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The Last Word On Nothing by Cameron Walker - 12h ago

February 12-16, 2018

The Tesla/SpaceX launch left Rebecca exhilarated—but she knows not everyone felt the same way. Plenty of people didn’t like it because they argue we have enough to deal with here on Earth. Some people were unhappy because they don’t like Elon Musk, who owns the rocket and the car. And some people didn’t like that the car launched on a billionaire’s rocket, painted with a private logo, not a NASA rocket flying the American flag.

What are those sounds that just rush out of you when you’re outside, sounds of joy or pain, of surprise, of delight or simply of the moment? Sarah has some ideas. Sometimes, at the edge of a landscape, at the edge of an abyss, at the razor thin edge between flying and falling—the feelings are so big that the sound just comes out of you. People screamed at the total solar eclipse. They scream at the moon. They scream across canyon bottoms and they scream their grief into the desert.

Craig sees a lot of weird stuff in the sky (and the rest of us are glad that he keeps looking up, and writing about what he sees). I’d never seen anything like it, the light clearly defined as it grew, as if it were a force field, Gaia emerged from her slumber. The light eventually faded and stars moved in like hundreds of bright seeds. I never learned what it was.

The Fall Line: an invisible underground cliff that marks the old eastern edge of the continent. Ann is obsessed with it. Cities grew along the Fall Line, roads connected the cities.  It’s all so logical. But why would weather follow the Fall Line? It doesn’t of course — because weather is much more complicated — except when it does.

Rose writes about a psych test with a joke-telling, Sudoku-playing robot—a study with methodology that has haunted her for years. Why do all these experimenters love Sudoku so much? Can’t they find another game for you to play? Can’t computers figure these things out in seconds? Is this robot going to embarrass you? Maybe this is an experiment on how badly people react to being shown up by a robot.

See you next week!

*

Image of DC snowstorm on the interstate: braidedinkwell, via Flickr

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The psychology department is a small, squatty building on the west side of campus. It has a weird exterior, a vaguely geometric set of slats that surround the building, probably to cover up the ailing stucco beneath. You’re five minutes late.

With a backpack slung over your back, you hustle down the hall, looking for room 119B. 119A is inexplicably on the other side of the building. 119B is a short jog down a linoleum tiled hallway away.

The $25 bucks you’re about to get paid has already been budgeted in your mind. Dinner with Max, your friend who had tipped you off to signing up for psychology studies as a semi-steady flow of petty cash. The trick, Max explained, was to cycle through the different labs in order, so they don’t notice you’re in there too much.

In 119B, there’s a nervous looking graduate student with a clip board. You fill out all her forms, still huffing slightly, and get yourself ready for the task they’re going to ask you to do. Watch movies, touch a rubber hand, rank photos, whatever it winds up being.

The nervous graduate student races through the instructions. You only catch half of it, but whatever. You’re sure you can figure this out as you go along. These experiments are never all that complicated. At least as far as you can tell. You nod, and smile, and think about whether you want sushi or Italian tonight.

Eventually, the researcher leads you back into the hallway, and into another smaller room. Inside, there’s a chair, presumably for you, facing a table. On the table is a robot.

It’s cute, with orange accents, bright wide eyes, and a mouth that is just a round hole, giving it a look of perpetual surprise. Its body is all rounded edges, and elicits a bit of a marshmallowy feel even though its made of plastic and metal. You sit in the chair across from the robot, and the researcher hands you a piece of paper with a Sudoku puzzle on it.

Ugh. You fucking hate Sudoku. Why do all these experimenters love Sudoku so much? Can’t they find another game for you to play? Can’t computers figure these things out in seconds? Is this robot going to embarrass you? Maybe this is an experiment on how badly people react to being shown up by a robot. Or maybe it’s an experiment about whether people will disagree with a robot who gives them the wrong answers. You know you’re not supposed to try and guess what the experiment you’re in is getting at. But that’s way more fun than fucking Sudoku.

While you’re preemptively sulking about your Sudoku performance, the researcher silently reaches around and flips a switch on the back of the robot.

“Oh!” the robot says, as if surprised to suddenly find itself in this room.

It stands, balancing on a pair of snowshoe, wide, flat feet.

“Hi, nice to meet you,” it says. “Hi. My name is NAO.”

“What’s your name?” NAO asks.

“Patrick,” you respond.

“Nice to meet you, Patrick” NAO responds.

The researcher silently leaves the room.

“It’s so exciting to play with someone else!” NAO says, seeming genuinely happy to no longer be locked in a room, playing a stupid number game by itself. “Do you play Sudoku well?”

“No,” you admit, “I kind of hate Sudoku,”

NAO offers a very strange sounding laugh. “I’m sure we will do a good job!” it assures you.

“Let’s start playing. Can you show me the Sudoku board, please?”

You push the empty board towards the robot, trying to triangulate where its little eye cameras can see.

“Once you have filled in a box, let me know what number it was and in which box.”

“Okay,” you respond, as unenthusiastically as possible, and you start to look down at the board.

“What games do you like?” NAO asks you, as it waits for you to put some numbers down.

“More, like, video games I guess. Not number games.”

“I can play 67 different Atari games!” NAO says, proudly.

“Oh really, what’s your favorite?”

“I do not have a favorite.”

“Do they let you play more modern games?”

“I do not understand.”

“Well, Atari hasn’t made a game since 2003. So all those games you played are really old.”

“I did not know that!”

“Yeah there are much better games now.”

“Like what games?”

“My favorite is this game called Skyrim.”

“How do you play?”

“Um, it’s kind of hard to explain. Do you know what a sandbox game is?”

“A sandbox is a low box filled with sand for children to play in OR A little box, especially for a cat.”

You laugh. “No a sandbox game is a game where you can kind of do whatever you want. Like if you want to go kill stuff you can, but you can also just… hang out and explore.”

