Sunday Selection 2018-03-25

Around the Web

The Calculus of Grit

An interesting piece from a few years. The events of the last few decades seem to have plunged us into an age of anomie. A lot of the social and economic certainties that have held in the latter half of the twentieth century seems to have been washed away leaving many of us wondering just what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives. This article is not antidote by any means, but it does provide a guideline for one part of the puzzle: how to develop a career and professional arc in this age.

The Classics Scholar Redefining what Twitter Can Do

Over the last few years, it seems like Twitter has degenerated into a cesspool of hate and people shouting past each other. In the midst of that, this is an interesting counter-point. Emily Wilson is a classicist and author of a new translation of Homer’s Odyssey. This article talks about how Prof. Wilson used Twitter to explain various choices she made during translation, interacting with both potential readers and other classicists.

Craig Mod’s Offscreen Magazine Interview

Craig Mod is one of my favorite bloggers who has written at length about books, meditation, photography and recovering our attention in an age of distraction (or rather, continual partial attention). I love reading all his writing (which is, thankfully, both sporadic and deep) and I loved reading this in-depth interview where he talks broadly about his work and experiences, as well as strategies for choosing what work is worth doing and then to go about doing it.


Earth: Final Conflict

This an old, and I suspect mostly unknown, TV show from the late nineties “created” by Gene Roddenberry. I use the quotes because I’m unsure how much involvement he had in this, as opposed to this creation of Star Trek. Instead of dealing with themes of humanity exploring new life and civilization among the stars, this show deals with what happens when new life and civilization comes to earth. All five seasons are now streaming on Amazon Prime.

From the Bookshelf

The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca translated by Moses Hadas

Over the last few months I’ve become interested in Buddhism and Stoicism, which share a striking number of similarities. After reading some modern summaries and interpretations of Stoicism, I decided to go straight with to the source, starting with Seneca. It makes for interesting reading, though a lot of the references and particular examples used will not be applicable for most people. Still, it is a source of practical wisdom, and many of the lessons can be translated to modern life.



Sunday Selection 2018-02-25

Around the Web

25 Principles of Adult Behavior by John Perry Barlow

John Parry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a techno-utopian in the truest sense of the term, passed away a couple weeks ago. Decades ago he wrote a list of 25 Principles of Adult Behavior, which I think should be a part of every college freshman orientation. Please keep reading to a snippet from EFF’s Executive Director Cindy Cohn explaining Barlow’s philosophy, something we would do well to learn from today.

An Openness to Life

Another wonderful piece from Brain Pickings, this time showcasing the work of Swedish diplomat and author Dag Hammarskjöld, one of only two people to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously.

Some Black Panther Readings

I watched Black Panther twice and absolutely loved it (for different reasons each time). I’ve also spent more time than I should have reading commentary about the movie online. Some of my favorite pieces are an explanation of Erik Killmonger’s role as a profound, tragic villain, another on how Black Panther asks us to examine who we are and what we think about and act on, and finally a wonderful interview with the breakout star of the movie, Winston Duke, who delivers a wonderful performance as M’Baku, and has given a lot of thought to both the role itself and his place as an actor.


Black Panther

If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should. That is all.


We Need Hyperlink Literacy

A couple weeks ago, I was in a student discussion with James Grimmelmann, law professor at Cornell Tech who studies how laws regarding technology affect freedom, wealth and power. A large part of our discussion centered around search engines and media platforms, specifically how personalization and algorithmic filters may affect what users see, even when they don’t understand or know that they’re getting filtered content. One way to tackle this issue (in addition to regulation, or some form of opt-out) would be media literacy: teach people that what they see is not some kind of perfect, impartial truth, but might be tailored to their preference and past histories (and biased in other ways).

Fostering that kind of media literacy among the populace at large is at once sorely needed and immensely difficult. Given how much our society depends on the Internet, the World Wide Web, search engines, social media platforms and the (often inscrutable) algorithms behind them, it is crucial that people understand how they get their information, and what are the biases, agendas, and influences shaping what they see (and don’t see). This is clearly a massive challenge, and likely one that we don’t yet know how to overcome. Personally, I would settle for solving one much smaller piece of the puzzle first: a more general understanding and respect for hyperlinks.

The humble hyperlink is the foundation of the web as we know it. It takes the web from being just a digital version of a library or filing cabinet to something truly new: a system where direct access to a piece of information is as easy as naming it. Unfortunately, along with the rise of digital walled gardens such as Facebook (and to a lesser degree, Twitter) the hyperlink seems to be losing prominence. That’s ironic given that the hyperlink is a sharing mechanism, and Facebook would like to bill itself as a platform for sharing and connecting. On a normal web page, one can use snippets of text as anchors for a hyperlink, instead of using the raw link itself. Facebook doesn’t let you turn pieces of text in a status update into links. Furthermore, pasting more than one link at a time breaks the user interface. I suppose Facebook wants to give the link more prominence than what you have to say about it. People like Dave Winer and John Gruber have commented at length on how Facebook breaks the web. Poignantly, that last sentence (with two hyperlinks) would be impossible to write properly in Facebook.

