Newsletter No.38 — Jun 17, 2018

Sentiers No.38

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?)

AI Ideals. Capitalism. Whistleblowers. Inclusive Urbanism. Automation.

Happy father’s day to the dads around here. I hope some of what I include in these newsletters help you in understanding the world we are leaving our kids and in taking some actions.

Tackling the Ethical Challenges of Slippery Technology
Anab Jain, starting from Google’s AI principles, show us some of the thorny questions around the unplanned uses of technology, how that might play out with AI, and what it might require from the companies developing those AIs.

“We imbue technology with the ideals of the people who have created it, rather than those who use it.” […]
This creates a transparency imbalance: AI needs transparency with personal data in order to do its work, but its own rational and decision making is opaque to us. This lack of understanding is synonymous with lack of control. ::By automating decision making, and not understanding the intentions or logic behind certain decisions, control over these decisions is relinquished.:: […]
Focus less on bringing science fiction to life and instead, spend more time with anthropologists.

Capitalism’s greatest weakness? It confuses price with value
Mariana Mazzucato explains what value really means, and how we should follow a theory of value determining price, instead of the theory of price determining value, which is what we have now. The current “misunderstanding” results in our acceptance of value extractors as value creators, which has many “nefarious consequences.” She explains four. I’m looking forward to her book, this is the kind of lens or shift in perspective that changes how you view markets, business, and society in general.

It is not enough to argue for less value extraction and more value creation. First, ‘value’, a term that once lay at the heart of economic thinking, must be revived and better understood. […]
To offer real change we must go beyond fixing isolated problems, and develop a framework that allows us to shape a new type of economy: one that will work for the common good. […]
Not having a clear view of the collective value creation process, the public sector is thus ‘captured’ – entranced by stories about wealth creation which have led to regressive tax policies that increase inequality.
Also, look for the Vegas article further down. The workers basically want the employers to recognize the value of their work and of the effort they made during the recession, but they only recognize shareholder value.

James Bridle: Whistleblowers are a terrible answer to the problems of big tech
He argues that we know what’s going on in surveillance states and companies, we need to stop relying on technical elite whistleblowers and take action.

If you need a whistle-blower to tell you that something is rotten at the heart of Silicon Valley – and the wider systems it’s enmeshed with - then we need to think a lot harder about how we talk about and explain the world to one another.

Making Urbanism More Equal Will Require Devolution
Richard Florida (thus take with a grain of salt) argues that certain cities and regions are pulling ahead of the rest (including rural areas) but are themselves being split between very few people in few neighbourhoods taking all the winnings, and everyone else. He thinks that shifting power from nation states down to cities and even neighbourhoods gives us a better chance of making each more inclusive.

Place—or the clustering of knowledge, ideas, talent, and economic assets in place—has become the basic platform for growth and prosperity. A hundred years ago, the majority of workers worked on farms. Fifty years ago, more than half of workers were employed in industry. Now the great bulk of workers are employed in service, knowledge, and creative industries, which are clustered in cities.

++ Copenhagenize your city: the case for urban cycling in 12 graphs
Very nice visuals and some good insights in there.

“This is the biggest idea and finest page of a book crammed with both.”
Points to a screenshot / quote from the book New Power. That page presents the idea of full-stack society.

[P]eople can more meaningfully participate in and feel ownership over every aspect of their lives—from their work, to health, and education, and of course democracy and our experience of government itself. […]
And it requires that we dream up entirely new models. In the full-stack society we feel more powerful and more connected to each other in all our guises: as patients, taxpayers, consumers, neighbours, voters, students, parents.

++ The Strange Failure of the Educated Elite
By focusing on meritocracy, too much importance has been put on individuality, resulting in a degradation of our social institutions.

Misplaced notion of the self. Instead of seeing the self as the seat of the soul, the meritocracy sees the self as a vessel of human capital, a series of talents to be cultivated and accomplishments to be celebrated. If you base a society on a conception of self that is about achievement, not character, you will wind up with a society that is demoralized; that puts little emphasis on the sorts of moral systems that create harmony within people, harmony between people and harmony between people and their ultimate purpose.

