weeks. In our personal lives, we get updates pushed to us hourly in some of our apps. So that’s the goal. To be able to do that, you need this backend infrastructure and architecture, so that a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Space Force wherever they are, can design an app on the spot, relying on this backend infrastructure, that Joint Common Foundation.

We’re not close to doing that yet with some very limited exceptions like Kessel Run, which is not AI, although they’re starting to go down that path, too. But they’re getting into that model of, “How quickly can I get this in an agile sort of software pathway of doing things and push it out to the field as quickly as possible?”

Warfighters Need to Be Demanding Customers
The biggest role that the warfighters have in this is to be very demanding customers and to say what needs to be fixed and not just accept what we’ve done to operators too many times, which is, “Look, here’s the product, take it or leave it. We’re going to get you another version five years from now, and probably $200 million over budget.”

That world is gone. We have got to get to that point where, “Here it is. What’s wrong with it? We’ll fix it as quickly as we can and we’ll update it with real-world data, it will make it better and better.” Demanding customers provide ruthlessly candid feedback, which was never a problem with the Special Operations community.

This concept of leverage and UI/UX, and all of that is so essential to everything we’re doing. And the backend requires things in addition to a common foundation, a data management platform, open API, is all the T&E tools, everything should be available to everybody in the Department of Defense.

You Need a Disrupter
And then of course you need a classic disrupter. Somebody who does not take no for an answer, who breaks a little glass and makes some people a little bit upset in terms of overturning their apple carts. Because there are so many obstacles in the Department of Defense it would be easy to become disillusioned and just give up on the whole enterprise. The role I needed to play was top cover for the disrupter. It’s the combination of this top-down advocacy and pressure, and this bottom up innovation. And then you bring in a disrupter that gets this thing going.

This is what Raj Shah did at DIUX. It’s what AFWERX has to deal with. It’s what Hondo Geurts had to deal with when he was running SOFWERX. It’s what Enrique Oti has done up at Kessel Run, Chris Lynch at the Defense Digital Service. These were classic disruptors — strong personalities running innovation organizations in innovative ways.

Scaling The Organizations Across the DOD
But now you had to take all those models and begin to learn, how do you scale them across the Department of Defense? That is incredibly hard. And that’s what the JAIC was designed to do, you spark the movement for the next decade, 15, 20 years of movement.

But unless you take those organizational models and begin to scale them across the Department of Defense, they’re sitting there as one-off organizations. They’re critical but they’re insufficient. You need to inculcate a startup culture in the institutional bureaucracy of the Department of Defense.

One of the most important things we were working on in the JAIC is this thing called the Joint Common Foundation.

Joint Common Foundation
It is an architecture and infrastructure — for lack of a cleaner term, call it a platform as a service, a DevSecOps or AI/Ops environment. On top of an Enterprise Cloud environment that’s supposed to be called JEDI. To build this dev SEC ops, AI ops environment, which is to give everybody in the Department of Defense equal access to everything from data, to AI tools, to all the security environment, to Jupyter notebooks, you name it, everything you would need to develop AI. The JAIC is building that as a common foundation.

There are 200 people in the JAIC, and that includes contractors, it’s probably not going change the entire Department of Defense and their AI way of doing business.  But what it has to do is leverage more. The idea of everything that JAIC does is a product available to everybody else in the Department of Defense, they come, pull it off the shelf, so to speak, and use that to leverage the entire Department of Defense. Otherwise JAIC will be an interesting organization and last for a few years and go away.

The Joint Common Foundation is designed to make that available to everybody across the Department of Defense. And I think over the next few years that Joint Common Foundation will be what the JAIC becomes known for as much or more than anything else it’s doing. The services will figure out the technology piece, it’s just they need a little bit of a push, that flywheel has to get turning a little bit faster.

New Operating Concepts Versus Doctrine
Even more important than this, is the idea of developing new operating concepts. New operating concepts do not come out of the Pentagon. Pentagon writes great doctrine. Doctrine is all sorts of instructions and directives and great PowerPoint slides; the operating concepts will come from those on the tactical edge or the operational environment.

And what does the world of AI, Enterprise Cloud, 5G, and someday quantum look like? I don’t know, but it’s not for us to say, it’s for the users to be able to figure it out, by letting them try it out in operational settings.  I believe there is no mission in the Department of Defense that will not benefit – from the introduction of AI-enabled capabilities from the back office, to the battlefield, from undersea to outer space, in cyberspace and all points in between.

Read the entire transcript of General Shanahan’s talk here and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the video of General Shanahan’s talk click here

Lessons Learned

  • The DOD recognized that AI was one of the potential game changers
    • They set up the JAIC (Joint Artificial Intelligence Center) to see if they could Leverage AI across the DOD
  • They built products using modern processes – continuous integration, continuous development and continuous delivery
  • The group required a “Disrupter,” someone willing to break glass to push these ideas
  • Over time, JAIC has realized that scaling AI across the DOD will not come from delivering individual solutions
    • but by having a Joint Common AI Foundation that’s accessible by all DOD app developers
Categories: Media

Tenacity, the Art of Integration, and the Key to a Flexible Mind: Wisdom from the Life of Mary Somerville, for Whom the Word “Scientist” Was Coined

Brain Pickings - Wednesday 21st October 2020
Inside the hallmark of a great scientist and a great human being — the ability to hold one’s opinions with firm but unfisted fingers.

This essay is adapted from my book Figuring

A middle-aged Scottish mathematician rises ahead of the sun to spend a couple of hours with Newton before the day punctuates her thinking with the constant interruptions of mothering four children and managing a bustling household. “A man can always command his time under the plea of business,” Mary Somerville (December 26, 1780–November 28, 1872) would later write in her memoir; “a woman is not allowed any such excuse.”

Growing up, Somerville had spent the daylight hours painting and playing piano. When her parents realized that the household candle supply had thinned because Mary had been staying up at night to read Euclid, they promptly confiscated her candles. “Peg,” she recalled her father telling her mother, “we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days.” Mary was undeterred. Having already committed the first six books of Euclid to memory, she spent her nights adventuring in mathematics in the bright private chamber of her mind.

