• TED Chief Chris Anderson on the neuroscience of memes and the future of TED

    Before Chris Anderson bought it in 2001, the TED conference was like a hip indie band only the in-crowd knew about. It was cool, small, had incredible buzz, and always sold out its small-ish venue. An unabashedly for-profit jam, TED had never posted a video online (it was too early for that), and happened once a year in Monterrey, California.

    What a difference a decade and a half makes. TED videos are now viewed 2.5 billion times per year, and volunteer-organized TEDx events – many of them far larger than the main conference – take place somewhere on our planet ten times a day. And TED no longer funnels earnings to an owner, but pours every dime earned by its cash cow of a main conference into spreading ideas, free of charge, to anyone and everyone on Earth.

    Chris has strategized, managed, and overseen TED's extreme makeover. We discuss it, Chris's remarkable personal story, how evolution wired humans to transmit ideas via charismatic oratory, and much more in this week's edition of the After On podcast. You can hear it by searching "After On" in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

    Links to interviews with other thinkers, founders, and scientists can be found here, with topics including Fermi's Paradox, quantum computing, drones, the dangers of superintelligence, synthetic biology, consciousness & neuroscience, augmented reality, and more.

    Though I've known Chris for decades and have spent hundreds of hours in conversation with him, I learned quite a bit from this interview. I hadn't realized he'd spent much of his childhood in a mud hut in Pakistan, heard the full story of shedding his once-fervent Christianity, nor gotten quite so deep into the evolutionary psychology of memes. I already knew most of what we touched on regarding TED – but I'm near the expert level on that topic, so most listeners will learn plenty from that discussion as well.

    Though he's shed the religiosity he was raised with, Chris retains a certain missionary-like commitment and fervor. When this radiates through TED, some embrace it as idealism whereas others dismiss it as earnestness.

    But whatever your take on TED's energy, it's hard to be cynical about Chris's generosity in connection to it. He bought the conference with money earned from his business career, which he sequestered into a foundation, which now owns and runs TED as a not-for-profit. He has since spent sixteen years working extreme hours in a highly stressful job for no salary, transforming TED into the idea-dissemination engine it now is.

    The episode runs about 80 minutes. For those in a hurry, here are timestamps of some highlights:

    0:07:50 – Turning TED into a not-for-profit (and the surprising operating advantages of this)

    10:40 – The amazing phenomenon (and astounding scope) of volunteer-organized "TEDx" events

    26:10 – Chris's personal story, from mud hut to running TED

    42:29 – Deciding to give away the crown jewels that conference-goers pay vast sums to access by putting the TED talks online

    1:00:15 – The evolutionary psychology of charismatic oratory as a vector for memes.

    1:06:52 – The promise and peril of 2 billion or more people first getting online quite suddenly over the next few years

     

  • Space archaeology: A conversation with TED Prize winner Sarah Parcak

    The After On podcast a series of unhurried conversations with thinkers, founders, and scientists. It began as a complement to the novel After On, in that its first eight episodes explore science, tech, and social issues featured in the storyline. But there is no need to read After On before listening to any of these episodes. You can subscribe to the podcast within any podcast app. Simply use your app's search function (type in "After On") to find and subscribe. Or, to subscribe via your computer click here, then click the blue "View on iTunes" button (left side of the page under the After On image), then click "Subscribe" (similar location) in the iTunes window. Or simply follow the feed http://afteron.libsyn.com/rss

    Ask any archaeologist, and you'll learn that the tools of their trade are simple and universal: a pointing trowel for excavation; a brush for removing dust from finds; side arms to fend off Nazi grave robbers; and a large constellation of satellites.

    That last item joined the toolkit back in 1984, when NASA's Tom Sever (who is not a Hall of Fame pitcher, and must be sick of being asked if he is) convened an archaeological summit to offer up images and other goodies from his agency. And with that, the field of space archaeology was.

    In roughly the same year, the Tooth Fairy delivered a children's book about ancient Egypt to one Sarah Parcak, age 5, of Bangor Maine. An early childhood obsession with pharaonic culture is common amongst future Egyptologists, and Sarah's began then. We discuss this and Sarah's amazing (and still early-ish) career as a leading space archaeologist in this week's episode of the After On podcast. You can find it in your podcasting app, or just click here:

    Sarah began her formal study of the field as a Yale undergraduate, then went to Cambridge for her PhD. Space archaeology had grown semi-dormant after an initial flurry of excitement and papers. But the falling cost of satellite imagery, plus the emergence of Google Earth, electrified a young cohort of academics as Sarah was doing her graduate work. Her thesis leaned heavily on satellite imagery, and landed her a professorship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

    Then the BBC called. They were interested in Sarah's emerging field, so they rang her up for an interview. One thing led to another, and eventually the network agreed to fund (and film) Sarah as she carried out a satellite survey of known and potential archaeological sites in Egypt. Covering the entire country, the project was unprecedented in its scope.

