Sunday, May 31, 2020

Some posts that I like – Yet another guide to what’s here at New Savanna [sampling the space]

I’ve started hanging out at the Progress Studies Slack where, in association with the NASA/SpaceX launch, I posted a link to a post that gave some of my history with space travel, A Child of the Space Age. Ben Springwater asked if I had “a shortlist of your favorite posts you could share?” Alas I do not.

So I’ve created a small collection of short lists that can serve that purpose. It's a way for someone to sample what’s here. I’ve been post at New Savanna for a decade (and at The Valve, a now defunct group blog for several years before that),  and have quite a few posts, almost 6800. Roughly a third of them consist of one or more of my photos. The rest are about this or that. Off hand I’d say the majority of those are posts linking to things that others have written, with substantial excerpts from that material. The rest of the posts are my thoughts on various topics.

I’ve created five short lists, each consisting of six items. The idea is that each of those lists samples the new Savanna space, with each item in the list being in a distinctly different region of the space. I make no claim about how well each list samples the space much less how well the thirty posts sample the space. The lists are just starting points for poking around.

List 1

Disney’s Fantasia as Masterpiece

Romantic Love, Conversation, Biology, and Culture

Into the Future: From Tyler Cowen through Kim Stanley Robinson to Kisangani 2150

Summer 1981, When I advised NASA on their computing infrastructure

Joe Rogan and Joey Diaz call “Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris” – a rough transcription of their conversation

Friday Fotos: Power to the People [The Hallucinated City]

List 2

Sixty years ago – Gojira 1954

Hilary Hahn on daydreaming as a mode of practicing music, of priming yourself to go with the flow in performance

Redefining the Coming Singularity – It’s not what you think

The Living Cosmos

Not with a bang, but with a rainbow of ducks and a departing hyperobject

Trumposaurus Rex @ 3QD – Toward a cybernetic interpretation

List 3

War Boys in Tomorrowland, or: Mad Max Meets Disney

Talk to the Wood: Animism is Natural

Ontology in Perception and Thought

The Hallucinated City: I reflect therefore I am

The Hunt for Genius, Part 5: Three Elite Schools [RIP #RichardAMacksey]

Borges redux: Computing Babel – Is that what’s going on with these abstract spaces of high dimensionality? [#DH]

List 4

Culture is a Driving Force in History

The Site of Graffiti: Linked Poetry and Mu’en

Entropy and Self-Organization on the Table Top

More Blues: The British Get Invaded and Uncle Clint Talks Piano

MacArthur Fellowships: Search for creativity or the same old cronyism?

The Hallucinated City: Sandy + seven

List 5

The Faith of Graffiti, Redux

Friday Fotos: Cleopatra’s Shoes, or, the F Me Pump

Reflections on entering my eighth decade and why it portends to be the most productive one of my life

The Robot as Subaltern: Tezuka’s Mighty Atom

The Only Game in town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age

Ghost Dancing in the USA

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Roger Ebert on "2001: A Space Odyssey"

I attended the Los Angeles premiere of the film, in 1968, at the Pantages Theater. It is impossible to describe the anticipation in the audience adequately. Kubrick had been working on the film in secrecy for some years, in collaboration, the audience knew, with author Arthur C. Clarke, special-effects expert Douglas Trumbull and consultants who advised him on the specific details of his imaginary future -- everything from space station design to corporate logos. Fearing to fly and facing a deadline, Kubrick had sailed from England on the Queen Elizabeth, doing the editing while on board, and had continued to edit the film during a cross-country train journey. Now it finally was ready to be seen.

To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made. But not everyone remained. Rock Hudson stalked down the aisle, complaining, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?'' There were many other walkouts, and some restlessness at the film's slow pace (Kubrick immediately cut about 17 minutes, including a pod sequence that essentially repeated another one).

The film did not provide the clear narrative and easy entertainment cues the audience expected. The closing sequences, with the astronaut inexplicably finding himself in a bedroom somewhere beyond Jupiter, were baffling. The overnight Hollywood judgment was that Kubrick had become derailed, that in his obsession with effects and set pieces, he had failed to make a movie.

What he had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man's place in the universe, using images as those before him had used words, music or prayer. And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it -- not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might in a good conventional science-fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it.
That's exactly right. The film's mode defeats action so as to rise to metaphysical statement (though, come to think of it, George Miller raised action to metaphysics in Mad Max: Fury Road).

Ebert concludes:
Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape. Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain it after difficulties either comic or dramatic. “2001: A Space Odyssey'' is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet but among the stars, and that we are not flesh but intelligence.

2 cityscapes, one of them coy

Why are farmers destroying crops and dumping milk when supermarket shelves are empty?

Michael Pollan, The Sickness in Our Food Supply, The New York Review of Books, June 11, 2020.
The juxtaposition of images in the news of farmers destroying crops and dumping milk with empty supermarket shelves or hungry Americans lining up for hours at food banks tells a story of economic efficiency gone mad. Today the US actually has two separate food chains, each supplying roughly half of the market. The retail food chain links one set of farmers to grocery stores, and a second chain links a different set of farmers to institutional purchasers of food, such as restaurants, schools, and corporate offices. With the shutting down of much of the economy, as Americans stay home, this second food chain has essentially collapsed. But because of the way the industry has developed over the past several decades, it’s virtually impossible to reroute food normally sold in bulk to institutions to the retail outlets now clamoring for it. There’s still plenty of food coming from American farms, but no easy way to get it where it’s needed.

How did we end up here? The story begins early in the Reagan administration, when the Justice Department rewrote the rules of antitrust enforcement: if a proposed merger promised to lead to greater marketplace “efficiency”—the watchword—and wouldn’t harm the consumer, i.e., didn’t raise prices, it would be approved. ... The new policy, which subsequent administrations have left in place, propelled a wave of mergers and acquisitions in the food industry. As the industry has grown steadily more concentrated since the 1980s, it has also grown much more specialized, with a tiny number of large corporations dominating each link in the supply chain. One chicken farmer interviewed recently in Washington Monthly, who sells millions of eggs into the liquified egg market, destined for omelets in school cafeterias, lacks the grading equipment and packaging (not to mention the contacts or contracts) to sell his eggs in the retail marketplace. That chicken farmer had no choice but to euthanize thousands of hens at a time when eggs are in short supply in many supermarkets.

