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Catskills Conf 2017

Sunrise club at Ashokan courtesy of Ruthie Nachmany - https://twitter.com/ruthienachmany

Yawp! YAWP!
Yawp! YAWP!
Don't fall in the creek.
Hudson Valley Tech Ashokan Community.
Yawp! YAWP!
Yawp! YAWP!
Don't fall in the creek.
Be as open and present as you can be.

That was the chorus of the theme song for Castkills Conf this weekend. Yes there was a theme song. Every day started with a musical riff on the talks of the day before by Jonathan Mann, who has been posting a song-a-day, every day, to youtube for a decade. You can go watch them for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (soon). This is one of the many wonderful ways that this event was unlike any tech event I've been to, and why it just became one of my favorite tech events I've ever been to.

At a typical tech event the focus is on getting a bunch of speakers, so much content, splitting folks into tracks on the topics they would be interested in, then packing that in from 9 - 5 (or later). People are exhausted by the end of the day. They also largely attended different conferences. At a 10 track conference, the only shared experience, if it exists, is keynotes. Which for larger conferences are purchased slots.

Catskills Conf was a single speaking track. There were only 10 speakers, plus a lightning talk session with 7 lightning talks. The talks were a shared experience for everyone. They were all about technology, the tech industry, and/or the intersection of tech with other aspects of our lives. And they were all incredible. I considered it quite an honor to be a part of the speaking lineup.

And when it came to speakers, the Catskills Conf team was extremely serious about having a diverse speaker list. Of the 10 speakers, the gender split was 3 men, 6 women, and 1 non-binary. 4 of 10 speakers were people of color. The lightning talks were equally diverse. It was such a stark contrast to what you typically see at a Tech event that it was in your face refreshing.

10 talks doesn't seem like a lot for a 3 day conference, but in between them there were structured Activity times. Saturday afternoon there was a 2 hour activity block after lunch with options including black smithing, letter press, self defense, foraging, hiking (with historic interpretation of the Ashokan site), and bread making. Being a 75 degree sunny fall afternoon, I opted for the 2 hour hike, wandering through woods and along streams. I came straight back from that into my talk more energized than I've ever been for one.

These kind of breaks from sitting and listening to talks and doing something with your hands or feet gave was wonderful for processing what you were hearing. It also meant that by the end of the day instead of feeling like your brain was jelly, you had enough processing time that you were excited to talk about what you heard, or get to know the person sitting next to you at dinner and find out the fascinating things they were doing. Every night ended with a campfire and beer under the stars. Which was another place to talk and get to know more folks. You weren't so overloaded during the day that you wanted to go off and hide and decompress afterwards, even those of us that are more on the introvert side.

A couple of folks even collected for a 6am sunrise hike on Sunday morning. I joined 3 others as we hiked under flashlights, losing the trail a couple of times, to a sugar orchard and sugar shack, while discussing the work one of the hikers was doing around infectious disease modeling and experiments with mosquitos, the bio mimicry work that another was doing trying to take queues from nature and work them into built materials, discussing bird migrations, tech meetups, and just generally exploring a beautiful area.

This was the 3rd year of Catskills Conf, but the first time I could make it. I'm going to be processing the event for weeks to come. There were so many moments that I really loved that aren't here, it just doesn't all fit. But one thing is for sure. I'm extremely excited about attending and participating in the years to come.

I'll leave you with this really cool Catskills Conf 2017 wrap up video. It's not like being there, but it gives you a flavor.

James Bessen: "Learning by Doing: The Real Connection between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth"

Interesting video by the Author of "Learning by Doing: The Real Connection between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth", which largely comes down to "it's complicated". Sometimes automation replaces jobs, but sometimes it increases jobs, especially when there was pent up demand.

ATMs actually increased the number of bank teller jobs, because it led to needing less people needed per branch, and banks openned up new branches to meet pent up demand. It's also why manufacturing jobs are never coming back, we've met the demand on consumption, and most industries making goods are in the optimizing phase.

What's also really interesting is the idea that new skills are always undervalued, because there is no reliable basis to understand how valuable they are. The transition from typesetting to digital publishing was a huge skill shift, but was pretty stagnant on wages.

What really causes cyber outages?

WASHINGTON, DC—For years, the government and security experts have warned of the looming threat of "cyberwar" against critical infrastructure in the US and elsewhere. Predictions of cyber attacks wreaking havoc on power grids, financial systems, and other fundamental parts of nations' fabric have been foretold repeatedly over the past two decades, and each round has become more dire. The US Department of Energy declared in its Quadrennial Energy Review, just released this month, that the electrical grid in the US "faces imminent danger from a cyber attack."