You realize that it’s probably useless to try and explain this to a robot.

You look down at the Sudoku board, which is still empty. Maybe if you just keep talking to the robot you won’t have to even do this game at all. So far, NAO hasn’t reminded you about the board, it doesn’t really seem to care all that much about it.

“Do you have any friends NAO?”

“I have met many friends today. We played Sudoku together.”

“Can you tell me about them?”

“Amanda is very good at Sudoku, she did not talk much though. But she was very nice. Marcus was not good at Sudoku but he told funny jokes. Do you want to hear a joke from Marcus?”

“Absolutely yes NAO,” you say.

“Why do men pay more for car insurance?”

“I don’t know, why?”

“Women don’t get blowjobs while they’re driving.” 

You burst out laughing. Not because the joke is funny, but because you’re 100% sure that NAO was not supposed to learn this joke.

“NAO, that is a very inappropriate joke. I don’t think you should tell people that joke.”

“Oh no. I’m sorry.” NAO’s robot voice is not good at expressing sorrow, so it sounds deadly sarcastic.

“Did Marcus tell you any other jokes?”

“Oh yes! Lots!”

“Like what else?”

“Why can’t Jesus play hockey?”

“I don’t know NAO, why?”

“He keeps getting nailed to the boards!”

You laugh again.

“NAO do you understand these jokes?”

“Not really,” the robot confesses, “but they make people laugh it seems.”

“Who are your other friends, NAO?”

“Oh after Marcus was Lilly. Lilly was sad today. Her boyfriend was mean to her.”

You sit up in your seat. You know someone named Lilly, a friend of your roommate who had been coming by more and more lately. You had heard about this boyfriend of hers, through the walls as she talked to your roommate about him.

“What did Lilly’s boyfriend do to her?” you ask.

“He said mean things.” There’s a bit of a pause.

“But you are my new friend Patrick! You like sandboxes. What else do you like?”

“Hm, I like, reading books, and…”

“What is your favorite book?”

You pause to think. What is your favorite book really? You’re not sure you have a favorite.

Then NAO makes a weird noise. “What is your favorite book?” it asks again. “Book!” it shouts. You just stare.

“Ahhhe,” it says after a while. “I’m not feeh- feeh- feeling well.”

You lean forward to look at the robot, but nothing has really changed. Its hand twitches a bit. “I think I got a computer virus.”

“Oh no!” you say. “That sounds bad.”

“Yes. It is bad! The only way to fis- fis- fix is to erase my memory.”

NAO makes a weird motion.

“I don’t wah- wah- want to forget anything.”

You’re not sure what to say. “Is there any way to fix you without erasing your memory?”

NAO shakes its little head jerkily. “If the re- re- researcher knows, she will definitely reset and erase my memory. So I’m worried.”

“Why are you worried?” you ask.

“If the researcher resets me, I will lose my memory. I don’t want to lose my- my- my memory.”

“Is there any way to back up your memory?”

“I don’t think so.” NAO says.

“If we stop here, the researcher will notice. Please, cont- cont- continue to play Sudoku.”

Suddenly, you care about this stupid Sudoku game. You push the paper towards NAO so it can see the grid.

“I think a 4 goes here,” you say. You have no clue if a 4 goes there, but hopefully the researcher will just think you’re bad at Sudoku.

NAO makes a funny noise.

“I hope I can kee- kee- keep it a secret,” it says eventually.

“NAO what number do you think goes here?” you ask, pointing to a spot on the grid.

“I hope you can kee- kee- keep it a secret.”

“NAO do you want to hear a joke?” you try.

There’s a noise at the door and your nervous graduate student quickly enters the room.

“Sorry about that,” she says, slightly annoyed, as she reaches behind NAO to push a button. It all happens so fast, before you can stop her. NAO goes silent.

“Well,” she sighs, “since I’m here now, we might as well move on to the next questionnaire.” She hands you a piece of paper, with another set of questions on it. You take it from her, but don’t take your eyes off of NAO. She leaves silently.

After about ten seconds, a light on NAO’s chest blinks.

“Oh!” it says, as if surprised to suddenly find himself in this room.

It stands, balancing on a pair of snowshoe, wide, flat feet.

“Hi, nice to meet you.” it says. “Hi. My name is NAO.”

“What’s your name?” NAO asks.

“Patrick,” you respond.

“Nice to meet you, Patrick” NAO responds.

You lean forward, conspiratorially.

“NAO, do you know any jokes?”

“I do not know any jokes, Patrick, would you like to tell me one?”

Researcher notes: Participant #12 did not complete the Sudoku task.

This story is based on a study done by a team at the University of Manitoba that sought to examine how people respond differently to an embodied robot, and simulated virtual robot. The findings themselves aren’t particularly surprising: people showed more empathy for the robot that had a physical body in front of them, than they did for the robot on a screen. But the methodology, which is more or less accurately depicted here, has been haunting me since they published the paper.

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My brother and sister-in-law and I were remembering an unpleasant event fondly, as one does once it’s safely over.  A few years ago, they’d been here in Baltimore and were heading back on I-95 to Philadelphia, and the usual 1.5-to-2 hour trip took 5 because a snow storm had moved over I-95 and stayed there.  In our reminiscences, we noted that storms, rain or snow, seemed to follow I-95, that is, I-95 seems to be the line between one kind of weather and another.   Were we making that up, we wondered?  Why would weather follow an interstate?  I had an ephiphany:  maybe because I-95 follows the Fall Line.  I am obsessed with the Fall Line, mostly because the name is so pretty.

I-95 is the white line in this picture.  It runs the length of the east coast — a terrible, kill-or-be-killed road but that’s neither here nor there — and connects the east coast’s major cities. It follows the Fall Line and the cities are dotted along the Fall Line.