On April 26, John Tyson, the chairman of Tyson Foods, the second-largest meatpacker in America, took out ads in The New York Times and other newspapers to declare that the food chain was “breaking,” raising the specter of imminent meat shortages as outbreaks of Covid-19 hit the industry. Slaughterhouses have become hot zones for contagion, with thousands of workers now out sick and dozens of them dying. This should come as no surprise: social distancing is virtually impossible in a modern meat plant, making it an ideal environment for a virus to spread. In recent years, meatpackers have successfully lobbied regulators to increase line speeds, with the result that workers must stand shoulder to shoulder cutting and deboning animals so quickly that they can’t pause long enough to cover a cough, much less go to the bathroom, without carcasses passing them by. Some chicken plant workers, given no regular bathroom breaks, now wear diapers. A worker can ask for a break, but the plants are so loud he or she can’t be heard without speaking directly into the ear of a supervisor. Until recently slaughterhouse workers had little or no access to personal protective equipment; many of them were also encouraged to keep working even after exposure to the virus. Add to this the fact that many meat-plant workers are immigrants who live in crowded conditions with little or no access to health care, and you have a population at dangerously high risk of infection.
Under normal circumstances, the modern hog or chicken is a marvel of brutal efficiency, bred to produce protein at warp speed when given the right food and pharmaceuticals. So are the factories in which they are killed and cut into parts. These innovations have made meat, which for most of human history has been a luxury, a cheap commodity available to just about all Americans; we now eat, on average, more than nine ounces of meat per person per day, many of us at every meal.7 Covid-19 has brutally exposed the risks that accompany such a system. There will always be a tradeoff between efficiency and resilience (not to mention ethics); the food industry opted for the former, and we are now paying the price.
Local systems fare better:
The food chain is buckling. But it’s worth pointing out that there are parts of it that are adapting and doing relatively well. Local food systems have proved surprisingly resilient. Small, diversified farmers who supply restaurants have had an easier time finding new markets; the popularity of community-supported agriculture (CSA) is taking off, as people who are cooking at home sign up for weekly boxes of produce from regional growers. ... In many places, farmer’s markets have quickly adjusted to pandemic conditions, instituting social-distancing rules and touchless payment systems. The advantages of local food systems have never been more obvious, and their rapid growth during the past two decades has at least partly insulated many communities from the shocks to the broader food economy.

The pandemic is, willy-nilly, making the case for deindustrializing and decentralizing the American food system, breaking up the meat oligopoly, ensuring that food workers have sick pay and access to health care, and pursuing policies that would sacrifice some degree of efficiency in favor of much greater resilience. Somewhat less obviously, the pandemic is making the case not only for a different food system but for a radically different diet as well.

It’s long been understood that an industrial food system built upon a foundation of commodity crops like corn and soybeans leads to a diet dominated by meat and highly processed food. Most of what we grow in this country is not food exactly, but rather feed for animals and the building blocks from which fast food, snacks, soda, and all the other wonders of food processing, such as high-fructose corn syrup, are manufactured. While some sectors of agriculture are struggling during the pandemic, we can expect the corn and soybean crop to escape more or less unscathed. That’s because it takes remarkably little labor—typically a single farmer on a tractor, working alone—to plant and harvest thousands of acres of these crops. So processed foods should be the last kind to disappear from supermarket shelves.

Friday, May 29, 2020

"The Real Folk Blues" benefit for COVID-19


Anime gives back! In collaboration with Sunrise and Mason Lieberman, we are thrilled to share this star-studded tribute to the gorgeous music of Yoko Kanno and Cowboy Bebop to benefit COVID-19 relief.

Featuring over forty special guests including Yoko Kanno herself, The Seatbelts, original cast members and a veritable who's-who of the modern game and anime industries, ALL PROCEEDS from this track will be donated to the CDC Foundation and Doctors without Borders (MSF) in support of the fight against COVID-19.

Get the vinyl:

Music Direction/Arrangement - Mason Lieberman (Senior Game Audio Coordinator @ Tencent. Composer/Recording Artist on projects like RWBY, Beyblade Burst, Rising of the Shield Hero, League of Legends, Super Smash Bros, and more)
Click through to YouTube for the full credits.

Classification of songs in Disney feature animated films

A bunch of tweets later...

Cumulative cultural learning among children

Reindl, E., Gwilliams, A.L., Dean, L.G. et al. Skills and motivations underlying children’s cumulative cultural learning: case not closed. Palgrave Commun 6, 106 (2020).

The breakthrough study of Dean et al. (Science 335:1114–1118, 2012) claimed that imitation, teaching, and prosociality were crucial for cumulative cultural learning. None of their child participants solved the final stage of their puzzlebox without social support, but it was not directly tested whether the solution was beyond the reach of individual children. We provide this missing asocial control condition, showing that children can reach the final stage of the puzzlebox without social support. We interpret these findings in the light of current understanding of cumulative culture: there are currently conflicting definitions of cumulative culture, which we argue can lead to drastically different interpretations of (these) experimental results. We conclude that the Dean et al. (Science 335:1114–1118, 2012) puzzlebox fulfils a process-focused definition, but does not fulfil the (frequently used) product-focused definition. Accordingly, the precise role of social support for the apparent taxonomic distribution of cumulative culture and its ontogeny warrants further testing.