So far, however, the damage done by cyber attacks, both real (Stuxnet's destruction of Iranian uranium enrichment centrifuges and a few brief power outages alleged to have been caused by Russian hackers using BlackEnergy malware) and imagined or exaggerated (the Iranian "attack" on a broken flood control dam in Rye, New York), cannot begin to measure up to an even more significant cyber-threat—squirrels.

Source: Who’s winning the cyber war? The squirrels, of course | Ars Technica

The ultimate fuzz testers.

Podcast Roundup 2016

As we round up 2016, I figured it's useful to share what's in my podcast rotation, and why you might want to add them to yours.

Skeptics Guide to the Universe

This is a weekly science and critical thinking podcast that's really good at keeping you up on the latest science coming out, as well as building your critical thinking skills. You both get information on latest scientific discoveries, deconstruction of sometimes very poor science reporting, and a weekly Science or Fiction quiz that both is lots of fun, and helps figure out where all your odd biases are.

No particular episode jumps out for the year, this is more about getting a steady diet of facts, critical thinking, and reality every week.

More information: http://www.theskepticsguide.org/

99 Percent Invisible

A weekly podcast about the Built World (architecture and design). I find incredibly useful to understand how the world is shaped (literally). The subject matter goes all over the place, and the production quality is amazing. Who knew that in 1970s Chili there was a cyber command center to help govern the country? Now you do - http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/project-cybersyn/.

More information: http://99percentinvisible.org/

The Long Now

The Long Now foundation is based on the idea that we are in the middle of the arc of Human History, so with 10,000 years behind us, we've got another 10,000 years in our run. What kind of thinking, values, and information do we need to promote for the next 10,000 years. Part of this is a monthly lecture series which you can get as a podcast (you can get video if you are a member).

In 2016 the 2 episodes I learned the most from were:

Radical Ag: C4 Rice and Beyond - http://longnow.org/seminars/02016/mar/14/radical-ag-c4-rice-and-beyond/ - which has an incredible primer on the state of food production in the world, and what is needed to feed the planet in 2050. I also learned a ton about how plants actually make sugars, as the team described the grand goal of upgrading Rice's sugar production to meet world demand.

1177 BC: When Civilization Collapsed - http://longnow.org/seminars/02016/jan/11/1177-bc-when-civilization-collapsed/. Which was part of a book tour about a time in history where we had a very global world, and it collapsed rather quickly. It's a part of history I knew little about, and also helps remember how long the arc of human history really is.

More information: http://longnow.org/

The Common Wealth Club of California

The common wealth club is now producing over 300 events a year, much of it gets dumped into the podcast. It's useful in being such a wide spectrum of things ending up in it. Lots of people on book tours, but also there is the Inforum and Climate One programs that specifically look at technology issues and climate issues. Because of the volume I freely skip past things that don't turn out to be interesting, but I've also gotten surprised by some things I didn't think I would.

The panel discussion on sustainability in the fashion industry was one of those - https://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/2016-05-17/you-are-what-you-wear-fashion-matters.

More information: https://www.commonwealthclub.org/

The Allusionist

A quirky podcast about language and the origin of words. It only runs every other week, but it's always a fun dose of something different.

More information: http://www.theallusionist.org/

Imaginary Worlds

A podcast about scifi and fantasy worlds, and why we create them. In 2016 there were some great bits on the economics in fanstasy and scifi universes, how do you pay for that invasion? An exploration of the year without summer in 1816, which gave us Frankenstein. And a look at the role of maps in Fantasy epics.

More information: http://www.imaginaryworldspodcast.org/home.html

Radio Lab

Always a favorite, though you have to get used to their editing style. In 2016 Radio Lab also did a spin off about the Supreme Court called More Perfect - http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolabmoreperfect.

The story that stuck with me the most in 2016 was Debatable - http://www.radiolab.org/story/debatable/ - it's about Debate Club, but it's meta enough that you just have to listen to understand.

More information: http://www.radiolab.org/

 

There are a few more that come and go, but this was really the most notable during the year. If you are looking for more quality content, anything from the list above will fit that bill.

On the quest for Fake-News

A few days before the election, an extraordinary story popped up in hundreds of thousands of people's Facebook feeds. This story was salacious. It was vivid, filled with intriguing details. There was a photo of a burning house, firemen rushing in. The headline read, "FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide."

It was all fake. There was no FBI agent. There was no shooting. The site it was published on, The Denver Guardian, isn't a real news source. It was one of many fake stories that play into conspiracy theories about the Clintons and it worked. There is one part of the article that was real: the ads. Someone was making money off this phony news article and dozens of others like it. Someone was making profit off a fake story that suggested a presidential candidate was a killer. Today on the show, we take this single fake news story and follow the clues all the way back. We follow the digital breadcrumbs until we find ourselves on a suburban doorstep, face to face with the man behind a bogus news empire run. Then he tells us his secrets.

