407 episodes

A podcast about context and the news.

letsknowthings.substack.com

Let's Know Things Understandary

    • News
    • 4.8 • 501 Ratings

A podcast about context and the news.

letsknowthings.substack.com

    Japan's Economy

    Japan's Economy

    This week we talk about the Meiji Revolution, shoguns, and the Lost Decade.
    We also discuss NVIDIA, economic bubbles, and the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
    Recommended Book: The Blue Machine by Helen Czerski
    Transcript
    What became known as the Meiji Restoration, but which at the time was generally, locally, called the Honorable Restoration, refers to a period of massive and rapid change in Japan following the restoration of practical powers to the country's Emperor.
    In 1853, the arrival of Commodore Perry and his warships in Japan forced the country to open up trade to the rest of the world, initially with the US but shortly thereafter with other nations, as well. This led to the signing of a series of treaties that were heavily slanted in favor of those other nations, at Japan's expense, and the Meiji Restoration was a consequence of those humiliating treaties, which were essentially forced and enforced by military might, not because Japan wanted anything to do with these foreign entities and their money and goods.
    So in the 1860s, some reformist political leaders in Japan started to support the Emperor, who had become something of a ceremonial figure in recent generations, during the country's multi-century seclusion from the rest of the world, and this, among other things, led to a decision by those in charge, who now had more power at their disposal, to shift from a feudal society into an industrialized one.
    There was a fair bit of tumult and internal conflict during this period, but the eventual upside was the re-centralization of the country and its land and other assets under the Emperor, away from the shoguns who had been running their own pseudo-countries within Japan for a long while, alongside an order that the country would do a complete 180, no longer isolating itself and eschewing anything foreign, instead seeking knowledge far and wide, wherever it originates, sending folks around the world to discover whatever they can, and to then bring that understanding back to Japan, to strengthen this new iteration of the nation.
    By the end of the 19th century, industrialization was the name of the game in Japan, and those in charge had successfully encouraged civilians to bolster the economy by tying its success to the country's military success.
    Other governments were happy to play into this transition, as it meant enriching themselves, as well, creating a new, modernizing trade partner that they could exploit but also invest in, and this led to a doubling-down on rapid modernization by the the government, including the culling and destruction of traditional practices, landmarks, and social classes, which wasn't popular amongst the nation's many samurai and other previously celebrated and upper-class people, but it did help the government further centralize power and influence, and reorient things toward economic success and away from a more feudal style of distributed military-backed fiefdoms.
    This allowed Japan to become the first non-Western great power, and it's what allowed them to grow to the point that they could take on half the world in World War II, expanding their control throughout Asia and across the Pacific.
    Because Japan suffered relatively less from the Great Depression than most Western nations, it was also in a pretty good spot compared to the countries that would become its opponents in WWII leading up to the conflict, and its GDP growth in the 1920s and 30s is part of what allowed it to expand so rapidly across Southeast Asia, grabbing a lot of Chinese territory and turning much of the region, including parts of the Philippines, Burma, Malaya, and Thailand into plantation-like colonies.
    The war and post-war periods, though, were a lot less great for Japan, as essentially all the economic gains it made during the Meiji Restoration were lost, their manufacturing capacity wiped out, their infrastructure destroyed, their population numbers depleted, and their civilians psychologically scarred by the drawn-out