A potentially defining feature of humans is the ability to produce cumulative culture (CC), a key factor differentiating us from non-humans (Richerson and Boyd, 2005; Tennie et al., 2009; Tomasello et al., 1993; Whiten, 2017, but see Claidière et al., 2014; Jesmer et al., 2018; Sasaki and Biro, 2017; Schofield et al., 2017), and a phenomenon resulting from a nexus of capacities that are believed to be more developed in humans compared to other species, such as language, prosociality or perspective-taking (Tomasello, 2019). Currently, there is no widely agreed-upon definition of CC, a situation which—as we show below—has major implications for both the design and interpretation of experimental findings. Yet, with an increasing number of experimental studies on the social and cognitive processes underlying CC in humans and non-human animals (Caldwell and Millen, 2008; Caldwell et al., 2012; Claidière et al., 2014; Dean et al., 2012; Derex et al., 2013, 2019; Derex and Boyd, 2015; Fay et al., 2019; Jesmer et al., 2018; Mcguigan et al., 2017; Reindl et al., 2017; Sasaki and Biro, 2017; Schofield et al., 2017; Wasielewski, 2014; Zwirner and Thornton, 2015), researchers have highlighted the need for conceptual refinements and clarifications (Caldwell et al., 2016; Charbonneau, 2018; Mesoudi and Thornton, 2018; Miton and Charbonneau, 2018; Reindl et al., 2017; Schofield et al., 2017). One factor that has contributed to misunderstandings and disagreements regarding what constitutes CC, and to what extent it can be found in non-human animals, is the fact that the term “cumulative culture” is used to refer to both cultural products (i.e., behaviour or products of behaviour) and processes (i.e., cumulative cultural learning, cumulative cultural evolution; Tennie et al., 2018; see Mesoudi and Thornton, 2018, for an overview of current definitions of CC)Footnote 1.

For some researchers, CC describes a process of a gradual increase in the efficiency and/or complexity of a cultural trait through repeated innovation and transmission events (often over generations; Dean et al., 2014; Mcguigan et al., 2017; Mesoudi and Thornton, 2018; Schofield et al., 2017). Within this framework, the actual level of efficiency/complexity of the final product resulting from such a process is not relevant for determining whether the process is deemed cumulative. Therefore, we will refer to this definition as process-focused (Fig. 1a). For example, Schofield et al. (2017) suggested that food-washing behaviours in Japanese macaques has increased in efficiency over a period of 60 years and might thus represent a case of cumulative cultural evolution in non-human primates. The question of whether the most efficient observed technique of food-washing—digging a separate pool of water for rinsing potatoes—could have been invented from scratch without dependency on the older, less efficient techniques—was therefore not decisive for the authors’ conclusion for CC. Another example is the increase in flight distance of paper planes that has been observed in transmission chain experiments with human adults (Caldwell and Millen, 2008, 2009): while the authors acknowledge that the flight distances achieved at the end of the transmission chains could also have been reached by a few individuals without the opportunity of social learning within the experiment, they argue that the observed increase in flight distance, via cycles of learning and innovation, validate the experiment as a laboratory model of cumulative cultural evolution. Such process-focused definitions of CC correspond to the recently defined “core criteria” of CC by Mesoudi and Thornton (2018).

In contrast, other researchers, in addition to describing CC as a process of gradual increase in the efficiency/complexity of a cultural trait, require the efficiency/complexity of the trait (i.e., the product of this gradual increase) to go beyond the limits of what any individual of the species could re-innovate from scratch (i.e., on their own; Aplin, 2019; Boyd and Richerson, 1995; Boyd et al., 2011; Charbonneau, 2015; Henrich and Tennie, 2017; Miton and Charbonneau, 2018; Reindl et al., 2017; Richerson and Boyd, 2005; Tennie et al., 2018, 2009; Tomasello et al., 1993; Vale et al., 2017; Fig. 1b). We refer to this definition as product-focused. While for product-focused researchers the criterion of the trait being highly likely to be impossible to innovate by a single individual is a necessary part of the definition of CC, process-focused researchers would see this as an additional feature that only some cumulative cultural products possess (Mesoudi and Thornton, 2018). Note that while we claim that scholars generally fall into one of these categories of defining CC (and some may use both, see e.g., Fay et al., 2019, 2018), we do not suggest that either of these definitions is currently commonly accepted or that one is followed by the majority of researchers in the field.

The line drawings (culminating in “stars”) represent cultural traits increasing in efficiency/complexity. a The process-focused definition describes CC as a gradual increase in the efficiency/complexity of a cultural trait; the product of such a process is called a cumulative cultural product, regardless of whether the product can be re-innovated by a single “naive” individual (illustrated by the dashed line). Examples for process-focused CC are the increased flight distance of paper planes over transmission chains of human adults (Caldwell and Millen, 2009) or the improved food-washing behaviours in Japanese macaques (Schofield et al., 2017, both examples lie possibly below the dashed line, i.e., both can potentially be re-innovated by naive individuals) or a bow and arrow (above the dashed line, probably too complex to be re-innovated from scratch by a single human). The area below the dashed line is equivalent to Mesoudi and Thornton’s (2018) core criteria CC, the area above is equivalent to their extended criteria. Core criteria CC is characterised by increases in the learnability of a trait or changes towards a fixed, local optimum (e.g., artificial languages becoming more easily learned (Kirby et al., 2008), pigeon flying routes increasingly approaching optimum (Sasaki and Biro, 2017)), while extended criteria CC is open-ended (e.g., many technological products such as ever-improving computers). b In the product-focused definition a process/product is labelled as cumulative only when the product of the process is beyond what any “naive” individual could reinnovate from scratch (i.e., it needs to lies above the dashed line; e.g., bow and arrow). Here, cultural traits that may be individually innovated (such as the paper planes or the food-washing behaviours) are not CC (labelled by some instead as latent solutions (Tennie et al., 2009)). For product-focused researchers, CC is inherently open-ended (Tennie et al., 2018, like Mesoudi and Thornton’s (2018) extended criteria of CC). Here, increases in the learnability of a trait or changes towards local optima of the trait resulting in products that remain within what naive individuals can re-innovate do not constitute CC, but have been called step-wise traditions (Tennie et al., 2009). Note that the term CC only applies to the level of a species or population, but not to the level of an individual. The labels that relate to the level of the individual are those introduced by Lev Vygotsky: the “Zone of Actual Development” (describing what an individual is already capable of doing by themselves) and the “Zone of Proximal Development” (describing what an individual can acquire through social learning). For further discussion on how the Vygotsky’s concepts relate to CC, see Reindl et al., 2018).

Looking up [Iris]

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Is the law blind, or biased? Special prosecutors edition: the cases of Clinton and Trump.

Starting at roughly 32:50 we have a fascinating discussion involving matters of law, character, personal judgement, and politics. The arena is that of Presidential misconduct in the cases of Clinton and Trump.

