The promise and peril of reading your genome in 2017 (or for that matter, 2018)

Imagine that a folded note before you reveals -- definitively -- whether an excruciating, protracted neurological death lies a decade into your future. Should you look?

Do so, and you could be rid of the grim uncertainty. Or, you could be fated to live and die with an awful truth. One which will haunt you, but also let you shape your remaining years with a foreknowledge most of us lack.

This is a terrible quandary no one should face. But one person in 10,000 carries a genetic vulnerability to a gruesome affliction called Huntington’s Disease. You almost certainly do not. But for those with a family history of Huntington’s, the odds can be as high as 50/50. And in certain genetic configurations, the disease has 100% “penetrance” - meaning that all who carry the mutation are doomed. This makes the results of a Huntington’s test as close to an iron-clad prediction as genetics ever gets.

Before the test was created, a remarkably high percentage of people with family histories said they’d take it if given the chance. But once the test was available, roughly 90% of those people changed their minds. This makes it nigh impossible to know what we ourselves would do if faced with that choice.

But all of us will face a version of that choice very soon - albeit a far less stark, and radically more ambiguous version. And roughly 0.000% of us are in a position to make that choice in an adequately-informed and emotionally-prepared manner. Read the rest

Six lateral thinking puzzles

Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits and stump your friends -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions.

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In 1977, architects realized that Manhattan's Citicorp Tower could be brought down by a high wind

New York's Citicorp Tower was an architectural sensation when it opened in 1977. But then engineer William LeMessurier realized that its unique design left it dangerously vulnerable to high winds. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the drama that followed as a small group of decision makers tried to ward off a catastrophe in midtown Manhattan.

We'll also cringe at an apartment mixup and puzzle over a tolerant trooper.

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The bear that inspired Winnie-the-Pooh

In 1914, Canadian Army veterinarian Harry Colebourn was traveling to the Western Front when he met an orphaned bear cub in an Ontario railway station. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the adventures of Winnie the bear, including her fateful meeting with A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin.

We'll also marvel at some impressive finger counting and puzzle over an impassable bridge.

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The true story that inspired Island of the Blue Dolphins

In 1835, a Native American woman was somehow left behind when her dwindling island tribe was transferred to the California mainland. She would spend the next 18 years living alone in a world of 22 square miles. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the poignant story of the lone woman of San Nicolas Island.

We'll also learn about an inebriated elephant and puzzle over an unattainable test score.

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During WWII, mathematician Arne Beurling made "one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of cryptography"

In 1940, Germany was sending vital telegrams through neutral Sweden using a sophisticated cipher, and it fell to mathematician Arne Beurling to make sense of the secret messages. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the outcome, which has been called "one of the most remarkable success stories in the history of cryptanalysis."

We'll also learn about mudlarking and puzzle over a chicken-killing Dane.

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Take a look at the Gonzo Gizmo author's favorite tools

My guest on the Cool Tools Show podcast this week is Simon Quellen Field. Simon is a chemist and former Google software engineer and is the author of over a dozen books, including Gonzo Gizmos, Return of Gonzo Gizmos, Culinary Reactions, Why is Milk White, Elements Vault, Why There's Antifreeze In Your Toothpaste, Electronics for Artists and, most recently, Boom!: The Chemistry and History of Explosives. He's the author of the science toy website SciToys.com and several novels.

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Show notes:

Taylor Wharton LD10 Aluminum Liquid Dewar ($638) “I’m often asked to demonstrate scientific toys and things at different science conventions, like the Google Science Fair … and one of the things that they love when I show off is all of these fun things that you can do with liquid nitrogen. And, of course, it lasts a lot longer if you keep it in a big Dewar. So, I’ve got this thing, it’s about 2 feet tall, about 10 inches in diameter, And holds 10 liters of liquid nitrogen, which I get locally from a place called Nitroderm. And we do all kinds of fun things with it. Put some liquid nitrogen in a bowl and squirt some whipped cream out of a spray can into it, freeze it really hard. Kids pop it into their mouth and crunch on it and fog comes out their nose like a dragon.”