    Much has happened since. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Sarah's team did groundbreaking work in documenting and monitoring the looting of hundreds of archaeological sites. In 2012 she was invited to be both a TED Fellow and a National Geographic Explorer, and in 2016 she won the million-dollar TED Prize to further her work. She applied the money and the platform that TED gave her to launch a citizen science project called GlobalXPlorer. This has already leveraged the eyeballs of over 50,000 volunteers to create a sweeping archaeological survey of Peru. Sarah has near-term plans to take the platform to a grand new level, but can't quiiiiite talk about them yet.

    We cover all of this and more in our interview. For those in a hurry, here are timestamps of some highlights:

    0:04:15 – Space archaeology is defined

    0:07:55 – Sarah's early career, from Tooth Fairy through PhD

    0:20:34 – How satellite imagery is used in archaeology

    0:34:23 – About the ancient Egyptian capital Sarah may have located

    0:45:46 – Tracking archaeological looting in the wake of the Arab Spring

    1:04:20 – The TED Prize … and Harrison Ford

    1:14:46 – Sarah's citizen science platform, GlobalXPlorer

  • After On Podcast: The Tim O'Reilly Interview

    In this week's episode of the After On podcast, I interview Tim O'Reilly – one of the most original and influential thinkers in tech. His new book, WTF, debuts today. And it doesn't stand for what you think. We talk about that book, and about the future (that's the 'F' in the acronym). And also about the past. Tim's past — which will fascinate anyone interested in the history of the commercial Web, open source software, the maker movement, the Web 2.0 era, or anything else Tim helped to shape, launch, or name (yes really – he deserves at least some co-founder credit for all of those things).

    It's a been a long, strange trip for someone who spent his college years studying Latin and Greek. Tim was drawn to those subjects because as a teen, he fell under the spell of George Simon – a brainy mentor who argued that the last great evolution in human consciousness dated to the classical period. Tim wanted to understand that period – and that transformation – because George convinced him that the next one would happen in his lifetime. This would be the emergence of a global consciousness.

    George died suddenly, tragically, and young in a car wreck shortly after starting to teach at the Esalen Institute. Interest in his emerging philosophy was so high that Esalen recruited Tim as an instructor when he was still in his teens. Not craving a life of spiritual teaching, Tim then pivoted to technology shortly after graduating Harvard in the late 70s.

    He thought less and less about George's philosophy as time passed – until suddenly, "here I was, twenty-something years later, talking about Web 2.0, about global consciousness, that we had built this technology-mediated global brain. And so I realized – oh, he was right! We just didn't understand the mechanism by which it would happen. And that's really been a central idea throughout my career. That we are, in fact, building something that is bigger than we are. And there is this collective consciousness that is happening."

    Tim got into tech as a writer. He had already written his first book (a biography of science fiction great Frank Herbert, which you now can access for free), when a programmer friend asked for help with a tech writing gig. They jointly wrote a manual for a client. Then another, then another – and decades on, the successor to that first business employs 400 people as O'Reilly Media.

    Tim is, without question, technology's preeminent publisher, having released thousands of books that teach programming languages and countless tech skills. He also launched the world's first commercial website (Global Network Navigator), and was a key influencer in all the industry sea changes listed above.

    Intriguing as Tim's history is, the real fun comes from engaging in his thinking. He's done a lot of this over decades of watching the junction between tech and society with the scholarly gaze of a classicist. We discuss platforms and ecosystems, the future of the great tech monoliths, and the fusing of human workers and software that's already occurring within them. Some of Tim's ideas are familiar and mainstream – in large part due to the years he spent evangelizing them to tech elites and the press. Others are delightfully contrarian and challenging.

    If you enjoy this interview, I do recommend Tim's new book, WTF, which – again – premieres today.

    Note – the audio quality of this episode is below my normal standards, but I'm happy to report that my editor and I were able to rescue it from true catastrophe (thank you, Jason). The reasons for this (as well as my statements of earnest contrition) are contained in the first few minutes of the episode.