Paul Rosenzweig is a never-Trump conservative who had been on the team that Ken Starr assembled to prosecute President Clinton. He thought that prosecution was justified. But Rosenzweig is shocked and baffled to see Starr defend President Trump, especially in view of his belief that the substantive matters at issue in the Trump case are much worse than those in the Clinton case. Why, he asks, should a lawyer's (e.g. Starr) judgment about legal issues change when then culprit is a Republican (Trump) rather than a Democrat (Clinton)?

NOTE: You may have to click through to YouTube.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

At the head of the COVID-19 class: 4 nations, 4 narcissists

A Child of the Space Age

Bumping this to the top in honor of the SpaceX launch that was cancelled today. It might happen Saturday or Sunday.


One evening in the fall of 1957 my father took me outside. He pointed up to the sky and said “That’s Sputnik.” I’m not sure I saw the (moving) speck of light he was pointing to but I believed him. Yes, there was Sputnik up there in the sky. A man-made object going around the earth.

A first.

I was almost ten years old at the time and that's the first time my mind connected with world history. That’s the oldest event I can remember that is important to me as an individual and  also important in the history of the world. No doubt I had some awareness of other world-scale events as a young child, but I don’t remember them. This one I do.

From Here to the Moon

Some time in the mid-1990s I was working a trade show in Orlando, Florida. things were slow at the booth so I decided to ditch the last day and head over to Kennedy Space Center. I’d grown up watching satellite launches on TV and was curious about the place they had been staged from.

So I drove east through central Florida, which was much like a desert except that it had lots of plants. I arrived at Kennedy Space Center around noon. I parked the van wherever, walked past a parade of rockets on display, and purchased a ticket for one of the standard tours. The NASA guides took us through some launch pads, around and even up into a couple gantry towers, and we saw a couple control rooms–one, as I recall, mocked up as though a mission were in progress. And then we saw it, a Saturn V suspended from the ceiling of a long, low building. The physical scale was humbling, but it was more than that. Big is big – that Saturn was the length of a football field – but this earth and these buildings birthed journeys that took us to the Moon. There is sacred energy in this soil and these structures where humankind ventured beyond ourselves, not merely into space, but into an almost living presence above and beyond.

That’s what floored me. This ground, this very ground where I was standing, was once tangibly connected to the moon 238,900 miles (384,400 km) away. Men had suited up in a building on this site, gotten into a small capsule atop a large rocket, and four days later got out and walked on the all of a sudden here and now beneath our feet, the moon. And then – How they ever did it I'll never know because when you've been there how do you ever but you have no choice, do you? You want to live, to see your wife and children again – they got back into their landing craft, took off from the moon, and returned to earth in another four days. Eight days from the earth to the moon and back.


And it really happened. In my life time, four decades ago. But there’s no guarantee that it will happen again in my remaining years, much less that we’ll travel to Mars or mine the asteroids.

Dreams and Reality

I don’t know when I first started thinking about space travel. Walt Disney featured it on his evening TV show, which started in 1954; there were science fiction movies, both in the theaters and on TV, and there were comic books. But I have few specific memories of those things.

The earliest thing I can put my finger on is this painting I did as a child:


There’s no date on it, but I’d guess I did it when I was eight or nine. I was somewhat older when I did this painting, though it too is undated:


The technique says I was older, as does the medium. This one is in oil paints while the other is in tempera. I used tempera for the first year or two when I took art lessons; then my teacher, Glenn Brougher, moved me to oils.

I’d guess that I painted the second one from a photograph. It depicts a Jupiter-C launch vehicle (compare with the photograph here; notice the painted markings).

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Hoboken Irises @3QD – with thoughts on iris dwellers and iris galaxies

I’ve got a new piece at 3 Quarks Daily. It’s built around eleven photographs of irises: A Fantasia on Irises.

Artists too have been attracted to irises. Here’s three:

Ogata Korin, Irisis, c. 1705.

Vincent Van Gogh, Irises, 1889.

Georgia O’Keefe, White Iris, 1930.

There's a correlation between SARS-CoV-2 in sewage and new COVID-19 cases

Cumulative cultural evolution


Our species’ ecological success is supported by our ability to selectively learn beneficial social information, resulting in the accumulation of innovations over time. Population size affects the social information available to subsequent generations of learners and constrains cumulative culture.

Population structure constrains the flow of social information and can promote the accumulation of innovations by bringing culturally distinct groups into contact. Effective population structure results from a combination of structural barriers (e.g., lack of contact between individuals) and behavioral barriers (e.g., unwillingness to share social information).

Compared with non-human primates, humans live in large networks of unrelated individuals that might be conducive to the accumulation of cultural innovations. This social structure might partly result from selection pressures linked to our extensive reliance on culturally accumulated knowledge.


Our species has the peculiar ability to accumulate cultural innovations over multiple generations, a phenomenon termed ‘cumulative cultural evolution’ (CCE). Recent years have seen a proliferation of empirical and theoretical work exploring the interplay between demography and CCE. This has generated intense discussion about whether demographic models can help explain historical patterns of cultural changes. Here, we synthesize empirical and theoretical studies from multiple fields to highlight how both population size and structure can shape the pool of cultural information that individuals can build upon to innovate, present the potential pathways through which humans’ unique social structure might promote CCE, and discuss whether humans’ social networks might partly result from selection pressures linked to our extensive reliance on culturally accumulated knowledge.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Rhythms of Speech and Rhythms of Brains

The brain has rhythms - and so do music and speech. Recent research reveals that the temporal structure of speech and music and the temporal organization of various brain structures align in systematic ways. The role that brain rhythms play in perception and cognition continues to be elucidated through studies of various types. I will describe some intuitively simple and fun but surprising results that illuminate the temporal structure of linguistic experience. From recognizing speech to building abstract grammatical structures, how the brain constructs and represents time reveals unexpected puzzles about language.⠀

David Poeppel is the Director of the Department of Neuroscience at the Max-Planck-Institute (MPIEA) in Frankfurt, Germany and a Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at NYU. He also directs the Center for Language, Music, and Emotion (CLaME) at NYU and Max Planck.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Logistics R Us, but....we're no match for the current corona virus

David Segal, What Happened to the Great American Logistics Machine? NYTimes, May 22, 2020:
It was reassuring to watch leaders of Walmart, CVS, Target and others gather in the Rose Garden with President Trump in mid-March to announce that the companies would chip in to rapidly expand Covid-19 testing, working in tandem with the administration. Today, Target has exactly one testing site, in the parking lot of its store in Chula Vista, Calif. After a stumbling start, Walmart announced that it had beaten its goal of opening 100 sites by May 31. CVS had opened 50 sites as of mid-May, and promised to have 1,000 open by the end of the month.