Mary Somerville (Portrait by Thomas Phillips)

Despite her precocity and her early determination, it took Somerville half a lifetime to come abloom as a scientist — the spring and summer of her life passed with her genius laying restive beneath the frost of the era’s receptivity to the female mind. When Somerville was forty-six, she published her first scientific paper — a study of the magnetic properties of violet rays — which earned her praise from the inventor of the kaleidoscope, Sir David Brewster, as “the most extraordinary woman in Europe — a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman.” Lord Brougham, the influential founder of the newly established Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge — with which Thoreau would take issue thirty-some years later by making a case for “the diffusion of useful ignorance,” comprising “knowledge useful in a higher sense” — was so impressed that he asked Somerville to translate a mathematical treatise by Pierre-Simon Laplace, “the Newton of France.” She took the project on, perhaps not fully aware how many years it would take to complete to her satisfaction, which would forever raise the common standard of excellence. All great works suffer from and are saved by a gladsome blindness to what they ultimately demand of their creators.

As the months unspooled into years, Somerville supported herself as a mathematics tutor to the children of the wealthy. One of her students was a little girl named Ada, daughter of the mathematically inclined baroness Annabella Milbanke and the only legitimate child of the sybarite poet Lord Byron — a little girl would would grow to be, thanks to Somerville’s introduction to Charles Babbage, the world’s first computer programmer.

When Somerville completed the project, she delivered something evocative of the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s wonderful notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original” In The Mechanism of the Heavens, published in 1831 after years of work, Somerville hadn’t merely translated the math, but had expanded upon it and made it comprehensible to lay readers, popularizing Laplace’s esoteric ideas.

Solar System quilt by Ellen Harding Baker, begun in 1869 and completed in 1876 to teach women astronomy when they were barred from higher education in science. Available as a print and a face mask. (Smithsonian)

The book was an instant success, drawing attention from the titans of European science. John Herschel, whom Somerville considered the greatest scientist of their time and who was soon to coin the word photography, wrote her a warm letter she treasured for the rest of her days:

Dear Mrs. Somerville,

I have read your manuscript with the greatest pleasure, and will not hesitate to add, (because I am sure you will believe it sincere,) with the highest admiration. Go on thus, and you will leave a memorial of no common kind to posterity; and, what you will value far more than fame, you will have accomplished a most useful work. What a pity that La Place has not lived to see this illustration of his great work! You will only, I fear, give too strong a stimulus to the study of abstract science by this performance.

Somerville received another radiant fan letter from the famed novelist Maria Edgeworth, who wrote after devouring The Mechanism of the Heavens:

I was long in the state of the boa constrictor after a full meal — and I am but just recovering the powers of motion. My mind was so distended by the magnitude, the immensity, of what you put into it!… I can only assure you that you have given me a great deal of pleasure; that you have enlarged my conception of the sublimity of the universe, beyond any ideas I had ever before been enabled to form.

Edgeworth was particularly taken with a “a beautiful sentence, as well as a sublime idea” from Somerville’s section on the propagation of sound waves:

At a very small height above the surface of the earth, the noise of the tempest ceases and the thunder is heard no more in those boundless regions, where the heavenly bodies accomplish their periods in eternal and sublime silence.

Years later, Edgeworth would write admiringly of Somerville that “while her head is up among the stars, her feet are firm upon the earth.”

Milky Way Starry Night by Native artist Margaret Nazon, part of her stunning series of astronomical beadwork.

In 1834, Somerville published her next major treatise, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences — an elegant and erudite weaving together of the previously fragmented fields of astronomy, mathematics, physics, geology, and chemistry. It quickly became one of the scientific best sellers of the century and earned Somerville pathbreaking admission into the Royal Astronomical Society the following year, alongside the astronomer Caroline Herschel — the first women admitted as members of the venerable institution.

When Maria Mitchell — America’s first professional female astronomer and the first woman employed by the U.S. government for a professional task — traveled to Europe to meet the Old World’s greatest scientific luminaries, her Quaker shyness could barely contain the thrill of meeting her great hero. She spent three afternoons with Somerville in Scotland and left feeling that “no one can make the acquaintance of this remarkable woman without increased admiration for her.” In her journal, Mitchell described Somerville as “small, very,” with bright blue eyes and strong features, looking twenty years younger than her seventy-seven years, her diminished hearing the only giveaway of her age. “Mrs. Somerville talks with all the readiness and clearness of a man, but with no other masculine characteristic,” Mitchell wrote. “She is very gentle and womanly… chatty and sociable, without the least pretence, or the least coldness.”

Months after the publication of Somerville’s Connexion, the English polymath William Whewell — then master of Trinity College, where Newton had once been a fellow, and previously pivotal in making Somerville’s Laplace book a requirement of the university’s higher mathematics curriculum — wrote a laudatory review of her work, in which he coined the word scientist to refer to her. The commonly used term up to that point — “man of science” — clearly couldn’t apply to a woman, nor to what Whewell considered “the peculiar illumination” of the female mind: the ability to synthesize ideas and connect seemingly disparate disciplines into a clear lens on reality. Because he couldn’t call her a physicist, a geologist, or a chemist — she had written with deep knowledge of all these disciplines and more — Whewell unified them all into scientist. Some scholars have suggested that he coined the term a year earlier in his correspondence with Coleridge, but no clear evidence survives. What does survive is his incontrovertible regard for Somerville, which remains printed in plain sight — in his review, he praises her as a “person of true science.”

Phases of Venus and Saturn by Maria Clara Eimmart, early 1700s. Available as a print.