    You can subscribe to the podcast within any podcast player. To subscribe via your computer on iTunes, just click here, then click the blue "View on iTunes" button (under the square After On image on the left side of the page), then click "Subscribe" (in similar location) in the iTunes window. On your phone or other device, simply use your podcast app's search function (type in "After On"). Or, just follow the feed http://afteron.libsyn.com/rss

  • Chris Anderson: Drone mogul and former bass player for REM (no, not *that* REM).

    (Photo: Joi Ito, CC-BY)

    He's not the only major figure in the world of tech and ideas who goes by Chris Anderson. His namesake runs the TED conference – whereas the Chris Anderson of this article was Editor-in-Chief of Wired for twelve years. During that stint, he co-founded a company that helped launch the consumer drone industry, which he now runs (the company – not the industry).

    There are those who think these guys are one solitary, mega overachiever, but no. They could settle who has rights to the name through some kind of brainy public smackdown – the nerd equivalent of a battle of the bands, say. But not a chance. This Chris Anderson has been through that once already. With his band. They were called REM.

    No – not that REM. That REM clobbered Team Chris in musical combat back in 1991 (at the storied 9:30 club in Washington), winning rights to the name. Chris's band then took Mike Mills' suggestion that they rebrand as Egoslavia – a clever-ish name back when Yugoslavia wasn't just a fading memory and a handful of spinoffs.

    Chris and I cover this, plus the story of his impressively misspent youth in an hour-plus interview you can listen to right here (or by typing the name of the podcast series – "After On" – into the search bar of your favorite podcast app):

    But we mainly talk about drones, his company (3D Robotics, or 3DR), and how he launched and grew it to millions in revenues in partnership with a Tijuana teen, while winning awards for running the world's most influential tech magazine as a day job. Chris eventually left Wired to raise venture capital and go fulltime with his partner Jordi Muñoz (by then, all of 21). 3DR grew explosively after that – until China attacked (or rather, a wildly competitive Chinese company). Chris's startup was almost annihilated. But fear not: they've pivoted.

    A wonderful aspect of the 3DR story is how it sprang from DIY Drones, a forum-cum-social network, which Chris launched in 2007. Catching the updraft of the rising maker movement – plus the newfound fervor for hardware spawned by the iPhone – the site soon had tens of thousands of members. People swapped code and designs, and gradually created open source hardware specs for consumer-class drones. Chris and Jordi launched their company when they realized that even within this robust community, most folks were way more interested in having drones than in building them.

    3DR then became one of the first open source hardware companies. And don't be surprise if it also proves to be one of the last! Chris articulated the open source hardware business model quite persuasively in his 2012 book Makers. But it was always chancy, as open source specs can be used by anyone, one's competitors certainly included. The hope was that "owning the community" would provide a big competitive boost. But Chris acknowledged the risks back at the start of this thing, saying "if we get it right, it'll be a fantastic model for companies of all sorts; if we get it wrong, an instructive failure."

    The outcome was very instructive indeed, and Chris no longer believes in open source hardware as a business model. But he maintains that the crucial flaw lay not in competitors accessing specs, but in the burgeoning complexity of certain chipsets and some other underlying hardware that drones rely on. This gradually made it hard, then nigh impossible for tinkerers and amateurs to contribute meaningfully to world-class drone designs, robbing 3DR of its all-but-free R&D source.

    3DR is still a drone company, but its product is now data, not quadcopters. They service the construction industry (the second largest in the world after agriculture, and the biggest employer in the US). That transformation is almost as interesting as Chris's leap from being a bass-playing bike messenger/dropout to his current gig. All of this is detailed in our interview. For those in a hurry, here's a quick guide to some of its interesting sections:

    0:04:14 – I ambush Chris by presenting a copy of his 1981 vinyl record and demanding an autograph. We hear the full story of his REM and that REM.

    0:8:47 – Chris discusses his lengthy bike messenger career, and his years of living in a squat.

    0:20:22 – Chris explains how he weaponized Lego, and (kinda, sorta) invented a consumer-class drone while trying (unsuccessfully) to interest his five kids in a Mindstorm-guided plane.

    0:26:36 – Chris starts the online community of drone-happy makers from which 3DR will ultimately spring.

    0:35:04: Chris articulates the open source hardware business model as he once envisioned it, and why it didn't work out.

    0:41:42 Chris discusses his mighty Chinese competitor, DJI (in extraordinarily gracious terms).

    0:51:06 3DR pivots to a drone-driven data company focusing on the built world.

    1:07:34 – Some cool things Chris expects drones will soon do (and some even cooler ones he does not expect them to do.).  