Source: Episode 739: Finding The Fake-News King : Planet Money : NPR

It's 25 minutes and worth your time.

The core challenge is there is a giant demand for "fake news". People so wanted to believe these terrible things about Clinton that they sought them out. Any debunking just fed the conspiracy arc further.

Why NBC Olympics Coverage is Bad

Here’s a suggestion for NBC, though: How about celebrating this group of American gymnasts, perhaps the greatest ever, by explaining to Americans exactly what makes them so great? I’m not a lifelong gymnastics fan—true gymnerds refer to the rest of us as “Four-Year Fans”—but earlier this year I spent several months engrossed in the sport while writing about Biles. I now consider myself safely in the ninetieth percentile of gymnastics comprehension, meaning that I understand about ten per cent of what is going on. But every bit I’ve learned has made the sport wildly more interesting to watch. On Sunday, for instance, I watched the qualifying round with two Four-Year Fans and was able to pass along an insight that Biles’s coaches have pointed out many times, but that NBC didn’t. As good as Biles is on her world-beating Amanar—a vault in which she twists two and a half times while flipping through the air—she will never get a perfect score because of the tiniest flaw: she crosses her toes.

This is the kind of information we might expect to learn from NBC’s broadcasts. There’s no questioning the credentials of the network’s analysts: Tim Daggett won a team gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, and Nastia Liukin won the individual all-around in 2008. But their expertise is often muted by the strictures of a prime-time broadcast. “My producer always puts a note card in front of me, like, ‘Talk to Madeleine in Middle America, who doesn’t know gymnastics,’ ”

Source: Women’s Gymnastics Deserves Better TV Coverage - The New Yorker

This, all of this. The Olympics are a time when a bunch of unusual sports end up on the air. It is an opportunity to help us understand them and get excited about them. People get excited about things they understand, and can tell what a good / bad / great performance looks like.

I remember sitting in a hotel room in Sydney in 2000, because the Olympics actually started, watching a cricket match. I had no idea what I was watching. I turned to my friend Dylan and said "ok, we've been in Australia for a month, we're going to figure this out." And with a laptop up searching the internet while watching, we figuring out enough of the basics that we could see what a good or terrible performance looked like. And it was so much more interesting to watch.

How you are being tracked online

Source: Online tracking: A 1-million-site measurement and analysis

A very solid paper on how you are being tracked online. I had known about Font fingerprinting before (as the list of fonts you have installed is actually pretty unique), but using audio filter fingerprinting, or web rtc to get a list of ip addresses you can reach, is pretty novel. And a bit scary.

Which is all another good reason to install Ad Blocking software today. uBlock is my current favorite.

The Story of Hōkūleʻa

Embedded in the story of Hōkūle’a and the culture that created her is the story of a 2000-year-old relationship with special islands and the sea. It is a story that was almost lost, and was close to extinction. But ultimately it is a story of survival, rediscovery, and the restoration of pri…

Source: The Story of Hōkūleʻa

This I learned from an episode of the Commonwealth Club: there is a boat, sailing around the world, without instruments (no sextants / clocks). They are using traditional Polynesian navigation which is about wave patterns, cloud patterns, and animals at sea.

 

Continuum

I just finished Continuum, and it had one of the more satisfying series endings that I've seen in a while. Spoilers will be saved for a bit later. Seasons 1 - 3 are up on Netflix now, and Season 4 (which recently ended) will probably make it's way there later this year.

Continuum is about a set of time travelers that come back from 2077 to change the future. From the beginning it sets up an interesting set of axes. Our protagonist is part of a militant protection services body, chasing a set of terrorists called Liber8. Except those terrorists are what you'd recognize as people standing up for civil liberties and basic freedoms.

The first season is brilliant, and while it dips and weaves a little in season 2, season 3 and 4 pulled it back together for a solid ride.

Minor spoilers beyond this point, you've been warned.

In thinking back through the series, ever season folds over a new timeline on the ones before it. We end with a time travel event that causes a new twist in an interesting way. Apparently the creators originally had between 7 to 10 seasons worth of layers they were thinking about. The rather abrupt introduction of the time traveler at the end of season 3 and early in 4 definitely feels a little rushed, and something they would have held onto for another year or so if the end was not in sight.

But, at least they got season 4 to wrap it up. And while it felt like we were marching a bit faster, it didn't feel forced. Pacing was one of the things that Continuum was always quite good at. Time wasn't just the plot, it was also a key part of the art of this show.

If you are looking for good new Sci Fi, definitely give this one a shot. It stays quite true to itself to the end, and stays firmly on it's rails the whole time.