Things That Have Caught My Attention

Dan Hon's Weekday Newsletter

s4e09: Earl Grey, Hot (again, probably) 

0.0 Station Ident

Wednesday, March 22, 2017 in the afternoon. Despite everything that’s going on in the world, I’m feeling pretty good today after taking time to look after myself. I’m (re)learning that the principle behind being told to put your own mask on before you put on anyone else’s applies to other things than just catastrophic airline accident safety.

A dumb one, today. Or maybe not. It was just something that made me think.

1.0 Earl Grey, Hot

I was thinking, as you do, about Starfleet’s User Research division the other day[0].

Ok, so really: how would the computers in Star Trek: The Next Generation really work? And in particular, how do the replicators work? Take this typical exchange:

PICARD walks up to a replicator.

PICARD: Computer. Tea. Earl Grey, Hot.

The computer replicates tea. PICARD drinks the tea, and it is good.

How does this work? Has Picard previously spent time with Computer, in something like the following fashion?

PICARD: Computer. Tea. Earl Grey, Hot.

Computer: There are over two thousand known types of “tea” known as “Earl Grey”. Which “Earl Grey” did you mean?

PICARD sighs.

I mean, in this case, we have a replicator, so the rough idea is that it can replicate *anything* that it has a pattern for. Let’s just assume that the computer and the replicator have patterns for anything. Any tea that has ever existed, for example. So the problem isn’t just telling the computer what you want, the problem in this case is, when you have a computer that can replicate anything, how do you tell the computer the right thing to replicate? And, in the universe of Star Trek, this looks like it’s mainly accomplished through a voice user interface with the occasional tapping at an LCARS display.

So, do we try again? Does Picard ask for Tea, the computer says “What Kind?” and presents him with… what, a taxonomy of all known hot drinks made from boiled leaves? Picard did say “Earl Grey”, so the computer knows to narrow it down to, well, all the Earl Greys that it knows about. Maybe Picard likes Twinings? Is there only One True Earl Grey in the Star Trek universe?

And how hot is hot, anyway? At some point did Picard try some tea and it was *too hot* or *not hot enough*? Did he throw it away and tell the computer “Computer, make the same tea, but hotter.” How much hotter?

I can imagine that at the end of this, Picard and the Computer came to some sort of tacit understanding or arrangement and that he now has a personal preference saved (under, say, Picard Tea Preference Alpha Four Seven) and that Picard either explicitly told Computer to save these settings, or that Computer implicitly did it on his behalf in an effort to meet his tea needs.

And that’s just for tea! Get this:

BARCLAY is in his quarters and feels like a snack. He walks over to the replicator.

BARCLAY: Computer. Salt and vinegar crisps, please.

COMPUTER replicates some salt and vinegar crisps. BARCLAY tries one.

Barclay: Ugh! Computer! Too salty! Less salt, please.

COMPUTER replicates some salt and vinegar crisps. BARCLAY tries one.

Barclay: Ugh! Computer! These crisps are not vinegary enough. More vinegar, please.

COMPUTER replicates some salt and vinegar crisps. BARCLAY tries one.

Barclay: Ugh! Computer! While these crisps are sufficiently salty *and* vinegary, they are not crunchy enough! Crunchier, please.

COMPUTER replicates some salt and vinegar crisps. BARCLAY tries one.

Barclay: Ugh! Computer! While these crisps are very crunchy now they are too heavy! Lighter, please.

COMPUTER replicates some salt and vinegar crisps. BARCLAY tries one.

Barclay: Ugh! Computer! These are not entirely unlike salt and vinegar crisps and now I am not hungry. Also I am late for my meeting with Commander LaForge. We’ll continue this later. Save our progress as Barclay Salt and Vinegar Crisps Preference Alpha Two.

At this point, it’s pretty clear that Arthur encountered this exact problem when he tried to have some tea on the Heart of Gold.

There are more issues, though! Someone on Twitter suggested that maybe the Federation gets around this by modeling the taste receptors of the requesting entity (which again, is what the Nutri-matic Drinks Synthesizer said it did), at which point you wonder – are Federation computers running hi-fidelity, non-sentient simulations of people *just so that they can replicate the right kind of food*?

I’d like to think that this silly thought experiment at least highlights some of the issues involved (although they’re probably glaringly obvious to researchers and practitioners in the field) of voice user interfaces that aren’t domain restricted. Or, in other words: this is exactly why talking to Alexa is sufficiently infuriating as well as helpful.

