Episode One Hundred and Fifty Two: Car!; The Robots Work For Tim Ferris; Diversity; 2014 (6)

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I started writing this yesterday morning, straight after I’d sent that day’s delayed episode. It’s 3:30pm on Thursday and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed with the sheer amount of admin that feels like the programmer equivalent of yak-shaving: dealing with the corporate travel agent for the next two conferences I’m speaking at, buying wedding presents for dear friends and trying to work out where to get them delivered so it’ll cause as little stress as possible (because you know you can’t just order stuff from Amazon as a present because thanks to their wonderful UK last-mile delivery problem of consistently failing to actually deliver.

1.0 Car!

Tuesday was the return leg of a short family vacation – roughly six hours of driving through California and Oregon and time to check out some of the Awesome! New! Stuff! in our new car. Our 2014 Subaru Outback has EyeSight – Subaru’s brand name for collision avoidance, car-tracking and lane-wandering technology. Yesterday was trying out the adaptive cruise control system, which as a Brit is a novel thing because, I don’t know, I don’t feel that cruise control is a thing that we use much of in England because the country really isn’t that big and the roads normally aren’t that straight and go on FOR EVER like they do in America.

But anyway.

There’s part of the multi-function display in the driver – cockpit, I guess? – that’s a shiny OLED type screen, super nice and bright, and which displays stuff like the “Hey! the car ahead of you has started moving!” notifications and the “It looks like you’re changing lane! Did you mean to do that?” iconography.

Perhaps it’s because I anthropomorphise things, but when using the adapative cruise control system, I get to set how far I’d like to be behind the car in front (as far as possible, please, which annoys the fuck out of the majority of American drivers, I’ve found) and the display shows me whether or not the car sees another car in front of it.

A long time ago – back when I still lived in London, I think, I remember going round to BERG’s offices and Matt Jones talking about the whole Be As Smart As A Puppy thing[1]. My car isn’t even as smart as a puppy, really, or it might be if all the different bits of its brain talk to each other.

Here’s what I mean: there’s a bit of my car that’s really good at recognising car-shaped things. Like, really good! And it gets excited about them, because when it sees a car, it beeps, and it shows me a picture of a car. And then when the car goes away, it beeps again, and it takes away the picture of a car. It does this. All. The. Time. It is like a little puppy: it can recognise cars! I am very proud of my car. I would pat its steering wheel as it yet-again recognised another car and say “Good car, good recognising!” My wife rolls her eyes at me.

When I turn on this feature, my car is like a slightly less vocally expressive version of my eighteen month old son, who has a Tractor Recognition Algorithm that is a little bit loosely tuned at the moment (ie. it’s a bit excitable and liable to recognise things as Tractors when they’re not Tractors). My car cannot, however, pat its head and do the ASL for “hat” and then sign “book” and ask for the I Want My Hat Book to be read to it.

OK, thank you anyway.

There was another thing about the car that was a nice little spot of anthropomorphisation. The TPMS light kept coming on every now and the and apart from making my wife and I make TPS report jokes at each other, it turned out to be the Tire Pressure Management System telling us that there might be something up with the pressure of one of the tires. We stopped in at a very nice car shop along the way and had a chat with one of the mechanics there, who described the TPMS as something with a radio and a sensor in each tire (and the spare) and every so often, the car would say: “Hey tires, are you OK?” and each tire would check in and say “hello hello, tire number one, I’m OK”.

I mean, this is essentially right and why geeky people think the Story of Ping is funny: my car is full of things that can recognise things and tiny little submodules of specific functionality. The bit of my car that recognises cars, and when they’ve moved! The bit of my car that talks to tires! The bit of my car that *is* tires, and talks to other bits of my car!

Pretty soon, these things start adding up. Hearing my car go beep every time it recognises a car is like watching a baby learn to smile when it sees the face of another human that it recognises. It feels like the first glimmers.

[1] Be As Smart As A Puppy – BERG

2.0 The Robots Work For Tim Ferris

I’m not sure how this one popped into my head, but whatever: Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek mashed into my head unexpectedly against the The Robots Are Stealing Our Jobs meme. I have to admit: I couldn’t finish Tim’s book because something about his personality just grates with me. But, never finishing a book or not properly researching something hasn’t ever stopped someone from having an opinion or thinking out loud, and I’m definitely doing the latter. So: on with unresearched opinions and general gut-feelings.

One way of thinking about Tim Ferriss is that he’s adept at looking at systems (systems-thinking-klaxon) and figuring out how to rework them or deploy them to his advantage. He’s not interested in having a job, and he’s interested in optimisation. He’s still working – a lot of what I think he does that he inexplicably doesn’t count in his 4 hours of working a week is that type of forward-planning architecting.

