Da Vinci Today

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History’s most creative genius, Leonardo da Vinci, was not superhuman, and following his methods can bring great intellectual rewards to anyone writes Walter Isaacson. Here’s how he begins his piece about the inventor and innovator:

Around the time that he reached the unnerving milestone of turning 30, Leonardo da Vinci wrote a letter to the ruler of Milan listing the reasons why he should be given a job. In 10 carefully numbered paragraphs, he touted his engineering skills, including his ability to design bridges, waterways, cannons and armored vehicles. Only at the end, as an afterthought, did he add that he was also an artist. “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible,” he wrote.

Yes, he could. He would go on to create the two most famous paintings in history, the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper.” But in his own mind, he was just as much a man of science and engineering, pursuing studies of anatomy, flying machines, fossils, birds, optics, geology and weaponry. His ability to combine art and science—made iconic by “Vitruvian Man,” his drawing of a perfectly proportioned man (possibly a self-portrait) spread-eagled inside a circle and square—is why so many consider him history’s most creative genius.

Fortunately for us, Leonardo was also a very human genius. He was not the recipient of supernatural intellect in the manner of, for example, Newton or Einstein, whose minds had such unfathomable processing power that we can merely marvel at them. His genius came from being wildly imaginative, quirkily curious and willfully observant. It was a product of his own will and effort, which makes his example more inspiring for us mere mortals and also more possible to emulate.

More than 7,000 pages of Leonardo’s notebooks still exist, and there we find plenty of evidence that he was not superhuman. He made mistakes in arithmetic. He had a deep feel for geometry but was not adroit at using equations to codify nature’s laws. He left many artistic projects unfinished and pages of brilliant treatises unpublished. He was also prone to fantasy, envisioning flying machines that never flew and tanks that never rolled.

Want more? You can read the full piece here

Too Big?

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Over the past several weeks, Facebook has dominated the news, with her CEO testifying on Capitol Hill in front of angry lawmakers.

But another tech firm is under the same – even greater scrutiny – in the same way large mega-companies have been for most of our country’s recorded history.

Critics say the search giant is squelching competition before it begins. Should the government step in? Charles Duhigg sheds some light. Here is part of what he says:

Google has succeeded where Genghis Khan, communism and Esperanto all failed: It dominates the globe. Though estimates vary by region, the company now accounts for an estimated 87 percent of online searches worldwide. It processes trillions of queries each year, which works out to at least 5.5 billion a day, 63,000 a second. So odds are good that sometime in the last week, or last hour, or last 10 minutes, you’ve used Google to answer a nagging question or to look up a minor fact, and barely paused to consider how near-magical it is that almost any bit of knowledge can be delivered to you faster than you can type the request. If you’re old enough to remember the internet before 1998, when Google was founded, you’ll recall what it was like when searching online involved AltaVista or Lycos and consistently delivered a healthy dose of spam or porn. (Pity the early web enthusiasts who innocently asked Jeeves about “amateurs” or “steel.”)

In other words, it’s very likely you love Google, or are at least fond of Google, or hardly think about Google, the same way you hardly think about water systems or traffic lights or any of the other things you rely on every day. Therefore you might have been surprised when headlines began appearing last year suggesting that Google and its fellow tech giants were threatening everything from our economy to democracy itself. Lawmakers have accused Google of creating an automated advertising system so vast and subtle that hardly anyone noticed when Russian saboteurs co-opted it in the last election. Critics say Facebook exploits our addictive impulses and silos us in ideological echo chambers. Amazon’s reach is blamed for spurring a retail meltdown; Apple’s economic impact is so profound it can cause market-wide gyrations. These controversies point to the growing anxiety that a small number of technology companies are now such powerful entities that they can destroy entire industries or social norms with just a few lines of computer code. Those four companies, plus Microsoft, make up America’s largest sources of aggregated news, advertising, online shopping, digital entertainment and the tools of business and communication. They’re also among the world’s most valuable firms, with combined annual revenues of more than half a trillion dollars.