    • 18 min
    Spacial Computing

    Spacial Computing

    This week we talk about virtual reality, the Meta Quest, and the Apple Vision Pro.
    We also discuss augmented reality, Magic Leap, and the iPhone.
    Recommended Book: Extremely Online by Taylor Lorenz
    Transcript
    The term spacial computing seems to have been coined in the mid-1980s within the field of geographic information systems, or GIS, which focuses on using digital technology to mess with geographic data in a variety of hopefully useful ways.
    So if you were to import a bunch of maps and GPS coordinates and the locations of buildings and parks and such into a database, and then make that database searchable, plotting its points onto a digital map in an app, making something like Google Maps, that would be a practical utility of GIS research and development.
    The term spacial computing refers to pulling computer-based engagement into physical spaces, allowing us to plot and use information in the real world, rather than relegating that information to flat screens like computers and smartphones.
    This could be useful, it was posited, back in the early days of the term, as it would theoretically allow us to map out and see, with deep accuracy and specificity, how a proposed building would look on a particular street corner when finished, and how it would feel to walk through a house we're thinking of building, when all we have available is blueprints.
    This seemed like it would be a killer application for all sorts of architectural, urban planning, and location intelligence purposes, and that meant it might someday be applicable to everyone from security services to construction workers to doctors and health researchers who are trying to figure out where a pandemic originated.
    In the 1990s, though, the embryonic field of virtual reality started to become a thing, moving from research labs owned by schools and military contractors out into the real world, increasingly flogged as the next big consumer technology, useful for all sorts of practical, but also entertainment purposes, like watching movies and playing games.
    During this period, VR began to serve as a stand-in for where technology was headed, and it was dropped into movies and other sorts of speculative fiction to illustrate the evolution of tech, and how the world might evolve as a consequence of that evolution, more of our lives lived within digital versions of the world, rather than in the world itself.
    As a result of that popularity, especially throughout pop culture, VR overtook spacial computing as the term of art typically used to discuss this type of computational application, though the latter term also encompassed use-cases that weren't generally covered by VR, like the ability to engage with one's environment while using the requisite headsets, and the consequent capacity to use this technology out in the world, rather than exclusively at home or in the office, replicating the real world in that confined space.
    The term augment reality, or AR, is generally used to refer to that other spacial computing use-case: projecting an overlay, basically, on the real world, generally using a VR-like headset or goggles or glasses to either display information onto lenses the user looks through, or serving the user video footage that is altered to include that data, rather than attempting to project the same over the real thing; the latter case more like virtual reality because users are viewing entirely digital feeds, but like AR in that those feeds include live video from the world around them.
    A slew of productized spacial computing products have made it to the consumer market over the past few decades, including Microsoft's HoloLens, which is an augmented-reality headset, Google's Glass, which projects information onto a tiny screen in the corner of the the user's eyeline, and Magic Leap's self-named 1 and 2 devices, which are similar to the HoloLens.
    All three of these products have had trouble making much of a dent in the market, though, and Magic Leap is in the proc

    • 19 min
    News Media Collapse

    News Media Collapse

    This week we talk about The Messenger, ads, and generative AI.
    We also discuss search engines, algorithms, and Semafor’s new curation tool.
    Recommended Book: The Coming Wave by Mustafa Suleyman
    Transcript
    There was a piece published on McSweeney's, a humorous, often satirical writing site, recently, entitled "Our Digital Media Platform Will Revolutionize News and Is Also Shutting Down," written by Devin Wallace, that includes gems, ostensibly from an announcement by some kind of new media business, like this one:
    "Our new digital media platform is changing the way people consume content. We’re a one-stop-shop location for breaking news, long-form journalism, and in-depth art criticism. We’re also currently shutting down without any notice whatsoever."
    It goes on to say:
    "Mainstream media will try to shut us down, but they’ll never succeed since we already shut down at 3 a.m. with absolutely no warning to our readers or even our employees."
    This piece is a completely unveiled criticism of The Messenger, a news-focused digital media company that launched in May of 2023 and was dissolved on January 31, 2024, about 8 months after its founding.
    It was started by 70-something Jimmy Finkelstein, the former owner of The Hill, a DC-based politics and policy-oriented publication he bought in 2012, which was then acquired by another media company in 2021, who said he wanted to start The Messenger for legacy purposes, and which he raised $50 million to fund, before scooping up the assets of another new online media company, Grid News, and hiring a bunch of well-known writers and journalists from other publications, promising higher-than-usual for the industry wages for the 150 employees it hired for its launch, and that number was doubled to around 300 within a handful of months.
    The Messenger was then unceremoniously shut down, the company's staff learning about its collapse and their layoffs from other publications reporting on the matter, many of them suspecting a closure, though, when their Slack conversations were suddenly shut down and their connections to the company, company emails, insurance, and the like, all stopped functioning or simply shut them out.
    Company leadership, including Finkelstein, had bragged that The Messenger would defy the slow-motion collapse the rest of the news media world was experiencing, with few exceptions, because it would expand aggressively and publish constantly, increasing employment to 750 people and earning $100 million in annual revenue on the back of 100 million unique monthly visitors by 2024.
    That...did not happen. It did achieve 100,000 unique daily visitors shortly after launching, but it was only able to earn about $3 million in total revenue by the waning days of 2023, and it burned through cash faster than its competitors.
    That $50 million in funding had dropped to around $1.8 million in the bank from May to December of 2023, and the sudden closure seemed to be an effort by company leadership to cut their losses, though the explosion of activity and sum of money invested, followed by such a rapid decline and disappearance has earned The Messenger and those involved in its sudden shut-down the reputation for having invested in one of the most spectacular collapses in online news media history.
    What I'd like to talk about today is the broader online news media industry, the challenges this industry faces, and how those challenges are shaping what's happening now and what's likely to happen next.