And it’s not just Facebook. Twitter is approximately the same as Facebook. Slack supports links poorly in the same way: there’s no obvious way to use pieces of text as anchors for links. Adding more than one link is slightly better: giving previews for both links (though they are bigger and more prominent than the message containing the links). These systems are silos: they prefer you share and interact with posts within their own boundaries, rather than with content on the web as a whole.

By reducing the prominence of hyperlinks and truncating their utility, we create online cultures focused on sharing information, rather than ones that encourage combining and synthesizing multiple sources and viewpoints into coherent narratives. I would argue that in doing so we are giving up a large part of the power of the Web, to our detriment, and for no clear benefit.

So how do we fix this? Certainly, there is an argument to be made for reducing our dependence on platforms where we cannot sufficiently control our own writing. But beyond that, I would like to see hyperlinks become a more ingrained part of writing on a computer. I would love to see a world where whenever you write some text on a computer that references external sources, you link copiously to them, rather than just inserting references that readers have to look up manually. School and college writing classes would be the prime places to teach this. In the same way that we teach students to include citations to external sources, I would like to see students treat hyperlinks with the same importance and fluency.

In a deeply connected technological society such as ours, using the core technologies of the web should be a central part of any kind of digital or media literacy.

Steve Jobs, the Xerox Alto, and computer typography

A few nights ago I met a wonderful woman at a pipe organ concert who worked for several decades at Xerox, programmed in the Mesa and Cedar languages, as well as Smalltalk on the original Altos.

She told me that she eventually left programming because she felt like modern computing and programming had become bureaucratic and process-oriented, more like engineering and less creative. These days she was more interested in statistics and data science.

Personally I’m glad to see computing and programming mature into a engineering discipline, but I would also very much like to see programming embraced as a creative endeavor. I hope that it’s possible to do both: embrace modern type systems, property-based testing and metaprogramming to build reliable systems, while interacting with clean and beautiful tools and interfaces instead of the modern mess of HTML/CSS/JavaScript (or similar messes in other technology stacks).

What if the Singularity already happened?

I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite science fiction books, Accelerando by British author Charlie Stross. In one of my favorite passages, some of the characters are sitting around talking about their belief in the Singularity. One of the characters makes the following claim (about when the Singularity happened):

“Au contraire. It happened on June 6, 1969, at 1100 hours, Eastern Seaboard Time,” Pierre counters. “That was when the first network control protocol packets were sent from the data port of one IMP to another — the first ever Internet connection. That’s the Singularity. Since then we’ve all been living in a universe that was impossible to predict from events prior to that time.”

While it’s typical to equate the Singularity with the future advent of superhuman artificial intelligences, I think this definition makes a lot of more sense. The Internet has had more impact on our world in the recent past than any other technology (especially after the advent to mobile pocket-sized connected computing devices), and furthermore, it came almost completely out of left field. Few of the “classic” science fiction stories I remember reading (particularly by Isaac Asimov) prominently feature networked computers, even though they have faster-than-light spaceflight, aliens, robots and the like. Perhaps we should take that as a warning: the most disruptive technologies are the ones we’re least cognizant of, until the disruption is well under way.

Moshe Vardi on Humans, Machines and Work

Yesterday evening I had the pleasure of listening to Professor Moshe Vardi talk about the effects of automation on the workforce and the economy, and how the continued development of AI and machine learning-based technologies might further tip that balance. This post is based on the notes I took during that talk. Please read it as more of a high-level summary, rather than a transcript. The talk itself contained more links and references that I haven’t had the time to chase down, so any inaccuracies and misquotations are probably my own fault.

Professor Vardi is a professor at Rice University, and currently Editor-in-Chief of the Communications of the ACM, and the winner of numerous awards including the ACM Gödel Prize, and the EATCS Distinguished Achievements Award. He is also an excellent speaker and it was wonderful to see a coherent narrative formed out of many disparate threads.

The talk started with a brief mention of Turing’s thesis, which can be read as a compelling philosophical argument for thinking machines, and the related intellectual questions. The early history of artificial machines was characterized by unbridled optimism (expectations that general purpose AI would arrive within a generation), punctuated by several AI winters (1974-80 and 1987-93) where funding and support for AI research dried up. However, 1997 started a new era in AI research when a chess playing computer, IBM’s Deep Blue, defeated Garry Kasparov. More recently, DeepMind’s AlphaGo defeated European Go champion Fan Hui. Crucially, AlphaGo combines machine learning techniques (including deep learning) with search space reduction, resulting in an approach that could be termed “intuition”.