Want more? You can read the full piece here

National Defense Strategy

Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy

Last month, I reported on our capstone national security document The National Security Strategy of The United States of America. That strategy is a dramatic departure from the previous National Security Strategy, which had a more generalized focus of “security, prosperity and international order.” Today’s National Security Strategy is more muscular and more focused on compelling threats of peer competitors such as China and Russia.

This month, the focus will be on the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military Competitive Edge. This report focuses on the defense-related aspects of, and flows naturally from, the National Security Strategy. This report makes a number of important points, among them:

  • Today, we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding. We are facing increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order—creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory. Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.
  • China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea. Russia has violated the borders of nearby nations and pursues veto power over the economic, diplomatic, and security decisions of its neighbors. As well, North Korea’s outlaw actions and reckless rhetoric continue despite United Nation’s censure and sanctions. Iran continues to sow violence and remains the most significant challenge to Middle East stability. Despite the defeat of ISIS’s physical caliphate, threats to stability remain as terrorist groups with long reach continue to murder the innocent and threaten peace more broadly.
  • This increasingly complex security environment is defined by rapid technological change, challenges from adversaries in every operating domain, and the impact on current readiness from the longest continuous stretch of armed conflict in our Nation’s history. In this environment, there can be no complacency—we must make difficult choices and prioritize what is most important to field a lethal, resilient, and rapidly adapting Joint Force. America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.
  • This unclassified synopsis of the classified 2018 National Defense Strategy articulates our strategy to compete, deter, and win in this environment. The reemergence of long-term strategic competition, rapid dispersion of technologies, and new concepts of warfare and competition that span the entire spectrum of conflict require a Joint Force structured to match this reality.
  • A more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force, combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners, will sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order. Collectively, our force posture, alliance and partnership architecture, and Department modernization will provide the capabilities and agility required to prevail in conflict and preserve peace through strength.

You can read the full National Defense Strategy here

Keeping the Faith

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This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of the nation’s – and the world’s – preeminent civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. A good deal of ink has been spilled summarizing the life and legacy of Dr. King, and there is likely little new to report on with this blog post.

That said, a New York Times article by Michael Dyson spoke to me regarding important aspects of Dr. King’s life, and especially what he believed in. Here’s how he began:

In June 1966, less than two years before he was killed, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from his Atlanta pulpit of the dynamic dance between Good Friday and Easter, between death and resurrection, between despair and hope.

“The church must tell men that Good Friday is as much a fact of life as Easter; failure is as much a fact of life as success; disappointment is as much a fact of life as fulfillment,” he said. Dr. King added that God didn’t promise us that we would avoid “trials and tribulations” but that “if you have faith in God, that God has the power to give you a kind of inner equilibrium through your pain.”

From nearly the moment he emerged on the national scene in the mid-1950s until his tragic end in 1968, 10 days before Easter, Dr. King was hounded by death. It was his deep faith that saw him through his many trials and tribulations until the time he was fatally shot on that motel balcony at 6:01 p.m. on April 4 in Memphis.

Faith summoned Dr. King, an ordained Baptist preacher, to the ministry. It made him a troublemaker for Jesus and it led him to criticize the church, criticize the world around him and, in turn, be criticized for those things. In honoring his legacy today, we must not let complacency or narrow faith blind us to what needs to trouble us too.

Want more? You can read the full article here

2001 at 50

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Any votes for the most prescient film of the last century? One that looked ahead to a future that most could only dimly perceive.

My vote is for Stanly Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Forward-looking only begins to describe this work. Here is how Michael Benson begins his piece in the Wall Street Journal:

Fifty years ago, invitation-only audiences gathered in specially equipped Cinerama theaters in Washington, New York and Los Angeles to preview a widescreen epic that director Stanley Kubrick had been working on for four years. Conceived in collaboration with the science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, “2001: A Space Odyssey” was way over budget, and Hollywood rumor held that MGM had essentially bet the studio on the project.

The film’s previews were an unmitigated disaster. Its story line encompassed an exceptional temporal sweep, starting with the initial contact between pre-human ape-men and an omnipotent alien civilization and then vaulting forward to later encounters between Homo sapiens and the elusive aliens, represented throughout by the film’s iconic metallic-black monolith. Although featuring visual effects of unprecedented realism and power, Kubrick’s panoramic journey into space and time made few concessions to viewer understanding. The film was essentially a nonverbal experience. Its first words came only a good half-hour in.

