July 12, 2016

Aeon - Metaknowledge 5-15min

Wisdom of crowds is an old concept. It goes back to Ancient Greek and, later, Enlightenment thinkers who argued that democracy is not just a nice idea, but a mathematically proven way to make good decisions. Even a citizenry of knaves collectively outperforms the shrewdest monarch, according to this proposition. What the knaves lack in personal knowledge, they make up for in diversity. In the 1990s, crowd wisdom became a pop-culture obsession, providing a rationale for wikis, crowdsourcing, prediction markets and popularity-based search algorithms. ... That endorsement came with a big caveat, however: even proponents admitted that crowds are as apt to be witless as well as wise. The good democrats of Athens marched into a ruinous war with Sparta. French Revolutionary mobs killed the Enlightenment. In the years leading up to 2008, the herd of Wall Street forgot the most basic principles of risk management. Then there was my little Skittles contest. It was precisely the type of problem that crowds are supposed to do well on: a quiet pooling of diverse and independent assessments, without any group discussion that a single person might dominate. Nevertheless, my crowd failed.

The New York Times - Steinway’s Grand Ambitions for Its Pianos in China 5-15min

Steinway, one of the world’s most prestigious musical instrument brands, is looking to China to breathe new life into lackluster sales. To succeed, the company will need more than smart marketing. It will need to fine-tune a cultural mind-set in a country that once dismissed pianos as bourgeois luxuries. ... Steinway dealers have to convince their wealthier clientele that the instruments make good investments, avoiding the overly aggressive sales tactics that tripped up some early efforts. They have to educate parents about the potential payoff of buying a piano that can cost as much as an apartment. And they need to woo music students who are increasingly turning to lower-cost keyboards and so-called smart pianos, which use lights, iPads and other technical tools to teach basic skills. ... The company, known for its painstaking craftsmanship, has grudgingly entered the digital game. ... Founded in 1853 in a Manhattan loft by a German immigrant, Steinway flourished for generations by selling high-end pianos, each crafted by hand from materials like Sitka spruce and cast iron, in the United States and Europe. But the company has suffered as piano playing wanes in the West. Music schools and concert halls have cut back on orders. Piano stores have closed. ... By some estimates, the country has as many as 40 million piano students, compared with six million in the United States. ... As it pushes to remake the country into a cultural superpower, the Chinese government has encouraged students to take up the piano by building concert halls and investing in music education. Among the country’s wealthiest families, the arts have become a source of spiritual fulfillment and a status symbol. In rich coastal cities, real estate scions and technology executives are buying Steinway pianos — some outfitted with diamonds and wood from Africa and India — to complement collections of Porsches and Picassos.

The Verge - Why Microsoft is betting its future on AI 5-15min

No matter where we work in the future, Nadella says, Microsoft will have a place in it. The company’s "conversation as a platform" offering, which it unveiled in March, represents a bet that chat-based interfaces will overtake apps as our primary way of using the internet: for finding information, for shopping, and for accessing a range of services. And apps will become smarter thanks to "cognitive APIs," made available by Microsoft, that let them understand faces, emotions, and other information contained in photos and videos. ... Microsoft argues that it has the best "brain," built on nearly two decades of advancements in machine learning and natural language processing, for delivering a future powered by artificial intelligence. It has a head start in building bots that resonate with users emotionally, thanks to an early experiment in China. And among the giants, Microsoft was first to release a true platform for text-based chat interfaces ... The company, as ever, talks a big game. Microsoft's historical instincts about where technology is going have been spot-on. But the company has a record of dropping the ball when it comes to acting on that instinct. It saw the promise in smartphones and tablets, for example, long before its peers. ... Xiaoice, which Microsoft introduced on the Chinese messaging app WeChat in 2014, can answer simple questions, just like Microsoft's virtual assistant Cortana. Where Xiaoice excels, though, is in conversation. The bot is programmed to be sensitive to emotions, and to remember your previous chats.

Smithsonian - The Discovery of a Roman Gladiator School Brings the Famed Fighters Back to Life 5-15min

Way back in A.D. 6, during the expansion of the Roman Empire along the Danube and into present-day Germany, the future emperor Tiberius reached this spot and established a winter encampment. Carnuntum, as the camp would be called, flourished under the protection of the legions and became a center of the amber trade. The army and townspeople lived apart, but in symbiotic amity. ... During its second-century prime, Carnuntum was a key Roman capital of a province that spanned the landmass of what is now Austria and much of the Balkans. The frontier town boasted a burgeoning population and a gladiator school whose size and scale was said to rival the Ludus Magnus, the great training center immediately to the east of the Colosseum in Rome. Toward the end of the glory days of the Roman realm, the emperor Marcus Aurelius held sway from Carnuntum and made war on Germanic tribes known as the Marcomanni. There, too, his 11-year-old son, Commodus, likely first witnessed the gladiatorial contests that would become his ruling passion. ... Though archaeologists have been digging and theorizing at the 1,600-acre site on and off since the 1850s, only remnants survive—a bath complex, a palace, a temple of Diana, the foundations of two amphitheaters (one capable of holding 13,000 spectators) and a monumental arch known as the Heidentor (Heathens’ Gate) that looms in battered splendor at the edge of town.

National Geographic - 2016 Will Be One Second Longer Than Expected < 5min

No more complaining that there’s not enough time to get it all done: On the last day of this year, you’ll have a whole extra second to finalize your New Year’s resolutions. ... According to timekeepers at the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, the time determined by super-regular atomic clocks and the observed rotation of Earth have yet again become mismatched.