Episode Ninety Nine: Building Together; Beautiful Shooty Things; Software For Eating; The New Toys On The Web; Take It Seriously; And Finally

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

There’s been a bunch of things that I’ve bookmarked over the past few days that I’ve been wanting to share, so I’m going to use this episode to kind of splurge them a bit, and probably insert some wildly unsubstantiated opinions here and there.

1.0 Building Together

Melissa Santos and Rafe Colburn wrote an excellent piece[1] in the excellent Model View Culture that shows how, upon a little examination, perks that startups provide its employees even when coming from the best intentions to foster good culture, can unintentionally divide and alienate people. Part of the point here is that I suppose it’s entirely OK for you to *not* aspire to have a diverse and engaged workforce – you can run your business however you want provided you’re not breaking the law – but one of the side-effects of doing things more out in the open and having more connected societies means that, whether you like it or not, how you act ends up standing much more of a chance of being communicated than it did a few years ago. And people will judge you by how you act. And the tide in terms of treating *all* people respectfully and with equal opportunity means, whether you like it or not, these things need thinking about and responding to.

One could argue that this is a tax and that it gets in the way of doing the job. Well, you know what: if you’re saying that having to override built-in biases or assumptions in favour of a more beneficial long-term goal (and let’s just agree that this *is* a more beneficial long-term goal) is a tax and that you’d prefer to rely on slightly more base assumptions, then essentially you’re saying: I’m smart and I’ve got this giant old brain and capacity for self-reflection and planning and you know what: I’m not going to use it and Locke is very upset with you.

It’s not a tax. It’s progress, which requires us to do work.

[1] http://modelviewculture.com/pieces/how-perks-can-divide-us

2.0 Beautiful Shooty Things

For all that this year’s E3 was yet another reminder that at least part of the videogaming industry is preoccupied with ways of moving around and shooting things, we did get to see the latest installment[1] of Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky, for which: well, yes, it does involve running around and (as far as we can see) shooting at things. But it looks gorgeous and the colour palette is at least different, eschewing the brown and grey corridors that define the majority of mass console videogame experiences these days. That Hello Games are able to achieve something as beautiful and ambitious as No Man’s Sky with such a tiny team (I think they’re only around four people) and that Sony were willing to recognise it and give it space at such a big industry event is the kind of thing that keeps jaded fans of the form sticking around.

That and new Nintendo stuff, of course.

[1] http://blog.eu.playstation.com/2014/06/10/mans-sky-coming-ps4/

3.0 Software For Eating

Via Jason Kottke, an epic post from Nick Kokonos[1] on the last three years of his restaurants designing and implementing a ticketing system for reservations. I’m not really up on the restaurant scene, so I’m grateful for Jason pointing this out, but this is just another data point slash nail in the proverbial coffin for “good” software eating the world, and I think I’m able to look at this type of software eating as the kind that produces the good jobs.

Here’s my chain of thought: Kokonos does an incredibly good job of not just persuading, but showing, through hard data, how beneficial implementing a ticketing system has been for his business. As an aside, he also shows how hard it is for entrenched businesses to change their ways and innovate, and we see another example of what can happen when someone who “gets’ software applies it to their business, which otherwise wouldn’t have anything to do with software. I’m going to temporarily fork and follow this thread a little bit, because I think it requires a little more examination. When I say software here, I mean software the material, as opposed to finished software, the product. Kokonos understands what he needs and that computers/software can do that. He’s confident enough to just map out the process and go to a contractor and get what he needs built. I’m going to go out on a limb of reckon here and say that he had to pull together a disparate bunch of skills in order to map out that process and to be able to communicate it in a way that resulted in a successful project. But, note: I don’t think it mattered whether or if Kokonos knew “how to code”. He merely knew that he had a problem that could be solved with software and the types of things that software could do to help his business. He might even have known *how* to implement it, but in terms of tradeoff of spending his time to do it versus his money, he clearly came down on the side of money – and why not, he has a business to run.

There’s a point that I’m trying to make here, and it’s that there are untold billions of problem domains that could be obsoleted or solved or just plain made better by the good application of software now that Moore’s law has pushed the stack both down in terms of what it does for us in terms of needs, and wide in terms of availability. Again, sure, we’re not at one hundred percent availability, but there’s definitely been a significant enough shift.

