Remembering Carl Sagan: “We Are the Custodians of Life’s Meaning”

We lost Carl Sagan on this day, seventeen years ago. It was only in the last few years that I have discovered his voice and his wisdom. And I wanted to share one of the best compilations in his memory, compiled by Reid Grower and simply titled The Sagan Series. It’s a series of ten YouTube videos with Sagan narrating the wonder of our planet, space exploration, and our life’s purpose.

My favourite is probably the first video, which to this day, is still the best encapsulation of why man should and will venture out into space.

But my favorite quote probably comes from the third video, titled “A Reassuring Fable.” In it, Sagan notes on the meaning of life:

We long to be here for a purpose. Even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident. The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning.

He goes on to say:

We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better, by far, to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable…If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.

Amen.

Regardless of where you stand in the religion/science spectrum, The Sagan Series is the best thing you can watch today.

Walt Mossberg’s Top 12 Products in Two Decades of Tech Reviews

Walt Mossberg has been covering technology for The Wall Street Journal for 22 years. In his last column for the newspaper, he compiles 12 products which, in his opinion, have been the most influential in the last twenty years.

His criteria for selection:

First, the products had to improve ease of use and add value for average consumers. That was the guiding principle I laid down in the first sentence of my first column, in 1991: “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it’s not your fault.”

Second, I chose these 12 because each changed the course of digital history by influencing the products and services that followed, or by changing the way people lived and worked. In some cases, the impact of these mass-market products is still unfolding. All of these products had predecessors, but they managed to take their categories to a new level.

Unsurprisingly, Apple (the company) takes 5 of the 12 spots. I have used every product/service on the list with the exception of the Newton and the Palm Pilot. If it were me, I would have added one more service which has changed how I have looked into traveling: AirBnb, which allows you to rent out spaces in other people’s apartments/homes. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars by paying a fraction of the cost of hotel rooms in the last three years during my trips to Portland, Oregon.

Crazy Ants are Insane

I meant to highlight this fascinating piece in The New York Times earlier, but better late than never.

First, the name:

The ants are called crazy ants. That’s their actual name. Many people call them Rasberry crazy ants, and some people call them Tawny crazy ants and refuse to call them Rasberry crazy ants. 

Rasberry coming from not a scientist or a professor, but an exterminator who noticed these wild ants in Texas.

Rasberry crazy ants do not have a painful bite, but they effectively terrorize people by racing up their feet and around their bodies, coursing everywhere in their impossibly disordered orbits. (They’re called crazy ants because their behavior seems psychotic.) Some people in Texas have become so frustrated with crazy ants that they have considered selling their houses or been driven to the verge of divorce. “Usually, the husband doesn’t think it’s such a big deal, and the wife is going batty,” one exterminator explained. An attorney living on an infested farm south of Houston told me: “It reminds me of the scenes in Africa, where you see flies crawling all over people. Occasionally they’ll knock one off, but for the most part they’re so accustomed to it that they finally give up.”

Crazy ants decimate native insects. They overtake beehives and destroy the colonies. They may smother bird chicks struggling to hatch. In South America, where scientists now believe the ants originated, they have been known to obstruct the nasal cavities of chickens and asphyxiate the birds. They swarm into cows’ eyes.

So far, there is no way to contain them. In the fall, when the temperature drops, the worker ants are subject to magnificent die-offs, but the queens survive, and a new, often larger crop of crazy ants pours back in the following spring. Rasberry crazy ants were first discovered in Texas by an exterminator in 2002. Within five years, they appeared to be spreading through the state much faster than even the red imported fire ant has. The fire ant is generally considered one of the worst invasive species in the world. The cost of fire ants to Texas has been estimated at more than $1 billion a year.

Here is a three-year old video that shows how fast these crazy ants scurry about:

 

Definitely worth reading the entire thing. Fascinating reporting. And scary how species can be so invasive!

