Spooky Songs, Data Death, and Maximal Microchips: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From what goes on inside our computers to what happens at our workplaces, we learned a lot over the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
ASML's EUV system in its final assembly. Takes a sci-fi-esque system to deliver sci-fi-quality computing power.
Something in the Computer (Does Not Compute)
A couple months ago, I highlighted a Time magazine article on the stunning complexity of microchip manufacturing and all the geopolitical implications of having so few companies capable of producing such a ubiquitous and vital component of the modern world. Now Clive Thompson has done a deep dive for MIT Technology Review on the truly mind-bending physics challenges that had to be solved in order to keep making progress in microchip speed and power. “The more tightly you pack transistors, the faster electrical signals can zip around the chip,” Thompson writes, explaining the basic concept behind Moore’s Law, which holds that transistor density—and therefore computing power—should double every two years. But in the last decade or so, Moore’s Law began slipping as chipmakers bumped up against the limits of physics in trying to construct ever-smaller chip components.
That is, until the Dutch firm ASML figured out how to use extreme ultraviolet light to manufacture silicon chips. They’re now the only company in the world that can create the machines necessary to produce the highest-capacity chips, and that in turn means running one of the most complex manufacturing processes in the history of humankind. ASML’s machine “contains robot arms moving wafers, motors that accelerated the reticle—the big piece of glass that holds the pattern—to 32 times Earth’s gravity, and fully 100,000 parts, 3,000 cables, 40,000 bolts, and two kilometers of hosing.” And if any one piece breaks or slips, the whole thing breaks down. Just figuring out how to build the mirrors necessary for this machine took years. It’s not just a story about technology, but also politics. ASML could only pull off this engineering feat in collaboration with highly specialized firms all over the world—lens manufacturers in Germany, chemical companies in the US, research institutes from Britain to Japan. And national governments that see the economic and military edge in advanced chip manufacturing have successfully kept China out of that loop. “Worried that China poses a technological threat, both the Trump and Biden administrations successfully pressured the Netherlands to prevent ASML from selling EUV machines to customers there.” Great power politics is alive and well, and playing out inside your iPhone. —Eric Johnson
For anyone who watched Super Bowl XLI, there's life before Prince's half time performance and life after Prince's half time performance.
In case you didn’t quite get your fill of spookiness last weekend, here’s a post-Halloween playlist to keep the chills coming well past Thanksgiving. Two researchers at Queen Mary University in London have used a novel form of computer analysis to review hundreds of songs likely to induce that eerie, goosebumpy feeling that’s just on the fun side of frightening. “The songs that trigger chills—or ‘frisson’ to scientists—are typically sad ones,” the researchers found. “On average, they were ‘sadder, slower, less intense, and more instrumental than matched tracks.’” The 700-song Spotify playlist of spookiness includes everything from “Purple Rain” to moody classical compositions. Rйmi de Fleurian, the primary researcher behind the study, admits to a certain level of subjectivity in anyone’s experience of uneasy listening. Our memories and past experiences of particular songs will inevitably affect how they hit us now, and that was absolutely the case for me as I skimmed through the playlist. Joni Mitchell can unsettle anybody, but Prince brings up nothing but reverie for me. A computer algorithm may be right that “Purple Rain” has all the right elements of a spooky song—slow, aching, with a long instrumental riff—but the computer probably didn’t see Prince perform it in an epic storm in the middle of Super Bowl XLI. Glorious, joyful, and eerie only in the sense that a mortal shouldn’t be able to pull that off. —Stefanie Sanford
Michael Jordan, left, holds an on-court strategy session with teammates Ron Harper, center, and Scottie Pippen in 1996. Whether this is before, during, or after a championship berating from His Airness, we'll leave that to Pippen to share.
I fell in love with basketball in elementary school, when the Detroit Pistons overcame all expectations to win a national championship. I was just a little too young to have watched Michael Jordan's heyday, but his impact on basketball affected every part of how I experienced the sport. I am from northwest Indiana (outside Chicago) with family from Michigan, so basketball, the Pistons, and the Bulls were in my blood. Last year, like many, I devoured The Last Dance, a documentary showcasing Jordan's epic reign. The film didn’t shy away from his intensity, which at times bordered on abuse (for instance, insulting his teammates to get results). It also sparked many questions about whether his leadership style is outdated, even toxic. This idea came to mind again this week, when I read an interview with Scottie Pippin, Jordan's teammate and basketball superstar in his own right, about his new book, Unguarded.
In it, Pippin has several harsh remarks for his former teammate, including, “How dare Michael treat us that way after everything we did for him and his precious brand.” Pippin's bitterness—more than 20 years later—is palpable and understandable. (He was vastly underpaid.) Despite this background knowledge, I was still (maybe naively so) surprised. It made me think more about how toxic coworkers can affect our memories of jobs and relationships—and whether that was a fair comparison to sports at all. A New York Times article from May outlined several studies of toxic behavior and how it affects workplace morale, attendance, and long-term organization success. The results are, unsurprisingly, not good. In one study, employees in toxic environments were more likely to steal from their employers than at otherwise similar companies. It's hard to know how much this comparison can apply to sports—especially when most professional athletes' goal, and in particular Jordan's, is to win championships. Still, it affirmed in my mind the importance of a positive work environment—on or off the court. —Hannah Van Drie
All that space in yellow? That's where students' rooms in the proposed Munger Hall will be. And that's a rendering of what the windowless rooms will look like. What could go wrong?