Every bit helps, but 1,101 sites won’t get us to the goal of five million tests a day that Mr. Trump referred to in late April.

You’d never know it from the halting pace of this rollout, but the United States is a pioneer in public-private partnerships. Spectacularly ambitious ones, in fact. Like the moon landing. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration hired 20,000 companies across all 50 states to produce and assemble the roughly six million parts needed for each of the Apollo missions. They included Playtex, best known as the maker of the Cross Your Heart bra, which was hired to build the spacesuits worn by the astronauts. (We know about comfortable, flexible garments, Playtex said in its pitch.)

“In some ways, NASA had to invent large-project management for the modern era,” Charles Fishman wrote in “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon,” “while supervising the invention and perfection of the technology to do something that had never been done before.”

Back in the present, and back on earth, the coronavirus is offering a real-time demonstration of how to hopscotch the globe, with ease and speed. Exactly how it gets around is, to some degree, a mystery we are still solving. (Cats can give it to cats, a study published this month concluded.) But starting from an unknown patient zero, it has infected nearly five million people around the world in a matter of months, enlisting victims in its supply chain and deploying them as vehicles to get around.

Iris petals [red background]

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Paul Romer on what's wrong with economics [with coda on what he learned about post-scarcity society at Burning Man]

From a recent conversation with Tyler Cowen (Paul Romer on a Culture of Science and Working Hard):
ROMER:...but I think the lesson from the financial crisis, which we’re learning again now, is one about the fragility of extensive interconnection. We’ve paid attention to optimize efficiency with massive reliance on specialization and these complicated supply chains.

But the growth, the proliferation of connection means that our system is more fragile than we realize. A shock comes, and things happen that we didn’t anticipate. But again, that’s part of learning about a very new type of economy which is changing in real time.

The ones that struck me as being particularly worrisome were, first, I think the negative effect that economists have had in terms of protecting competition. Through the law and economics movement, we ratified this notion that big is okay as long as you can make some case that it’s efficient.

The upshot is, is that I think because of technical economics and the arguments of economists, antitrust is much more tolerant now of dominant firms, and if we believe that competition’s good in a whole bunch of ways, this could actually be very, very harmful. So that’s one.

COWEN: Doesn’t Amazon look pretty good right now in the midst of the pandemic? Do you wish we had split it up into different parts?

ROMER: My sense is that we’d be better off if we had five Amazons instead of one.* And I don’t see why we couldn’t have five Amazons if we, as voters, say, “This is the kind of society we want to live in. Let’s just aim for that.” And same thing — the more worrisome positions are those of the tech firms that are so deeply connected now to many aspects of our lives and where there’s really very little competition and a lot of opacity about what these firms actually do.

COWEN: Let me try to defend the economics profession a bit more. If we look at climate policy, a lot of economists have recommended a carbon tax — not quite a consensus, but a very common view. Now, of course we haven’t done it, but it seems to me the profession, in some manner, is essentially correct there. So you would side with the profession on that?

ROMER: Yeah. Again, in some sense, the main point of the article that I’m making is that economists need to accept that our role is that of the technical adviser. We can say, “If you apply a carbon tax, carbon emissions will go down. Here’s what other effects we think they’ll have. But it’s up to you, the voters, to decide whether you want to follow that policy or not.”

So, if the voters don’t follow us, I think, to a first approximation, that’s not really our responsibility. And what I’m critical of is this tendency for economists to assume the responsibility of philosopher king and say to voters, “Well, we know better what a society should be like, what society should do. Listen to us. We’ll tell you the way things should be. We’ll tell you what you should do.”

And, in truth, I think we get into that mode a lot more than we realize. Certainly, some members of the profession get into that mode. And I think they’ve done, really, quite a bit of harm when they did that.
What Romer learned at Burning Man:
Another thing that really stood out, which is not exactly a surprise, but maybe it was the surprise in that group — if you ask, what do people do if you put them in a setting where there’s supposed to be no compensation, no quid pro quo, and you just give them a chance to be there for a week. What do they do?

They work. What people do at Burning Man is they go there and they work. They’ll do a different job, like they’ll work as part of the volunteer police force, or they’ll help maintain sanitation. They’ll work to set up something which offers a service to other people. But there’s enormous satisfaction that we draw from accomplishment and the provision of the output that we produce, making it available to others.

If somebody asked me, “What’s a post-scarcity society going to look like?” Somebody actually said this to me there. He was like, “What does post-scarcity society look like?” People work hard because they like it. They work on things that they care about and they think others will care about, and that’s an encouraging insight, I think, about people.
*See another post I did today:  Are we grappling with problems beyond our conceptual means? [counterfeit capitalism][#Progress_Studies, NOT].

Let them eat ... [yum!]

Are we grappling with problems beyond our conceptual means? [counterfeit capitalism][#Progress_Studies, NOT]

I take the question from the final chapter, of David Hays,  The Evolution of Technology Through Four Cognitive Ranks (1993). In section 8.4, “The Rise and Fall of Civilizations” Hays observes:
For the fall of empires, there have been many explanations, all too specific for me. Do I care whether it was disease, depletion of the soil, restlessness of the proletarians, intrusion of barbarians, corruption of the elite? Not much. The level of abstraction appropriate to this question seems to me to be this: Every empire has grown too large for its cultural rank. Specifically, every empire has grown until it created for itself problems too complex for it to solve with the means of thought available to it. The substance of the problems may be unique to each empire, but the increasing complexity of problems with size of political unit is universal.
Don’t let the word “empire” mislead you. It by no means excludes the current American imperium, though Hays would not have used that term. He was, we both were, and I remain, concerned about the future.

The issue seems particularly acute during the current pandemic. While some/much of the inadequacy of America's response can be attributed to the flailings of the Trump administration, I don't think all of in can. And, in any event, we have the fact, after all, that Donald Trump was elected in the first place – see, e.g. the podcast by Robert Wright and Ezra Klein I embedded here. Is America's political system failing?