The Future of Journalism is Beyoncé

Jenna Wortham, a technology reporter for The New York Times, writes in Nieman Journalism Lab that the future of journalism is Beyoncé. Say what? As she says, stick with her:

Beyoncé completely upended the conventional model by which major album releases are released by the sheer amount of material that she airdropped simultaneously — more than a dozen new songs and videos for each — is unprecedented.

Her strategy, and its success, could shine a light on what consumers want and what is possible for all content creators, entertainers and publishers alike, in the future. It’s important to note that Bey’s strategy isn’t popular in a commercial sense — brick-and-mortar retailers like Target have promised not going to sell her album because it was available digitally before it was made available physically, which feels like an egregious error on their part, given the overall popularity of the album — but Bey’s earns points with me for not afraid to upset the incumbents to experiment with something new…

Her fans weren’t barraged by a series of advertisement and reminders about her coming album for months before it saw the light of day. They were thrilled by the surprise and can’t get enough of it.

I saw the news of Beyoncé’s release of the album shortly after midnight on Thursday. It took me a few days, but I downloaded the album this week and have been listening to it as I work out in the gym. It is very good. It’s also the most I’ve ever spent on an album, but the inclusion of a number of videos was the selling point for me (and made it worth the cost).

Robert Frost’s A Servant to Servants

“The worst that you can do // Is set me back a little more behind.”

Robert Frost’s poem, “A Servant to Servants” was the highlight of my morning reading today. The poem, published in 1914 in the North of Boston anthology, presented below in its entirety.