  • On the astounding lack of extraterrestrials 'round Here

    If you've ever looked around and wondered, where are all the aliens, hit Play, below. No, you won't find an alien. But you'll hear a luxuriously unhurried interview with British astronomer Stephen Webb. He has probably given this question more careful thought than any living person, and many (but by no means all) of his reflections can be found in his brilliant book, Where Is Everybody.

    This is the eighth episode of my podcast series (co-hosted by Tom Merritt), which launched here on Boing Boing last month. The series goes deep into the science, tech, and sociological issues explored in my novel After On – but no familiarity with the novel is necessary to listen to it.

    Today's interviewee is a world-leading expert on the subject of Fermi's paradox – which is encapsulated in his book's title. And the paradox's roots are quite literally as old as Earth itself.

    Life arose here – presumably from dead matter – almost as soon as the collisions and volcanism of planetary formation calmed enough to permit its existence. If that's a normal pattern, billions of planets out there should harbor some form of life. Because some of those planets are billions of years older than ours, their brainier occupants could have far surpassed today's technology when our forerunners still had fins. Yet we see no evidence of this. And it's not for a lack of seeking it, as there are scientists who have done little else for decades.

    There isn't just one possible solution to Fermi's paradox. There are at least 75 by Stephen's count, and we discuss several. Our interview is delightfully wide-ranging, as Fermi solutions touch on every aspect of science, and several branches of sociology. This makes the paradox a worthy subject of study for anyone – even those with zero interest in extraterrestrials.

    You can subscribe to my podcast within any podcast app. Simply use your app's search function (type in "After On") to find and subscribe. To subscribe via your computer on iTunes, just click here, then click the blue "View on iTunes" button (on the left side of the page), then click "Subscribe" (in a similar location) in the iTunes window. Or follow the feed http://afteron.libsyn.com/rss

  • What are the real risks we humans could face from a rogue AI superintelligence?

    To hear a wide-ranging interview about the real-world risks we humans could face from a rogue superintelligence, hit play, below. My guest is author and documentary filmmaker James Barrat. Barrat's 2014 book Our Final Invention was the gateway drug that ushered me into the narcotic realm of contemplating super AI risk. So it's on first-hand authority that I urge you to jump in – the water's great!

    This is the seventh episode of my podcast series (co-hosted by Tom Merritt), which launched here on Boing Boing last month. The series goes deep into the science, tech, and sociological issues explored in my novel After On – but no familiarity with the novel is necessary to listen to it.

    The danger of artificial consciousness has a noble pedigree in science fiction. In most minds, its wellspring is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which features HAL 9000 – an onboard computer that decides to kill off its passengers before they can disconnect it (spoiler: HAL's rookie season ends – rather abruptly – with a 1-1 record).

    James's interest in this subject was piqued when he interviewed 2001's author, Arthur C. Clarke, back in the pertinent year of 2001. Clarke's concerns about superintelligence went beyond the confines of fiction. And he expressed them cogently enough to freak James out to this day.

    Among James's worries is that Hollywood has inoculated many of us from taking super AIs seriously by depicting them so preposterously. "Imagine if the Centers for Disease Control issued a serious warning about vampires," he notes. "It'd take time for the guffawing to stop, and the wooden stakes to come out. Maybe we're in that period right now with AI, and only an accident or a near-death experience will jar us awake."

    James and I discuss the "vampire problem" and many other issues in our interview. If you're looking to cut back on the long, unproductive hours you currently waste on sleep, you should definitely give it a listen.

    You can subscribe to the podcast within any podcast app. Simply use your app's search function (type in "After On") to find and subscribe. To subscribe via your computer on iTunes, just click here, then click the blue "View on iTunes" button (on the left side of the page), then click "Subscribe" (in a similar location) in the iTunes window. Or follow the feed http://afteron.libsyn.com/rss

  • How Sam Harris Became Sam Harris (plus, many a thought on terrorism and AI risk)

    Hit play, below, to hear an unhurried interview with author, podcaster and neuroscientist Sam Harris. Few have denounced President Trump at greater length, or on more certain terms than Sam. He is equally denunciatory about political correctness – which, he believes, threatens free speech – and anyone he deems soft on Islamic terrorism. All this triggers gales of outrage on the left and the right alike – making Sam, in his way, a unifying figure. I should note his fans also span the spectrum.

    This is the sixth episode of my podcast series (co-hosted by Tom Merritt), which launched here on Boing Boing last month. The series goes deep into the science, tech, and sociological issues explored in my novel After On – but no familiarity with the novel is necessary to listen to it.

    In our interview, Sam and I have a deep discussion about nihilistic terrorism – a major preoccupation of his, and of my novel. We also spend about an hour discussing the journey that shaped his unusual worldview.