    Explanations for The Messenger's rapid and explosive demise are rampant, but some of the most popular orient around Finkelstein's apparently outdated ideas about how to run a news publication, his reportedly bad attitude and horrible relationships with upper-management and other underlings (alongside his reported homophobia and misogyny, which may have amplified those issues), a lack of effort or capability within the ad sales team, which by some indications barely existed, the wasted

    • 15 min
    Autoimmune Disease Therapies

    Autoimmune Disease Therapies

    This week we talk about CAR Ts, lupus, and antigen-presenting cells.
    We also discuss Hashimoto’s, potential cures, and allergies.
    Recommended Book: The Avoidable War by Kevin Rudd
    Transcript
    Chimeric antigen receptors, usually shorthanded as CARs, are a type of protein structure that receives and transmits signals within biological systems.
    The term "CAR T cell" refers to chimeric antigen receptors that have been altered so that these structures can give T cells, which are a component of the human body's immune system, attacking stuff that our immune systems identify as being foreign or otherwise potentially harmful, it gives these T cells the ability to target specific antigens, rather than responding in a general sense to anything that seems broadly off.
    So while T cells are generally deployed en masse to tackle all sorts of issues all throughout our bodies all the time, CAR T cells can tell them, hey, see this specific thing? This one thing I'm pointing at? Go kill that thing. And then they do.
    The potential to use CAR Ts for T cell-aiming purposes started to pop up in scientific literature in the late-1980s and early-1990s, and in the mid-90s there was a clinical trial testing the theory that T cells could be guided in this way to targeted cells throughout the body that are infected with HIV.
    That clinical trial failed, as did tests using CAR T approaches to sic T cells on solid tumors; there just didn't seem to be enough persistence in the T cells, in their targeting, to do much good in this regard.
    Second-generation CARs improved upon that original model, and that led to tests with more follow-through, better focus for those guided T cells, basically, and that improved their capacity to clear solid tumors in tests.
    By the early 2010s, researchers were able to completely clear solid cancers from patients, leading to complete remissions in some of them, though those patients were also treated with more conventional therapies beforehand.
    These new approaches led to the first two FDA-approved CAR T cell treatments in the US in 2017, for a type of leukemia and a type of lymphoma.
    As of late-2023, there were six such treatments approved for use by the FDA, most of them leveraged only for cancer patients who didn't respond well to conventional treatments, or who continued to relapse after several rounds of cancer therapy. It's a last line of defense, at this point, in part because it's still relatively new, and in part because the current collection of CAR T therapies seem to work best when the cancers have already been weakened by other sorts of attack.
    What I'd like to talk about today is another potential use for this same general technology and therapy approach that, until recently, was considered to be a really pie-in-the-sky sort of dream, but which is rapidly becoming more thinkable.