++ Italy’s weird technopopulism could be the new normal
New politicians with no experience focus on being “new” and grabbing attention from large swaths of the population through populist discourse, and then turn to specialists and technocrats to help them manage the complex systems they must now manage, resulting in weird alliances.

His theory is that, far from being foes, technocracy and populism are increasingly becoming allies in a war against a common enemy: representative democracy and traditional politicians.

The Churn
Ever wondered how those adverts manage to keep on finding you - even when you go incognito, switch devices, or never actually searched for the product in the first place? Let us count the (many, many) ways THREAD
I knew most of this and some of those tricks / problems I’ve mentioned here before but reading the whole list in one go shows just how much we are being tracked.

++ Killing net neutrality in the US is bad. But I’d argue that no threat to the internet-as-we-know-it is bigger than the EU’s Copyright Directive which gets a vote next week. THIS IS VERY BAD.
You gotta give it to copyright and asshat legislators, they just keep coming, and coming, and coming. Persistent. 😡

This is why it is not hyperbolic at all to suggest that this change to how the EU looks at copyright could have a massive consequence on how the internet functions. At the very least, it is likely to limit the places where users can participate, because that will price out tons of services. It takes the internet far, far away from its core as a communications platform and moves it more and more towards one that is broadcast only.

Las Vegas casino workers prep for strike over automation: ‘Robots can’t beat us’
This is pretty much exactly the same thing the Luddites were saying (I know, third time I link to this article).

::We know technology is coming, but we want to have a say in how it is implemented::, be it monitoring the robot, stocking the robot, or whatever – as the jobs change inevitably workers should have opportunities to train for those new jobs. And if they can’t or won’t, they should receive generous severance packages.

Chinese e-commerce giant JD has a new warehouse with only 4 employees, a Chinese e-commerce gargantuan, has built a big new Shanghai fulfillment center that can organize, pack and ship 200,000 orders a day. It employs four people — ::all of whom service the robots::.

“So, are we totally fucked because of climate change?” Here is as good an answer as I’ve seen, by @wenstephenson
Can’t say I liked the first part of the article much, but do check out the above tweet and the screenshot of said excellent answer.
Mentioned in his article and of interest: Real ambition on global warming: what it would look like.

++ 🌳 Trees That Have Lived for Millennia Are Suddenly Dying
Climate change is likely killing ancient baobab trees. Rainy seasons have become unpredictable, messing up the water volume they need to absorb for flowering.

++ 🌊 After Decades of Losing Ice, Antarctica Is Now Hemorrhaging It
Other than the depressing news, this bit (and lots more details in the article) is interesting:

When something is the size of a continent, how can you tell if it’s shrinking? Scientists have a few different tools at their disposal. First, Antarctica is so massive that it exerts its own gravity field, which can be sensed from orbit by satellites like nasa’s grace . Second, researchers can shoot radar or lasers at the surface of Antarctica to detect its surface altitude, which they can then combine with knowledge of ice physics and topography to compute its balance.

🍄 Cicadas Have Tamed Cordyceps, the Infamous Zombie Fungi

And yet Matsuura showed that cicadas have domesticated Ophiocordyceps, turning it into an essential part of their own bodies. It’s like discovering that Darth Vader is the Jedi’s new mascot, or that the Joker has replaced Alfred as Batman’s butler.

++ 🇳🇱 Netherlands to build world’s first habitable 3D printed houses

The 3D printer being used is essentially a huge robotic arm with a nozzle that squirts out a specially formulated cement, said to have the texture of whipped cream.

++ China’s ‘Kingdom of Women’

One of the most unique cultural traditions is zouhun or ‘walking marriages’. After a coming of age ceremony, Mosuo females can choose their lovers, having as many or as few as they wish within their lifetime. During these ‘marriages’, men visit the woman’s home upon invitation, and stay the night in a designated ‘flower room’, leaving at daybreak to return to their own home. Couples do not live together, and babies are reared exclusively in the female’s family, with brothers and uncles providing the fatherly role.

++ Open Ocean: 10 Hours of Relaxing Oceanscapes | BBC Earth
Ending with something peaceful with lots of 🐳 so we can all relax.