    Oddly for a strong student at a top school (Stanford), Sam dropped out of college for ten years. Oddly for a 10-year dropout, he suddenly returned to finish his philosophy degree with honors. Oddly for a philosophy major, he then got a Ph.D. in neuroscience, while – flat-out bizarrely for a neuroscientist – writing a bestselling geopolitical book (The End of Faith). Yes, drugs were involved. As were entire years spent in silent meditation, plus boundless hours steeping in spirituality. Which (to give the lifeless colt a parting thwack) is a rather odd pastime for an atheist.

    Although he's written five bestsellers, Sam's podcast now reaches more people in a week than his books have reached over the past decade and a half. Our interview won't have that reach! But it's a thorough exploration of Sam's history, and of much of his philosophy.  

    You can subscribe to the podcast within any podcast app. Simply use your app's search function (type in "After On") to find and subscribe. To subscribe via your computer on iTunes, just click here, then click the blue "View on iTunes" button (on the left side of the page), then click "Subscribe" (in a similar location) in the iTunes window. Or follow the feed http://afteron.libsyn.com/rss

    Photograph of Sam Harris by Christopher Michel

  • Quantum computing's terrifying promise

    Hit Play, below, to hear a wide-ranging interview with venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, whose shrewd bets include backing Elon Musk in ventures like Tesla and SpaceX. Steve and I talk a bit about Elon in our interview. But we mainly focus on quantum computing – a subject he knows cold from his decade and a half on the board of D-Wave Systems, the world’s largest quantum computing company.

    This is the fifth episode of my podcast series (co-hosted by Tom Merritt), which launched here on Boing Boing last month. The series goes deep into the science, tech, and sociological issues explored in my novel After On — but no familiarity with the novel is necessary to listen to it.

    Quantum computing’s potential to reshuffle the technological deck has long fascinated me as a science fiction writer. Its maximum potential is immense – and indeed, rather terrifying (after conferring with quantum computing’s brainfather, David Deutsch, the New Yorker famously decreed that “With one millionth of the hardware of an ordinary laptop, a quantum computer could store as many bits of information as there are particles in the universe.”)

    That potential is also almost completely unfulfilled for now. Major breakthroughs in the field could therefore impact our capabilities in highly volatile ways. And sudden, discontinuous change is catnip to anyone whose job involves setting tech-driven tales in the present day.

    In our interview, Steve and I discuss the fundamental weirdness behind quantum computing’s potentially awesome power. When asked about that power’s source, physicists generally offer one of two answers, according to Steve. One is that vast sets of identical sister computers in parallel universes team up with our local quantum computer to crunch numbers. The other is to shudder and say, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

    You can subscribe to the podcast within any podcast app. Simply use your app's search function (type in "After On") to find and subscribe To subscribe via your computer on iTunes, just click here, then click the blue “View on iTunes” button (on the left side of the page), then click “Subscribe” (in a similar location) in the iTunes window. Or follow the feed http://afteron.libsyn.com/rss

  • The promise and peril of synthetic biology in 78 minutes

    Below you'll find an unhurried interview with Autodesk Distinguished Researcher Andy Hessel. Andy is a prime instigator behind GP-Write – which is, on some levels, heir to the Human Genome Project – and a co-founder of Humane Genomics, which is developing virus-based therapies for cancer.

    It's the fourth episode of my podcast series (co-hosted by Tom Merritt), which launched here on Boing Boing three weeks ago. The series goes deep into the science, tech, and sociological issues explored in my present-day science fiction novel After On – but no familiarity with the novel is necessary to listen to it.

    The upside and the downside of synthetic biology are vast and Andy is deeply versed in both. He co-wrote a chilling fictive scenario about a bioterror plot for the Atlantic – but he tends toward relentless optimism when contemplating synthetic biology's future.

    Synbio newbies should find our wide-ranging discussion to be a robust introduction to the field. But Andy's sophisticated commentary will give expert listeners plenty to chew on. After considering the astounding decades-long drop in the cost of reading DNA (which makes price/performance gains in computing look trivial), we discuss the sudden and accelerating plunge in the cost of writing DNA that does not exist in nature.

    Andy explains how this is enabling the explosive rise of a market for metabolic circuits – clusters of genes designed to churn out industrial enzymes and other chemically complex output. This is a giant step down a path toward bioprinting an immense array of tissues (new skin for burn victims, cow-free steaks that could fool a cattleman, and much more), and then onward to boundless breeds of wholly synthetic critters.