Play (But Don’t Sleep) In the Sunshine
What would you rather have: a sunlit dorm room shared with a roommate, or a compact, totally private sleeping space with no windows? My college dorm was a 1960s cinder block tower with no air conditioning and a sketchy elevator, but there was plenty of natural light. That’s more than you can say for the windowless cells awaiting students at University of California, Santa Barbara if mega-donor Charlie Munger has his way. The billionaire vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, a close association of Warren Buffet, has a side hobby as an architect. and he has given millions of dollars to different universities to construct buildings of his own design. The latest proposal is for a massive dormitory at UCSB slated to hold as many 4,500 students, almost all of them with their own private bedrooms. “After years of hearing family members complain about sharing bedrooms in communal college dorms, Munger realized it was possible to give people their own sleeping space by sacrificing the rooms’ natural light,” the Washington Post reports. “He said his plan has been in the works for years and compared virtual windows that would simulate sunlight in the dorm rooms to those in Disney cruise staterooms.”
Debates over the right kind of housing for undergrads goes back a long way. A lot of early universities had spartan accommodations, designed to mimic the asceticism of monasteries so that their inhabitants could focus on the discipline of studying. In more recent years, colleges have come under fire for luxurious dorms designed to cater to wealthy students who grew up in spacious homes with their own bedrooms, bathrooms, and study spaces. “Americans have come to accept dormitories as an essential and integral part of the undergraduate experience, one that should help students achieve academic excellence and fulfill their demands for apartment-like and therefore independent adult living, while also providing opportunities for meaningful interaction,” according to Smithsonian Magazine’s 2019 review of a history of college living. Munger’s Santa Barbara colossus will certainly demand some interaction, since it will constitute one of the densest neighborhoods on Earth if it’s built as designed. Not everyone hates “dormzilla,” as it has inevitably been dubbed. “With its sparse private accommodations and lavish public spaces, the building is conceived to coax students out of their rooms and into the community,” points out Nolan Gray for Bloomberg. “That was once understood to be the entire point of the more-spartan dormitories of the past. You go there to sleep and shower, but otherwise, you’re out and about on campus.” —Eric Johnson
On a long enough timeline—which actually isn't that long—this the fate that greets all of our digital content. (Print out your favorite Elective articles now!) Except, it seems, one 50-year-old image from Playboy, for some reason.
As the old proverb goes, whatever you do online is forever. But the reality is, If you’ve done anything on the internet in the last, well, ever—written an article, created a video, published a photo, chatted with an online buddy half a world away—chances are it will disappear. The digital space is far more ephemeral than we realize, as a recent story about a barrage of images disappearing from G/O sites attests. And without any analog backup, that means these increasingly large swaths of the internet might never have existed in the first place. (Personally, the bulk of my work at Scholastic, which was done between 2008-2013, is now completely gone.) As The Atlantic pithily put it in June, the internet is rotting. But there’s a weird paradox here: While bricks of the internet become piles of broken links, the mortar—our data—persists. It is the grist for the 21st century economic mill, after all, so maybe that’s unsurprising. Yet what happens when we want that data to disappear? As Jennifer Ding at The Pudding asks, “Can Data Die?” It’s a fascinating question with a very real, very sordid real-world take off point: the Lenna Image.
In reading about the development of the internet and evolution of the digital world, I’ve encountered this rather gross fact that, for decades, engineers have used a racy image in their education and in training early machine-learning algorithms. As Ding explains, “Lena Forsén, the real human behind the Lenna image, was first published in Playboy in 1972. Soon after, USC engineers searching for a suitable test image for their image processing research sought inspiration from the magazine. They deemed Lenna the right fit and scanned the image into digital, RGB existence.” For the next five decades, Forsén’s photo has been as foundational to computer science education as learning how to code, appearing in research papers, the HBO show Silicon Valley, and the curricula of higher ed CS courses. “Within the .edu world, the Lenna image continues to appear in homework questions, class slides, and to be hosted on educational and research sites, ensuring that it is passed down to new generations of engineers,” Ding writes. And that’s worrisome to Forsén, who never consented to this kind of thing and who has demanded her image be allowed the same fate as the rest of the internet. “I retired from modelling a long time ago,” she says in the 2019 documentary Losing Lena. “It’s time I retired from tech, too. We can make a simple change today that creates a lasting change for tomorrow. Let’s commit to losing me.”
There’s no good argument for why Forsén’s likeness should be kept in CS circulation. (And, no, tradition is not a reason.) More importantly, allowing this male-gaze-satisfying image to remain a bedrock of CS education is alienating and condescending to young women who already have a hard enough time breaking into the dude-dominated world of computer science. “When one of the only women this well referenced, respected, and remembered in your field is known for a nude photo that was taken of her and is now used without her consent, it inevitably shapes the perception of the position of women in tech and the value of our contributions,” Ding writes. Before reading Ding’s piece, I had no idea the Lenna Image had a name and very little appreciation for just how intractable it is. As we begin to think harder about our data’s lifespan, maybe the Lenna Image can be foundational again—this time in paving the road to the hereafter for our digital lives. —Dante A. Ciampaglia