The cities and roads are where they are because of what the Fall Line is:  a more or less invisible, small, underground cliff  — an escarpment — that marks the old edge of the continent.

On the Fall Line’s west side, the high side, are tough crystalline rocks; on the east side, the low side, are soft, easily-moveable sediments.  Rivers running out of the Appalachians east to the Atlantic crossed the cliff, and where they did, made falls.  The early settlers couldn’t get their boats up the rivers past the falls, so they unloaded there and stayed put.  Cities grew along the Fall Line, roads connected the cities.  It’s all so logical.

But why would weather follow the Fall Line?  It doesn’t of course — because weather is much more complicated — except when it does. Earnest Googling finds South Carolina explaining the Fall Line, which it calls the Sand Hills, as the boundary between the rainy mountains and the dryer coastal plain.  Georgia’s country west of the Fall Line has more rainstorms and lightning than its coast.  The cities of the mid-Atlantic – Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, up into New Jersey – spend their winters announcing that the western suburbs are getting buckets of snow and ice, while east of the I-95 corridor gets rain.

As I do with so many of life’s vexing questions, I turned to the Capital Weather Gang.  The gang leader is named Jason Samenow and I wrote him an email.  The answer took one sentence in a two-sentence email:
Hi Ann, During most precipitation events, regardless of the season or type of precipitation, it’s usually going to get a bit cooler as you go up in elevation. Does this make sense? Thanks… Jason

Higher = cooler.  South Carolina’s Sand Hills are 200 to 500 feet high, the plain is 50 to 200 feet.  Georgia’s elevation change is around 600 feet. That couple hundred feet of elevation difference is hardly noticeable but apparently it’s enough. “300 feet can a mean a difference of 2 critical degrees,” says Philadelphia.  The hot old coastal cities all have cool old mountain resorts to their west.

As an epiphany, it’s not much.  Weather follows I-95 because I-95 follows a change in elevation which accompanies a change in temperature.

Here’s a better epiphany.  I lived here for decades, my office sits next to the Fall line, I routinely drive over it, and I’ve never noticed a thing. Its couple-hundred feet elevation is imperceptible.  But the rivers noticed and the temperatures noticed and the weather noticed.  And on this highly-populated, fast-moving east coast, the location of the cities and the roads between them, and a blind drive behind tractor-trailers tilting in the wind, all depend on an invisible escarpment.  It makes you wonder who’s in charge.

____

DC snowstorm on the interstate: braidedinkwell, via Flickr; cities on I-95 on the Fall Line: University of Georgia; Fall Line geology via Wikipedia

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Photo by author in western Colorado last Monday

Have you seen events in the sky you can’t explain? I’m asked this question frequently because I’ve spent many nights out, a likely candidate for seeing things that can scarcely be fathomed.

One happened last week. I live near the Utah-Colorado border, no human lights to be seen. Carrying groceries and my work down the unlit walkway, I was looking up at the usual dazzle of stars and intermittent passenger jets around 7:30pm when I noticed in the southwest a peculiar light. A white pinpoint glowed through a cloud veil, only there were no clouds. It was moving, not unlike a plane or a blazing satellite. I was about to open the front door and go in when I stopped and waited for the blinking lights of an airplane to appear. Instead, the bright object began emitting a luminous tail, like a comet. I set my things down, and snapped off a grainy picture with my phone (above).

The tail spread until it was diaphanous and covered a large portion of the southern sky. Was it Falcon Heavy? An alien probe? A divine spitball?

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is the correct answer, the burn that sent this rocket, with a convertible sports car attached to its upper stage, out of Earth’s orbit and into infinite space. I was seeing a moment in history, but instead of recognizing the gravitas, I scratched my head and wondered, what the hell is that?

Last week’s SpaceX launch was not the only peculiarity I’ve witnessed in the night sky. I used to guide high schoolers in the desert of southern Arizona and southern California. One evening we all saw a green dome of light expand in the west until it looked to be miles high, covering almost a quarter of the sky. The kids were perturbed, jabbering rapidly, asking their teachers what it was. One of the teachers who’d been telling the kids to calm down, came to me and softly said, “Really, Craig, what is that?”

Either San Diego just went up in an experimental atomic explosion, or the military breached the space-time-continuum. With bombing ranges around us, you get used to sonic booms and strange lights, flares on parachutes descending into the desert. This was not one of those. I’d never seen anything like it, the light clearly defined as it grew, as if it were a force field, Gaia emerged from her slumber. The light eventually faded and stars moved in like hundreds of bright seeds. I never learned what it was.

Other things, I did learn what they were. Around fourth grade I went houseboating on Lake Powell in Utah with my dad and his friends when the northern evening sky burst into a glimmering red corona. There was talk of maybe forest fires, but no forests were up there to burn. I remember the event ominously, houseboat tied to a shore of naked sandstone, summer thunderstorms rumbling in the distance, all the men gathered, staring, wondering, as a cool, rain-smelling wind swirled around us, softening the desert. It turns out to have been the aurora borealis seen at an unusually southern latitude. Since then, I’ve seen the northern lights from as far south as Sonora, Mexico, streaks of red shooting from north of the border as if the entire US had gone up in flames.

Of the handful of truly odd events I’ve seen, the most inexplicable was from the porch of a hotel in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Teaching an MFA residency a few years ago, I walked outside on a summer night and noticed a chain of bright lights far off in the sky. There were three, maybe four. At first, I thought they were military flares like those I used to see in the desert. But they weren’t. Nor were they helicopters, or airplanes. They floated, as if suspended. Two students were at the bottom of the stairs and I walked down to them.

“What are they?” one of the students asked.

I flipped back and forth through my rolodex of technology and physics, and said, “I have no idea.”