Whewell saw the full dimension of Somerville’s singular genius as a connector and cross-pollinator of ideas across disciplines. “Everything is naturally related and interconnected,” Ada Lovelace would write a decade later. Maria Mitchell celebrated Somerville’s book as a masterwork containing “vast collections of facts in all branches of Physical Science, connected together by the delicate web of Mrs. Somerville’s own thought, showing an amount and variety of learning to be compared only to that of Humboldt.” But not everyone could see the genius of Somerville’s contribution to science in her synthesis and cross-pollination of information, effecting integrated wisdom greater than the sum total of bits of fact — a skill that becomes exponentially more valuable as the existing pool of knowledge swells. One obtuse malediction came from the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who proclaimed that Somerville had never done anything original — a remark that the young sculptor Harriet Hosmer, herself a pioneer who paved the way for women in art, would tear to shreds. In a letter defending Somerville, she scoffed:

To the Carlyle mind, wherein women never played any conspicuous part, perhaps not, but no one, man or woman, ever possessed a clearer insight into complicated problems, or possessed a greater gift of rendering such problems clear to the mind of the student, one phase of originality, surely.

Somerville’s uncommon gift for seeing clearly into complexity came coupled with a deep distaste for dogma and the divisiveness of religion, the supreme blinders of lucidity. She recounted that as religious controversies swirled about her, she had “too high a regard for liberty of conscience to interfere with any one’s opinions.” She chose instead to live “on terms of sincere friendship and love with people who differed essentially” in their religious views. In her memoir, she encapsulated her philosophy of creed: “In all the books which I have written I have confined myself strictly and entirely to scientific subjects, although my religious opinions are very decided.”

Above all, Somerville possessed the defining mark of the great scientist and the great human being — the ability to hold one’s opinions with firm but unfisted fingers, remaining receptive to novel theories and willing to change one’s mind in light of new evidence. Her daughter recounted:

It is not uncommon to see persons who hold in youth opinions in advance of the age in which they live, but who at a certain period seem to crystallise, and lose the faculty of comprehending and accepting new ideas and theories; thus remaining at last as far behind, as they were once in advance of public opinion. Not so my mother, who was ever ready to hail joyfully any new idea or theory, and to give it honest attention, even if it were at variance with her former convictions. This quality she never lost, and it enabled her to sympathise with the younger generation of philosophers, as she had done with their predecessors, her own contemporaries.

Shortly after the publication of Somerville’s epoch-making book, the education reformer Elizabeth Peabody — who lived nearly a century, introduced Buddhist texts to America, and coined the term Transcendentalism — echoed the sentiment in her penetrating insight into middle age and the art of self-renewal.

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Categories: Media

Studio Triple — Jérémy Landes — Berlin, Germany

IdN - Tuesday 20th October 2020

“When I start a font, I try to create something new and this often leads to prohibited places, shapes that we learn to avoid. Jaune started like that. My pretty simple idea was, instead of avoiding accidental encounters between paths in the bolder weights, to close everything and to treat these encounters as sticky but slick inktraps. I started with the black style and then had to apply the same principle to the lighter styles, which proved way more challenging. In Jaune, I tried to bring features from some of my other fonts such as Digestive into a more constructed, geometric sans serif.”
Categories: Media

Technology, Innovation and Modern War – Class 6 – Will Roper

Steve Blank - Monday 19th October 2020

We just held our sixth session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern WarJoe FelterRaj Shah and I designed a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies – Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy.

Today’s topic was Innovations in Acquiring Technologies for Modern War.

Catch up with the class by reading our summaries of the previous five classes here.

Our guest speaker was Hon. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force.

Some of the readings for this class session included: Defense Innovation is Falling Short, Dr. Will Roper’s recent AMA about AFWERX and AFVentures and The Future of Defense task-force-report

Acquisition, technology, and logistics
In some of our class sessions you’ve heard about how acquisition in the Department of Defense hasn’t kept up with new threats, adversaries, and new technologies. But Will Roper who runs Air Force acquisition, technology and logistics, gives lie to that assertion. He gets it. And he’s running as fast as he can to move the Air Force into the 21st century. It was an eye-opening conversation.

Will Roper is responsible for spending $60 billion acquiring 550 programs as well as technology and logistics. His resume reads like he trained for the job: bachelor’s and master’s in physics and Ph.D from Oxford in Math. He started his career at MIT Lincoln Labs, then was Chief Architect at the Missile Defense Agency, the founding Director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office. (The SCO imagines new, often unexpected and game-changing uses of existing government and commercial systems.)

This entire class session was a talk by Will and Q&A with the students. It would be easy to just put up the video and the transcription in this blog and be done with it. But that would do a real disservice to the insights Will offered. It’s interesting to note how many of his observations echo the ones Chris Brose made in the previous session. I’ve extracted and paraphrased a few below, but I urge you to read the transcript and watch the video.

Here’s what Will had to say:

Competition with China
I view the competition with China as one of the seminal challenges that we’re going to face in this century. It’s not a fait accompli how it’s going to end. But it’s a very different challenge, because it’s not a Cold War part two. We’re very economically intertwined with this competitor. But we do have to treat it just as if it was an existential race. Because we have a very different world view than that competitor does.

Commercial technology has changed the DOD model
Commercial technologies are being driven faster than any government can keep up with, though many governments are trying to steer it to their own advantage. And many of the technological breakthroughs that could be important to the military are going to be available to everyone. So, the model that worked so well in the Cold War, where you made a technology breakthrough, you did it exclusively inside your own country. And because you were annexed from your competitor, you could develop that technology, instantiate it in your military and field it for advantage, really doesn’t make a lot of sense in this decade and in this century. Technology is what it is. Governments play a strong role in it, we can incubate it, we can accelerate it, we can create it, but we’re increasingly a smaller fraction of what happens commercially.

I view the Pentagon being in a time of crisis, where it’s really trying to figure out its role. Where it’s not the major funder of innovation anymore. It has a sizable budget. It’s a sizable market. But it’s not the major driver of invention. And I find most of the people working in it have a hard time with that. They have been in the building since before the Cold War and have really not been outside to see that the times have changed. But I love the times that we’re in. Technology is cheap, it’s ubiquitous, it’s fast, it’s moving.