Pizza Aribtrage

Tyler Cowen has just linked to a much narrower and more specific example involving "pizza arbitrage." Ranjan Roy tells a story of a friend who runs a pizza business. Friend wasn't offering delivering services but a startup, Doordash, was not only offering to deliver Friend's pizzas, but was charging less than cost for those pizzas:
Doordash was causing him real problems. The most common was, Doordash delivery drivers didn't have the proper bags for pizza so it inevitably would arrive cold. It led to his employees wasting time responding to complaints and even some bad Yelp reviews.

But he brought up another problem - the prices were off. He was frustrated that customers were seeing incorrectly low prices. A pizza that he charged $24 for was listed as $16 by Doordash.

My first thought: I wondered if Doordash is artificially lowering prices for customer acquisition purposes.

My second thought: I knew Doordash scraped restaurant websites. After we discussed it more, it was clear that the way his menu was set up on his website, Doordash had mistakenly taken the price for a plain cheese pizza and applied it to a 'specialty' pizza with a bunch of toppings.

My third thought: Cue the Wall Street trader in me…..ARBITRAGE!!!!
They decided to try an experiment:
[Friend] called in and placed an order for 10 pizzas to a friend's house and charged $160 to his personal credit card. A Doordash call center then called into his restaurant and put in the order for those 10 pizzas. A Doordash driver showed up with a credit card and paid $240 for the pizzas.

It worked.

Trade 1

We went over the actual costs. Each pizza cost him approximately $7 ($6.50 in ingredients, $0.50 for the box). So if he paid $160 out of pocket plus $70 in expenses to net $240 from Doordash, he just made $10 in pure arbitrage profit. For all that trouble, it wasn't really worth it, but that first experiment did work.

My mind, as a combination trader and startup person, instantly had the though - just run this arbitrage over and over. You could massively even grow your top-line revenue while netting riskless profit, and maybe even get acquired at an inflated valuation :) He told me to chill out. Maybe this is why he runs an "actual business" while I trade options while doing brand consulting and writing newsletters. [...]

So over a few weeks, almost to humor me, we did a few of these "trades". I was genuinely curious if Doordash would catch on but they didn't. I had visions of building a network of restauranteurs all executing this strategy in tandem, all drinking from the Softbank teat before the money ran dry, but went back to work doing content strategy stuff.
Ranjan goes on to point out that this sort of fakery isn't unique to Doordash; Grubhub and UberEats have been doing such things as well. He goes on to conclude:
You have insanely large pools of capital creating an incredibly inefficient money-losing business model. It's used to subsidize an untenable customer expectation. You leverage a broken workforce to minimize your genuine labor expenses. The companies unload their capital cannons on customer acquisition, while this week’s Uber-Grubhub news reminds us, the only viable endgame is a promise of monopoly concentration and increased prices. But is that even viable?

Has Joe Rogan just made a deal with the devil?

As you may know, Rogan has just made a deal to have his podcast distributed exclusively on Spotify. Matt Stoller is worried.
Yesterday audio streaming giant Spotify announced a deal with podcast king Joe Rogan, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that Rogan will be paid more than $100 million over several years in return for making his insanely popular show exclusive to the Spotify service. This is huge news. Investors were pleased; Spotify’s stock was up 8.42%, which is roughly $2.5 billion, or twenty five times what Rogan will be paid. From the perspective of someone who appreciates independent voices and an independent press, however, I’m concerned.
What's up?
As the web used to be, today podcasting is an open market, with advertising, podcasting, and distribution mostly separated from one another. Distribution happens through an open standard called RSS, and there’s very little behavioral ad targeting. I’m asked on fun weird podcasts all the time; podcasting feels like the web prior to the roll-up of power by Google and Facebook, with a lot of new voices, some very successful and most marginal, but quite authentic.

So what is Spotify trying to do?

First, Spotify is gaining power over podcast distribution by forcing customers to use its app to listen to must-have content, by either buying production directly or striking exclusive deals, as it did with Rogan. This is a tying or bundling strategy. Once Spotify has a gatekeeping power over distribution, it can eliminate the open standard rival RSS, and control which podcasts get access to listeners. The final stage is monetization through data collection and ad targeting. Once Spotify has gatekeeping power over distribution and a large ad targeting business, it will also be able to control who can monetize podcasts, because advertisers will increasingly just want to hit specific audience members, as opposed to advertise on specific shows.
What's this mean to Rogan's listeners? (I'm one, I only listen now and then on YouTube, and more often to clips than full shows.) After explaining a bit about anti-trust law, Stoller continues:
...Rogan has made it clear that there are likely to be few consumer benefits. He promised his listeners that “it will be the exact same show. I am not going to be an employee of Spotify. We’re going to be working with the same crew doing the exact same show.” The only difference is consumers won’t be able to get the Rogan show through other channels. It’s purely a restraint of trade. In other words, there’s literally no justification for this deal as anything but a payoff to Rogan from an aspiring monopolist who seeks to force Rogan listeners to use the Spotify app. It’s a leverage of Rogan’s legal monopoly over his own copyrighted material to create a distribution monopoly, which was one of the legal issues at stake in the 1948 Paramount decrees case that ended the monopolistic Hollywood studio system.

Now, I can imagine the argument that targeted advertising brings some sort of benefit I’m leaving out, that Rogan’s ad inventory will bring scale for podcast monetization. But the downside to consumers is quite obvious, while no one has been able to

Spotify isn’t the only bad actor here. The corporation is under heavy pressure from Amazon, Apple, and Google, all of whom have interests in the streaming music and podcast business, and all of whom can cross-subsidize with other streams of revenue. They also have gatekeeping control over Spotify through app stores. Here’s Spotify protesting to one of Congress’s Antitrust Subcommittees how Apple uses its bottleneck power.
Apple operates a platform that, for over a billion people around the world, is the gateway to the internet. Apple is both the owner of the iOS platform and the App Store—and a competitor to services like Spotify. In theory, this is fine. But in Apple’s case, they continue to give themselves an unfair advantage at every turn.
If you put Spotify where Apple is, and and change a few words so that this describes streaming instead of apps, this sentence describes Spotify’s strategy. They want to become the gateway to streaming, so they can tax the ecosystem. (It’s admittedly a bit more complex since Spotify is indirectly taxing via ad targeting and has to pay for music rights whereas Apple is directly taxing via an app store fee, but the power dynamics are similar.) show that targeted advertising is a net positive.
There's more at the link, including notes on McKinsey, Softbank, Trump's deal with Phlow, which manufactures chemical precursors to pharmaceuticals, contract tracing.