    You can subscribe to the podcast within any podcast app. Simply use your app's search function (type in "After On") to find and subscribe. To subscribe via your computer on iTunes, just click here, then click the blue "View on iTunes" button (on the left side of the page), then click "Subscribe" (in a similar location) in the iTunes window. Or follow the feed: http://afteron.libsyn.com/rss

  • After On Podcast #3: EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn

    Below you'll find a wide-ranging interview with Cindy Cohn, who runs the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

    It's the third episode of my podcast, which launched here on Boing Boing two weeks back and which is co-hosted by Tom Merritt. The podcast series goes deep into the science, tech, and sociological issues explored in my present-day science fiction novel After On – but no familiarity with the novel is necessary to listen to it.

    Issues of privacy and government hacking in are central to After On's storyline. And no organization is more deeply concerned with these matters than EFF, which positions itself as "the leading nonprofit defending digital privacy, free speech, and innovation."

    Cindy has been working with EFF for most of its history, and running it since 2015. In our interview we discuss several chilling developments EFF is fighting. One is the legal campaign against Mike Masnick and his long-running blog TechDirt. This is widely viewed as a SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation.

    Moneyed plaintiffs use SLAPP suits to arbitrarily silence opinions that displease them – a power none are granted in free societies, but which is readily accessible through cynical abuse of the legal system. Just last week, Masnick accepted $250,000 from donors ranging across the political spectrum to fight this odious practice, and just yesterday EFF named him a winner of its 2017 Pioneer Award, making this a timely conversation.

    Cindy and I also discuss how Cisco helped China censor its Internet and oppress religious minorities; the controversy surrounding Facebook's attempt to roll out a free but stripped-down Internet in India; the morality of tools that protect good people from evil governments but can also protect evil people from good governments; EFF's own storied history, and much more.

    You can subscribe to the podcast within any podcast app. Simply use your app's search function (type in "After On") to find and subscribe. To subscribe via your computer on iTunes, just click here, then click the blue "View on iTunes" button (on the left side of the page), then click "Subscribe" (in a similar location) in the iTunes window. Or follow the feed http://afteron.libsyn.com/rss

    Image of Cindy Cohn: Moizsyed/Wikipedia

  • After On Podcast #2:  Video Games as Medicine?

    Below you'll find an unhurried interview with Dr. Adam Gazzaley, who runs one of the West Coast's largest neuroscience labs at UCSF. There, his team carefully crafts video games with the potential to cure a wide range of neurological ailments.

    A direct heir to Adam's research is now up for final FDA approval as a treatment for ADHD – potentially providing millions of parents with a game-based alternative to medicating their kids. Autism is also in his sights. And his research first became prominent for blunting the awful effects of dementia. That work landed him on the cover of Nature magazine – which is to sciencists what a mid-70s Rolling Stone cover was to classic rock guitarists.

    This is the second episode of my podcast, which launched here on Boing Boing last week, and which is co-hosted by the inimitable Tom Merritt. Adam was a priceless resource to me as I researched the real science connected to my present-day science fiction novel After On. I should divulge that we became friends through that process, and that I'm now a minuscule shareholder in a company he created. I'm confident that that this didn't bias my part of our interview, but do bear that in mind.

    In addition to his research, Adam and I discuss the roots of consciousness – a matter of much speculation amongst neuroscientists, and of great significance to my storyline. We also discuss the one New York City borough he hasn't yet inhabited, the alphabet soup of modern brain scanning tools, and the science fiction tales that inspired him as a tot.

    Next week's episode discusses government hacking and privacy in the digital age with Cindy Cohn, who runs the Electronic Frontier Foundation. A few weeks on, we'll discuss terrorism with Sam Harris – one of the most outspoken and controversial commentators on this subject today. Other topics will include synthetic biology, quantum computing, Fermi's paradox, and superintelligence risk. And if you're interested in augmented reality, please check out last week's episode.

    You can subscribe to the podcast within any podcast player. To subscribe via your computer on iTunes, just click here then click the blue "View on iTunes" button (under the square After On image on the left side of the page), then click "Subscribe" (in similar location) in the iTunes window. On your phone or other device, simply use your podcast app's search function (type in "After On"). Or, just follow the feed http://afteron.libsyn.com/rss

  • Introducing The After On Podcast – interviews with thinkers, founders, and scientists

    Writing science fiction can get you amazing access to thinkers, founders, and scientists whose work touches on the stories you tell. It's one of the great things about my job. Sure, writing cover stories for Wired would get my calls returned faster! But countless science and tech leaders trace their interests back to tales they read as youngsters — which has lent me great success in requesting research interviews for my stories.

