How Technology Is Reshaping Democracy & Our Lives: A Stanford Course with Sal Khan, Thomas Friedman, Kara Swisher, Sasha Baron Cohen, Reid Hoffman & More

This fall, Stanford Continuing Studies presents 150+ courses in the Liberal Arts & Sciences, Creative Writing, and Professional Development, including the new and timely course Which Side of History? How Technology Is Reshaping Democracy and Our Lives.” Led by James Steyer (CEO, Common Sense Media), the course includes an extensive line-up of guest speakers and thought leaders. Hear from Hillary Clinton, Kara Swisher, Sal Khan, Sasha Baron Cohen, Laurie Santos, Reid Hoffman, Ellen Pao, Thomas Friedman, Jonathan Zittrain, Cory Booker, Nicholas Kristof and more. Together they will explore key questions: How do we protect the privacy of consumers and stop data abuses? How will we ensure the mental health and well-being of our society as we emerge from the pandemic? How can we hold tech platforms accountable for safeguarding basic democratic norms?

This live online course is open to any adult who wants to enroll. Although the Continuing Studies courses aren’t free, they’re timely and bound to engage. Which Side of History? How Technology Is Reshaping Democracy and Our Lives starts September 27. Many other online courses start the week of September 20. Explore the entire Stanford Continuing Studies catalogue here.

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The Very First Webcam Was Invented to Keep an Eye on a Coffee Pot at Cambridge University

The internet as we know it today began with a coffee pot. Despite the ring of exaggeration, that claim isn’t actually so far-fetched. When most of us go online, we expect something new: often not just something new to read, but something new to watch. This, as those of us past a certain age will recall, was not the case with the early World Wide Web, consisting as it mostly did of static pages of text, updated irregularly if at all. Younger readers will have to imagine even that being a cutting-edge thrill, but we didn’t really feel like we were living in the future until the fall of 1993, when XCoffee first went live.

This groundbreaking technological project “started back in the dark days of 1991,” writes co-creator Quentin Stafford-Fraser, “when the World Wide Web was little more than a glint in CERN’s eye.” At the time, Stafford-Fraser was employed as one of fifteen researchers in the “Trojan Room” of the University of Cambridge Computer Lab. “Being poor, impoverished academics, we only had one coffee filter machine between us, which lived in the corridor just outside the Trojan Room. However, being highly dedicated and hard-working academics, we got through a lot of coffee, and when a fresh pot was brewed, it often didn’t last long.”




It occurred to Stafford-Fraser to train an unused video camera from the Trojan Room on the coffee pot (and thus the amount of coffee available within), then connect it to a computer, specifically an Acorn Archimedes. His colleague Paul Jardetzky “wrote a ‘server’ program, which ran on that machine and captured images of the pot every few seconds at various resolutions, and I wrote a ‘client’ program which everybody could run, which connected to the server and displayed an icon-sized image of the pot in the corner of the screen. The image was only updated about three times a minute, but that was fine because the pot filled rather slowly, and it was only greyscale, which was also fine, because so was the coffee.”

XCoffee, the resulting program, was meant only to provide this much-needed information to Computer Lab members elsewhere in the building. But after the release of image-displaying web browsers in 1993, it found a much wider audience as the world’s first streaming webcam. Stafford-Fraser’s successors “resurrected the system, treated it to a new frame grabber, and made the images available on the World Wide Web. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have looked at the coffee pot, making it undoubtedly the most famous in the world.” Stafford-Fraser wrote these words in 1995; in the years thereafter XCoffee went on to receive millions of views before its eventual shutdown in 2001.

In the Centre for Computing History video above, Stafford-Fraser shows the very Olivetti camera he originally used to monitor the coffee level. (He’d previously worked at the Olivetti Research Laboratory, whose parent company also owned Acorn Computers.) “We could see things at a distance before,” he says. “We could view television programs, we could look through telescopes.” But only after the Trojan Room’s coffee pot hit the internet could we “see what’s happening now, somewhere else in the world,” on demand. Thirty years after XCoffee’s development, we’re mesmerized by live-streaming stars and surrounded by “smart” home appliances, hoping for nothing so much as way to concentrate on our immediate surroundings again — to wake up, if you like, and smell the coffee.

via BoingBoing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Sci-Fi Pioneer Hugo Gernsback Predicts Telemedicine in 1925

If you’ve ever wondered why one of science fiction’s greatest honors is called the “Hugo,” meet Hugo Gernsback, one of the genre’s most important figures, a man whose work has been variously described as “dreadful,” “tawdry,” “incompetent,” “graceless,” and “a sort of animated catalogue of gadgets.” But Gernsback isn’t remembered as a writer, but as an editor, publisher (of Amazing Stories magazine), and pioneer of science fact, for it was Gernsback who first introduced the earth-shaking technology of radio to the masses in the early 20th century.