Identity Poitics: Robert Wright talks with Ezra Klein

One quick take: Klein makes a useful distinction between identity and policy as the basis for politics. Policy can be and generally always is negotiated. Identity can't be negotiated. The Civil Rights movement forced the South out of the Democratic Party and thus turned the two parties toward identity-based coalitions and away from policy-based coalitions.

Early in the discussion Klein notes that, for all the commentary asserting the Trump's election was a fluke, when you examine recent presidential elections carefully it doesn't seem all that unusual.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Intermodal transfer – draw what you feel

What’s Up? Alternative Hollywood History [Media Notes 32]

I watched Netflix’s Hollywood a week ago and enjoyed it; lots of fun, though draggy here and there, and a bit soapy, too, if you catch my drift. It attracted a lot of commentary, much around its alternative history premise. As you may know, it’s set in Hollywood in the late 1940s and includes (versions of) real people (e.g. Anna May Wong, Rock Hudson, and Hattie McDaniels) amid mostly fictional characters. This is a world in which a gay black screen writer gets his script made into a film directed by a half-Filipino director and with a black star. Not only that, but the movie’s a hit, takes home some Oscars, and the gay screenwriter and Rock Hudson hold hands on the red carpet in front of all the cameras. What fun.

Some of the commentary was not at all happy with this alternative version of our world, such as this piece in the New York Post, Netflix’s ‘Hollywood’ is a reality-altering, potentially dangerous TV series, but I think Aisha Harris gets things right in The New York Times, In Netflix’s ‘Hollywood,’ One Movie Fixes Racism. Hooray! – clever title, that; I wonder who wrote it. She’s quite aware of Hollywood’s history on these matters, and ours as well. Given all the reservations, all the work yet to be done:
... There is something to be said for the show’s fluffy confection of ahistoricism when it’s not indulging in myths of racial reconciliation and movies-as-changemakers.

The happy resolutions conjured up by message films from the “Hollywood” era almost always benefited straight white people and no one else. Here is a fantasy set in the past where women, people of color and queer characters ultimately win, too.

Yes, the Avises of the world are able to pat themselves on the backs for doing the right thing. But Archie, Camille and Anna May also get to pursue their dreams and see their success open doors for others. They survive, they flourish, they are happy.

A part of me can’t ignore what it feels like to see this Technicolor spectacle populated by these faces and experiences, to see the 1940s depicted through a 2020 lens — browner, less sexually repressed, more women calling the shots. “Movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be,” says one character in “Hollywood.” [...]
The show is willfully naïve and laughably self-satisfied. But as far as dreams go, it’s also progress.
I conclude that the series presupposes an audience with some sophistication in these matters, an audience that knows things weren’t at all like that back in the day, and that we’ve still got a ways to go. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun, does it?

* * * * *

We'll meet again.... [apocalypse then and now?]

Friends and neighbors during the current pandemic on VE Day 2020 in Britain:

Following the Queen's address, people were invited to stand on their doorsteps and sing Dame Vera Lynn's 'We'll Meet Again'.

Today the nation came together, even when forced apart by lockdown, to remember the end of war in Europe and mark 75 years since VE Day.

The Queen said the message of VE Day is "never give up, never despair", remembering the sacrifices of the Second World War generation in a poignant speech.*
That bears comparison with the final scene of Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove:

*H/t Blair Sabol, @ New York Social Diary, who also informs us:
In these times of massive furloughs and viral shedding it’s hard to hold onto anything, let alone find any kind of diversions or escape valves. In early April it was reported that French police turned back a private jet from London trying to get to the Riviera – the highfliers were 7 men (40 to 50 years old) and 3 women (23 to 25 years old). The men were from the Ukraine and worked in high finance and the women were in the “escort biz.”

They had hired a villa in Cannes. But when the plane hit the tarmac in Marseille, the police refused entry since they couldn’t prove their trip was “essential” via an international travel certificate. Very Jeffrey Epstein to be sure, but in the “Covid” era? For those with the cash — where there’s a will there’s a private jet and that show still goes on.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Technological change and leisure activity

Łukasz Rachel, Leisure-enhancing technological change, VOX, CEPR Policy Portal, 24 May 2019.
Our time, attention, and data are central in today’s economy. We spend ever more time glued to our screens, while businesses innovate tirelessly to attract ‘eyeballs.’ Clearly, the leisure economy has redefined the way we spend our time. Perhaps less obviously, it has had a profound impact on the macroeconomy.

Economists have studied time allocation decisions at least since the seminal work of Becker (1965). More recently, research noted the decline in average hours worked and the steady rise in leisure hours (Aguiar and Hurst 2007, Boppart and Krusell 2016), and considered the impact of some technologies such as video games on labour market participation (Aguiar et al. 2017). [...]

I focus on leisure-enhancing innovations – services that are supplied free of charge and are designed specifically to draw in viewers. Such innovations make economic sense because the attention they attract can profitably be used for advertising. Building this simple mechanism into a macroeconomic model of innovation-driven growth helps explain some of the salient puzzles observed in the data. The theory explains why so much innovation takes place in the leisure sector, and elucidates the puzzling disconnect between technology, which seems to be racing ahead, and productivity, which is stagnant. It accounts for the rapidly changing time-allocation patterns. It also carries implications for measurement of GDP, and, by highlighting the inefficiencies of market equilibrium, forms a useful framework for thinking about policy.

