Why the headquarters of evil megacorporations in sci-fi movies are always “brooding Late Modernist” architecture. Superb photography of video game arcades from the late 70s and early 80s. Scientists have discovered a molten river of iron “nearly as hot as the surface of the sun” that lies 3000 km below the surface of the earth, running between Russia and Canada, and it is picking up speed.  A programming language that consists solely of eight one-character commands, and an instruction pointer; here’s an explanation of how its “Hello World” program functions. Brianna Wu is running for congress! Why do so many doctors work crazy 24-to-36-hour shifts? “I know half my advertising spending is wasted on Russian botfarms that pseudoclick on procedurally astroturfed video sites, but I don’t know which half.” Help; I am addicted to this iOS racing game. My holiday reading is this new book of poetry that meditates on “the art of protest”. How David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post used his Twitter followers to do research impossible for any one individual to pull off. The company that made the Liberty Bell is, after 500 years, going out of business.

A gorgeous arpeggiated chord player, done in javascript. Jason Griffey issued a rousing call to his fellow librarians to resist disinfo, hate, and surveillance. That weird data-transfer standard for old modems — 9600 bps — emerged because of the reaction times of carbon microphones. Behold a lovely interactive dataviz of how various bachelors degree have risen (or fallen) in popularity since 1970. Why female online fan communities nurture amazing tech skills, and why they’re overlooked come hiring time. Testing Jane Jacobs’ theory of vibrant streets, using mobile-phone data. Waterguns in ice.

An argument in favor of the proprioceptic value of seesaws, which are fast vanishing from playgrounds around the country. The Turing Test for classical music: An AI is able to harmonize with Bach so well half of human listeners think Bach himself composed it. Pokemon Go made players more physically active, but not very much, and not for long. Behold Z1ffer, an open-source hardware random-number generator! “Reports on the rise of fascism in Europe was not the American media’s finest hour.” Apparently the phrase “no can do” emerged around 1900 and has seen four spikes in popularity. What makes for a good news tip to the New York Times? Harsh: A piece of ransomware that goes away if you infect two other people.

A version of Lode Runner, done in HTML5, and better yet — here’s a strategy guide: “You can use enemies’ heads as stepping stones, even when they are falling.” The Cassini probe approaches its death on Saturn, and is taking gorgeous “ring grazing” shots. This woman discovered the greenhouse-gas effect 1856, but her contribution (the original here) was forgotten. “Literai” is a website that publishes AI-authored fiction, and has docs on how to generate your own. Behold a credit-card-sized synthesizer you can fit in your pocket. Bold.io is like Medium, except with anonymity, and background sounds (“a cafe in Paris”; “a relaxing storm”) for while you write. This device turns butter into mist; migod, what it must be like to clean the inside after a few months …

“Bat men discovered on the moon”, an original piece of fake news, from 1865. Cloud life: About 20% of the bigger-sized particles in clouds are microbes, and they’re probably responsible for a lot of rain. What’s it like for a kid who grows up living in a NYC library? The ozone hole seemed like a terrifying threat to humanity, but international co-operation mostly repaired it. Stephen Wolfram wrote a fantastic account of being the scientific advisor to the movie Arrival; among other things, he wrote on-screen equations and his son wrote Wolfram code that appeared on-screen and actually, in real-life, analyzed the alien communications.

Why are writers such terrible procrastinators? Wow, footage shot on the 1987 Fisher-Price PXL-2000 camera is creepy. Here’s “The Imperial March” from Star Wars, and the “Cups” song from Pitch Perfect, scored for a cello. In 1826, Mary Shelley followed up Frankenstein by publishing The Last Man, a book about a 21st-century global pandemic. Only a few large cities are driving the US’s rising murder rate, or, “why it’s good to know the difference between median and mode”.

What can people do better than machines? The view from 1951

Image from Paul Fitts' paper on huma machine differences

What can humans do that machines can’t? The pessimistic view, in a world of advancing AI and robotics, would be “less and less every day”. While researching this today I ran into an interesting historical perspective — the view from 1951.

It’s a paper called “Human Engineering for an Effective Air Navigation and Traffic Control System,” written for the National Security Council by Paul Fitts, a psychologist known for studying human factors in technology. He was most famous for his work trying to figure out how to automate air travel to make it more safe, and that’s where this report comes in. It’s a long, elegantly-written attempt to tease out the distinctions: Which aspects of airflight could best be managed by machines, and what by humans?

The fun begins on page 6, where Fitts asks …

Callout from Paul Fitt's paper: what can man do better than machines

He argues that our “sensory functions” and “perceptual abilities” are more sensitive than machines — which is arguably less true today than it was back then, given innovations in everything from LIDAR and 3D imaging to olfaction. He also argues we meatfolk have the edge on “reasoning” — which, again, is certainly true but probably much less true than in 1951, when it was considered pretty rad to get a vacuum-tube computer to play a simple peg game.

But then Fitts points out a unique human cognitive advantage: “Flexibility”.Flexibility. Another special Capacity of the human is his extraordinary flexibility and ability to improvise. These abilities are still in completely understood by psychologists, but they represent important respects in which humans surpass machines. The amount of flexibility a machine has is fixed by the amount that was built into it. The machine will attempt as many different kinds of solutions as it's designer plan for and no more. Experiments on complex problem-solving and humans, on the other hand, show that humans may attempt many different solutions to the same problem – just think of the number of ways in which this paragraph could've been written to convey essentially the same point. Flexibility is especially important in the changing and evolving system, such as one in which new techniques are constantly coming into use. It also provides insurance against complete breakdown in emergencies. The conclusion here is that if flexibility in the system is important, it probably is a good plan to let human beings play an important role in the system.

Now, this distinction seems still very solid! AI and robotics are remarkably more advanced than in 1951, but even the most advanced machine is still pretty narrow in its function. “General” AI is still nowhere in sight, and robots are still simply terrible at navigating and manipulating the everyday human environment: Google’s Go-playing computer creamed the world’s champion at that game, but it couldn’t pick up the game pieces by itself. In any individual intellectual and physical skill, you could create (or soon create) a machine that would best us, probably. But human ability to adapt to new situations and tasks makes us the cognitive Swiss Army knife in this corner of the universe.

(We could extend Fitt’s list by adding a bunch of areas in which humans still trounce machines, by the way — like empathy and creativity. Fitts didn’t include these, possibly because he didn’t see them as related to airflight control, though I could make the case they’re necessary in that field.)

This point about flexibility reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s dictum:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

If I’d written that list I’d probably have included a bit less fighting and invasion-planning, but otherwise it’s a pretty solid CV. Of those twenty-one skills, though, I’m only confident of my ability in fifteen.

Go download that whole paper by Fitts — it’s a fun read! (That awesome image at the top of this post is from the paper, BTW.)