DataDownload: Netflix’s champagne-soaked F1 home run A weekly summary of all things Media, Data, Emerging Tech View this email in your browser
Ok, lets be honest — this day is never easy. If you experienced 9/11, if you lost someone you loved, if you helped with the clean up, if you went to war, or if you have had a sense over the past 20 years that some of the basic tenets of our Democracy were being fractured in the name of safety. The Atlantic nails it in this powerful piece, so that’s enough to say here.
October 6th is our upcoming Summit, and the amazing list of speakers and presenters keeps getting stronger. David Pogue from CBS is going to moderate a conversation on the future of Space. And Laura Edelson of the Facebook Ad Observatory — part of the Online Political Transparency Project, at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering — joins as our Keynote on day 1. Plus, a nifty new swag bag ticket if you are so inclined to support the Media Lab and get nifty gifts.
Today, we talk about toilet tech, the Blue-ness of hyperlinks, the challenge of video game doors, and our lost summer. And for a long read — brain science, and where it went right (and wrong).
So, with that — our standard sign-off. We always want to hear from you. Steve@nycmedialab.org.
The NYC Media Lab
Invitation: Purchase Tix for Summit 2021: Future Imperfect
New York City’s tech and media sectors have been fielding many curveballs. NYC Media Lab is pleased to host “Summit 2021: Future Imperfect” from October 6–7, 2021. Our two-day online conference will once again bring together 1,000+ virtual attendees from NYC Media Lab’s core community — including executives, university faculty, students, investors, and entrepreneurs — to explore the future of media and tech in New York City and beyond. Register here.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, I cannot escape this sad conclusion: The United States — as both a government and a nation — got nearly everything about our response wrong, on the big issues and the little ones.
The GWOT yielded two crucial triumphs: The core al-Qaeda group never again attacked the American homeland, and bin Laden, its leader, was hunted down and killed in a stunningly successful secret mission a decade after the attacks. But the U.S. defined its goals far more expansively, and by almost any other measure, the War on Terror has weakened the nation — leaving Americans more afraid, less free, more morally compromised, and more alone in the world. A day that initially created an unparalleled sense of unity among Americans has become the backdrop for ever-widening political polarization.
The Atlantic / 12 min read
Read more What 377 Y Combinator Pitches Will Teach You About Startups Y Combinator startup pitches are the stuff of tech-world legend. The Summer 2021 cohort saw 377 founders pitch their startup ideas — each with only one minute, one slide, and a dream. TechCrunch reporter Natasha Mascarenhas watched every pitch. Here are her takeaways:
- Diversity remains an issue for Y Combinator. Summer 2021 saw slightly more women and LatinX founders but fewer Black founders than the previous cohort.
- Instacart — one of Y Combinator’s most successful alumni last valued at $39B — has seemingly inspired a new generation of grocery delivery startups that prize variety and premium produce over speed.
- Fintech remains red hot, while crypto’s pre-seed world stayed relatively quiet.
Mascarenhas found one of the best pitches to be no pitch at all. The founder at Jupe — a glamping-in-a-box startup — reminded investors to breathe because it had been a long two days. According to Mascarenhas: “Being human, and more importantly, speaking like one, is what it takes to stand out these days.”
TechCrunch / 6 min read Read More Tech+Media Smartwatches Track Our Health. Smart Toilets Aren’t Too Far Behind.
Many of us already rely on wearables like Apple Watch and Fitbit to track our activity levels. But we may soon learn a lot more about our health sitting down — on a (smart) toilet. Researchers at Stanford and Duke — as well as numerous startups — are in pursuit of a clever commode that tracks your bowel movements over time and delivers data-driven insights to an app. Stanford School of Medicine researchers have developed a camera-powered privy that analyzes your excreta and distinguishes between sitters with a unique “anal print.”
Duke’s smart toilet actually leverages machine learning to study your stools post-flush. “[You could] get personalized alerts for having more fiber or avoiding certain foods to avoid flare-ups,” says Sonia Grego, founder at the Duke Smart Toilet Lab and Coprata Inc, a startup that she and two other team members launched in 2021 to commercialize bleeding-edge toilet tech.
But it turns out not everyone wants their every movement put under a microscope. A 300-person survey conducted by Stanford found that “the concept of a smart toilet that collects health data” sat uneasily with one-third of respondents who cited privacy as a major concern. But smart lavatory hesitancy isn’t deterring entrepreneurs like Austin McChord, CEO at Casana: “I have now heard every toilet pun or joke you can imagine. A toilet seat is something that everyone is going to giggle about, but you have that moment to explain what it really does, and people really do see the value there.”
WSJ / 3 min read Read More Why Are Hyperlinks Blue?
“Why is the sky blue?” is a question most parents are familiar with — even if they don’t immediately know the answer. But why are hyperlinks blue? Thanks to a deep dive by Elise Blanchard, Senior User Experience Designer at Mozilla, this far more perplexing question has now been answered. Going back to Project Xanadu in the 1960s — the first hypertext project — with many incremental steps towards blue hyperlinks along the way — Blanchard tracks the ubiquitous blue link’s origin story.
The trail eventually leads to the release notes for Mosaic Version 0.13 — an early web browser released by famed VC and entrepreneur Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina in 1993. The smoking gun is right there in the release notes: “Changed default anchor representations: blue and single solid underline for unvisited, dark purple and single dashed underline for visited.”