Audience walkouts numbered well over 200 at the New York premiere on April 3, 1968, and the next day’s reviews were almost uniformly negative. Writing in the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris called the movie “a thoroughly uninteresting failure and the most damning demonstration yet of Stanley Kubrick’s inability to tell a story coherently and with a consistent point of view.” And yet that afternoon, a long line—comprised predominantly of younger people—extended down Broadway, awaiting the first matinee.

Stung by the initial reactions and under great pressure from MGM, Kubrick soon cut almost 20 minutes from the film. Although “2001” remained willfully opaque and open to interpretation, the trims removed redundancies, and the film spoke more clearly. Critics began to come around. In her review for the Boston Globe, Marjorie Adams, who had seen the shortened version, called it “the world’s most extraordinary film. Nothing like it has ever been shown in Boston before, or for that matter, anywhere. The film is as exciting as the discovery of a new dimension in life.”

Fifty years later, “2001: A Space Odyssey” is widely recognized as ranking among the most influential movies ever made. The most respected poll of such things, conducted every decade by the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine, asks the world’s leading directors and critics to name the 100 greatest films of all time. The last BFI decadal survey, conducted in 2012, placed it at No. 2 among directors and No. 6 among critics. Not bad for a film that critic Pauline Kael had waited a contemptuous 10 months before dismissing as “trash masquerading as art” in the pages of Harper’s.

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Turning Assignments into Stories

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Recently, a U.S. Navy SEAL turned his active duty experiences into a work of fiction entitled “Bring Out the Dog: Stories.” Author Will Mackin’s book will likely delight. Here is how John William’s New York Times review begins:

“I felt proud that I’d fought, or something like proud, but also glad it was over.” That’s the narrator of one story in Will Mackin’s debut collection, “Bring Out the Dog.” During his time in the United States Navy, Mr. Mackin was deployed with SEAL teams on assignments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. When he came home, he relied on notes he kept during his time in combat to write these stories, three of which have appeared in The New Yorker. Mr. Mackin talks about the experiences that inspired the book, why he chose to write fiction, a Pink Floyd lyric that has influenced his life and more.

You can read the full review here

Holding America Together

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Ever feel like our country is coming apart. Divisive politics seems to rule the day. Are we on the verge of fracturing as a nation?

Not so says David Brooks in his insightful piece, “What Holds America Together.” It gave me pause and I think it will give you something to think about. Here is how he begins:

Last week I went to Houston to see the rodeo. That rodeo is not like other rodeos. It’s gigantic. It goes for 20 days. There can be up to 185,000 people on the grounds in a single day and they are of all human types — rural ranchers, Latino families, African immigrants, drunken suburban housewives out for a night on the town.

When you are lost in that sea of varied humanity, you think: What on earth holds this nation together? The answer can be only this: Despite our differences, we devote our lives to the same experiment, the American experiment to draw people from around the world and to create the best society ever, to serve as a model for all humankind.

Unity can come only from a common dedication to this experiment. The American consciousness can be formed only by the lab reports we give one another about that experiment — the jeremiads, speeches, songs and conversations that describe what the experiment is for, where it has failed and how it should proceed now.

One of my favorites of these lab reports is Walt Whitman’s essay “Democratic Vistas,” published in 1871. The purpose of democracy, Whitman wrote, is not wealth, or even equality; it is the full flowering of individuals. By dispersing responsibility to all adults, democracy “supplies a training school for making first class men.” It is “life’s gymnasium.” It forges “freedom’s athletes” — strong and equal women, courageous men, deep-souled people capable of governing themselves.

Want more? You can read the full piece here

Turning up the Gain on AI

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The United States is at war with China. No, it’s not the trade war. It is the war to dominate artificial intelligence, or AI.

Earlier this month, in my blog post, AI on the March, I described the enormous strides China is making in AI. Their progress – and plans for future development of AI – are ambitious and sobering.

The United States isn’t standing still. The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) recently announced the launch of its Task Force on Artificial Intelligence and National Security which will examine how the United States should respond to the national security challenges posed by artificial intelligence. The task force will be chaired by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work, and Dr. Andrew Moore, Dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University.