    Setting my books in the present-ish day, I try to keep things consistent with current technology and knowledge, so I conduct lots of these interviews. And I learn troves from them. But as I get excited about a new field, I become prone to giddy tangents about how it all works, or why it matters. Giddy tangents have a place in fiction – but a limited one, and they should be used sparingly.

    I conducted dozens of interviews while writing my new novel After On (which came out out on Tuesday). Focusing on the storytelling meant leaving out huge amounts of newfound learning that just didn't fit. Which was the right decision! But it also felt like a lost opportunity. And so I've created eight podcast episodes that deeply explore areas that fascinated me during my research. I'll be posting them to Boing Boing on a weekly basis, starting with Episode One, which is all about augmented reality:

    A quick word on how these episodes are structured. My co-host is grizzled podcasting veteran Tom Merritt, who has been presenting tech news and culture to the world for over fifteen years. We open the show together, then cut to a long-form interview with an expert in the field in question. Then at the end of the episode, Tom and I relate the interview back to the novel. Prior to this point, it is in no way necessary to read the novel in order to connect to the podcast (non-readers can just tune out for the final section). And this week, you can actually read the relevant section (pages 1-51 of the novel) for free on Medium, where it's posted in three excerpts, here, here, and here.

    In this week's episode, I interview Meron Gribetz, CEO of the trailblazing AR company Meta. AR is at a fascinating point in 2017. Meta, Microsoft, and their various AR competitors have invested literal billions in the field. Yet few people have had any AR experiences beyond the constricted aperture of Pokémon Go. This is about to change. Meta's latest product (the Meta 2) is thrilling to use, and is finding major enterprise customers. Google's much-maligned Glass product is also enjoying enterprise adoption. The narrow field of view on Microsoft's HoloLens leaves me wanting more, but the company's investment in the market is highly validating. And other shoes are surely yet to drop, from Apple, Facebook, and maybe even Snapchat.

    Meron is a great guide to his emerging market, which we cover quite broadly in our wide-ranging interview. The ethical issues that next-generation AR will raise particularly intrigue me. I explore some of them in my novel, and Meron has an interesting take on them. Here's a quick guide some of the episode's highlights:

    04:47– How a company that has raised $100MM began with a Kickstarter.

    09:34– Why Meta thinks AR's near future is about productivity, not entertainment.

    25:03– Ethical issues of AR in the wild, and the concept of "public by default."

    42:07– A neuroscientific take on how UI elements light up different brain regions.

    By the way, one of the coolest things about meeting Meron at his office is seeing his desk – which is literally a freakin' plank! The man is eating his own dogfood, as the saying goes, by doing without a computer. And so he accesses the Web, email and more in AR space.

    I hope you enjoy this podcast, and that you'll consider joining me for some of the coming ones. Boing Boing has been my cherished guide to the digital world for most of my adult life, and it's a huge honor to be sharing my work here. The schedule is below, and/or you can subscribe on iTunes by clicking here, then clicking the blue "View on iTunes" button (under the square After On image on the left side of the page), then clicking "Subscribe" in similar location in the iTunes window.

    Episodes and release dates:

    • Episode 1 (August 3): Augmented Reality. Guest = Meron Gribetz,CEO of Meta, one of the top AR companies.
    • Episode 2 (August 10): Neuroscience + Consciousness. Guest = Adam Gazzaley, a UCSF neuroscientist whose work on using video games as clinical tools has appeared on the cover of Nature
    • Episode 3 (August 17): Digital Privacy + Government intrusion. Guest = Cindy Cohn, who runs the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
    • Episode 4 (August 24): Synthetic Biology's Promise + Peril. Guest = Andy Hessel, a major synbio thought leader and a prime driver behind GP-write, which some view as the heir to the Human Genome Project.  
    • Episode 5 (August 31): Quantum Computing. Guest = Steve Jurvetson, prominent venture capitalist, and a board member of the world's largest quantum computing company (DWave) for 15 years. 
    • Episode 6 (Sept 7): Nihilistic Terrorism. Guest = Sam Harrisone of the country's most prominent and controversial commentators on this subject
    • Episode 7 (Sept 14): Super AI Risk. Surprise guest.
    • Episode 8 (Sept 2): Fermi's Paradox and the anthropic coincidences. Guest = Stephen Webb, British astronomer and perhaps the world's leading authority on Fermi's Paradox.
  • Taking pictures of the Rolling Stones with the 'best pocket camera ever made'

    A few months ago I saw the mighty, ever-reigning dinosaur kings of rock, the Rolling Stones. I had a general admission ticket and a small pocket camera, and arrived many hours early so I could worm my way to the front.