The Pentagon’s challenge is to reboot itself, to get rid of those Cold War processes that we’re very good at inventing technology that would change the world.

Now we have to be good at bringing technology in from the outside
Now, we have to be good at adapting technology, bringing it in from the outside and instantiating it. We need to be better at building partnerships. But it’s not actually the way we organize the business. And there are so many great areas for partnership between the military and commercial innovators, that we’re missing out on opportunities. And AFWERX and other organizations that I’ve tried to stand up in the Air Force to create partnerships are a central paradigm for how we move innovation forward.

The military is going to have to treat technology wherever it is as a battlefield in and of itself. And that is not how the Pentagon is set up to run.

If we don’t engage proactively, I think what we have seen happen with hobbyist drones a few years ago is a harbinger of what could become the status quo in future years. Where technologies may emerge in one innovative sector, but if we’re not proactive and engaging with them, then the supply chain and market will move overseas to another country’s advantage. And this is not the Pentagon’s playbook.

The presupposition that the future can be predicted is no longer true
We are very good at having an adversary that we can forecast well. Having good intelligence on them, formulating our view of their future, creating a model of what we think they will bring to bear on the battlefield both technologically as well as operationally. We create our own counter solution to what we predict.

We build it, hopefully get to it first. And once we field it, we hope that countering what we have done leads to a strategy that leads to us victory.

That worked well in the Cold War. There’s no indication that will work well in the situation we find ourselves in today. So, as I’ve as I’ve engaged in Air Force and Space Force acquisition it starts with the presupposition that the future can be predicted. You won’t find that written down in any acquisition document. But it’s actually foundational to how the Pentagon works. The future is predictable. And it’s not.

No telling which technology is going to lead
I have no idea what the future is going to be. I have no idea what 2030 is going to be. Who knows what technology is going to be the next big thing. You’ll find people in radically different camps. You’ll find one group centering around AI. But you’ll find different people who will say no, quantum systems are going to allow radically different phenomenology to be brought to bear. Not just computing and encryption but sensing. And they’ll be next to a group that will say “Nope, biological systems are going to allow fundamentally different approaches to building sensors and computing and sensing.” And you’re not going to have to wait on those exquisite quantum systems because you can hack biology and do it sooner. And the camps go on.

So that just tells me this is a wonderful time for technology. It’s everywhere, it’s not expensive to engage in. And there’s no telling which technology is going to lead to that next Industrial Revolution. I think that really is the competition amongst nations, that many of these technologies could birth a new industrial revolution. And whichever country does it, it’s going to be to such a decided advantage, that the military part of the equation is probably moot.

The Pentagon needs to be fast and agile
But the military, because it is a very stabilizing and unique part of any country’s market system, has to play a catalyzing role in setting that country up to find that Industrial Revolution faster. The Pentagon is not suited for this. So the $60 billion per year procurement system that I run for the Air Force and Space force, the strategy is pretty simple. You need to be exceptionally fast and agile. The Cold War system wasn’t. And the system in this century must be. Because we don’t know what the next big thing is going to be. So let’s be ready to adapt to it. Speeding the system up is not as hard as you think. It’s just not what was valued in the past. So you just simply have to change the value system, change the culture, and the system will speed up.

The harder part is teaching the Air Force and Space Force to work in the broader ecosystem. It’s very easy to fall back into the historical process that predicts the future, derives a solution for that future, and then kicks it out to a handful of companies, defense companies, that that we have historically gone to in recent times to help us build that future. And with so many fields of technology now available, we simply can’t work with a handful of companies and expect to win.

Acquisition and procurement need new rules
Defense Research and Development is only one fifth of the total R&D that our nation does. In the height of the Cold War we were four fifths. That doesn’t mean that we’ve gotten any worse at research and development at the Pentagon, it just means that the landscape has changed. And we haven’t. So teaching our acquisition system, our procurement system, that it needs a different set of rules to work in the four fifths of our nation’s R&D that’s commercial has been exceptionally challenging. Because everything about the way we do business is hard for commercial innovators. So standing up organizations like AFWERX that have a completely different model and culture and ethos, their job is to treat emerging commercial markets as a battlefield. And to try to bring the military’s mission as a way to accelerate commercial companies, not just to help military missions, but to accelerate them as an end state in and of itself. Because that is in our national interest.

Accelerating Technology
I found that within the Air Force, we can rally around this as a core mission. That accelerating technology is something that can be understood by anyone that we’ve trained in the military because it’s easy to understand it. If that company, if that technology, if that market, doesn’t happen in the US first, it’s likely to happen somewhere else. And if it happens somewhere else, there’s no guarantee we’ll have access to it. So that’s a second imperative that we have to be able to work in our entire tech ecosystem.

The DOD – Great in hardware, lagging in software
The summary of what I’ve seen is the Pentagon is very good at maintaining technological disciplines that were born in the Cold War. We’re still very good at things based on Maxwell’s equation. That radars and stealth and antennas and radios and materials. But we have not learned to work in the commercial ecosystem.

And we have not learned to work in digital and software-driven technology. If we learn those just very small handful of lessons, we’ll be closer to being the agile, disruptive system we need to be. Now we’re competing against an adversary in China that will likely have double our GDP and quadruple our population, and perhaps have 15 times the STEM graduates that we’ll have by the year 2030. So we’re not going to beat them at scale. Speed and agility are the only way that we can ensure that we have a leg up.

I’m very pleased with the progress the Air Force has made. This is just lap one of what is going to be a very long race. And this race doesn’t end. There’s no way to forecast what the end state relationship will be between the US and China.

So we need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. For the time being that means treating every new technology or possible new technology as an opportunity to hope for but also a detriment to fear. And I hope that if we inculcate that urgency within our organization, that we will become the kind of Air Force that is ready for whatever we call this competition with China.