With the resurgence of AI research, automated driving has been the holy grail for about a decade. Cars were one of the most important developments of the 20th century. The automobile shaped geography and changed history, and led to lots of infrastructure development. By some estimates, there are over 4 million truck drivers in the US, and 15 million jobs involving operating a vehicle. Today there are about 30 companies, working on self-driving vehicles, attacking an estimated market of $2 to $5 trillion a year. Experts predict that the main technical issues will be resolved in 5-15 years. While this will be a great technological achievement, it will produce profound business disruption. For starters, there is likely to be major industrial contraction (cares are idle 90% of the time), and a major loss of business for insurance, legal, medical fields, as automobile accidents are drastically reduced.

Unfortunately, this industrial disruption follows a trend that has already been in progress for a while now. The last 40 years has resulted in a harsh negative impact on middle & working class. For much of the 20th century there was a “Great Coupling”  between productivity, private employment, median income and GDP growth: they all followed a linked upward trend. However, since the 70s, this trend has “decoupled”, a fact observable from many dataset. In particular, there has been increasing inequality: a massive decline in the bottom 50% of earners, and a massive increase in the top 1% of earners. There is a declining chance that a person in their early 30s is going to be better off than their parents.

This in turned has resulted in an “Age of Precariousness”: half of Americans would have trouble affording $400 for an emergency, and two-thirds would have trouble dealing with a $1000 emergency. Labor force participation for men 25-54 has dropped from 97% to 88% and those with high school degrees or less were the hardest hit — almost 20% are not working.
Technology is eating jobs from the “inside out”. High-paying and low-paying jobs are both growing, but middle class jobs are declining. According to a Bloomberg 2016 report: as we move towards more automation, we need fewer people in manufacturing and more people go into the service sector, historically a low-wage sector.

All this paints a pretty bleak future, and from Prof. Vardi’s talk it’s unclear what the way forward is. Universal Basic Income seems like one idea to help offset this dangerous trend, but UBI is still a hotly contested topic. The following discussion raised some interesting questions, including asking what the role of “work” and employment is in a mostly-automated society, and questioning the role and responsibility of educational institutes in the near future.

Personally, I feel lucky to be in a field where jobs are currently booming. Most of my work is creative and non-routine, and thus not amenable to automation yet. At the same time, I am very concerned about a future where the majority of people hold poorly paid service sector jobs where they can barely eke out a living. I am also afraid that jobs that seem more secure today (administrators, doctors, lawyers, app developers) will also be gradually pushed into obsolescence as our machine learning techniques improve. Again, no good solution, but lots to think about, and hopefully work on in the near future. As the Chinese proverb goes, we live in interesting times.

Investing in the Open Web

It seems like every few days there’s a new post lamenting the death of the Open Web, and the corresponding rise in ad-driven social media machines and clickbait. Recent examples include this lament on the Cult of the Attention Web (prompted by Instagram moving to an algorithm presentation, away from a chronological timeline), and Brendan Eich’s response to online news publishers strongly objecting to the ad-blocking browser, Brave.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, we seem to have collectively struck a number of Faustian bargains: free services in exchange for our personal information; free articles, audio and video in exchange for advertising, more personal information and ugly, slow sites; walled gardens, in whose operation we have little say, in exchange for ease-of-use. And while I would love to pit advertisers and social media giants against brave independent bloggers and developers in a black-and-white contest, the reality is never quite so simple.

If we really want an vibrant, independent, open web, we need to invest in it with our time, money, effort and technical know-how. But I don’t know if that investment exists, or if the people complaining about the state of the open web are ready to make it. Examples abound: the above piece about Instagram is posted on Medium, which might join said Cult of the Attention Web any day. WordPress, which powers a significant fraction of the open web (and on which this site is built), would rather pretend that it’s a feed-reader and encourage me to “follow” other blogs, than make it simple and quick to write or edit posts (it takes me four clicks from the page to start editing a draft). And I myself would rather rant about investing in the open web than build a CMS that I actually want to, and enjoy using.

If we seriously care about preserving an open web outside of walled gardens and free of ugly, privacy-destroying advertising, we need to be an active part of it. We need to publish to our own domains, backed by services that won’t turn into advertising machines tomorrow, maybe even pay for hosting. We need to vote with our wallets and actually subscribe to publications we want to read and support. We need to write code and build publication platforms that embody our ideals and values, and make it easier for others to do the same.

I do two of those three, though not as often as I would like to. I don’t exaggerate when I say I wouldn’t be where I am in my life without the open web. I would like to invest in it so that others can say the same in the future.