(Both Microsoft and U.C. San Diego have been exploring how to “train” A.I. Gliders.)
Humanity has been fascinated with birds and flight for much of its recorded history - our myths, such as about Daedalus (whose name meant “cunningly wrought”) and his son Icarus, have been cautionary tales about our capacity for both building and breaking, and for hope and hubris.
Daedalus, a genius “maker”, was imprisoned for knowing too much. He built a giant labyrinth - as a containment facility for a half-man/half-beast Minotaur - but Daedalus could “hack” his own work to escape it. His reward was imprisonment at great heights inside of a tower. But he came up with a new solution for this new puzzle: build wings and fly away like a bird.
Taking his son Icarus along, they almost made it out but Icarus, captivated by his father’s flight tech, flew too close to the sun and his gear fell apart, killing him. The history of flight in recorded history would mirror Icarus for centuries. Building and breaking, hope and hubris - this has been the cycle for all progress including flight.
Other myths included King Kai Kawus of Persia, c. 1500 B.C., known as “the Foolish King” for his “Chariot” carried by four eagles - the legend was that the chariot crash-landed in China after the eagles grew tired. (Image from a Persian manuscript dated 1587-88 A.D., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)
Everywhere in the ancient world, many others would try, none fly (for very long at best) and most die. Despite every failure, however, we kept dreaming of higher, farther & faster. The temptations of nature and small miraculous toys, however, have driven many sons of Daedalus to beg for gravity’s mercy.
Others would imagine other ideas such as Roger Bacon, an English monk and academic, whose “De mirabili potestae artis et naturae” (c. 1250 but not published until 1542) proposed hollow copper spheres filled with “aetherial air”. He almost got the idea of using lighter than “air” gases right. But it would be others who learned to heat up ordinary air first and fill giant cloth bags - hydrogen and helium would not come for centuries yet. (There is a 1000 years’ worth of these ideas.)
We have a deep envy of birds, a love for reaching for the stars but we also tend to fight a lot. In addition to our bird-mimicry we added bomb-making. Gunpowder has been front-and-center for a millennia of bird-envy, dreams of the great beyond and battles.
(The oldest known depiction of “fire arrows”, or rockets from the Huolongjing.)
In addition to the fighting of course, there were dreams of flying - right to the stars. Just one more myth to share, credited to China.
Just as there was a Persian tale about a foolhardy flyer, there was also a story, whose provenance is uncertain but repeated often, about a public official who built a rocket craft to travel to space. Upon his maiden test flight, there was an explosion and the disappearance of the world’s first would be astronaut.
Fast-forward 8 centuries: early hybrid applications of balloons and gunpowder were dark and dangerous, like the Minotaur.
Balloons were also co-opted for war. In 1849 Austria conducted the world’s first aerial bombing - with Florence targeted as punishment for its defiance of Austrian rule. (Florence after 1000 years had been conquered in 1797 by Napoleon, who then handed it over to Austria. By 1848 revolutions were happening all over Europe and the Florentines had no love for Vienna.) Austria retaliated with blockades but failed with artillery, which then led to an Austrian high-tech weapon.
(Depiction of Austrian balloon bombs used against Florence in 1849.)
Despite a long history of failure and pivots to weaponizing, the dream of flying without fancy gases or fireworks persisted, although I wanted to share just one more example of an idea that was literally depending on hot air, or steam in this case: William S. Henson’s “Aerial Steam Carriage” - genuine historical steampunk.
“The aerial steam carriage, also named Ariel, was a flying machine patented in 1842 that was supposed to carry passengers into the air. It was, in practice, incapable of flight since it had insufficient power from its heavy steam engine to fly.
A more successful model was built in 1848 which was able to fly for small distances within a hangar. The aerial steam carriage was significant because it was a transition from glider experimentation to powered flight experimentation.”
(Aerial Steam Carriage, 1840s. Powered flight was the way but steam-power wasn’t it.)
After the flights, the brothers walked back to Kitty Hawk, where they sent a telegram from the Weather Bureau office to their father informing him of their success.
Kitty Hawk is usually credited as the site of the powered flights because it was the nearest named settlement at the time of the flight; the modern town of Kill Devil Hills did not exist until 50 years after the flights.
The Wrights chose the area because its frequent winds and soft sandy surfaces were suitable for their glider experiments, which they conducted over a three-year period prior to making the powered flights.”
What is coming up, after a century-plus of powered flight? The same thing that took place before “Kitty Hawk”: Tests and “Toys”.
Some scenes from our near-future:
A model plane without moving parts that makes the air move around it in powered flight… 60 meters, or just under 200 feet. The first Wright Brothers test flight at Kitty Hawk was 120 feet, followed by 3 more tests - with the record at 859 feet in 59 seconds. Now we take transcontinental non-stop for granted. Odysseys are built on baby steps.