Some people call it a hot peace. I don’t really care about slang and slogans. I just know it’s real. We have to treat it seriously and remain urgent. So far, I’ve been very pleased with how ready for the challenge that we’ve been. And I hope that we won’t be the only service to move out as aggressively as we’ve done. It’s going to take an entire team to keep this up over time.

Read the entire transcript of Will Roper’s talk here and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the video of Will Roper’s talk click here 

It was interesting to note what Will didn’t say in a public forum as what he did say. My guess is that in this transition from legacy systems to new platforms, each of the service acquisition executives has to deal with the parochial concerns of existing contractors and congress, all scrambling to keep their part of a finite defense budget. Acquisition execs like Will likely spend more time trying to get rid of existing “legacy” programs as they do getting new ones funded. For the Air Force it’s manned versus unmanned aircraft. For the Navy it’s more carriers versus other platforms. For all services it’s exquisite systems versus mass expendable ones, etc..

And as an extra bonus read Will Roper’s talk “There is No Spoon” here.

Lessons Learned

  • Competition with China is one of the seminal challenges we’re going to face in this century
  • The Pentagon is very good at maintaining technological disciplines that were born in the Cold War
    • The Cold War model of exclusively inventing it and then using it only for your military is no longer true
    • Today’s technological breakthroughs are going to be available to everyone.
    • We’ve not learned to work in digital and software-driven technology
    • The Pentagon’s challenge is to reboot itself, to get rid of those Cold War processes
  • Now we have to be good at bringing technology in from the outside
  • The presupposition that the future can be predicted is no longer true
    • No telling which technology (AI, autonomy, biotech, space, etc.) is going to lead
  • You need to be exceptionally fast and agile. The Cold War system wasn’t
    • Speeding the system up is not what was valued in the past
    • So you have to change the value system, the culture, and the system will speed up
  • We need to work in the broader ecosystem. We simply can’t work with a handful of companies and expect to win
Categories: Media

29Letters — 29LT — Madrid, Spain

IdN - Monday 19th October 2020

“The end of 2020 will mark the release of a new 29LT type system inspired by the Aljamiado script used by the Moors of medieval Spain. After months of intensive research on the manuscripts and analyzing their linguistic and typographic aspects, we came up with the idea of creating a new type family consisting of several styles ranging from geometric to cursive, based on the different writing styles found in these manuscripts. Aljamiado is one of several Arab/Hispanic topics that I became interested in since I moved to Madrid three years ago.”
Categories: Media

Audre Lorde on Poetry as an Instrument of Change and the Courage to Feel as an Antidote to Fear, a Portal to Power and Possibility, and a Fulcrum of Action

Brain Pickings - Sunday 18th October 2020
“As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action.”

This is the precarious balance of a thriving society: exposing the fissures and fractures of democracy, but then, rather than letting them gape into abysses of cynicism, sealing them with the magma of lucid idealism that names the alternatives and, in naming them, equips the entire supercontinent of culture with a cartography of action. “Words have more power than any one can guess; it is by words that the world’s great fight, now in these civilized times, is carried on,” Mary Shelley wrote as she championed the courage to speak up against injustice two hundred years ago, amid a world that commended itself for being civilized while barring people like Shelley from access to education, occupation, and myriad other civil dignities on account of their chromosomes, and barring people just a few shades darker than her from just about every human right on account of their melanin.

Shelley laced her novels with the exquisite prose-poetry of conviction, of vision that saw far beyond the horizons of her time and carried generations along the vector of that vision to shift the status quo into new frontiers of possibility. A century and a half after her, Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992)– another woman of uncommon courage of conviction and potency of vision — expanded another horizon of possibility by the power of her words and her meteoric life. Lorde was a poet in both the literal sense at its most stunning and the largest, Baldwinian sense — “The poets (by which I mean all artists),” wrote her contemporary and coworker in the kingdom of culture James Baldwin, “are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t… Only poets.” Lorde understood the power of poetry — the power of words mortised into meaning and tenoned into truth, truth about who we are and who we are capable of being — and she wielded that power to pivot an imperfect world closer to its highest potential.Nowhere does that potency of understanding live with more focused force than in her 1977 manifesto of an essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” which opens The Selected Works of Audre Lorde (public library) — the excellent collection of poetry and prose, edited by Roxane Gay.

Lorde, who resolved to live her life as a burst of light as she faced her death, and so lived it, writes:

The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are — until the poem — nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.

With an eye to how poetry uniquely anneals us by bringing us into intimate contact with those parts of ourselves we least understand and therefore most fear, Lorde adds:

As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.

One of English artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

I am reminded of the shared root of the words power and possibility in posse, Latin for “to be able,” as I read Lorde’s incisive insistence that for women, this place of possibility is buried beneath strata of historical silence and is therefore especially powerful once poetry — “poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play” — does the vital work of excavation:

For each of us as women, there is a dark place within, where hidden and growing our true spirit rises… These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through that darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling.

These reserves, Lorde argues, have remained hidden for epochs because the white founding fathers — of nations, of notions — have not honored them, have not named them, have not inscribed them into the collective vocabulary of standardized thought and selective memory we call culture. From this recognition rises, tender and titanic, the central animating ethos of her essay, of her life. A generation after Rebecca West insisted in her superb meditation on storytelling and survival that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Lorde writes:

Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In a sentiment evocative of Hannah Arendt’s sobering insight into speech, action, and how we change the world, Lorde considers what it takes for women, for non-white persons, for persons of daring and divergence from the status quo, to reconceptualize culture, then take action that bridges the new conception with a new reality:

As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action… We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.

Poetry, Lorde intimates, is also a singular prism for the present that becomes a portal of light from our impossible pasts to our possible futures. In a sentiment that especially gladdens me, as someone who dwells in the lives of the long-dead and unpeels the patina of neglect and indifference from their most luminous ideas for a more livable future, Lorde adds:

There are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us… There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves — along with the renewed courage to try them out. And we must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions that our dreams imply, and so many of our old ideas disparage. In the forefront of our move toward change, there is only poetry to hint at possibility made real. Our poems formulate the implications of ourselves, what we feel within and dare make real (or bring action into accordance with), our fears, our hopes, our most cherished terrors.

