Alex Pentland has carved a career path somewhere between the social sciences and science fiction, spearheading the development of everything from Google Glass to fitness trackers.
It all started with beavers. When Alex Pentland was three years into his undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, in 1973, he worked part-time as a computer programmer for NASA’s Environmental Research Institute. One of his first tasks — part of a larger environmental-monitoring project — was to develop a method for counting Canadian beavers from outer space. There was just one problem: existing satellites were crude, and beavers are small. “What beavers do is they create ponds,” he recalls of his eventual solution, “and you can count the number of beavers by the number of ponds. You’re watching the lifestyle, and you get an indirect measure.”
The beavers were soon accounted for, but Pentland’s fascination with the underlying methodology had taken root. Would it be possible, the 21-year-old wondered, to use the same approach to understand people and societies, or use sensors to unravel complex social behavior? And in so doing, could we find a way to improve our collective intelligence — to create, in a sense, a world that was more suited to human needs, where cities and businesses alike were developed using objective data to maximize our happiness and productivity?
PUBLISHED: May 16, 2014
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3535 words)
High-achieving students from low-income families often don't make it through college. Why?
There are thousands of students like Vanessa at the University of Texas, and millions like her throughout the country — high-achieving students from low-income families who want desperately to earn a four-year degree but who run into trouble along the way. Many are derailed before they ever set foot on a campus, tripped up by complicated financial-aid forms or held back by the powerful tug of family obligations. Some don’t know how to choose the right college, so they drift into a mediocre school that produces more dropouts than graduates. Many are overwhelmed by expenses or take on too many loans. And some do what Vanessa was on the verge of doing: They get to a good college and encounter what should be a minor obstacle, and they freak out. They don’t want to ask for help, or they don’t know how. Things spiral, and before they know it, they’re back at home, resentful, demoralized and in debt.
PUBLISHED: May 15, 2014
LENGTH: 34 minutes (8577 words)
Remembering the life of a talented young artist who went missing on a trail in Colorado:
After she died, a five-minute video surfaced of Zina standing in her bedroom in her grandmother’s house, which had shelves crammed with robots she’d built and other art projects. In the video, she explains that she has “creative compulsive disorder” and can’t stop making things—especially robots. The video was the first hint at what Zina was: an impossibly innocent and gifted eccentric on the verge of breaking out in the world of animatronics and stop motion. It was an audition for a Los Angeles–based reality show called Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge, a SyFy channel program premiering March 25 that’s sort of like Project Runway for animatronics artists. She’d turned down a spot on the show in order to move home and care for her grandmother, who’d been diagnosed with lung cancer in September.
PUBLISHED: Feb. 14, 2014
LENGTH: 13 minutes (3251 words)
Self-help guru James Arthur Ray became famous after Oprah featured him on her show. He later led three people to their deaths in a sweat lodge while trying to help them reach "a higher level of consciousness." After less than two years of jail time, he's back:
One longtime Ray follower received severe burns after falling into the rocks used to heat the lodge. Another began screaming repeatedly, "I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!" and calling out the names of his two children. Ray seated by the exit closest to the only source of oxygen, remained calm. One witness heard him mutter, "Buddy, you need to pull it together," before jubilantly saying "It’s a good day to die!" — apparently referencing his claim that followers would be "reborn" during the event. One participant testified that even as she passed out, her thoughts echoed James Arthur Ray: "It's a good day to die."
PUBLISHED: Dec. 4, 2013
LENGTH: 25 minutes (6307 words)
When the math and business model don’t quite work out for a tech startup, even if the product is beloved:
While its talented team obsessed over the look and features of its product, user growth failed to keep pace. Starting in June, Latour tried to raise $5 million to give Everpix more time to become profitable. When those efforts faltered, he began pursuing an acquisition. Everpix had tentatively agreed last month to be acquired by Path, according to a source close to the social network. But Path’s executive team killed the deal at the last minute, leaving Everpix adrift.
PUBLISHED: Nov. 5, 2013
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2861 words)
A fire in Prince George's County in Maryland nearly kills two firefighters. An account of how it happened:
"With temperatures climbing past 1,000 degrees, the shield on his helmet curled, and the liner inside his protective coat melted. His protective mask was so badly damaged that an analysis later concluded that it was on the verge of 'immediate failure.'
"'Everything was hot, everything was burning,' O’Toole said. 'It got hotter and hotter and hotter until the point where you just didn’t want to breathe anymore.' Each breath he took 'felt like someone was cutting your throat.'
"Outside, Sorrell was crying for help, desperate to save his friend. 'Come on! Get that line in there!' he shrieked, a bloodcurdling sound captured on a helmet-mounted video camera worn by a Riverdale firefighter. 'My guy’s in there! Go!'"
PUBLISHED: Oct. 12, 2013
LENGTH: 19 minutes (4867 words)
Our picks this week include fiction from The New Yorker, plus FT Magazine, Texas Monthly, Washingtonian, The Verge and a guest pick by Margaret Ely
A disfigured woman is given a face transplant, which currently remains an experimental procedure:
"In the US, there are five institutions — Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Cleveland Clinic, UCLA, the University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University — that are now either performing face transplants or actively recruiting their first patient. And for the surgeons leading these charges, the process has long been an all-consuming one. 'If you only knew how much work goes into every single one of these,' says Dr. Kodi Azari, chief of reconstructive transplantation at UCLA. 'You can’t even imagine.'"
PUBLISHED: June 4, 2013
LENGTH: 16 minutes (4035 words)
Groupon's quick rise has been overshadowed poor management and shady accounting. Can the company repair its reputation?
"Everyone The Verge spoke with who has worked directly with Mason says he’s not the clown that became his persona in the media. 'He was an incredibly focused and hard-working guy,' says Sennett. But in crafting his image as a goofball, Mason painted himself into a corner. 'I don’t think Eric used Andrew, or that Andrew didn't go in with his eyes wide open. But yes, the cynical interpretation is that Eric saw how useful Andrew could be, first as the charming, boyish entrepreneur, then as the fall guy for Groupon’s public plunge.'"
PUBLISHED: March 13, 2013
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3561 words)