But just because the history of the hyperlink is kind of blue, does that mean it should stay that way? According to Blanchard: “When the hyperlink was created, limited colors were available. Today we have almost every color option, so what should be the default color and state of links on the internet? When given every opportunity to deviate from tradition, do we do so for the sake of progress, or should we keep the blue because it’s an established visual pattern?”
The Mozilla Blog / 10 min read Read More How Netflix Made Americans Care About the Most European of Sports
Watching sports has long been considered as American as apple pie. According to author Amanda Mull: “Sports fandom is one of the primary organizing principles of American social life.” But there are signs that “sports are losing their grip on the nation’s psyche.” Gen-Zers are far less likely to identify as sports fans or watch live sports than Millennials. According to Daniel Wann, who studies sports fandom at Murray State University: “The best predictor of being a sports fan as an adult is having played that or another sport as a child.” Youth-sports participation has been declining rapidly for years, and Wann argues that a generation that grew up without playing sports is unlikely to become sports fans. “How can you grow a fan base,” he asked, “that has already spent all of their life basically telling you that they don’t care about your product?”
So why, when interest in many American sports is waning, is Formula 1 racing is suddenly so popular? The last American to have notable success as an F1 driver was Italian-born immigrant Mario Andretti in the late 1970s, so there’s no patriotic basis for F1’s sudden popularity. Instead, F1 racing is enjoying newfound interest in the US for an ultramodern reason. There’s a show about it on Netflix. Formula 1: Drive to Survive began its third season this spring. Despite F1 being a sport “that reeks so intensely of European aristocracy, true fandom requires a basic understanding of Monaco’s whole conceptual deal,” Drive to Survive is an unlikely hit — its third season was the show’s most popular yet and was Netflix’s seventh-most watched series in March.
How is a sport that very few people “play” capturing a US audience when traditional American sports are beginning to flounder? “The whole thing is soaked in champagne and decked out in luxury watches, and it always feels as if it’s coming to you live from the French Riviera,” says Mull. “If American professional sports wanted their own Drive to Survive, they wouldn’t just have to let in a film crew; they’d have to be more honest about their product, and less controlling of how other people speak about it.”
The Atlantic / 11 min read
Of all the elements that go into hyper-realistic video game experiences, you might not suspect that doors are one of the hardest things to get right. There are four unofficial tiers of door design difficulty — and many popular games avoid the “door problem” by eliminating them altogether. Vox interviews door dev Bryan Singh, the designer behind the doors on The Last of Us Pt. 1 and 2 and numerous other games. Singh shares what makes opening doors in gaming so difficult.
Vox (YouTube) / 8 min watch
Twenty years ago, during the dog days of summer, a fledgling journalist named Shereen Marisol Meraji — maybe you’ve heard of her? — headed to Durban, South Africa. Her mission: to report on a meeting of thousands of organizers and ambassadors gathered at a global conference on racism. The conference filled Shereen with hope and optimism — all of which would soon be wiped away.
NPR / 47 min listen
Listen Now Virtual Events
Free Event: How Visual Tech is Fueling the Creator Economy
Date: September 15, 11AM-1:30PM EDT
The future of content creation, monetization and our digital selves. Register Here. A Deeper Look How Big Science Failed to Unlock the Mysteries of the Human Brain
A decade ago, some of the world’s top neuro and nanoscientists gathered for a symposium that sought to bring the two fields together. The result was a proposal for “a large-scale, international public effort, the Brain Activity Map Project, aimed at reconstructing the full record of neural activity across complete neural circuits.” Comparing it to the Human Genome Project, the scientists predicted the project would lead to “entirely new industries and commercial ventures.”
Despite its lofty goals, the race to create a map of the human brain faced many bumps along the road. Teams of scientists in the US worked primarily on the BRAIN Initiative, while in the EU, researchers toiled away on the Human Brain Project (HBP). The BRAIN Initiative received the enthusiastic support of President Obama, who, in 2013, called it “the next great American project.” By its scheduled completion in 2026, it is estimated that the BRAIN Initiative will have received almost $6B in NIH funding. The HBP — led by neuroscientist Henry Markram — initially received over $1B in EU funding, but was marred by infighting since its inception, with Markram losing control of the project in 2015. According to Christoph Ebell, a Swiss entrepreneur with a background in science diplomacy, who was appointed executive director: “When I took over, the project was at a crisis point,” he says. “People were openly wondering if the project was going to go forward.” The turmoil at HBP is even the subject of a new documentary, In Silico.
So, 10 years in, are we any closer to unlocking the secrets of human consciousness? Last year, HBP released a 3D digital brain map that’s “essentially a Google Earth for the brain.” The BRAIN Initiative has made some progress, including accelerating the development of “optogenetics, an approach that uses light to control neurons, and its funding has led to new high-density silicon electrodes capable of recording from hundreds of neurons simultaneously.”
According to MIT Tech Review: “While these are all important steps forward, though, they’re far from the initial grand ambitions. Instead of answering the question of consciousness, developing these methods has, if anything, only opened up more questions about the brain — and shown just how complex it is.” Columbia neurobiology professor Rafael Yuste, one of the scientists behind the original proposal, said, “I have to be honest. We had higher hopes.”
MIT Technology Review / 10 min read