“In 1905 (just a year after emigrating to the U.S. from Germany at the age of 20),” writes Matt Novak at Smithsonian, “Gernsback designed the first home radio set and the first mail-order radio business in the world.” He would later publish the first radio magazine, then, in 1913, a magazine that came to be called Science and Invention, a place where Gernsback could print catalogues of gadgets without the bother of having to please literary critics. In these pages he shone, predicting futuristic technologies extrapolated from the cutting edge. He was understandably enthusiastic about the future of radio. Like all self-appointed futurists, his predictions were a mix of the ridiculous and the prophetic.




Case in point: Gernsback theorized in a 1925  Science and Invention article that communications technologies like radio would revolutionize medicine, in exactly the ways that they have in the 21st century, though not quite through the device Gernsback invented: the “teledactyl,” which is not a robotic dinosaur but a telemedicine platform that would allow doctors to examine, diagnose, and treat patients from a distance with robotic arms, a haptic feedback system, and “by means of a television screen.” Never mind that television didn’t exist in 1925. Sounding not a little like his contemporary Buckminster Fuller, Gernsback insisted that his device “can be built today with means available right now.”

It would require significant upgrades to radio technology before it could support the wireless internet that lets us meet with doctors on computer screens. Perhaps Gernsback wasn’t entirely wrong — technology may have allowed for some version of this in the early 20th century, if medicine had been inspired to move in a more sci-fi direction. But the focus of the medical community — after the devastation of the 1918 flu epidemic — had understandably turned toward disease cure and prevention, not distance diagnosis.

Gernsback looked fifty years ahead, to a time, he wrote, when “the busy doctor… will not be able to visit his patients as he does now. It takes too much time, and he can only, at best, see a limited number today.” Home visits did not last another fifty years, but remote medicine didn’t take their place until almost 100 years after Gernsback wrote. Indeed, the webcams that now give doctors access to patients in the pandemic only came about in 1991 for the purpose of making sure the break room in the computer science department at Cambridge had coffee.

Gernsback even anticipated advances in space medicine, which has spent the last several years building the technology he predicted in order to perform surgeries on sick and injured astronauts stuck months or years away from Earth. He would have particularly appreciated this usage, though he isn’t given credit for the idea. Gernsback also deserves credit for poking fun at himself, as he seemed to realize how hard it was for most people to take him seriously.

To non-visionaries, the technologies of the future would all seem equally ridiculous today, as in the pages of Gernsback’s satirical 1947 publication, Popular Neckanics Gagazine. Here, we find such objects as the Lamplifier, “the lamp that has EVERYTHING.” Gernsback’s love of gadgets blurred the boundaries between science fiction and fact, always with the strong suggestion that — no matter how useful or how ludicrous — if a machine could be imagined, it could be built and put to work.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Google Data Analytics Certificate: 8 Courses Will Help Prepare Students for an Entry-Level Job in 6 Months

During the pandemic, Google launched a series of Career Certificates that will “prepare learners for an entry-level role in under six months.” The new career initiative includes certificates concentrating on Project Management and UX Design. And now also Data Analytics, a burgeoning field that focuses on “the collection, transformation, and organization of data in order to draw conclusions, make predictions, and drive informed decision making.”

Offered on the Coursera platform, the Data Analytics Professional Certificate consists of eight courses, including “Foundations: Data, Data, Everywhere,” “Prepare Data for Exploration,” “Data Analysis with R Programming,” and “Share Data Through the Art of Visualization.” Overall this program “includes over 180 hours of instruction and hundreds of practice-based assessments, which will help you simulate real-world data analytics scenarios that are critical for success in the workplace. The content is highly interactive and exclusively developed by Google employees with decades of experience in data analytics.”