A Servant to Servants
by Robert Frost

I didn’t make you know how glad I was
To have you come and camp here on our land.
I promised myself to get down some day
And see the way you lived, but I don’t know!
With a houseful of hungry men to feed
I guess you’d find…. It seems to me
I can’t express my feelings any more
Than I can raise my voice or want to lift
My hand (oh, I can lift it when I have to).
Did ever you feel so? I hope you never.
It’s got so I don’t even know for sure
Whether I am glad, sorry, or anything.
There’s nothing but a voice-like left inside
That seems to tell me how I ought to feel,
And would feel if I wasn’t all gone wrong.
You take the lake. I look and look at it.
I see it’s a fair, pretty sheet of water.
I stand and make myself repeat out loud
The advantages it has, so long and narrow,
Like a deep piece of some old running river
Cut short off at both ends. It lies five miles
Straight away through the mountain notch
From the sink window where I wash the plates,
And all our storms come up toward the house,
Drawing the slow waves whiter and whiter and whiter.
It took my mind off doughnuts and soda biscuit
To step outdoors and take the water dazzle
A sunny morning, or take the rising wind
About my face and body and through my wrapper,
When a storm threatened from the Dragon’s Den,
And a cold chill shivered across the lake.
I see it’s a fair, pretty sheet of water,
Our Willoughby! How did you hear of it?
I expect, though, everyone’s heard of it.
In a book about ferns? Listen to that!
You let things more like feathers regulate
Your going and coming. And you like it here?
I can see how you might. But I don’t know!
It would be different if more people came,
For then there would be business. As it is,
The cottages Len built, sometimes we rent them,
Sometimes we don’t. We’ve a good piece of shore
That ought to be worth something, and may yet.
But I don’t count on it as much as Len.
He looks on the bright side of everything,
Including me. He thinks I’ll be all right
With doctoring. But it’s not medicine—
Lowe is the only doctor’s dared to say so—
It’s rest I want—there, I have said it out—
From cooking meals for hungry hired men
And washing dishes after them—from doing
Things over and over that just won’t stay done.
By good rights I ought not to have so much
Put on me, but there seems no other way.
Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.
He says the best way out is always through.
And I agree to that, or in so far
As that I can see no way out but through—
Leastways for me—and then they’ll be convinced.
It’s not that Len don’t want the best for me.
It was his plan our moving over in
Beside the lake from where that day I showed you
We used to live—ten miles from anywhere.
We didn’t change without some sacrifice,
But Len went at it to make up the loss.
His work’s a man’s, of course, from sun to sun,
But he works when he works as hard as I do—
Though there’s small profit in comparisons.
(Women and men will make them all the same.)
But work ain’t all. Len undertakes too much.
He’s into everything in town. This year
It’s highways, and he’s got too many men
Around him to look after that make waste.
They take advantage of him shamefully,
And proud, too, of themselves for doing so.
We have four here to board, great good-for-nothings,
Sprawling about the kitchen with their talk
While I fry their bacon. Much they care!
No more put out in what they do or say
Than if I wasn’t in the room at all.
Coming and going all the time, they are:
I don’t learn what their names are, let alone
Their characters, or whether they are safe
To have inside the house with doors unlocked.
I’m not afraid of them, though, if they’re not
Afraid of me. There’s two can play at that.
I have my fancies: it runs in the family.
My father’s brother wasn’t right. They kept him
Locked up for years back there at the old farm.
I’ve been away once—yes, I’ve been away.
The State Asylum. I was prejudiced;
I wouldn’t have sent anyone of mine there;
You know the old idea—the only asylum
Was the poorhouse, and those who could afford,
Rather than send their folks to such a place,
Kept them at home; and it does seem more human.
But it’s not so: the place is the asylum.
There they have every means proper to do with,
And you aren’t darkening other people’s lives—
Worse than no good to them, and they no good
To you in your condition; you can’t know
Affection or the want of it in that state.
I’ve heard too much of the old-fashioned way.
My father’s brother, he went mad quite young.
Some thought he had been bitten by a dog,
Because his violence took on the form
Of carrying his pillow in his teeth;
But it’s more likely he was crossed in love,
Or so the story goes. It was some girl.
Anyway all he talked about was love.
They soon saw he would do someone a mischief
If he wa’n’t kept strict watch of, and it ended
In father’s building him a sort of cage,
Or room within a room, of hickory poles,
Like stanchions in the barn, from floor to ceiling,—
A narrow passage all the way around.
Anything they put in for furniture
He’d tear to pieces, even a bed to lie on.
So they made the place comfortable with straw,
Like a beast’s stall, to ease their consciences.
Of course they had to feed him without dishes.
They tried to keep him clothed, but he paraded
With his clothes on his arm—all of his clothes.
Cruel—it sounds. I ’spose they did the best
They knew. And just when he was at the height,
Father and mother married, and mother came,
A bride, to help take care of such a creature,
And accommodate her young life to his.
That was what marrying father meant to her.
She had to lie and hear love things made dreadful
By his shouts in the night. He’d shout and shout
Until the strength was shouted out of him,
And his voice died down slowly from exhaustion.
He’d pull his bars apart like bow and bow-string,
And let them go and make them twang until
His hands had worn them smooth as any ox-bow.
And then he’d crow as if he thought that child’s play—
The only fun he had. I’ve heard them say, though,
They found a way to put a stop to it.
He was before my time—I never saw him;
But the pen stayed exactly as it was
There in the upper chamber in the ell,
A sort of catch-all full of attic clutter.
I often think of the smooth hickory bars.
It got so I would say—you know, half fooling—
“It’s time I took my turn upstairs in jail”—
Just as you will till it becomes a habit.
No wonder I was glad to get away.
Mind you, I waited till Len said the word.
I didn’t want the blame if things went wrong.
I was glad though, no end, when we moved out,
And I looked to be happy, and I was,
As I said, for a while—but I don’t know!
Somehow the change wore out like a prescription.
And there’s more to it than just window-views
And living by a lake. I’m past such help—
Unless Len took the notion, which he won’t,
And I won’t ask him—it’s not sure enough.
I ’spose I’ve got to go the road I’m going:
Other folks have to, and why shouldn’t I?
I almost think if I could do like you,
Drop everything and live out on the ground—
But it might be, come night, I shouldn’t like it,
Or a long rain. I should soon get enough,
And be glad of a good roof overhead.
I’ve lain awake thinking of you, I’ll warrant,
More than you have yourself, some of these nights.
The wonder was the tents weren’t snatched away
From over you as you lay in your beds.
I haven’t courage for a risk like that.
Bless you, of course, you’re keeping me from work,
But the thing of it is, I need to be kept.
There’s work enough to do—there’s always that;
But behind’s behind. The worst that you can do
Is set me back a little more behind.
I sha’n’t catch up in this world, anyway.
I’d rather you’d not go unless you must.