Mastercool 90066-B Vacuum Pump ($130) "I have a vacuum chamber, and this vacuum pump, this one does six cubic feet per minute, which is pretty good. Read the rest

In 1911, three men struggled for five weeks through the Antarctic winter to collect penguin eggs

In 1911, three British explorers made a perilous 70-mile journey in the dead of the Antarctic winter to gather eggs from a penguin rookery in McMurdo Sound. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the three through perpetual darkness and bone-shattering cold on what one man called "the worst journey in the world."

We'll also dazzle some computers and puzzle over some patriotic highways.

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Silicone dish scrubbers: because I'm tired of being told kitchen sponges are gross

I've been trying these silicone dish scrubbers. They work great and don't get disgusting like sponges.

A few weeks ago some internet meme thingery got into my head, and made me throw out all my sponges. Even before I thought they were dirty! I then made the mistake of cleaning some stuff that immediately had me tossing said new sponges out. I was sick of it! I decided to try some reusable, sterilizable silicone scrubbers.

Guess what? They work.

Not absorbent, but most of what I've used sponges for in recent years is the blue or green scrubbing surface. These do that nicely. You can also just boil them in hot water every once in a while to clean them off.

These scrubbers also double as silicone pot-holders, if you need.

4 pack of Silicone Dish Scrubbers via Amazon

Also, because sponge.

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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. Read the rest

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. Read the rest

One man's visit to Japan's closed society changed the country's destiny

In 1848, five years before Japan opened its closed society to the West, a lone American in a whaleboat landed on the country's northern shore, drawn only by a sense of mystery and a love of adventure. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Ranald MacDonald as he travels the length of Japan toward a destiny that will transform the country.

We'll also remember a Soviet hero and puzzle over some security-conscious neighbors.

Show notes

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"Emperor" Joshua Norton reigned over San Francisco for 21 years

In the 1860s, San Francisco's most popular tourist attraction was not a place but a person: Joshua Norton, an eccentric resident who had declared himself emperor of the United States. Rather than shun him, the city took him to its heart, affectionately indulging his foibles for 21 years. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll consider the reign of Norton I and the meaning of madness.

We'll also keep time with the Romans and puzzle over some rising temperatures.

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I interviewed my sister for the Cool Tools podcast. Here are 4 of her favorite tools

On the Cool Tools Show podcast, Kevin Kelly and I interviewed my sister, Wendy, about some of her favorite tools.

Our guest this week is Wendy Frauenfelder. Wendy likes to cook, fix things, pretend to be a bartender, and do therapy dog work. She also is fascinated with wild yeast and slow food.

Subscribe to the Cool Tools Show on iTunes | RSS | Transcript | Download MP3 | See all the Cool Tools Show posts on a single page

Show notes:

Stanley 66-358 Stanley Stubby Ratcheting MultiBit Screwdriver ($10) "I always keep a screwdriver in the kitchen, just so that I don't have to go to the garage if I something inside the house that I need to work on. So this is my new screwdriver inside the house, and there's a couple things I like. First, it's small. It's like four-and-a-half inches long, and so it fits in a junk drawer really easily. The second thing I really like about it is it's a ratcheting screwdriver. So, if you're fixing a knob on a cabinet or something you don't have to spin it around in your hand, you can just kind of ratchet it in, which I love. But you can also make it just a steady, regular kind of screwdriver. Then the third thing that I love about it is you unscrew the cap on the top of the screwdriver and inside are five other tips. So you've got three Phillips head and three regular screwdriver tips, and they vary from pretty tiny to large and fat, and they're right there in the cap, so you can grab your screwdriver without knowing what kind of screw you've gotta work on, and you'll have the right tip."

24 oz Mason Drinking Jar & Stainless Steel Straw ($10.50) "It's actually a Ball jar, not a mason jar, and then it's got the regular kind of screw-on lid, but whoever made this took the little flat part of the lid on top and put a rivet in it and made a hole so you can stick a straw in there. Read the rest

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. Read the rest

Did an 18th-century engineer manage to build a chess-playing automaton?

In 1770, Hungarian engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled a miracle: a mechanical man who could play chess against human challengers. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet Kempelen's Mechanical Turk, which mystified audiences in Europe and the United States for more than 60 years.

We'll also sit down with Paul Erdős and puzzle over a useful amateur.

Show notes

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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. Read the rest

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