We will have company of our making too. Imagine animated machines made for zero-gravity work and life, designed by makers who know only of gravity. Earth is for the birds.
Confused by this initial view? What does some robotic goo have to do with flight?
Consider what happens with this “Flux" prototype in flight and maybe in space.
Meanwhile, more familiar projects, well beyond the “toy” stage but still a “rich man’s plaything” are also natural developments for a life far outside the confines of air. Money flies and it always has - Da Vinci needed his patrons, as did every other Child of Daedalus. And even then, some will fall back to Earth as we reach beyond the Sun.
Final words. Remember our tendencies. I hope as we leave behind Earth’s clingy gravity (at last!), we also leave behind some of our more darker inventive talents.
Crimea had been devastated by the war, and the Muslim Tatar inhabitants of Crimea were viewed as a potential fifth column by the Russian Empire; Potemkin's major tasks were to rebuild it and bring in Russian settlers.
In 1787, as a new war was about to break out between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, Catherine II with her court and several ambassadors made an unprecedented six-month trip to New Russia. One purpose of this trip was to impress Russia's allies prior to the war. Another purpose was to familiarize herself, supposedly directly, with her new possessions.
To help accomplish this, Potemkin set up "mobile villages" on the banks of the Dnieper River. As soon as the barge carrying the Empress and ambassadors arrived, Potemkin's men, dressed as peasants, would populate the village. Once the barge left, the village was disassembled, then rebuilt downstream overnight.”
When the Empress and her entourage visited a town, the story goes that they were greeted with a facade of a prosperity and happiness - behind the scenes, it was the Monarch’s handlers who made it so. Behind this sheen of vitality and smiling subjects was a far more grim reality.
Everything is up for grabs when it comes to what is "real" lately.
I have been gathering over the last few weeks various folios of ebullience, jam-packed with scenes of the future. Some productions will portray all of our tomorrows, changing the daily drama of modern life. Some will close after a long summer hot with an excess of expectations over experience. Which shows will be real hits and which will fold?
We are in an age of “Potemkin Protocols” for finance, money and reality itself.
Finance - Value & Vaporware
Money - Fiat & Fraud
Reality - Virtual & Augmented
FINANCE - VALUE vs. VAPORWARE:
Just how valuable are businesses with problems as great as their stories?
"Funding Secured". A narrative of Financial Solvency evaporating. This kind of thing is best understood retrospectively. So little to be gained by arguing for or against it.
Recent reports from Facebook and Twitter were followed by the cracking of a dam of expectations - a looming sense that all was not quite as hoped for, again and again.
Twitter, after years of complaints, have culled accounts from its platform, with the removal of many bots and pockets of outrage to little effect. There is even talk from founder “@Jack” of removing the “like” button (no mention of “edit” however).
Facebook also worked on its promised investments in addressing content, privacy and how it may continue as a business in the long run. It contends with a massive breach of tens of millions of accounts, while it also wants to sell an all seeing eye to be used in the home. (Facebook has company - Tencent’s WhatsApp lockdown on crypto, brought on by China's vaccination narrative, has both official and unofficial stories taking place.) Various executives have moved on from both WhatsApp, Oculus and Instagram reflecting these ongoing tensions.
Despite all the current news and noise, the network effects of these platforms are pervasive and persistent entities. Nothing short of a balance sheet crisis and stubborn creditors or an act of the State is likely to interrupt their existence. The real test will be earnings when the primacy of earnings supersedes growth narratives, or enough of the public good is harmed.
Chamath Palihapitya, returned and recharged, has a warning for many in this space, for the “next Facebook” or “next” anything to come, against raising money from Peter to fund Paul, over and over again. Real growth, slower and less captivating, is what he wants more of.
MONEY - FIAT vs. FRAUD:
Just what is a security and what is not? Default answers in crypto includes discussion of the “Howey Test”, which brings me back to less-than-official statements from SEC Corp Fin director Hinman from a few months ago.
More official statements from the SEC about ICOs hint at greater scrutiny. Mr. Market, however, has already taken the lead if one looks at what happened with a majority of ICOs and alt-coin prices over the last year. Sentiment has shifted 180 degrees, and the market cap has dropped to barely more than 180 Billlion USD in approximate aggregate value (give or take 20B USD or so) - having peaked at about 800B+ USD less than a year ago. Mr. Market is clearing an excess of schilling more than “Schelling” and eventually value emerges and is pushed live to end-users.