Art by Kenard Pak for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

To step into that place of possibility, Lorde argues, requires that we question the notions we have taken as givens from the dominant culture, few more dangerous and limiting than the propagandist dictum that poetry — that is, the life of feeling, which is our locus of power, which is our fulcrum of action — is a luxury. In consonance with E.E. Cummings’s magnificent manifesto for being unafraid to feel, she writes:

Within living structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive… We have hidden that fact in the same place where we have hidden our power. They surface in our dreams, and it is our dreams that point the way to freedom. Those dreams are made realizable through our poems that give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare. If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is discounted as a luxury, then we give up the core — the fountain — of our power… the future of our worlds.

For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt — of examining what those ideas feel like being lived on Sunday morning at 7 A.M., after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth, mourning our dead — while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while we taste new possibilities and strengths.

Complement this fragment of the wholly indispensable and inspiriting Selected Works of Audre Lorde with Lorde on silence, strength, and vulnerability and the importance of unity across difference in movements of social change, then revisit Adrienne Rich on the political power of poetry, Susan Sontag on the conscience of words, Robert Penn Warren on power, tenderness, and poetry as an instrument of democracy, and Grammy-winning musician Cécile McLorin Salvant reading Lorde’s poem “The Bees.”

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Categories: Media

Bruce Lee on Death and What It Takes to Be an Artist of Life

Brain Pickings - Friday 16th October 2020
“The intangible represents the real power of the universe. It is the seed of the tangible. It is living void because all forms come out of it, and whosoever realizes the void is filled with life and power and the love of all beings.”

“Do you need a prod? / Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” Mary Oliver asked in her stunning love poem to life, composed in the wake of a terrifying diagnosis. “Let me be as urgent as a knife, then, / and remind you of Keats, / so single of purpose and thinking, for a while, / he had a lifetime.”

Think of Keats when you need that prod for living — Keats, who died at the peak of his poetic powers, already having given humanity more truth and beauty in his short life than most would give if they had eternity. Or think of Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973) — another rare poet of life, who too pursued truth and beauty, if in a radically different medium; who too was slain by chance, that supreme puppeteer of the universe, at the peak of his powers; who too left a legacy that shaped the sensibility, worldview, and wakefulness to life of generations.

Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

On the bench across from Bruce Lee’s tombstone in Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery, where he is buried alongside his son, also chance-slain in youth, these words of tribute appear: “The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.” They are often misattributed to Lee himself — perhaps because of the proximity, perhaps because they radiate an elemental truth about his life. The animating ethos of that uncommon life comes newly alive in Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee (public library) by his daughter, Shannon Lee, titled after his famous metaphor for resilience — a slender, potent book twining her father’s timeless philosophies of living with her own reflections, drawn from her own courageous life of turning unfathomable loss into a path of light and quiet strength.

In the final year of his life, Lee was in the last stages of a long negotiation with the Hollywood machine over what had long been his dream — a film that would introduce Eastern philosophy into Western culture through the thrilling Trojan horse of martial arts action. It was a dream he attained by his sheer force of vision and will, for the Hollywood studios had such a contrived initial template and such resistance to his deeper conceptual ideas that Lee, at the risk of losing his one great opportunity for reaching millions, refused to be a mere actor in a mindless, unimaginative, and stereotype-reinforcing action movie; he insisted that it be altered and elevated, then ended up radically rewriting the script — adding, among many other poetic-philosophical cornerstones, the now-iconic “finger pointing at the Moon” scene — and giving the film its now-iconic title: Enter the Dragon.

Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

Throughout the entire experience, which pushed Lee to step beyond the limits of his prior creative and existential imagination, he began drafting and redrafting a piece he titled “In My Own Process.” In it, a century after the young Leo Tolstoy wrote in his diary of self-discovery and moral development that “this is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?,” the young philosopher-king of martial arts aimed at a “sincere and honest revelation of a man called Bruce Lee.” He resolved:

I know I am not called upon to write any true confession, but I do want to be honest — that is the least a human being can do… I have always been a martial artist by choice and an actor by profession. But, above all, I am hoping to actualize myself to be an artist of life along the way.

He didn’t know that the way was soon to be cut short; he didn’t know that he was already an artist of life. “The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver would write decades later in an essay of staggering insight, “are those… who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” Bruce Lee felt his restive potential, and though chance interceded before he could give it due time, he gave it more than due power. His daughter quotes another passage from the notebooks he relentlessly filled with ideas, insights, and open questions to be answered in the act of living — a passage that bespeaks the wellspring of his existential and creative power beyond time:

Recognize and use the spiritual power of the infinite. The intangible represents the real power of the universe. It is the seed of the tangible. It is living void because all forms come out of it, and whosoever realizes the void is filled with life and power and the love of all beings.

It was this diffuse and integrated understanding of existence that conferred a rich sense of meaning upon Lee’s life and allowed him to face death, not knowing he was facing it, without regret, without fear, as a fully actualized artist of life. In another notebook entry, he writes:

I don’t know what is the meaning of death, but I am not afraid to die. And I go on, non-stop, going forward, even though I, Bruce Lee, may die some day without fulfilling all of my ambitions, I will have no regrets. I did what I wanted to do and what I’ve done, I’ve done with sincerity and to the best of my ability. You can’t expect much more from life.

Complement with Nobel laureate Louise Glück’s love poem to life at the horizon of death, physicist Brian Greene on how our transience confers dignity and meaning upon our lives, astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s stunning antidote to the fear of death, and Walt Whitman on what makes life worth living, then revisit Lee on the measure of success, his previously unpublished reflections on willpower, imagination, and confidence, and the philosophy and origin of the famous teaching after which his daughter’s book is titled.