    There's a theory that essentially all human beings have some kind of immunodeficiency: something that our immune systems don't do well, don't do at all, or don't do in the expected, baseline way.
    Any one of those immunodeficiency types can result in issues throughout a person's life, ranging from a higher-than-normal susceptibility to specific infections to a tendency to accidentally target healthy cells or biota, which can then result in all sorts of secondary issues for the host of those cells or biota.
    One especially pernicious and increasingly common issue in this space is what's called autoimmunity, which refers to the tendency of one's immune system to attack one's own cells and tissues and organs.
    If these autoimmune attacks are substantial and consistent enough, they can cause a disease in the afflicted body components, and diseases caused in this way are called autoimmune diseases.
    You've almost certainly heard of some of the more common of these diseases:
    Lupus, for instance, varies in its specifics, but arises when someone's immune system attacks their skin or muscles or joint tissues or components of their nervous system

    • 18 min
    AI Impersonation

    AI Impersonation

    This week we talk about robo-Biden, fake Swift images, and ElevenLabs.
    We also discuss copyright, AI George Carlin, and deepfakes.
    Recommended Book: Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
    Transcript
    The hosts of a podcast called Dudesy are facing a lawsuit after they made a video that seems to show the late comedian George Carlin performing a new routine.
    The duo claimed they created the video using AI tools, training an algorithm on five decades-worth of Carlin's material in order to generate a likeness of his face and body and voice, and his jokes; they claimed everything in this video, which they called "George Carlin: I'm Glad I'm Dead," was the product of AI tools.
    The lawsuit was filed by Carlin's estate, which alleges these hosts infringed on the copyright they have on Carlin's works, and that the hosts illegally made use of and profited from his name and likeness.
    They asked that the judge force the Dudesy hosts to pull and destroy the video and its associated audio, and to prevent them from using Carlin's works and likeness and name in the future.
    After the lawsuit was announced, a spokesperson for Dudesy backtracked on prior claims, saying that the writing in the faux-Carlin routine wasn't written by AI, it was written by one of the human hosts, and thus the claim of copyright violation wasn't legit, because while the jokes may have been inspired by Carlin's work, they weren't generated by software that used his work as raw training materials, as they originally claimed—which arguably could have represented an act of copyright violation.
    This is an interesting case in part because if the podcasters who created this fake Carlin and fake Carlin routine were to be successfully sued for the use of Carlin's likeness and name, but not for copyright issues related to his work, that would suggest that the main danger faced by AI companies that are gobbling up intellectual property left and right, scraping books and the web and all sorts of video and audio services for raw training materials, is the way in which they're acquiring and using this media, not the use of the media itself.
    If they could somehow claim their models are inspired by these existing writings and recordings and such, they could then lean on the same argument that their work is basically the same as an author reading a bunch of other author's book, and then writing their own book—which is inspired by those other works, but not, typically anyway, infringing in any legal sense.
    The caveat offered by the AI used to impersonate Carlin at the beginning of the show is interesting, too, as it said, outright, that it's not Carlin and that it's merely impersonating him like a human comedian doing their best impression of Carlin.
    In practice, that means listening to all of Carlin's material and mimicking his voice and cadence and inflections and the way he tells stories and builds up to punchlines and everything else; if a human performer were doing an impression of Carlin, they would basically do the same thing, they just probably wouldn't do it as seamlessly as a modern AI system capable of producing jokes and generating images and videos and audio can manage.
    This raises the question, then, of whether there would be an issue if this AI comedy set wasn't claiming to feature George Carlin: what if they had said it was a show featuring Porge Narlin, instead? Or Fred Robertson? Where is the line drawn, and to what degree does the legal concept of Fair Use, in the US at least, come into play here?
    What I'd like to talk about today are a few other examples of AI-based imitation that have been in the news lately, and the implications they may have, legally and culturally, and in some cases psychologically, as well.