Neural coordination of sleep

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Microcircuit geometry and cortical neural networkss


Why do cortical microcircuits in a variety of brain regions express similar, highly nonrandom, network motifs? To what extent this structure is innate and how much of it is molded by plasticity and learning processes? To address these questions, we developed a general network science framework to quantify the contribution of neurons’ geometry and their embedding in cortical volume to the emergence of three-neuron network motifs. Applying this framework to a dense in silico reconstructed cortical microcircuits showed that the innate asymmetric neuron’s geometry underlies the universally recurring motif architecture. It also predicted the spatial alignment of cells composing the different triplets-motifs. These predictions were directly validated via in vitro 12-patch whole-cell recordings (7,309 triplets) from rat somatosensory cortex. We conclude that the local geometry of neurons imposes an innate, already structured, global network architecture, which serves as a skeleton upon which fine-grained structural and functional plasticity processes take place.

Facebook Oversight Board

This is a discussion of Facebook's newly established oversight board. It is hosted by Ben Wittes, of Lawfare, and Kate Klonick, of St. John's University School of Law. They are joined by three members of the board, Jamal Greene, Nicholas Suzor, and John Samples.
Jamal Greene is the Dwight Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, where he has taught courses on constitutional law, comparative constitutional law, the law of the political process, the First Amendment, and American federal courts. His scholarship focuses on constitutional rights adjudication as well as the structure of legal and constitutional argument.

Nicolas Suzor is a Professor at the Law School at Queensland University of Technology, where he helps lead QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre. He is also a Chief Investigator of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society. His research examines the governance of the internet and social networks, the regulation of automated systems, digital copyright, and knowledge commons. He is the author of the 2019 book ‘Lawless: the secret rules that govern our digital lives’.

John Samples is a Vice President at the Cato Institute. He founded and now directs Cato’s Center for Representative Government, which studies freedom of speech, the First Amendment and other aspects of American political institutions. He is currently working on an update to his monograph, ‘Why Government Should not Regulate Content Moderation of Social Media.’ He is also the author of ‘The Struggle to Limit Government: A Modern Political History,’ and ‘The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform,’ as well as the co-editor with Michael McDonald of ‘The Marketplace of Democracy.' Prior to joining Cato, Samples served as Director of Georgetown University Press for eight years, and before that, as Vice President of the Twentieth Century Fund.
The discussion focuses on questions of legitimacy and independence. Toward the end – say, last third to a quarter – we learn that it has been established by a $130-million trust fund initially funded by Facebook. In theory it would be possible for other companies, e.g. Twitter, to contribute to the board and to avail itself of the board's services. That strikes me as potentially a very interesting institutional arrangement. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Around the bend, in the shadow, an abandoned mattress

Are we seeing the beginnings of a new world order in which mid-sized nations take the lead?

Damien Cave and Isabella Kwai, China Is Defensive. The U.S. Is Absent. Can the Rest of the World Fill the Void? The New York Times, May 11, 2020:
Confronting a once-in-a-generation crisis, the world’s middle powers are urgently trying to revive the old norms of can-do multilateralism.

Countries in Europe and Asia are forging new bonds on issues like public health and trade, planning for a future built on what they see as the pandemic’s biggest lessons: that the risks of China’s authoritarian government can no longer be denied, and that the United States cannot be relied on to lead when it’s struggling to keep people alive and working, and its foreign policy is increasingly “America first.”

The middle-power dynamic may last only as long as the virus. But if it continues, it could offer an alternative to the decrees and demands of the world’s two superpowers. Beyond the bluster of Washington and Beijing, a fluid working group has emerged, with a rotating cast of leaders that has the potential to challenge the bullying of China, fill the vacuums left by America, and do what no lesser power could do on its own.

“Australia is resetting the terms of engagement so we have more strategic freedom of action, and in order to do that, you need to build a coalition of like-minded nations,” said Andrew Hastie, a backbencher in the Australian Parliament who leads its Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

“To act on the global stage as a middle power, you need to do it from a position of strength — that includes strength in numbers,” Mr. Hastie said.
China unmasked:
Peter Jennings, a former defense official and the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said that Covid-19 had stripped away the last illusions of a benign China — the idea that a country could do business with China without worrying much about how it was governed.

By suppressing information about the virus when it appeared in Wuhan, China’s government put on full display the dangers of its authoritarian system, not just for its own people but for the world. And instead of acknowledging its missteps, it has doubled down — spreading conspiracy theories, insisting that its response be celebrated, and stridently attacking anyone who suggests otherwise.
America too:
Much of the world views with disappointment and sadness an America laid low by the virus and Mr. Trump’s erratic response.

The president has shown little interest in working with any other country. He has said his administration is conducting its own investigation of China, but that move is widely seen as an effort to shift blame away from his own botched handling of the pandemic.

Mr. Trump has also said he is temporarily halting funding to the W.H.O., and the United States did not contribute to a recent fund-raising effort led by the European Union for research into vaccines.

Further undermining U.S. credibility, Mr. Trump has floated outlandish treatments like disinfectants, while pushing an unsubstantiated theory that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab — a claim that Australian intelligence officials discounted as unlikely.

“Normally, however imperfectly, America would also have mobilized the world,” Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister, wrote in a recent essay. “This time, in America’s absence, nobody did.”
First movers unite!
On Thursday night, Mr. Morrison joined a call with leaders from nations that are calling themselves “the first movers” — countries that acted quickly against the pandemic and have flattened their curves of infection, including Austria, Denmark, Greece, Israel, Singapore and New Zealand.

Australian officials have also been part of a weekly dialogue on the post-pandemic future with a group of countries that includes India, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. The United States is also involved, but notably as a participant, not the group’s leader, said Rory Medcalf, a former diplomat and the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

What has Elon Musk been smoking? No, Elon, you're NOT developing technology that will make language obsolete.

In a recent conversation with Joe Rogan Elon Musk said his company, Neuralink, is developing technology that may well make language obsolete. Here's how the Independent excerpted those remarks:
“You wouldn’t need to talk,” Musk said, adding: “We could still do it for sentimental reasons.”

He went on: “You would be able to communicate very quickly and with far more precision … I’m not sure what would happen to language. In a situation like this it would kind of be like The Matrix. You wanna speak in a different language? No problem, just download the program.”

Asked how long it would take for his firm to develop technology advanced enough to do it, Musk said between five and 10 years, “if the development continues to accelerate”.
Color me skeptical.

I've talked about that sort of thing in an old post, Why we'll never be able to build technology for Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication. This link will take you to a number of posts about technology for brain-to-brain communication; Musk is hardly the only one working on it.