    It was a thunderous, spellbinding show. Keith, Ronnie and Darryl didn't miss a note, Charlie didn't miss a beat, and Mick preened and darted around the vast arena like a man one-third his age. Smirking hipsters dismiss the Stones for being old (how dare they!), for lacking modern relevance, and/or for cynically milking their fans for every last dollar. Whatever. That night I saw a band that cared deeply about its creations and its legacy. These were guys whose wealth long ago freed them from any chore they'd rather avoid. They spent that and every other show night exerting themselves to the limit to create their spectacle.

    I've seen the Stones several times over the years, but this was the first time I brought a camera. The smartphone tsunami has forced concert promoters to give up their long-running battle against fan photos. Fancy SLRs are still prohibited at lots of shows. But apart from a few hardline reactionaries like Prince, most performers let their audiences go hog wild with pocket cameras and cellphones.

    But what I really want to draw your attention to are the awesome capabilities you can now find in a pocket camera. With extreme lighting, fast-moving subjects, and chaotic settings, live concerts present photographers with many challenges. I hope the shots I'm sharing in this post show you that you can now achieve impressive results in the trickiest environments with the lightest of hardware. At the bottom of this post you'll find a link to much larger versions of the photos, which will give you a better sense of their quality.

    My belated gift suggestion for avid photographers at ANY level of expertise is the Sony RX-100, with which I took all of these shots. It comes in two flavors: the original RX-100 (which dates back to mid-2012) and its ingeniously named successor, the RX-100 II. I can usually be convinced to upgrade to any new version of my favorite gizmos. But even as a rabid RX-100 fan, I sat out the new version, and suggest you do the same. The specs are barely improved, yet the new version will run you a couple hundred dollars more. You have to love someone a lot to buy them even the dowdy old original, which is about $500. But it's a breathtaking piece of technology.

    I bought mine shortly after it first came out, when the David Pogue–a reviewer not prone to hyperbole, at least not for products by makers other than Apple–began a New York Times piece with the words, "This is a review of the best pocket camera ever made." Eighteen months later, I believe his introduction remains largely accurate. The RX-100 has many superpowers. And one of the most important ones might strike some people as obscure: its ability to shoot images in the RAW format.

    Thousands of carefully chosen words can be written about RAW, but the Cliff Notes are that it gives unbelievable after-the-fact control over the tone and quality of light in an image. Harnessing this power requires sophisticated software, and I'm a huge fan of Lightroom by Adobe. This will run you about a hundred bucks, but (much more significantly) I'd say you should expect to spend about a hundred hours truly mastering it. The good news is that you can spread this over a year or more, because you'll start achieving amazing things almost immediately, and the complete learning process will be a joy to anyone who loves engaging in digital images. I've read plenty of Lightroom books over the years, and the by-far best in my view is Scott Kelby's. If you steadily work your way through this gem, testing out everything he discusses, you will gradually become a true Lightroom ninja. Take your time and enjoy the journey.

    That journey should absolutely include smuggling your camera into every concert that you attend. If you're interested in this sort of thing, you should absolutely read this detailed and articulate discussion of concert photography and hardware (including the RX-100) by Jason DeBord. Jason's wonderful blog features a constant procession of shows that he documents using both professional and civilian camera gear.

    I absolutely recommend the RX-100 and similar cameras to photographers at any level, including pros with enough fancy gear to fill a Hummer. I have a wonderful, cumbersome SLR that takes stunning images, but I wouldn't want to lug it into 90% of the environments I inhabit from day to day. It's a truism that the best camera for any situation is the one that you happen to have with you at the time. Usually, this will be your cellphone. If you're lucky enough to go on a safari, you may be lucky enough to own a Canon 7D, and you should absolutely pack it. But for those in-between situations that call for both fabulous imagery and super-portable technology, high-end pocket cameras are really starting to deliver the goods. And as with all things tech-related, you can expect today's top-of-the-line performance to migrate into bargain prices within a few years.

    Incidentally, is it just me, or does it look like Charlie is about to be swallowed by a gigantic Stones logo up there? The things you can do with a Jumbotron these days…

    Anyway – if you enjoy these images, I've posted much larger versions of them and dozens of others in this SmugMug photo album. Click on the large image on the right side of the screen to see it in ultra-big form, and then navigate through the album using your arrow keys.

    Enjoy, and happy holidays!

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