Many plans for crypto ETFs have been denied, primarily due to one SEC rule. Exchange giant Coinbase has dropped some of its institutional product. Remember "fat protocol", what became of this concept? Andrew Chen wrote about a 3 pronged investment strategy in crypto, based on 3 models: protocols, distributed apps (Dapps) and tools on top - hedging bets on where value will emerge and be captured.
"A Japanese court ruled Friday to pull infamous Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox out of bankruptcy, opening the door for at least $1 billion worth of cryptocurrency to be paid back to the company’s former customers."
To my outsider eyes, these were all tests, less scattershot and bit more systematic, to find out where the "real" value lies ahead in crypto. The “devs” are front & center.
At 10 AS.* they are still working on the base-layer which everyone must interact with: money. And right now many eyes are on bridging the gap between speculative ventures’ potential and the actual financial system in place: stablecoins.
(“*A.S. is my conceit for years after Satoshi Nakamoto’s original October 2008 paper.)
Stablecoins (i.e. fiatcoins) could be the actual Crypto medium of exchange you exchange your State issued fiat for, so that you can access various goods and services of the next “Internet”, of the public blockchain (financial services, info services, etc.).
Regular readers and “tech readers” know the phrase “aggregators”. In fact Sheng says:
“If a fiatcoin is successful, it aggregates user demand for the applications (financial, web, and other) of public blockchains. Users must visit the issuer to exchange fiat for fiatcoin and vice versa.
This pools demand around the issuer–demand they can monetize by directing their users to first-party applications (e.g. exchange, wallet, apps) and demand they can control by surveillance and censorship.
This move comes straight from the web2 playbook.
The tech giants print money by aggregating demand.
This strategy so well describes the business dynamics of web2 that Ben Thompson coined the term “Aggregation Theory”, which can be summed up as: the internet allows companies to directly serve users with zero marginal cost, so the winning business model is to aggregate user demand.
Viewed through this lens, the language used by Gemini in their announcement of GUSD is telling.
They aim to “build a bridge to the future of money.” With any luck, their bridge is the one that all users have to cross, just like the App Store, Amazon, and Google Search are a bridge to their use-cases of their respective platforms.”
And Sheng explains what it will cost you and I for access to the public blockchain:
“The greatest costs of fiatcoins are censorship.
Fiatcoins are easy to surveil because each new fiatcoin is born to a KYC’d owner, making it easier to run forensics on the transactions of a fiatcoin.
They also contain functions that allow the issuer to seize coins and blacklist addresses from the network.
Surveillance plus censorship places a lot of power in the hands of the issuer –more, in some ways, than any given state issuer of regular fiat.”
My reaction to this latest phase: A recurring question grappling with new answers in the current Potemkin Protocol environment becomes “just what is money?” Or more rather “who decides what money is?” Who might decide what money will next be in a Stablecoin world? The “issuer” or the “State”?
Tensions about financial fraud or old fiat’s “full faith and credit” vs. Crypto “fear, uncertainty & doubt” are old Mr. Market’s Rhymes - these shows come and go. Now there is a new show in production going on tour: Augmented and Virtual Reality.
“augmented reality is one of those new mediums that could be as big as if not bigger than the web. One of the areas where consumers adopt something new is when it makes something drastically easier.
When I think about augmented reality I think about instances like finding your way somewhere, finding your friends in a stadium, or going to a conference and looking around and knowing who everyone is because their LinkedIn profile is hanging over their heads”
Where does the mark lie between real and unreal? I have been looking around and noticed various explorations of this question.
“an information-rich data visualization is not only the most powerful way to communicateour answers as to how the world really works, but it is also the most powerful way to designour questions as to how the world really works.”
When the very nature of visualization can be manipulated, it can impact the how we see how we think the world works and the kinds of questions to ask.
“a novel approach that enables photo-realistic re-animation of portrait videos using only an input video. In contrast to existing approaches that are restricted to manipulations of facial expressions only, we are the first to transfer the full 3D head position, head rotation, face expression, eye gaze, and eye blinking from a source actor to a portrait video of a target actor. The core of our approach is a generative neural network with a novel space-time architecture.”
A video about these “Deep Video Portraits” related to this paper is shared here.
And there’s a new release, out of “stealth” from a startup. “Focals by North”, which looks like the offspring of Google Glass and Warby Parker. Fashion forward.
There is the promise of one favorite Virtual Reality favorite I noticed last year, SVRF, which has had some product management investment and assistance from VC firm FirstMark. Right now it’s in the fun news and make stuff stage. Here is SVRF founder Sophia Dominguez’s presentation about the new language emerging here.
I enclose the entire thread of his wonderful thoughts but bolded some passages.