Upon completion, students–even those who haven’t pursued a college degree–can directly apply for jobs (e.g., junior or associate data analyst, database administrator, etc.) with Google and over 130 U.S. employers, including Walmart, Best Buy, and Astreya. You can start a 7-day free trial and explore the courses here. If you continue beyond the free trial, Google/Coursera will charge $39 USD per month. That translates to about $235 after 6 months, the time estimated to complete the certificate.

Explore the Data Analytics Certificate by watching the video above. Learn more about the overall Google career certificate initiative here. And find other Google professional certificates here.

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

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ABBA Set to Release Their First Album in 40 Years: Hear Two New Tracks, and Get a Glimpse of Their Digital Live Show

45 years ago, ABBA’s music was inescapable. 25 years ago, it had become a seemingly unwelcome reminder of the inanities of the 1970s in general and the days of disco in particular. But now, it’s revered: rare is the 21st-century music critic who absolutely refuses to acknowledge the Swedish foursome’s mastery of pure pop songwriting and studio production. With current musicians, too, naming ABBA among their inspirations without embarrassment, the time has surely come for ABBA themselves to return to the spotlight — a spotlight that first illuminated them for the world in 1974, when their performance of “Waterloo” won the Eurovision Song Contest.

ABBA’s streak lasted until the early 1980s, ending in a hiatus that ultimately stretched out to some 40 years. Pop culture has changed quite a bit in that time, but technology much more so. The band have thus put together a thoroughly modern comeback involving not just a new album, but also a live show starring computer-generated versions of members Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad — “Abbatars,” as Ulvaeus calls them.




Beginning next year, they’ll play ABBA’s hits in a custom-built 3,000-seat arena in London’s Olympic park, engineered to accompany each song with their own elaborate light show. Animated with motion-captured performances by the real ABBA, their appearance has been modeled after the way the band looked in the 1970s (if not quite the way they dressed).

Titled Voyage, this digital ABBA experience will open in 2022, thus solving the problem of touring that had long discouraged a reunion. “We would like people to remember us as we were,” Ulvaeus said in the late 2000s. “Young, exuberant, full of energy and ambition.” But with all four now-septuagenarian members still alive and able to make music, remaining wholly inactive seems to have started feeling like a shame. They made their return to the studio in 2018, recording the new songs “I Still Have Faith in You” and “Don’t Shut Me Down,” both of which will appear on the new album, also called Voyage, coming out in November. All this will bring back memories for longtime fans, as well as provide a thrilling experience for their many listeners too young to have experienced an ABBA show or album release before. But I can’t be the only member of my generation wondering if, twenty years from now, we’ll be buying tickets for a digitally re-created Ace of Base.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How the COVID-19 Vaccines Could Be Created So Quickly: Two Animated Videos Explain the How mRNA Vaccines Were Developed, and How They Work

The world now has COVID-19 vaccines, of which more and more people are receiving their doses every day. A year and a half ago the world did not have COVID-19 vaccines, though it was fast becoming clear how soon it would need them. The subsequent development of the ones now being deployed around the world took not just less than a year and a half but less than a year, an impressive speed even to many of us who never dug deep into medical science. The achievement owes in part to the use of mRNA, a term most of us may recall only dimly from biology classes; through the pandemic, messenger ribonucleic acid, to use its full name, has proven if not the savior of humanity, then at least the very molecule we needed.

One shouldn’t get “the idea that these vaccines came out of nowhere.” On Twitter, Dan Rather — these days a more outspoken  figure than ever — calls the prevalence such a notion “a failure of science communication with tragic results,” describing the vaccines as “the result of DECADES of basic research in MULTIPLE fields building on the BREADTH and DEPTH of human knowledge.”




You can get a clearer sense of what that research has involved through videos like the animated TED-Ed explainer above. “In the twentieth century, most vaccines took well over a decade to research, test, and produce,” says its narrator. “But the vaccines for COVID-19 cleared the threshold for use in less than eleven months.” The “secret”? mRNA.