In this way, it’s infuriating when Alexa definitely understands the request (in our kitchen, it’s “Alexa, play music from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”), and then replies that she can’t find any music by “Daniel. Tiger’s Neighborhood” but if you say “Alexa, play music from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood from Amazon Music” she’ll happily do that.

The old way of explaining and talking about all the above is the problem people have with computers doing what I say, instead of what I mean. When we imagine computer interfaces and how they might be helpful – and especially when we get inspired by ones that we see in fiction, we don’t see all of the built-in assumptions about how these things might fall apart.

The dumb insight here is that voice computing works when preferences are known (maybe?). It’s one thing to use a computer to ask for tea if the computer knows *exactly how to make your tea* but if you’re asking computer to replicate a new chair for your quarters, it might be easier for you to use a PADD to scroll and swipe through the *literally gazillion* chair options available to you, and after that you can say “replicate that chair you replicated for me that other Stardate”.

A related thought about Starfleet and its vision of enterprise computing[1] is that in the NCC 1701-D’s anthropocentric view, the computer replies audibly to everyone’s request. The assumption here is that everyone on the bridge can hear what the computer can say, and that it’s useful for everyone to hear it. This breaks when you get Ensign Folami, a new non-human ensign on the bridge from Starfleet academy whose hearing is only in the infrasound range (but is perfectly normal from xi’s point of view) and suddenly the computer has to not only vocalize in response to humans but also there’s a surprising bass thrum so that Ensign Folami can hear what’s going on.

[1] Sorry

OK. Lunchtime over. Have a good day, and thank you to those who have been sending notes!



s4e08: Write the future 

0.0 Station Ident

Sunday, and I’ve just gone out for a walk because going for a walk is a thing you’re supposed to do. Unfortunately, thinking that you’re supposed to go for a walk is not a thing you’re supposed to do, so you should just go for a walk, so I did.

And now, because there are ideas in my head that I have to let out through my fingers…

1.0 Write the Future

Epistemic status: I am literally making today’s shit up as I am typing. I am not a professional driver, this is not a closed course, you should not take me seriously or even literally. I am simply thinking aloud.

I want to tell you a story, to get you excited about something and to get you to believe in something big, something new and something important.

(Stories, apparently, are how we get things done as a species. I got hit by a double-whammy of this today, first as a sort of reminder/exhortation from Warren Ellis[0], and then from

Some ground rules before we get started:

1/ Things exist

2/ Humans exist


3/ So long as things exist and humans exist, humans will have opinions about things

and so

4/ So long as the internet exists and there is more than one human alive, online communities will exist for any of the things in rule 1

OK. Last night, after a very nice dinner with Derek Powazek and family, Derek and I got to talking about me subtweeting him about the state of the world and religions and affinity/interest groups and news and so on and things like “the Church of Metafilter”.

I was also thinking aloud at Derek about there being two potential routes for the call-to-experiment-in-founding-a-religion at the end of the previous episode. Namely, you could try to layer on the idea of a church-type-meeting-peoples’-needs religion onto an existing online community. This would be the Church of Metafilter option: where there’s an *existing* affinity or interest group or people aligned around something, and then the experiment is: what can we add to this? Reddit, for example, has *a* community aligned around sending pizza to people, another around doing a secret santa, and while the venn diagram is *somewhat* 1:1, not all Reddit or Metafilter users participate in secret santas, videogames-for-kids-at-Christmas drives, random acts of Pizza or so on. Just some of them. These more-involved communities are subcomunities of, well, a bigger thing. But, these things get repeated and people get a biological hit out of doing something nice for other people (which really does seem to imply that there’s something chemically wrong with Paul Ryan) and before you know it, Reddit, of all places, *does* now have an annual tradition of sending toys to kids in hospitals *and* is a cesspit of shitposting purely *because* they value the first amendment (in a weird way) more than they value some of the other things. But, I guess, more on that later.

The second way of doing this experiment would be to form a brand new community *about the new thing* (where the new thing is: what would it look like if we formed a non-local church-meets-user-needs-workers-union-type-organization). In other words, the two approaches are between a) bringing more explicit, well, “meeting community needs” ideology to an existing affinity group (e.g. bringing it to Mumsnet or, um, Goodreads or even Pewdiepie’s channel), and b) the affinity group that attracts the initial seed community being the ideology of “coming together to meet community needs” in the first place.