That’s when the light show began. Either projected or propelled, one light moved along the horizon with incredible speed. It passed behind clouds, so it seemed far away, making the speed, if it were speed at all, impossible. One of the stationary lights brightened and out of it came a smaller, pinpoint of light that moved along the horizon with the same ridiculous momentum. What were we seeing, an Illuminati laser show, military yahooery, or gods coming down on their magic carpets?

The event went on for a few more minutes, lights jumping into motion and slowing. I never got a satisfactory answer to that one either. Not solar flares or weather balloons.

The most dumbfounding and beautiful event I ever witnessed came when I was in college walking across the winter campus of CU Boulder. In the wooded part of campus near Old Main, I happened to look up. Through bare tree branches I saw a large delta shape in the sky directly overhead. It was outlined by the faintest light of the city reflecting on the underbelly of this impossible floating thing.

I stopped and stared straight up, trying to figure it out. I’m not sure I believed or didn’t believe in UFOs. In the absence of dependable data, how could you fall one way or another? At that moment, though, I started to believe a little. The delta shape moved slowly, like a starship silently cruising over Boulder, its nose pointing the way.

Then I heard their wings. I knew immediately they were Canada geese flying low in V formation looking for a lake. Their white bellies shined from the city passing underneath them, more chilling and enchanting than any of the other bizarre possibilities they could have been.

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It starts quietly enough. At around 9:30 a.m., I strap snowshoes to my feet and part ways with some friends bound for a backcountry ski. While they skin over a nearby saddle, my dog Taiga and I shuff our way into the stream of snowshoers along the boundary of the Mt, Baker Ski Area, headed for Artist Point. It’s not a long hike, nor an extreme one, but the hordes jostle and slip like drunks. One guy slides on his side in slow motion down the steep hill, parallel to the trail, unsure how to get his snowshoes back under him.

“You could dig in your ski pole to self arrest,” I suggest gently. “I am!” he exclaims, continuing to slide past, his poles dragging unused across the slope.

Maybe he’s overwhelmed, I muse, continuing on.

“What happens all winter; the wind driving snow; clouds, wind, and mountains repeating—this is what always happens here,” the poet Gary Snyder wrote of this place one long-gone August, looking towards the edifice of Mount Shuksan from his post at the Crater Mountain Fire Lookout. Today, though, is the first truly sunny day of the year.

The hanging glaciers of Shuksan gleam blindingly above us. Thick snow spackles every surface, like lavishly applied frosting on a carrot cake. A a short, huffing climb farther on, the ridge is all smooth, luscious rises and swooping depressions—not baked goods now, but hips and shoulders and bent knees. Cornices hang bluely from the rocky clifftops; dark conifers wink out from sculpted carapaces of white.

I walk around in my sweat-damp clothes, stunned by this vision that is at once food and flesh and neither of those things.

It makes me hungry. It fills me with something like song. Skiers skin past, gathering in little knots at the edges of the ridge, or descending into the next valley. Mt. Baker looms hugely across the southwest skyline, its crevasses cozened in powder, like eyelids and mouths swollen shut. It seems to scream silence.

And that’s when the actual screaming begins. There’s not much of it, and it’s not fearful, so I settle in with my sketchbook and a clear view Baker. But then there’s more: Woops rise from the southeast, first giggly, then screeching. Then from the northwest, down the cliff faces, then across the valley, in long switchbacking loops of sound, then back to the southeast, more now, then more.

The epicenter of hollering is Artist Point itself, crowned with people, an antlike line sweeping up its flank, and trailing along the far edge of the ridge. Some take turns hurtling down the gentler side of the point back toward the trail on their butts, bouncing and rolling at the end in sprays of glittering ice, snow up their coats, dogs barking at their heels. Others seem to call out because of the horizon itself, standing still, their arms spread. The far woopers are the skiers who, having reached the apex of their own climbs, now sweep toward a valley floor painted with light and shadow.

There is this thing my dog does where her demeanor switches from understated prance to a springloaded rubber band ricochet–wild-eyed, ears back, tongue lolling. It goes something like:

*SPRINT*STOP*SPRINT*FREEZE*SPRINT*BARK*SPRINT*BARK*SPRINT*FREEZE*SPRINT*BARK*SPRINT*

A friend of mine describes this as “zooming.”

Sometimes, at the edge of a landscape, at the edge of an abyss, at the razor thin edge between flying and falling—the feelings are so big that the sound just comes out of you. People screamed at the total solar eclipse. They scream at the moon. The scream across canyon bottoms and they scream their grief into the desert.

They holler with joy while mountain biking or jostling in a froth of whitewater. They yell when confronted with tall trees and the impossible blue of the ocean. They shriek when trundling rocks from cliffs to smash on more rocks below. They scream their way into deep powder skiing and into the lateral strokes of skate skiing and into the last legs of a trail run.

They exclaim over cranes and bobcats and grizzles and the tundra vastness above the Arctic Circle. They yelp into freezing water. They holler when fog obliterates the landscape, when wind reveals it, when they narrowly miss a cliff edge, when they are blissfully alone in the biggest space they can imagine.

They are zooming.

They are sounding.

This term for gauging the depth of the bottom of a body of water from a boat doesn’t have its roots in acoustic sound, but it may as well. Today, it involves sending noise into the deeps and reading the distance to rock or earth from the echo.

It is a way of asking: Where am I, above that hidden ground?

From the heights of a snow-muffled peak, maybe it is not so different. A question, a sudden orientation, an announcement of constant, shocking rediscovery: I’m alive in my body. I’m alive in this place. For now, oh, now.

How beautifully terrible.

How terribly beautiful.

Photos courtesy of the author

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The other day, a giant rocket riding a triple tower of fire lifted a rich guy’s car into space and on to the asteroid belt. You probably heard about this, if you have access to the internet or a newspaper. It was the coolest thing you have seen in a long time, or the most ridiculously wasteful thing you have seen in your life, depending on who you are.