The good news, I think, is this. Kokonos had to employ people to do drudge work that wasn’t even that good for his business. He had to employ people to answer the phone to tell potential customers – who had already engaged in a significant signal of purchasing intent – that he could not take their business. And then they would have to do it again. Kokonos said he was employing three full time people answering the phone, and that was a cost for his business.

The good version of the story is where the software means Nick is able to hire more high-value, specialised and actualised employees more directly related to his business venture. This isn’t job creation at the Uber level, which I would argue makes room for substitutable jobs that are pretty much low-end skills and drudge work. Software in this case, for Kokonos, has created more room for high value work.

Sure, I get that he won’t be employing people to answer phones. Those three full-time jobs are gone. But I would hope that he’s able to replace them with higher-value jobs or open a new restaurant.

I do think there’s a distinction here, a subtle one, at that. But I’m perfectly happy to be proven wrong or argued with.

[1] http://website.alinearestaurant.com/site/2014/06/tickets-for-restaurants/

4.0 The New Toys On The Web

Boris Smus, an emerging user interface researcher at Google, dropped one of his latest projects on Monday, a full-screen in-browser live-input spectrogram[1] that runs on Chrome or Firefox through the web audio API. This is the kind of thing that makes me incredibly excited for my son for the world that he’s growing up in (other things make me incredibly sad for my son for the world he’s growing up in, so I guess it all balances out). To have a toy spectroscope to play with as a tool to explore the world is fantastic. That it’s done in open source software and deployed on the web where so many people can play with it, that it’s done in a format that he will be able to play with is one of the wonderful things about what we’ve built with the internet and the entire stack.

[1] http://smus.com/spectrogram-and-oscillator/

5.0 Take It Seriously

I have friends, whom I love dearly, who I think like to take seriously the concepts exposed in fiction and poke holes in the universe. I give them a break because, generally speaking, they’re also able to revel in the drama and the story (apart from some instances, like where Thor takes the tube and the London tube map is, shall we say, topographically challenged).

But you get a couple of instances which are funny, too. One of my friends tumblred this piece[1] by Avery Edison on what kind of movie Iron Man would’ve been if everyone had instead just shat their pants at Tony having essentially booted up a Strong, Turing Test passing AI (that wasn’t a Ukranian thirteen year old, natch) and were just nonplussed by the existence of a simple exosuit of armour.

One thing out of the way first: Avery Edison is fucking hilarious. I had a bit of a noodle around the rest of her site, and you should too. Last episode I talked a little about a new generation of Adams-esque role-models and inspirational figures, ones who were excited about technology and could communicate about it to a large, mass audience and I sincerely hope that Edison is one of them. You should check out her work[2] because she deserves encouragement and success.

I mean, we get a few pages of well-written funny ha-ha script about people generally losing their shit that Tony’s just advanced the state of computer science (on the Oracle Cloud, no less![3].

But that was part of what was disappointing about Transcendence[4] which not only was a *bad movie* (no biscuit, Johnny Depp) but also a tired one that didn’t tell a particularly new or interesting story either. Boring. Waste of money.

Her was a lot better in that the transcendence and implied subliming (oops, spoiler, but you probably should’ve seen it by now so I’m not *that* sorry) were just background.

With neither movie though, you never really got a vision of societies in transition: of stupendously powerful computing and an idea of how we get from here to there. We get enough visions of here to dystopia or here to ‘you know, maybe we shouldn’t trust the machines’ and I suppose there’s a reason for that and it’s mostly the dramatic and emotional arc which is why something like Foundation is a bit hard to film, but really: we could stand to see a filmic story of the eventual promise but difficult transition phase of technology. Or even a goddamn good documentary.

[1] http://blog.averyedison.com/post/88204553167
[2] https://twitter.com/aedison and http://www.averyedison.com
[3] http://www.oracle.com/us/ironman3/omag-mj13-ironman-1936895.pdf (warning: PDF, but also because it is literal fan fiction written by Oracle about them and Stark Industries)
[4] http://newsletter.danhon.com/episode-sixty-nine-transcendence-broom-shaped-objects-odds/

6.0 And Finally

Here’s Aleks Krotoski on serendipity[1], saying it much better than I did.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/aug/21/google-serendipity-profiling-aleks-krotoski

That’s it for today. Hope you’ve had a good one. And America, please sort out your deal with guns. It’s breaking my heart.

Best,

Dan