Newsletter No.26 — Mar 18, 2018

Sentiers No.26

Heads up: For a couple of reasons related to early writing methods, the first forty-five issues archived here are “pre last review” and haven’t been fully re-reviewed yet. Please forgive typos and miscellaneous mistakes if you see them! They are also less structured than more recent issues and thus haven’t been split into multiple notes. (Yet?)

Quick question: I (mostly) prepare these things on Friday afternoon, should I send on Fridays when ready or stick with noon(ish) on Sundays?

RIP Stephen Hawking
By the time you’re reading this you’ve probably seen many a eulogy for this great scientist, let me just quote him:

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

I’d seen this thing go by before but didn’t really pay much attention: Will Piaggio’s Gita Soon Be Your Own Personal R2-D2?. But friend and reader Philippe Gauvin sent me the link, we exchanged a few messages and it brought this back to mind: B.A.S.A.A.P. (Be As Smart As A Puppy) by Matt Jones back in BERG days. I miss BERG.

BASAAP is my way of thinking about avoiding the ‘uncanny valley‘ in such things.
Making smart things that don’t try to be too smart and fail, and indeed, by design, make endearing failures in their attempts to learn and improve. Like puppies.

Blogging (!!)
Small b blogging
Really loved this one, feels right. Brought to mind some ideas to rejuvenate some blogging ‘communitizing’ around Yulblog, or more broadly…

Small b blogging is learning to write and think with the network. Small b blogging is writing content designed for small deliberate audiences and showing it to them. Small b blogging is deliberately chasing interesting ideas over pageviews and scale. An attempt at genuine connection vs the gloss and polish and mass market of most “content marketing”….
I think most people would be better served by subscribing to small b blogging. What you want is something with YOUR personality. Writing and ideas that are addressable (i.e. you can find and link to them easily in the future) and archived (i.e. you have a list of things you’ve written all in one place rather than spread across publications and URLs) and memorable (i.e. has your own design, logo or style). Writing that can live and breathe in small networks. Scale be damned.

Hard to start again
Paul Graham Raven on the difficulty of starting blogging again.

[T]he old tradition of cross-linking and inter-site commentary (and, yes, argument) has been replaced by something more decontextualised, more lone(ly)-voices-in-the-wilderness

The web is under threat. Join us and fight for it.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee with a very clear eyed view on where the web stands right now and the need to take action. (Consider with the above blogging section and the Cambridge Analytica strories below.)

These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors. They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry’s top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last.
What’s more, the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale. In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data.

Let’s Get Better at Demanding Better from Tech
Cory Doctorow arguing roughly the same thing but with more background and context.

Our technology can make our lives better, can give us more control, can give us more privacy – but only if we force it to live up to its promise. Any path to that better future will involve technologists, because no group of people on earth is better equipped to understand how important it is to get there.

The Churn
Breaking, as they say. The story started blowing up after I was mostly done preparing this issue and I didn’t have time to dive in but a few links anyway:

++ YouTube, the Great Radicalizer

What keeps people glued to YouTube? Its algorithm seems to have concluded that people are drawn to content that is more extreme than what they started with — or to incendiary content in general.
The YT algo feeds us more and more extreme stuff and, one could argue, the people we follow do the same through retweets and shares. Which was my take from this by Alexis Madrigal:
Retweets Are Trash
Tech companies have designed their interfaces to maximize the spread of information, to amplify faster, to increase the ß [ed: virality] in the network. They could peel away those layers—increase the friction of posting, make it harder to amplify information with a single click, redesign user interfaces to encourage thoughtfulness.
That last phrase kind of sounds like blogging or newslettering, doesn’t it?

++ Using common resources for their own profit.

  1. YouTube announced they were going to use Wikipedia as a debunking source against conspiracies… without talking about it with them first. Technically it fits the licence but in practice they should also support Wikimedia financially and this kind of use will likely bring an onslaught of bad players to Wikipedia.
    “You may have heard that @YouTube is going to start linking videos about conspiracies to @Wikipedia articles. Here’s our statement about this, and a few words about how Wikipedia works.”
  2. In various places the postal-service is completely swamped over by the Amazon package volume. Yes, Amazon is paying for the service but they are also doing so at unprecedented scale and at the expense of a public service whilst avoiding taxes as much as they can, Postal-Service Workers Are Shouldering the Burden for Amazon.

++ HEWN, No. 255

Rather than turn to experts, Twitter has opted to turn to metrics. Dorsey says the company will “measure the ‘health’ of conversation on Twitter,” adding “if you want to improve something, you have to be able to measure it.” Having never apparently heard of Campbell’s Law – that would require talking to scholars and not shareholders, you see – Dorsey still believes one of the fundamental tenets of late stage capitalist, computing ideology: more data, more analytics will fix things. And fix things through A/B testing and tweaks to the product, to be clear. Structural issues, sociological issues, historical issues surrounding communities and “conversations” be damned.

++ Google Is Quietly Providing AI Technology for Drone Strike Targeting Project. For no particular reason I’ll also link to this from 2015: Google Parent Company Drops ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Motto.

++ Stealth startup launches four unauthorized rogue satellites into orbit. Irresponsible behaviour and likely not the last project of this kind.

A Conversation With Carlo Ratti, Director Of The MIT Senseable City Lab

Indeed, with centralized algorithms managing every facet of society, data-driven technocracy is threatening to overwhelm innovation, which often stems from serendipitous findings. Decentralized decision-making is crucial for the enrichment of society. Data-driven optimization, conversely, derives solutions from a predetermined paradigm, which, in its current form, often excludes the transformational or counterintuitive ideas that propel humanity forward.”

++ The Next Front for ‘Sanctuary Cities’: Digital Protection
How some sanctuary cities are reviewing data collection and transparency to be in line with their protection goals. Good for those seeking sanctuary and for everyone.

In short, the ten recommendations ask cities to limit the sensitive information they collect, protect the data that they have in their possession, and make their collection practices more transparent.

For Decades, National Geographic’s Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It
Good idea to have this examination and commendable attitude to share the findings like this.

What Mason found in short was that until the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers. Meanwhile it pictured “natives” elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.

++ I only read the first section of this but great thought exercise: Value Of Titan As Base For Humans In Saturn System - Surprisingly - Once There - Easier For Settlement Than Mars Or The Moon via Ben Hammersley

++ Canada’s Vertical $10 Note. Nicely done visually, great choice in Viola Desmond.

++ Microsoft announces breakthrough in Chinese-to-English machine translation

In No.25 I linked to this piece: Uber drivers often make below minimum wage, report finds. Since then the author provided a correction: “Here is my statement regarding the recent CEEPR working paper “The Economics of Ride Hailing.”