So: the robots are working for Tim Ferriss. Sometimes they’re actual robots – perhaps more software bots than physical robots – and sometimes they’re meta-robots, intricate or not-so-intricate systems that he can set up to generate passive, low-maintenance income for him. But he’s certainly not doing “work” or having a “job”, and yet at the same time, those systems that he’s setting up that generate the passive, low-maintinance income are also at risk from disruption. So he has to keep hustling and keep working out what the next system to deploy is. It’s certainly an existence, and a particular one that requires a different set of skills than ones that we (society) traditionally trains people for through the industrial-era education system. But, I’d argue (somewhat hand-wavingly) that it’s people like Ferriss (whether you agree or get on with his personality or not) that are able to see networks and figure out how to extract value from them. That latter phrase is where it gets a bit difficult, because some people can get uncomfortable with the idea of value-extraction rather than value-generation because if what Ferriss is doing *most* of the time (I don’t know – I haven’t read the book, remember?) is finding opportunities to arbitrage then he’s just kind of moving bits around and skimming off the top. Or to put it another way: is Ferriss gaming the system, or making systems work for him?

When I first read Ferriss’ book I remember thinking that he’d replaced “work” with administration and then worked to replace the administration. Part of what irks me about the way we talk about productivity advances is that they typically don’t take into account the user experience. If you’re going to count the massive availability of free net-provided replacements for formerly paid-for products (ie the idea that you can stop going to the movies because you can watch them for free on YouTube, or you don’t need to subscribe to the newspaper anymore because of Google News or you don’t need to pay for cable any more because…), then you also have to account for the productivity *loss* in badly-administered and user-unfriendly systems. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that PCs were great as a productivity advance and simultaneously say that they didn’t also have a productivity drag as anyone who’s had to do parental tech support can attest.

Hm. Productivity Drag. That might be coming tomorrow.

3.0 Diversity

So follow my train of thought: first there was this image[1] that showed up in my Twitter feed, the latest salvo in the misogyny-wars currently wracking “gamer” culture for which I’m not even going to point to anything other than the aforementioned image, suffice to say that there are some people who happen to play games who are, bluntly, offensive children who need to grow up.

Then there was the thought of comparing what’s happening to “gamer” culture to what happened to football (soccer) fans in the 1980s and 90s in the United Kingdom with hooliganism and racism (the latter of which is arguably still a problem, the former of which was dealt with by specific legislation, too) and never mind the whole “gamer” identification being a thing other than what was seen as a fringe/minority interest needing to protect itself, I mean it’s not like (and I’ve been saying this in talks and presentations for literally YEARS now) we talk about “televisioners” or “musicers”.

But anyway.

Then there was taking a look at my own male/female follower ratio[2] and being somewhat dismayed at the results, and then a whole bunch of friends looked at their own with results ranging from 21% female for Timoni West[3], 22% female for Tom Coates[4], 34% female for Alex Fleetwood[5], 41% female for James Moran[6] and 56% female for Naomi Alderman[7].

Now, this is all anecdata.

But, it brings into question Twitter’s methodology for determining gender as it does the makeup of Twitter’s userbase in the first place, and even whether what we say and do on stream-based social media makes our accounts more or less accessible to members of either gender. Either way, I know I’m not happy about the purported statistic, because I’d much rather have a diverse and representative audience rather than something that can feel a bit echo-chambery.

[1] https://twitter.com/ferricide/status/505101049028685824
[2] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/505113755613548544
[3] https://twitter.com/timoni/status/505106504316641280
[4] https://twitter.com/tomcoates/status/505105560253890560
[5] https://twitter.com/ammonite/status/505108755168919552
[6] https://twitter.com/jamesmoran/status/505117478910169088
[7] https://twitter.com/naomiallthenews/status/505110884222377984

4.0 2014 (6)

Gender is determined algorithmically on major social networks using black boxes not open for review. Books are delivered wirelessly to millions of low-power e-paper devices. Data Brokers exist, collecting and amassing personal information and selling it to advertisers and media companies. Realtime Art describes the act of using massively parallel processors to render images in three dimensions dynamically, providing instantaneous feedback to artists. Car tires talk to cars. The US government is calling for a protocol to enable car-to-car communication. Security specialists are now worried about suitcase electromagnetic warfare and advise companies to place critical infrastructure in shielded Faraday cages, to use optical fiber rather than copper wire where possible and to institute a green belt as a building perimeter. Low-earth orbit has been found hospitable to life.

It’s 2014.

Notes are welcome, as always.

Best regards,

Dan