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Categories: Media

Kometa Typefaces — Brno, Czech Republic

IdN - Friday 16th October 2020

“Making letters fall down like dominoes. Labil Grotesk started as a mere afternoon pastime that I eventually turned into my master’s thesis. One thing led to another and soon I was going down the rabbit hole of researching typographic classifications and genres that would represent the core idea in the most eloquent way. I settled on a somewhat generic, unassuming sans-serif skeleton (think Avenir or Myriad), infused with a quirky personality. The duality of these ingredients resulted in a typeface family of twins — the well-behaved, dependable Stabil Grotesk and its restless sibling full of energy, Labil Grotesk.”
Categories: Media

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 5 – Chris Brose

Steve Blank - Thursday 15th October 2020

We just held our fifth session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern WarJoe FelterRaj Shah and I designed a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies – Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy.

Today’s topic was The Challenges of Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare.

Catch up with the class by reading our summaries of Class 1 here, Class 2 here, Class 3 here and Class 4 here.

Our guest speaker was Christian Brose, author of The Kill Chain and now the head of strategy for Anduril Industries.

Some of the readings for this class session included:Brookings webinar moderated by Michael O’Hanlon with Christian Brose, Mara Karlin and Frank Rose, The New Revolution in Military Affairs: War’s Sci-Fi Future.

War Made New
The required reading for this class was Chris Brose’s book The Kill Chain. We thought the students would find having the author discuss the thinking behind the book enlightening. It was.

There are few people as qualified as Chris Brose to opine on the state of national defense. Before Brose moved into the civilian world at Anduril, he was the staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee overseeing all the programs, policies, and resources of the Department of Defense, as well as confirming the Department’s senior civilian and military leaders. He was also responsible for leading the production, negotiation, and passage of the 2016-19 National Defense Authorization Acts. He previously was the senior policy advisor to Senator John McCain supporting his work on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And before the Senate he was senior editor of Foreign Policy magazine and served as policy advisor and chief speechwriter to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

This entire class session was a talk by Chris and Q&A with the students. It would be easy to just put up the video and the transcription in this blog and be done with it. But that would do a real disservice to the insights that Chris offered.  I’m going to extract and paraphrase a few below, but I urge you to read the transcript and watch the video.

Why Did Chris Write The Kill Chain?
Chris was increasingly concerned that the United States was falling behind our adversaries and nobody was paying attention to the extent of the problem.

Chris observed that the reality is that we are being disrupted in a way that most Americans and most members of Congress don’t fully understand and appreciate. China has specifically and explicitly focused on undermining the core assumptions on which the United States has been planning to project military power for 25 to 30 years. The assumption was that we would:

  • be able to fight on timelines of our choosing
  • control the timing and tempo of military competition and operations
  • be able to build up forces and operate from sanctuaries that an adversary couldn’t contest
  • be able to move combat power into places that we needed it
  • have military technological superiority over any competitor
  • be able to move and shoot and communicate with near impunity and qualitatively
  • dominate even quantitatively superior adversaries

These assumptions are no longer true.

The Defense Industry
Since the end of the Cold War our defense industry has become increasingly concentrated, consolidated, uncompetitive and essentially hollowed out. We have gotten extremely good about building a force around very small numbers of very expensive exquisite, heavily manned and hard to replace military systems. We built up a system to produce a certain type of military power at a time when that whole business model is being disrupted and undermined — much as Blockbuster Video’s business model was undermined by Netflix and Apple.

Disruptive Technology
The new technologies and capabilities that will be central to military advantage in the future – artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous systems, distributed networking, advanced manufacturing, and commercial space, etc. are technologies largely driven by commercial innovation and commercial companies.  The future will be dominated by large quantities of small or cheaper, more autonomous, more intelligent military systems. This is also true of things that are not military platforms: networking, the movement of information, and the weaponization of data.

The Threat Landscape
We don’t know what the world is going to look like. We don’t know what our competitors are going to do. We don’t know what new technologies are going to be developed next month or next year or next decade. And we ultimately don’t know how we’re going to want to organize ourselves and build operational concepts to employ these new technologies.

We need to have more humility around the best way to experiment and feel our way through the future. And take account for what will inevitably happen: We’re going to get things wrong. We’re going to fail to predict the future and we’re going to need to end up in places we didn’t foresee.

We’ve got to get out of the trap of trying to define the requirements for our inputs. We need to value new, innovative, completely unpredictable and surprising capabilities, concepts and organizational Innovation that allow us to solve these problems differently.

Our system is not designed to do that. Our system is designed to try to predict the future in ten, 20 or 30 years. Then write requirements to what we think it’s going to look like and then throw a lot of money at industry to deliver that future on very long timelines. “Shockingly” many of those things are irrelevant when they show up, if they ever show up at all.

Changing Acquisition
As a buyer of technology and capability, the Department of Defense now can decide to buy different capabilities to match this new world. They can create different incentives for different types of industries to work with them and for them. They can create incentives for private capital that’s sitting on the sidelines to flow back into the Defense sector in a way that hasn’t happened for a very long time.

The only way we’re really going to change is by trying to create more and more pockets in the defense portfolio and programs that are open to real competition. We have a system that’s geared around valuing and buying inputs rather than defining what we want our outcomes to be. We need pockets of marketplace-type behavior where actual systems are competed out based on outcome-oriented metrics. And we buy new things more regularly.

The DOD and Congress can create incentives to take advantage of the willingness and ability of leading technology developers to solve these problems. However, they won’t create a new commercial ecosystem if they continue to dole out small SBIR account grants and million-dollar OTA’s (door prizes for showing up) while the same five national defense contractors they’ve been paying for the past three decades still get the billion-dollar programs. The DOD has to write checks to new vendors for programs at scale.

Making Change Happen
The DOD admits they have a problem. They admit they need to do things differently. Now we get down to the difficult questions of execution and implementation, which is where they have foundered in the past. They haven’t ended up in this position due to a lack of people saying the right things. We’re here because they have failed to do so many of the things they have said (in many cases for decades).