What Mike Tyson Is Reading

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Mike Tyson wants you to be aware of his erudite side:

I’m currently reading “The Quotable Kierkegaard,” edited by Gordon Marino, a collection of awesome quotes from that great Danish philosopher. (He wanted his epitaph to read: “In yet a little while / I shall have won; / Then the whole fight / Will all at once be done.”) I love reading philosophy. Most philosophers are so politically incorrect—challenging the status quo, even challenging God. Nietzsche’s my favorite. He’s just insane. You have to have an IQ of at least 300 to truly understand him. Apart from philosophy, I’m always reading about history. Someone very wise once said the past is just the present in funny clothes. I read everything about Alexander, so I downloaded “Alexander the Great: The Macedonian Who Conquered the World” by Sean Patrick. Everyone thinks Alexander was this giant, but he was really a runt. “I would rather live a short life of glory than a long one of obscurity,” he said. I so related to that, coming from Brownsville, Brooklyn.

What did I have to look forward to—going in and out of prison, maybe getting shot and killed, or just a life of scuffling around like a common thief? Alexander, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, even a cold pimp like Iceberg Slim—they were all mama’s boys. That’s why Alexander kept pushing forward. He didn’t want to have to go home and be dominated by his mother. In general, I’m a sucker for collections of letters. You think you’ve got deep feelings? Read Napoleon’s love letters to Josephine. It’ll make you think that love is a form of insanity. Or read Virginia Woolf’s last letter to her husband before she loaded her coat up with stones and drowned herself in a river. I don’t really do any light reading, just deep, deep stuff. I’m not a light kind of guy.

I prefer to read the deep, deep stuff as well. Mike Tyson, you have (marginally) redeemed yourself.

Facebook Knows Your Thoughts Even When You Don’t Share

A fascinating post on Slate explains how your unfinished thoughts on Facebook may be monitored by Facebook’s algorithms. Have you ever composed a status update, only decided to not click on publish? Gmail and other email clients do store your drafts, but it is unexpected (and not wholly beneficial) why Facebook would do that too.  The two people behind the “self-censorship” study are Sauvik Das, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon and summer software engineer intern at Facebook, and Adam Kramer, a Facebook data scientist. Slate summarizes:

It is not clear to the average reader how this data collection is covered by Facebook’s privacy policy. In Facebook’s Data Use Policy, under a section called “Information we receive and how it is used,” it’s made clear that the company collects information you choose to share or when you “view or otherwise interact with things.” But nothing suggests that it collects content you explicitly don’t share. Typing and deleting text in a box could be considered a type of interaction, but I suspect very few of us would expect that data to be saved. When I reached out to Facebook, a representative told me that the company believes this self-censorship is a type of interaction covered by the policy.

In their article, Das and Kramer claim to only send back information to Facebook that indicates whether you self-censored, not what you typed. The Facebook rep I spoke with agreed that the company isn’t collecting the text of self-censored posts. But it’s certainly technologically possible, and it’s clear that Facebook is interested in the content of your self-censored posts. Das and Kramer’s article closes with the following: “we have arrived at a better understanding of how and where self-censorship manifests on social media; next, we will need to better understand what and why.” This implies that Facebook wants to know what you are typing in order to understand it. The same code Facebook uses to check for self-censorship can tell the company what you typed, so the technology exists to collect that data it wants right now.

Revealing and very troubling, especially how prevalent the behavior is. From the paper:

We found that 71% of the 3.9 million users in our sample self-censored at least one post or comment over the course of 17 days, confirming that self-censorship is common. Posts are censored more than comments (33% vs. 13%).