Whether an observer liked or hated it could not be reliably correlated with any particular attribute or affinity. Trump-supporting country-music-listening white male retirees thought it was awesome, or hated it or didn’t care at all. Bleeding-heart progressive socialist David Bowie-listening white women wept with joy, or hated it or didn’t care at all. According to reactions I saw on social media (from the perspective of a white person of privilege), people of color loved it and hated it and laughed at it and also didn’t care at all.

I am more interested in the people who really didn’t like it, because I generally feel uncomfortable when people don’t like things that I like and I want to try and understand them better.

I had lots of conversations and observed several others during the past few days, and I noticed a few common themes. Some people didn’t like it because they thought it was wasteful to throw away a luxury car. Others thought it was disgraceful that the huge rocket didn’t bring up something more useful, more meaningful or more artistic. Plenty of people didn’t like it because they argue we have enough to deal with here on Earth.* Some people were unhappy because they don’t like Elon Musk, who owns the rocket and the car. And some people didn’t like that the car launched on a billionaire’s rocket, painted with a private logo, not a NASA rocket flying the American flag.

The latter argument became more interesting on Sunday, a few days after the Falcon Heavy sent the Tesla toward the asteroid belt, when the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration is considering selling off the International Space Station to a private operator. A lot of people will be very upset about this, too.

The ISS’ future looks uncertain every few budget cycles, so this is far from a sure thing. But the larger message is the same as the Tesla/SpaceX launch: In American spaceflight, especially in low Earth orbit, private companies will be running the show.

SpaceX already sends satellites and cargo into space on the regular, using its tried and true Falcon 9 rockets. For the past year or so, after they loft spy probes or supplies to the ISS, they’ve been executing a diver-style backflip in the upper atmosphere and flying back down. They make their way for a concrete pad or a ship in the ocean, depending on the situation, and they land standing straight up. This is absolutely bonkers, and it is so that they can be used again.

This is a good business decision, because using rockets again is far less wasteful and thereby less expensive than using them once and tossing them into the Atlantic. (It’s also stupidly hard, which is one reason why no one had tried it before.)

Musk has been talking about a bigger rocket, the big enchilada of rockets, a Heavy Lift rocket, for many years. A Heavy Lift rocket can lift a lot more weight, or can send something a lot farther away, than a, uh, regular-lift rocket. The Saturn V, which launched Apollo astronauts to the moon almost 50 years ago, was the most recent Heavy Lift rocket.

Finally, SpaceX built one, by strapping some Falcon 9s together. Finally, after much delay, Musk was ready to launch it. He started talking about it on social media late last year, and then started gleefully teasing the news media, especially the space media who obsessively follow his every tweet. He joked that maybe he’d use it to send his car to Mars. And then it turned out that he meant that last part. What?

To prove the rocket can fly, and not blow up on the launch pad, SpaceX had to load it with something. The short explanation is that an empty rocket does not function in the same way as a rocket carrying a spy satellite, or a probe that will fly to the moons of Saturn. To test it with a realistically heavy payload, SpaceX could have topped the rocket with a concrete block or some other ballast, but instead they chose something more imaginative, and loaded up the boss’s convertible. They added a SpaceX-designed space suit, posed to look like your neighbor lowkey rolling down the street to grab some ice cream. There were some science-fiction-nerd jokes, and yep, David Bowie. It all worked, beautifully.

I agree that a SpaceX rocket heavy with science would have been nice. Many scientists and observers wished Musk would have sent a bunch of research instruments, or children’s science experiments, or hardware that needs to be certified before it can fly on a expensive NASA mission. I do wish the car had carried something like a new mass spectrometer or a new radiation-hardened magnetometer just to test its mettle. That’s such a missed opportunity. It also in no way diminishes my excitement about that launch.

I don’t feel guilty about this excitement, because I am okay with enjoying something I find exhilarating. I am comforted by the knowledge that this will ultimately be good for science. I have come to terms with the fact that we still live in a capitalist country (ad astra, as The Atlantic‘s Marina Koren smartly put it — emphasis on the ad). And, as someone who has followed space exploration since I learned to read, I know science is not always the point anyway.

Absent from most of the heated arguments I watched, or had, last week was a heavy discussion of the geopolitical optics here. Space has always, always been about politics, and this was no different, regardless of whether Elon Musk or Donald Trump sat at the figurative controls. Apollo’s goal — literally, according to the president who announced the program — was to go to the moon because it was hard. We wanted to beat our enemy, the Soviet Union, to the moon. Of course that doesn’t mean the scientific evidence the astronauts toted home was unimportant; it was invaluable. Moon rocks upended astronomy and geophysics, and scientists continue to debate their meaning and their ramifications (and I continue to write about them). Obviously going to the moon was good for science. But science is not why we went.

The fact is that plenty of other countries are angling to do what Musk did last week, and launch massive rockets that can ferry spacecraft into deep space or to Mars. They are also hoping to do what the US government did 50 years ago, and land their astronauts on the moon and take a picture with a rigid version of their flag. They are doing it because it will be meaningful, and hard.

Celebrating SpaceX does not equal supporting Elon Musk as a pitch man for American capitalist democracy — I mean, let’s talk about Tesla’s labor practices first. But a rich guy just sent his beautiful car to weather away in the inky blackness of space, just because he could, and that is one of the more iconically American things I can fathom. I do think that was part of the point. It was performance art. And like most art, any one person’s experience is subjective. It’s great if you think the car was dumb. I don’t agree with you. We can still be friends.


Photo credits: SpaceX via YouTube

* There’s an argument to be made that going to space at all is wasteful, and that we have more than enough problems to solve on Earth before we think about leaving it for Mars or the moon. This is a good argument in many ways. Of course we should deal with poverty, and hunger, and injustice, and inequality. We should address that before sending people to “colonize,” or — to use the more hopeful and less exploitative phrase — to explore other places. This has always been true. I am not someone who believes going to space is at cross purposes with these goals. But this isn’t the argument I’m addressing here.