This led to a bit of a side conversation about how this is all a bit more complicated these days because we have a wonderful marketplace of not having* to go to church, despite there being lots of evidence to the contrary that some of the things that local religion franchisees offer do indeed meet a whole bunch of personal and community needs (see: Bowling Alone and a Whole Bunch Of Other Hand-Wringing Op-Eds). I mean, I don’t *have* to go to church now. I had to before because I guess I needed somewhere to go that would reassure me that this year’s crops wouldn’t be a fuckup and that if they were, maybe I could get food from somewhere, or that I just needed someone to tell me that everything would be OK after I died. But we have ways of doing that now that involve less application of community shame and (allegedly, and this is a big sticking point in the US at the moment) are more efficient and/or result in more coverage.

It is always [citation needed] less work to start a new thing than to fix an existing thing, which lends me to be more interested in “what if we started a new thing” than “what if we tried to retrofit a bunch of stuff on an existing community” of people. But the more I think about it, the more i think that it *does* make more sense to explicitly start a new thing because the examples that I (wanting to reinforce my biases) picked are examples of things that groups of humans tend to do when they get together no matter where they are (Secret Santas, holding pledge drives for members who are down on their luck or in need) or no matter what they care about.

The interesting thing about the religion thing is that, apart from some (somewhat egregious, I have to admit) requirements they don’t really care what you’re into. Actually, scratch that whole previous sentence for obvious reasons and this is where it starts to get a little… interesting.

So, to leave you on tenterhooks I want to take a quick detour and talk about a nice note from a reader in response to the last episode, from which two things caught my attention:

First, they said that they had been a member of an online community since the days of LiveJournal. This is important for later reasons.

Second, they said that local communities can offer support beyond money, and that’s harder to do when you’re not nearby.

I think this *used* to be true. I think this used to be true and is easy for people who grew up in the era of LiveJournal. My reader wrote that because of living in Norway and growing up with a community of LiveJournalers, the only thing their community could really do was move money around. Derek and I talked about this and it was a bit like the Hug Problem: an online community is great until you just want some physical presence.

A counter to this is that it used to be true in the 1990s, but it significantly *less* true now, now that Moore’s law has put a supercomputer in many (but not everyone’s) peoples’ pockets. *If* you live in a relatively populated area, I think it’s way more possible that you can find someone in an online affinity group near to you. So just the fact that more people are online now than before makes the local requirement a bit easier to satisfy (and yes, this really helps you if you’re in a megacity, but you’re kind of SOL for physical if you’re a LGBQT teen in a small village, but… it’s still better than before?)

The second counter to this is where it gets a bit squeamish and we say: well, yes. It was hard to meet local needs in early online community because it was mainly moving money around and that was hard to do back then and it’s certainly easier to do now than it was before. But! The things that money can do (with the caveat that you have some of it, or that your community has access to it) are manifold compared to our 1990s online communities. In the 1990s, it was a crapshoot as to whether I’d be able to find *a* restaurant with a phone number and get it translated and call it up (over prohibitive POTS international calling) to get your favorite meal delivered to you in your city in Norway but *now* I can probably do it via any number of apps or websites that will be a third-party, *or* I can still also just call them up using cheap or free VOIP calling and pay for your meal to be delivered. So, whether we like it or not, the fact that *many things are accomplished by money* and that the world has become more connected and interdependent and globalized, an outcome is that it’s easier than it was in the 90s for someone non-local to help meet a local need.

The end result of this of course is: if you feel bad and I want you to feel better but I can’t be there which of the the following choices are better? (Trick question, this is probably a false choice)

a) me telling you that I want to give you a hug and offering emotional support over video/audio/inside Overwatch
b) me telling you that I want to give you a hug and offering emotional support over video/audio/inside Overwatch *and* sending a local community member to give you a hug
c) me telling you that I want to give you a hug and offering emotional support over video/audio/inside Overwatch *and* sending a zero-hours Taskrabbit-style contractor to meet the physical hug need while I meet the non-physical needs and let’s just pretend that we were able to trick your brain because hey cognitive science

Substitute hugs for: taking you out for a meal, taking you to the doctor, getting you a doctor’s appointment, going out for a movie, renting a movie, playing a board game…

Something to think about, I guess. I mean, it’s not *great*. Is it better than nothing? Is it better than nothing *and* also not great long-term, or not what we’d prefer?