The task force will draw together private industry leaders, former senior government officials, and academic experts to take on the challenges of the AI revolution,” said CNAS Senior Fellow Paul Scharre, who will serve as executive director of the AI Task Force. “I am thrilled to have such an impressive roster of national security leaders and artificial intelligence experts join us in this endeavor.”

“We find ourselves on the leading edge of new industrial and military revolutions, powered by AI; machine learning; and autonomous, unmanned systems and robots,” said Secretary Work. “The United States must consider and prepare for the associated national security challenges – whether in cyber-security, surveillance, disinformation, or defense. CNAS’ AI Task Force will help frame the policy issues surrounding these unique challenges.”

Task force Co-Chair Dr. Andrew Moore said that a key tenet of this signature initiative rests in the importance of human judgment. “Central to all of this is ensuring that such systems work with humans in a way which empowers the human, not replaces the human, and which keeps ultimate decision authority with the human. That is why I am so excited by the mission of the task force.”

National Security Threats

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Earlier this month, I posted the first two high points of the National Security Strategy of The United States of America, our highest national security document. The final pillar is to, “Preserve Peace through Strength. This pillar contains a number of components:

  • First, preserving peace through strength involves renewing military capabilities through modernization of existing systems, seeking new capabilities, eliminating bureaucratic impediments to innovation, and embracing commercial off-the-shelf solutions.
  • Second, increasing military capacity by increasing the size of the Joint Force.
  • Third, Improving readiness with a renewed focus on training, logistics, and maintenance.
  • Fourth, renew space and cyberspace capabilities.

This strategy is a dramatic departure from the previous National Security Strategy, which had a more generalized focus of “security, prosperity and international order.” Now, our National Security Strategy is more muscular and more focused on compelling threats of peer competitors such as China and Russia.

You can read the full National Security Strategy here

Our Enlightenment

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For many, “The Enlightenment” is little more than a forgotten term from our history books. Some of us might remember that The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. But most of us would argue that in today’s world isn’t one that feels much like The Enlightenment.

Not so says Steven Pinker, author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” and more recently, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.” Here’s how he opens his article in the Wall Street Journal:

For all their disagreements, the left and the right concur on one thing: The world is getting worse. Whether the decline is visible in inequality, racism and pollution, or in terrorism, crime and moral decay, both sides see profound failings in modernity and a deepening crisis in the West. They look back to various golden ages when America was great, blue-collar workers thrived in unionized jobs, and people found meaning in religion, family, community and nature.

Such gloominess is decidedly un-American. The U.S. was founded on the Enlightenment ideal that human ingenuity and benevolence could be channeled by institutions and result in progress. This concept may feel naive as we confront our biggest predicaments, but we can only understand where we are if we know how far we’ve come.

You can always fool yourself into seeing a decline if you compare rose-tinted images of the past with bleeding headlines of the present. What do the trajectories of the nation and world look like when we measure human well-being over time with a constant yardstick? Let’s look at the numbers (most of which can be found on websites such as OurWorldinData, HumanProgress and Gapminder).

Consider the U.S. just three decades ago. Our annual homicide rate was 8.5 per 100,000. Eleven percent of us fell below the poverty line (as measured by consumption). And we spewed 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 34.5 million tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere.

Fast forward to the most recent numbers available today. The homicide rate is 5.3 (a blip up from 4.4 in 2014). Three percent of us fall below the consumption poverty line. And we emit four million tons of sulfur dioxide and 20.6 million tons of particulates, despite generating more wealth and driving more miles.

Are the ideals of the Enlightenment too tepid to engage our animal spirits? Is the conquest of disease, famine, poverty, violence and ignorance … boring? Do people need to believe in magic, a father in the sky, a strong chief to protect the tribe, myths of heroic ancestors?

I don’t think so. Secular liberal democracies are the happiest and healthiest places on earth, and the favorite destinations of people who vote with their feet. And once you appreciate that the Enlightenment project of applying knowledge and sympathy to enhance human flourishing can succeed, it’s hard to imagine anything more heroic and glorious.

Want more? You can read the full article here