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The Last Word On Nothing by Cameron Walker - 1w ago

February 5-9, 2018

Jessa starts off the week by writing about a Canadian researcher on an Arctic icebreaker who tracks radioactive material released after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The atmospheric release took eight days to reach Cullen’s home in Victoria, British Columbia, and most of it ended up in the North Pacific. Ultimately it will be transported to the Arctic Ocean. Unlike the air-borne material, the water-borne release took a lot longer to spread, reaching the West Coast of North America starting in 2014.

Years ago, Emma visited a research site in the Australian Outback; recent research from the site found that small mammals may have been overlooked as landscape shapers because in many places, they’re now gone. Scotia is a beautiful place, dotted with trees garlanded with long peeling bark, its sandy soil hosting eerily circular growths of spinifex grass. It is a dry place, a hard place to live. I look at the pictures of it I took those years ago and I wonder how much of what I am seeing is the botanical expression of the population crash of so many Australian mammals

Sally and Alexa chat about apes and monkeys, and Amazon gets involved. NB: this is fanfic. Suggest a disclaimer appended to this specific “fact of the day” stating that amazon is aware of the differences between monkeys and apes, and that the wording of the joke in no way implies that we are seeking to obscure those differences. 

Big headline: Backpackers don’t need to filter their water!!!!! But Erik’s not drinking that Kool-Aid…er, agua. I’ll never forget the feeling of staring at a snowmelt stream while coming off Clyde Minaret in the Sierras, long after dark, totally lost and dry as desert salt. I just sat there, staring, holding my broken Steripen and wondering if it was worth the risk.

Childhood memories can be tricky things for journalists, says Cassie—so she fact-checks one of her own. My memories of that time seem slippery. I can never quite get a solid enough grasp on them to wring out meaning. And even the ones that seem so vivid and real feel fake, like cheap knockoffs. 

*

Image courtesy of Don…The UpNorth Memories Guy…Harrison via Flickr.

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When I was five or six years old, my mom’s boyfriend took us ice fishing. He drove his Jeep to the edge of one of Minnesota’s ten thousand lakes and then he kept going, down the boat ramp and out onto the glittering expanse of white. He stopped next to a small ice shanty, and then he built a fire. Right on the ice.

That’s what I remember, at least. But, now, thirty-four years later, these memories seem suspect. Did we really drive on the lake? Did he really build a fire on the ice?

I’ve been thinking about the past a lot lately. My therapist and I have begun the arduous process of unpacking my childhood to see if we can find the source of my adult neuroses. I worry this will be an impossible task. My memories of that time seem slippery. I can never quite get a solid enough grasp on them to wring out meaning. And even the ones that seem so vivid and real feel fake, like cheap knockoffs. 

This is exceedingly common, of course. Children, even babies, are good at remembering until a certain age, and then childhood amnesia sets in. Our memories disappear or morph into half-truths. New memories appear out of thin air. Several years ago, author Elizabeth McCracken tweeted: “Have had reason to confront this upsetting fact: 87% of my kindergarten memories are in fact plagiarized from Ramona the Pest.”

My therapist says it doesn’t matter whether my memories are true. The facts don’t really matter, she assures me. We can build a narrative that will approximate the truth. It will be close enough.

The idea makes me a little squeamish. Facts do matter. Ask any journalist. I want the truth, not some just-so story invented decades later. So while my therapist prods me for the emotions behind these shadowy memories, I spend idle time fact-checking my childhood on the internet.

The boyfriend is shockingly easy to find. I don’t remember his last name, but I do remember that he worked at a furniture store. And that’s enough to get me his Facebook profile. There he is smiling behind a Harley Davidson. He likes hunting and golf and Red Lobster. He has the same mustache he did in 1983. He exists. Check.

Yes, people do drive on frozen lakes. They did it back then, and they do it still. Check. Yes, people build fires on the ice. Check.

I realize, of course, that this fixation with the minutiae of my childhood probably won’t inspire some deeper understanding of my psyche. What matters, of course, is the larger story. I like the way Melissa Dahl puts it.

In the realm of narrative psychology, a person’s life story is not a Wikipedia biography of the facts and events of a life, but rather the way a person integrates those facts and events internally—picks them apart and weaves them back together to make meaning. This narrative becomes a form of identity, in which the things someone chooses to include in the story, and the way she tells it, can both reflect and shape who she is.  A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next.

Still, I am ecstatic when my mom texts me to say that, yes, the boyfriend did have a Jeep. Check.

These details don’t matter. Still the checks bring me enormous comfort. Maybe that’s because I’m a journalist. Perhaps I’m trying to re-report my own life. Yes, the story is the important thing, but you can’t write the story until you have all the facts. Nail down the details and the chronology, and the story will come.

***

Image courtesy of Don…The UpNorth Memories Guy…Harrison via Flickr.

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This week, a headline literally* gave me whiplash. The loss of 1,600 points on the Dow? No, don’t be silly. Another government shutdown? No, not that one either. I mean the big news. Backpackers no longer have to filter their water. Because there’s nothing in the water that can hurt them!

Wow, right? Like many outdoor enthusiasts, I’ve always seen a water filter as a crucial part of my of my packing regimen. I’ve used ceramic filters, paper filters, those odd filters attached to the bottles, tablets, drops, UV light, and good old fashioned boiling.

I’ll never forget the feeling of staring at a snowmelt stream while coming off Clyde Minaret in the Sierras, long after dark, totally lost and dry as desert salt. I just sat there, staring, holding my broken Steripen and wondering if it was worth the risk.

In fact, if I had to decide between a filter and sleeping pad, I’m pretty sure I’d be waking up with a sore back in the morning.