    There's a tech startup called ElevenLabs that's generally considered to be one of the bigger players in the world of AI-based text-to-voice capabilities, including the capacity to mimic a real person's voice.
    What that means in practice is th

    • 18 min
    Middle East Conflicts

    Middle East Conflicts

    This week we talk about Operation Iron Swords, October 7, and the International Court of Justice.
    We also discuss human rights abuses, the Red Sea, and Iran’s influence.
    Recommended Book: Empire Games by Charles Stross
    Transcript
    In the early morning of October 7, 2023, the militant wing of Hamas—which is also a political organization that has governed the Gaza Strip territory since 2007, a few years after Israel withdrew from the area and then blockaded it, leading to accusations from international human rights organizations that Israel still occupies the area, even if not officially—but the militant wing of this Sunni Islamist group, Hamas, launched a sneak-attack, in coordination with other islamist groups (a term that in this context usually but not always refers to groups that want to claim territory they can govern in accordance with what they consider to be proper Islamic fashion, usually defined by a fairly extreme interpretation of the religion).
    This sneak-attack was successful in the sense that it caught seemingly everyone off guard, despite the Israeli military's foreknowledge of this possibility; that foreknowledge only becoming public months after the attack, and the possibility of such an attack dismissed by those who could have prepared for it because it seemed to them to be a sort of pie-in-the-sky aspiration on the part of a group that was disempowered and incapable of putting up any kind of fight beyond periodically launching unsophisticated rockets that could be easily taken out by Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile defense system.
    So for more than a year the Israeli government had information indicating Hamas was planning some kind of incursion into Israel, but they dismissed it, and by some accounts they had every reason to do so, as Hamas had seemed to be more chill than usual, pulling back on the overt military activity and lacking sufficient support from the Gaza population to attempt even a tenth of what they had blueprinted.
    Three months before the attack an Israeli signals intelligence analyst raised a red flag on this issue, indicating that Hamas was conducting intense training exercises that seemed to be in line with those pie-in-the-sky plans, but this flag was ignored by those higher up the chain of command, once again.
    Consequently, when Hamas launched a huge flurry of rockets, around 3,000 by most estimates, sent drones to take out automated machine guns and cameras placed along the border fences between Israel and Gaza, and sent militants through holes in the fence, in on motorcycles, and over barriers using paragliders, Israeli defense forces were caught flat-footed, taking a surprisingly long time to respond to the incursion and failing to protect a military base that housed the defense division responsible for security in Gaza, alongside several other bases, and the around 1,200 people who were killed and around 250 who were taken hostage.
    Dozens of nations immediately decried Hamas's attack as a terrorist act, many of Israel's neighbors made noises about not liking it, but then blamed Israel's long-standing alleged occupation of Gaza and the West Bank for the attack, and attempts to shore-up defenses, clear out lingering Hamas fighters, and tally the dead and missing began; the numbers and the experiences of those involved were all pretty horrifying.
    Israel's response, a plan that was designated Operation Iron Swords, arrived alongside a state of emergency for the portions of Israel within about 50 miles or 80 km of its border with Gaza, and the country's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the country was at war with Hamas and would destroy them and anyone else who dared to join them.
    The nation's defense forces were also ordered to shore up its other borders to prevent anyone else from joining on in attacking Israel at a moment in which it might be seen as weak.
    In the just over 100 days—108 as of the day this episode goes live—everything has changed or been ampli

    • 20 min

Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5
501 Ratings

501 Ratings

Neen02 ,

Calm in the storm

I’ve been listening off and on since 2018, and I appreciate Colin’s calm delivery and exploration of context in a world of hot takes. He generally has an unbiased perspective, though his preferences creep in from time to time. I always appreciate his random book reviews at the end—some are in my wheelhouse and some I never would’ve known about without the pod.

fghjgktftyu ,

Amazing!

This podcast is amazing and so enjoyable and informative. I listen to this podcast every day and love all the detail Colin puts into these episodes. Keep up the great work!

The mak69 ,

A relaxing bit of knowledge

Wonderfully relaxing way to learn and be entertained. It helps keep me calm in these stressful times. Thank you.

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