"1/I believe that the highest probability bet you can make in your investment strategy is that human nature will remain a constant for the foreseeable future. For my book “Predicting the Markets of Tomorrow”, I analyzed nearly 200 years of data
2/and found that the rolling 20-year real rate of return to financial markets ebbs and flows with a remarkable degree of consistency. I believe this is so primarily because human beings are responsible for the economic and stock market cycles.
3/While the types of companies and industries that get us excited has and will continue to change over time, our reactions to them will remain the same—we’ll get unusually excited about the new and over-price it and be blasé about the old and under-price it.
4/Be it steamboats, railroads, telegraph and telephones, automobiles, motion pictures, radio, TV, aluminum, “space-age” technology, the first computer makers, internet stocks, nanotechnology or quantum computers, our human reactions to innovation are sure to persist.
5/Just as in the past, we will more than likely drive their valuations to unsustainable levels. Our basic human nature is probably more responsible for the long-term ebbs and flows in the market than any single economic event or innovation.
6/And since they are unlikely to change, we can confidently presume that we will make the same mistakes and errors again, again and again. We will panic in bear markets and often sell near the bottom.
7/We will become elated during bull markets and become more and more confident near the top. We pay the highest price for a widely agreed upon consensus. Yet I’ve also learned that it’s virtually impossible to forecast the ups and downs of markets.
8/The good news is, if you are investing for the long-term, you don’t have to—I’m 58 years old, but my time horizon is infinite because I want to leave money to the people I love and the charities I care about.
9/Often in investing, the best thing to do is nothing. It’s boring. It’s incredibly dull. You won’t have any great stories about your market savvy at dinner parties. But if you can simply remain dispassionate about all the emotionally charged things happening
10/around you day-to-day, you will come out ahead of virtually everyone else in the long-term. Want proof? I wrote most of this in 2006, and it is as relevant today as it was then. And will probably be equally relevant in 2026.
11/Much of life is filled with uncertainty which causes stress and worry. Remind yourself that most of these stomach-churning events are things that you have NO control over. Focus only on what you DO have control over.
12/10% of the impact of events are due to the event itself and 90% is due to how we react to it. That’s something that, if you work on it, you CAN control. Successful investing is simple to think about, but incredibly hard to actually do.
13/Finally, remember that the best investment you can make is in yourself. If you can turn these simple actions into habits, your future returns will allow you to, as @alphaarchitect puts it, compound your face off. Get after it."
“there is another world, a world which is at once both imaginary and real. It is the World of Abstraction.
The World of Abstraction is a world awash in narratives and memes. It has always existed alongside the World of Reality, because many of those memes are hard-wired into the human brain, or else into human cultures as patterns and heuristics.
But in only the last ten years, practically all of humanity has gained near-constant access to the megaphones of always-on news, internet-enabled mobile devices, and broad, multi-layered social media presence. The number of bi-lateral human interactions we have today is a fraction of the interactions we have in front of an audience.
When we speak to each other, we speak to each other AND to the crowd of people watching.
The World of Abstraction is The Panopticon. A circular prison with clear glass walls, an invention of Jeremy Bentham to explore prisoner behavior under the conscious influence of the constant, silent knowledge of perfect surveillance. By everyone.”
Not all is grim, just as not all is glittering. Whether the code defines our money, our investments or some of our perceptions, we still live in the real world and these are just some of the layers riding on top of it. What we do is still up to us for the most part.
Random thoughts about the near future of this layer of reality:
Will gaming and eSports platforms with virtual assets require KYC/AML specialists?
Will the 2020s / 2030s Olympics include eSports and "Mudders" medalists?
Could crypto asset “forks” take the place of spinoffs and tracking stocks?
So much is happening.
We are in a colorful world of light and shadow.
Here are a few samples of what is unfolding in a variety of areas.
Sketch control of images
Quill: VR animationPushing the limits of real-time rendering.An AR Sandbox - an appropriate metaphor for play and experimentation
A realtime rendered film in Unity.
Real-time rendering demoHolographic multiplayer tabletopAnd what happens when both man and machine can communicate with gestures between each other? Real-time sign language translation with Alexa.It almost feels miraculous. As long as something of real value lies within. But beware.
This 2014 book about the “New Russia”, “Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible”, seemed like a fitting way to bookend this piece.
“My plan of trading was sound enough and won oftener than it lost.
… What beat me was not having brains enough to stick to my own game – that is, to play the market only when I was satisfied that precedents favored my play.
There is a time for all things, but I didn’t know it. And that is precisely what beats so many men in Wall Street who are very far from being in the main sucker class.
There is the plain fool, who does the wrong thing at all times everywhere, but there is the Wall Street fool, who thinks he must trade all the time. No man can always have adequate reasons for buying or selling stocks daily – or sufficient knowledge to make his play an intelligent play.”
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