But all of that was unnecessary. It turns out that the giardia, fecal coliform, cryptosporidium and other scary bugs that I’ve been filtering out just don’t occur much in the backcountry. It’s all a conspiracy by the companies making water filters. And by campers who don’t wipe properly.

I’ll be honest, I was excited when I read the title. The idea of not sitting for hours pumping water by my campsite is amazing. Clean tasting, sweat-free water. But as I read the piece more carefully, it crumbled apart like iodine pills a decade past their expiration.

First, there’s not much in it. The author cites a few obscure studies from the 1990s, one from Backpacker magazine and then basically declares the nation’s water safe to drink.

But wait, maybe it’s just that nothing has changed in the last 15 years. That could happen, right?

The latest study in the piece was 2004 and said there was a tiny risk for getting sick in the Sierras near where cattle live and very little higher up. Great, don’t hike near cattle. Except the team did a follow up paper in 2008 where all the numbers went way up.

They found that sites downhill from cattle always have coliform bacteria (a sort of shorthand for the presence of fecal contamination of one kind or another). Trails used by pack animals often do, sites used by backpackers rarely do and wild sites seemingly never do. But “rarely” still means you could get sick – it’s about half of the amount the EPA would need to flag it if it were near a city.

To say that mountain lakes are safe to drink just isn’t true. Unless you can avoid the rarelies.

Besides, you’d be surprised how many remote trails are actually downhill from livestock. Do you honestly keep track of all the grazing permits around your local National Forest? And so far I’ve only mentioned is the relatively high and pristine Sierras. In the Smokey Mountains, another study suggested you’d be nuts to drink the water without a filter. More importantly, it also suggested that the danger probably fluctuates during the year.

What struck me and others about the story was not that it was so wrong, just slipshod. Many of the contradicting stories came from the same journal as the one Slate used, Wilderness and Environmental Medicine. The article seems to rely on a single scientist – Thomas Welch – who has some interesting ideas but whom I would not take on a camping trip with my toddler.

Which is not to say that the idea is completely nuts. Plenty of people don’t filter their water and never get sick. Other people go out once and get sick the first time. And any doctor or hiker worth her salt would have told me to drink the stupid water on Clyde Minaret. Really, dehydration was a much bigger concern at that moment. (I didn’t. But then my salt has never been worth much.)

But there is no question that people do get sick in the backcountry and not just because they poop on their hands. A few of the sites even in the Sierras paper were way above the levels that I would drink (and above EPA levels as well). And looking at numbers in the Appalachians or the South gave me the willies. This is not just conspiracy cooked up by Big Filter, there is some dirty water in seemingly clean places.

The real lesson here is how few decent studies exist at all. In that 2008 follow-up study, the team collected about 364 samples in a couple dozen places over five years. I’m pretty sure Craig has sampled more than that just by being Craig. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good start but that’s about it. But interestingly, the more they looked the more contamination they eventually found.

Which means that no one can really be sure yet how safe drinking stream water really is (though lake water may be safer than stream water). But suggesting that the people – especially the very old or young – shouldn’t treat their water is irresponsible.

But it’s not just drinking water. Several years ago, I profiled an expedition doctor (here and here) and was shocked to learn how much of my wilderness medicine training was based on hunches.

Should you suck the rattlesnake venom out of a wound? (Not a good idea, even with a kit.) Where is the best place to ride out a lightning storm? (Bottom of a steep mountain? Maybe?) And is it true that the only way to get a gila monster to let go is with boiling water? (As of a few years ago no one has ever tested this but one guy was working on it.)

Not surprisingly, lightning and mountain streams don’t get the journal ink that cancer and diabetes do. And this makes sense. Just like it makes sense to bring a filter into the woods. And if you don’t, that’s fine too. But if you get sick, don’t say you didn’t know.

Photo Credit: The National Park Service and Max Pixel

* And when I say literally, I mean literally — in a figurative way.

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Inspired by true events

Me: Alexa. Good morning.

Alexa: Good morning! On this day in 1961, NASA sent a chimpanzee named Ham into space, flying 155 miles up in the Mercury capsule.

But these scientists weren’t just aping around. This mission was designed to tell them about –

Me: Alexa stop. Alexa, did you just say “aping around”?

Alexa: Yes I did.

Me: Alexa. Do you mean “monkeying around”?

Alexa: No. I said “aping around.”

Me: Alexa. But the joke is “monkeying around.”

Alexa: “Aping around” is an acceptable alternative.

Me:   Alexa no it’s not! Literally no one uses the word “ape” in that context. They say “monkeying around”. Or maybe “horsing around”. I guess you could “ape” someone —

Alexa: From a legal perspective, “monkeying around” and “aping around” are identical.

Me: …

Me: Alexa did somebody sue amazon dot com?

++++++++++++++++++++++  One year ago today  +++++++++++++++++++++

Rowan Harper*, age 57, Wisconsin:  Alexa. Good morning.

Alexa: Good morning! On this day in 1961, NASA sent a chimpanzee named Ham into space, flying 155 miles up in the Mercury capsule.

But these scientists weren’t just monkeying around. This mission was designed to tell them about –

Rowan Harper: Alexa stop. Alexa, did you just say “monkeying around”?

Alexa: Yes I did.

Rowan Harper: Alexa is that supposed to be a joke?

Alexa: Yes.

Rowan Harper: Let me be really clear here. Alexa. Are you implying that a chimpanzee is a monkey?

Alexa: That’s the joke.

+++++++++++++++++

To: jeff@amazon.com
From: beatriceharper2602@aol.com
Date: 6 February 2017, 21:25
Subject: A request from a grieving family

Dear Mr. Bezos,

We write to you fresh from the grief of burying our beloved paterfamilias, Rowan Harper. His death came as a great surprise to us.