A “naturally occurring molecule that encodes the instructions for occurring proteins,” mRNA can be used in vaccines to “safely introduce our body to a virus.” Researchers first “encode trillions of mRNA molecules with instructions for a specific viral protein.” Then they inject those molecules into a specially designed “nanoparticle” also containing lipids, sugars, and salts. When it reaches our cells, this nanoparticle triggers our immune response: the body produces “antibodies to fight that viral protein, that will then stick around to defend against future COVID-19 infections.” And all of this happens without the vaccine altering out DNA,

While mRNA vaccines will “have a big impact on how we fight COVID-19,” says the narrator of the Vox video above, “their real impact is just beginning.” Their development marked “a turning point for the pandemic,” but given their potential applications in the battles against a host of other, even deadlier diseases (e.g., HIV), “the pandemic might also be a turning point for vaccines.”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Become a Project Manager Without a College Degree with Google’s Project Management Certificate

As we first mentioned last year, Google has launched a series of Career Certificate programs that allow students to gain expertise in a field, ideally enough to start working without a 4-year college degree. This initiative now includes a Certificate in Project Management, which consists of six courses.

  • Foundations of Project Management
  • Project Initiation: Starting a Successful Project
  • Project Planning: Putting It All Together
  • Project Execution: Running the Project
  • Agile Project Management
  • Capstone: Applying Project Management in the Real World

Above, a Program Manager talks about “her path from dropping out of high school and earning a GED, joining the military, and working as a coder, to learning about program management and switching into that career track.” An introduction to the Project Management certificate appears below.

The Project Management program takes about six months to complete, and should cost about $250 in total. Students get charged $39 per month until they complete the program.

You can explore the Project Management certificate here. And find other Google career certificates in other fields–e.g. UX Design and Data Analytics–over on this page. All Google career courses are hosted on the Coursera platform.

Find more online certificate programs from an array of providers here.

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

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The Birth of Espresso: How the Coffee Shots The Fuel Our Modern Life Were Invented

Espresso is neither bean nor roast.

It is a method of pressurized coffee brewing that ensures speedy delivery, and it has birthed a whole culture.

Americans may be accustomed to camping out in cafes with their laptops for hours, but Italian coffee bars are fast-paced environments where customers buzz in for a quick pick me up, then right back out, no seat required.




It’s the sort of efficiency the Father of the Modern Advertising Poster, Leonetto Cappiello, alluded to in his famous 1922 image for the Victoria Arduino machine (below).

Let 21st-century coffee aficionados cultivate their Zenlike patience with slow pourovers. A hundred years ago, the goal was a quality product that the successful businessperson could enjoy without breaking stride.

As coffee expert James Hoffmann, author of The World Atlas of Coffee points out in the above video, the Steam Age was on the way out, but Cappiello’s image is “absolutely leveraging the idea that steam equals speed.”

That had been the goal since 1884, when inventor Angelo Moriondo patented the first espresso machine (see below).

The bulk brewer caused a stir at the Turin General Exposition. Speed wise, it was a great improvement over the old method, in which individual cups were brewed in the Turkish style, requiring five minutes per order.

This “new steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage” featured a gas or wood burner at the bottom of an upright boiler, and two sight glasses that the operator could monitor to get a feel for when to open the various taps, to yield a large quantity of filtered coffee. It was fast, but demanded some skill on the part of its human operator.

As Jimmy Stamp explains in a Smithsonian article on the history of the espresso machine, there were  also a few bugs to work out.

Early machines’ hand-operated pressure valves posed a risk to workers, and the coffee itself had a burnt taste.

Milanese café owner Achille Gaggia cracked the code after WWII, with a small, steamless lever-driven machine that upped the pressure to produce the concentrated brew that is what we now think of as espresso.

Stamp describes how Gaggia’s machine also standardized the size of the espresso, giving rise to some now-familiar coffeehouse vocabulary:

The cylinder on lever groups could only hold an ounce of water, limiting the volume that could be used to prepare an espresso. With the lever machines also came some some new jargon: baristas operating Gaggia’s spring-loaded levers coined the term “pulling a shot” of espresso. But perhaps most importantly, with the invention of the high-pressure lever machine came the discovery of crema – the foam floating over the coffee liquid that is the defining characteristic of a quality espresso. A historical anecdote claims that early consumers were dubious of this “scum” floating over their coffee until Gaggia began referring to it as “caffe creme,“ suggesting that the coffee was of such quality that it produced its own creme.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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