Now let’s come back to the whole thing about starting a new religion…

I guess the thing about religions is that they’re not really very… inclusive? I mean, historically speaking. There’s a good example (some of you may already be a bit nervous about where this is headed) of some non-religion type entities that have been founded with a specific vision about how society might work, or what a good society looks like. Those types of entities, though, tend to be… more on the state end of things. And it doesn’t help (or rather, it does help explain things) that in a conversation I had with someone recently, they reminded me that a thing that people tend to do when they start to distrust or lose faith that their government they do things like set up shadow governments, or shadow services. They take things into their own hands, for things like, well, garbage collection.

Or sometimes other, bigger things.

So, in my head now. Not adding things to an existing online community, but starting a new one, where the community is again around a specific thing. And not, like, a web 1.0 or web 2.0 community where the community coalesces around “questions that you might ask if you assumed a particular science fiction universe was a real one” or “what the best pen is” or “the best way to take care of this particular pen” or “what are the coolest shoes”, but… a community that forms around a certain ideology about, well, what it means to look out for one another and what it means to have collective responsibility.

We talked about how desperately important it is for online communities to have moderators – ministers, kind of? – who *personally* do things and tend to flocks and enforce and explain with kindness community standards and guidelines, and how important it is for such people to be paid. What if the community *accepted* that such people needed to be paid? The only model we’ve really known is ad-supported moderation, because that’s the only model we really know for online community these days. People pay to join Metafilter and it’s more of a pay-wall gate to keep out spammers (bad hombres, I guess?) and even then the opex of a site like Metafilter isn’t through user contribution but through ads. Or it was. But, I guess… people pay for public radio here through pledge drives. And that covers salaries? And they don’t advertise?

It’s sometimes hard to see how things like this would exist. Is it an app? A website? How do you compete against Facebook or… well, wherever it is that communities form these days. To which I counter: Slack affinity groups don’t seem to have a problem. The XOXO community and Slack is another piece of Metadata. Another way of thinking about this is that if (certain kinds of) content marketing people don’t instantly colonize a new piece of social software to talk to each other about how awesome they are at content marketing, then your social software won’t really be successful.

I pretty much flat-out trolled Derek and said that such a community might have, well, a manifesto, that would be made clear to those who wanted to join it. Some ground rules. This is a community not about pens, or not about discussing what the good things on the web are. This is a community that is organized around how we do things together and how we can support each other. Derek remembered that Flickr groups used to have this functionality, like a community-defined click-through that you’d have to accept before you joined a group. It was probably *mostly* used as a description (“You are about to join a community that posts pictures of red pens, click agree to join the community”) but *could* and perhaps was *intended* to be a place where moderators and group owners could post, well, ground rules. Like: “Hey, don’t be a dick,” or “For fuck’s sake, you’re talking to other people and women are people too you misogynistic fuck”.

No, better than a manifesto, I said, pushing a bit further. You’d almost have to make a declaration[2]. Make it really clear what this community is about, what it stands for in terms of interactions with people *irrespective* of what they’re talking about.

Derek’s eyes went a bit wide at that, because he could tell what I was implying and it’s hard to say even the word declaration to an American without them instantly feeling like they need to stand to attention.

So. In reader James Aylett’s interpretation (which is broadly correct), we’re talking about some sort of global community that’s network-based, designed to expressly provide the structure and support for probably non-local, probably-distributed groupings of people who have broad ideological alignment and broad alignment of actions and interests. (I changed the order of some things in there, James)

A community designed to, say, support and let a thousand, million Detroit water projects bloom and then to fix the problem that led to those projects needing to exist in the first place because it believes in compassion and equity, for example. That when we have the means, we have collective responsibility to help each other up.

This has happened before.  Not the non-local bit, though.

Not the bit about how you iterate, adding what the network does best.

Not like others have tried, by adding phrases like peer to peer or distributed ledgers.

Not a civilization of Mind in Cyberspace[3], but a civilization of people, built *with* cyberspace.

No. More like this:

We hold these truths to be self evident…

[0] ‎
[1] Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, on how meditation made him a better historian – Vox
[2] Go back and finish the rest before you come to this footnote, it’s better this way, honest [x]
[3] A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace | Electronic Frontier Foundation

[x] Of course, this is a thinly veiled allusion to the Declaration of Independence, which occasional co-conspirator Mr. Borenstein reminded in *this* case is more of a Declaration of *Dependence* (he has graciously allowed me to use this description). To the question as to what is being declared *from*, and the answer being “an increasingly hostile environment toward collective responsibility, civic values and egalitarianism”, Mr. Borenstein pointed out that most cults that move out of society aren’t famous for their positive takes on those attitudes and values. This is the most distressing thing about what is happening at the moment in America, precisely because America’s declaration of independence is one of the best efforts so far at including and striving for those values.