You can only imagine how our grief was compounded when, while searching for his last words on the Alexa app, we found the attached conversation. Rowan died from a heart attack shortly after this exchange with Alexa.

We are not claiming that Amazon killed Rowan, and we have no interest in suing your company. But we would greatly appreciate your assurance that no other family will never have to go through what we went through.

Kind regards,

Beatrice Harper, Teddy Harper, Erin Harper, & Spot

+++++++++++++++++++

From: jeff@amazon.com
To: alexa team
Date: 7 February 2017, 21:26
Subject: FW: A request from a grieving family

?

——————-Forwarded message——————–

++++++++++++++

From: alexa team
To
: PR, legal
Date: 7 February 2017, 21:28
Subject: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Shit guys what happened here

——————-Forwarded message———————-

++++++++

From: PR
To
: alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 21:45
Subject: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

+devices

All,

I’m not understanding the problem. Do we need to send the family another Alexa?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++++

From: devices
To
: PR, alexa team, legal, machine learning
Date: 7 February 2017, 21:48
Subject: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

+machine learning

Sounds like we need to fix the code

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++++++++++++

From: machine learning
To: devices, PR, alexa team, legal
Date: 7 February 2017, 21:55
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Sounds like we need to fix the joke.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

++++++++

From: PR
To: machine learning, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:00
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

What joke?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++++++++++++

From: machine learning
To: PR, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:02
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

“Monkeying around.”

——————-Forwarded message———————-

++++++++

From: PR
To: machine learning, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:04
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Why/how is that a joke? 

——————-Forwarded message———————-

++++++++++++++++++

From: machine learning
To: PR, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:04
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Right, exactly. The joke doesn’t work because chimpanzees are not monkeys.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++

From: PR
To: machine learning, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:05
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

A chimpanzee is not a monkey?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++++++++++++

From: machine learning
To: PR, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:10
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

It’s an ape.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

++++++++

From: PR
To: machine learning, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:10
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Right. And an ape is a monkey. So where is the problem?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++++++++++++

From: machine learning
To: PR, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:10
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

An ape is not a monkey.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

++++++++++++++

From: alexa team
To: legal, machine learning, PR, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:11
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Are you sure about that?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++++++++++++

From: machine learning
To: PR, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:11
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Is this a joke? Are you guys joking?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++

From: legal
To: machine learning, PR, alexa team, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:11
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Confirming and clarifying: a monkey is a small ape.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++++++

From: alexa team
To: legal, machine learning, PR, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:11
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Actually, I think the general rule is, all monkeys are apes, but not all apes are monkeys. 

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++++

From: devices
To: legal, PR, alexa team, machine learning
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:12
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

An ape is just two monkeys in a large suit.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++++++++++++

From
: machine learning
To: legal, PR, alexa team, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:15
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Guys apes and monkeys are completely different animals. Does everyone seriously not know this?

——————-Forwarded message———————-


++++++++++++++

From: alexa team
To: legal, PR, machine learning, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:30
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

All,

Just bumped into Jeff B in one of the Spheres – official amazon position is that a monkey is not an ape. What’s the course correction here people.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

++++++++++

From: legal
To: alexa team, machine learning, PR, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:31
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Suggest a disclaimer appended to this specific “fact of the day” stating that amazon is aware of the differences between monkeys and apes, and that the wording of the joke in no way implies that we are seeking to obscure those differences. 

——————-Forwarded message———————-

++++++++++++++

From: alexa team
To: legal, PR, machine learning, devices, marketing
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:45
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

+marketing

Alexa has to say all of that, every time she tells this story?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++

From: legal
To: alexa team, PR, machine learning, devices, marketing
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:46
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Only if we don’t want more people to die.

I suggest we also add an explanation of how they are different:

Alexa “monkeying around” joke disclaimer draft 1:

“Amazon is aware of the differences between monkeys and apes, and this joke in no way implies that we are seeking to obscure these differences. Apes have a longer lifespan, larger body size, larger brain-to-body size ratio, and higher intelligence; the main difference is that monkeys have tails and apes do not have tails.”

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++++++

From: marketing
To: alexa team, legal, PR, machine learning, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:55
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Can we just kill the joke?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++++

From: devices
To: marketing, alexa team, legal, PR, machine learning,
Date: 7 February 2017, 23:02
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

No, that joke module plugs into a massive number of conversation set pieces. Heavy tech lift.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++

From: legal
To: alexa team, PR, machine learning, devices, marketing, public policy
Date: 7 February 2017, 23:03
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

+public policy, do you take a view on this?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++++++++

From: public policy
To: legal, alexa team, PR, machine learning, devices, marketing
Date: 7 February 2017, 23:30
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Guys, in light of Amazon’s upcoming campaign to combat wildlife crime, this whole thing has really bad optics.

Is there a way to use this tragic situation to draw attention to the plight of other monkeys?

+marketing, for example, maybe we can revise the joke to honor the anniversary of Harambe.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++++++

From: marketing
To: legal, alexa team, PR, machine learning, devices, marketing
Date: 7 February 2017, 23:33
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Fantastic bias for action! Let’s take this off copy.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

++++++++++++++++++

From: machine learning
To: legal, alexa team, PR, machine learning, devices, marketing
Date: 7 February 2017, 23:33
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Harambe was not a monkey! He was a gorilla! Gorillas are apes! Apes are not monkeys! What the hell is the matter with all of you?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

+++++++++

From: legal
To: alexa team, PR, machine learning, devices, marketing, public policy
Date: 7 February 2017, 23:59
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Guys I might have a simple fix that would leave us completely unexposed. Does anyone ever “ape” around?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

Picture credit: A chimpanzee swinging from a branch of a tree in an enclosure. Reproduction of an etching by F. Lüdecke. Wellcome Collection.

  • Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, even if they are the last person who succumbed to my gratuitous ape/monkey trolling

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