From an organizational standpoint, change won’t come internally. Major kinds of organizational reforms tend to originate outside of bureaucratic institutions. It’s going to take an external act, such as the Secretary of Defense coming in to work with the Congress, to essentially say we do need to do things differently. It is going to involve more risk and the only people in our system capable of doing it are our senior leaders, whether they’re confirmed by the Senate or elected by the American people.

Read the entire transcript of Chris Brose’s talk here and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the Chris Brose’s talk click here 

Student Takeaways From Chris’ Talk

Lessons Learned

  • The military advantages we had as a nation in the 20th century are gone
    • China has systematically negated each of our strengths
    • Our nation is no longer guaranteed to win a war
  • Our Defense industry has built expensive and exquisite systems that are few in number and now extremely vulnerable
    • That’s no longer the correct model
    • AI, machine learning, autonomous systems, distributed networking, advanced manufacturing, commercial space, etc. are largely driven by commercial innovation and companies
  • The Department of Defense has given lip service to change but institutional inertia – measured by actual spending – is holding us back
    • We need to rapidly pivot to using new contractors at scale
  • The DOD needs to rapidly integrate commercial tech into new capabilities that
    • Replace attrited assets
    • Enhance existing capabilities
    • Create new capabilities and concepts that leapfrog our adversaries
Categories: Media

Glyph44 — Matthew Woodcock — Perth, Australia

IdN - Thursday 15th October 2020

Glyph44 creates and publishes high-quality display and custom typefaces for print and digital media.
Categories: Media

Parley for the Oceans

Monocle Entrepreneurs - Wednesday 14th October 2020
This week, we meet Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans. Cyrill is a German designer and entrepreneur who started Parley in 2012 as a forum for creative industries to address major threats towards marine ecosystems. It’s had notable collaborations with Adidas, Anheuser-Busch InBev, American Express and the UN.

See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

Categories: Media

Viktor Pesotsky — Saint Petersburg, Russia

IdN - Tuesday 13th October 2020

“Escos and Escos Display were inspired by the desire to create a new structure of writing and construction of signs. That is, not just the graphics, but the writing system itself. In the current system, all signs are constructed rationally and logically. But I thought, what if you leave only one or two directions for strokes — vertical and diagonal from top left to bottom right? This really inspired me and I drew hundreds of oblique letters, tried to distribute the strokes and align the density. Not all the letters were managed perfectly, but overall I’m happy with what I got.”
Categories: Media

Every Color of Light: A Stunning Japanese Illustrated Celebration of Change, the Sky, and the Fullness of Life

Brain Pickings - Tuesday 13th October 2020
A synesthetic invitation to dance across the full span of the spectrum within and without.

One of the most bewildering things about life is how ever-shifting the inner weather systems are, yet how wholly each storm consumes us when it comes, how completely suffering not only darkens the inner firmament but dims the prospective imagination itself, so that we cease being able to imagine the return of the light. But the light does return to lift the darkness and restore the world’s color — as in nature, so in the subset of it that is human nature. “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” Loren Eiseley wrote in one of the greatest essays ever written. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

We forget, too, just how much of life’s miraculousness resides in the latitude of the spectrum of experience and our dance across it, how much of life’s vibrancy radiates from the contrast between the various hues, between the darkness and the light. There is, after all, something eminently uninteresting about a perpetually blue sky. Van Gogh knew this when he contemplated “the drama of a storm in nature, the drama of sorrow in life” as essential fuel for art and life. Coleridge knew it as he huddled in a hollow to behold “the power and ‘eternal link’ of energy” in his transcendent encounter with a violent storm.

The life-affirming splendor of the spectrum within and without is what Japanese poet and picture-book author Hiroshi Osada and artist Ryoji Arai celebrate in Every Color of Light: A Book about the Sky (public library), translated by David Boyd — a tender serenade to the elements that unspools into a lullaby, inviting ecstatic wakefulness to the fulness of life, inviting a serene surrender to slumber.

Born in Fukushima just as World War II was breaking out, Osada composed this spare, lyrical book upon turning eighty, having lived through unimaginable storms. I can’t help but read it in consonance with Pico Iyer’s soulful meditation on autumn light and finding beauty in impermanence, drawn from his many years in Japan. Arai’s almost synesthetic art — radiating more than color, radiating sound, a kind of buzzing aliveness — only amplifies this sense of consolation in the drama of the elements, this sense of change as a portal not to terror but to transcendent serenity.

The story traces the symphonic movements of a storm. The pitter-patter of a rainy day crescendoes into whipping wind and slanting rain as the blues grow darker and the greens deeper, suddenly interrupted by the electric kaleidoscope of lightning.

And then, just like that, the storm passes, leaving a shimmering light-filled sky in its wake, leaving the darkened colors not just restored but imbued with a new vibrancy as the setting sun blankets everything with its golden light.

The shadows grow longer, the birds go to roost, the Moon rises enormous and ancient against the clear star-salted sky, and the time for sleep comes like birdsong, like a moonrise, like a whispered poem.

Complement the subtle and staggeringly beautiful Every Color of Light with science-inspired artist Lauren Redniss’s wondrous Thunder & Lightning and artist Maira Kalman’s charming MoMA collaboration with author Daniel Handler, Weather, Weather, then revisit Little Tree — Japanese graphic designer and book artist Katsumi Komagata’s uncommonly magical pop-up celebration fo the cycle of life — and Georgia O’Keeffe’s serenade to the sky.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books. Photographs by Maria Popova.

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Categories: Media

Antipixel — Julia Martinez Diana — Buenos Aires, Argentina

IdN - Monday 12th October 2020

“My most conceptual work is the Austral family, consisting of Serif and Sans Serif versions. I designed this with a road-trip in mind, centred on the part of Argentina in which I live. Deriving inspiration from different objects and textures, I had to take photographs of rust, water, humidity marks, dirt, maps and road lines. Its irregular strokes reflect silhouettes of mountains, treelines, old broken wood. I selected thematic language, so the travel and journey aspects inspired the choice of both images and words.”
Categories: Media

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