And no, this isn’t a replacement for a state, or a new state, even. At least, I don’t think so. But more like: if you want to show how a new way of doing things is better, or even if you want to show why *a* way of doing things is better, the best way is to go and do it.

More soon, I expect.

Send me angry, outraged notes about how you were totally fine with receiving random thoughts from me before but now I’ve crossed a line. Or just say hi. Or, “oh, that sound interesting. What about this?”



s4e07: News and Religion 

0.0 Station Ident

Friday, March 17, 2017.

I just spent some time with a number of internet people talking and thinking about, well, digital stuff that doesn’t exist that could exist that would be *helpful* given the current… situation. And while I’ve been thinking about this for a while, I’ve been reluctant to write anything about public about it, but who the hell cares, really.

Otherwise, I’ve been having a difficult time, lately. But hey, I think I give myself points for presenting as high-functioning. And for everyone else who is having a difficult time: hey, you look pretty high functioning too.

1.0 News

With a few years worth of introspection and paying attention to what I think about and how I think about things, I’ve realized that I pull on threads and inevitably small problems become big problems that turn out to be systemic problems and I then propose a systemic solution. Hopefully, that systemic solution can be broken down into a number of things that can be done either one-by-one or in parallel, but I think the main idea is this: to fix *this* thing, we’re going to have to jiggle and fix *all* of these other things.

This is just to set you up so I can naively tell you my opinions and thoughts about news, the role that it plays in culture and society at the moment and come up with a few things that don’t exist now, that would be interesting to exist and might also solve some civic, societal and news-industry-business-related problems.

First, let’s count some additional ways in which the internet broke news – and by news, I mean the news environment that existed in the 80s and 90s: a small number of gatekeepered sources due to the cost of distribution, either by paper or different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

I think that the internet additionally broke news – outside of distribution – by disaggregating and unbundling in a really fundamental way. Before the internet, before distribution costs hit where they are right now, *news* was a product. There weren’t really smaller *bits* of news that you could get. You paid for the newspaper, or you watched the broadcast. The cheaper stuff – newspapers instead of special interest magazines – were the things that thrived.

Now, it feels like people are less interested in news-as-a-singular-product (ie: a thing that I get from the New York Times or, in a way that gives me such a tremendous sense of delight, Teen Vogue) than they are interested in *issues*.

This might be blindingly obvious to some of you or people whose actual jobs are in media and journalism and the business part in-between, but I caveat all of this with the reminder that I’m just a person thinking about shit out loud. So there. And hey, *you* decided to subscribe to my thoughts-written-down.

In that: these days, would it be true to say that people care more about *their job security* than *being informed about the world from the perspective of a newsgathering organization like CBS or The Washington Post*? Or that, for some other reason, people *now* have to care more about their job security, or womens’ reproductive rights, or immigration policy, or racial profiing, than they’ve had to before? Obviously for some of the issues I’ve listed (especially racial issues in America), people have had to care about those issues for a distressingly long period of time.

At this point I’d expect someone to say something like: But Dan, This Is Why The Future Of News Is Local! To which I’d answer – aha, no. You missed my point. Because this is 2017 and Dan has been completely and utterly infected with the Cult Of User Needs, and The Future Of News Being Local is just but a lens that biases towards certain needs in certain ways.

I’ve talked to some people about this. The rough theory is: Fox News does well because it does two things:

a) acknowleges (and arguably, creates) emotional needs (I feel unsafe)
b) provides an opinionated outlet as to what to *do* about those needs (vote GOP)

Neither of these things have anything to do, necessarily, with “being informed about the world so that you can make the best decisions for yourself” which is what I (roughly) see “the news” as having positioned itself during my life.

The Times (any country) and The Guardian and The Washington Post have inherited a worldview and business model that, yes, is the “neutral point of view” model. This model *doesn’t do anything* for addressing what appear to be urgent, unmet needs of their potential audience. If “the news” didn’t have the job of “providing factual verified information about the world that helps you live in it”, then what would, or could, it do?

The model that I’ve been playing with in my head is imagining people who’re more interested in being informed about, say, women’s reproductive rights *and* doing something about women’s reproductive rights because women’s reproductive rights are something that directly affect them. Or that there are people who genuinely care about economic policy to the extent that they want economic policy that will help them because they live in an area that is economically devastated with life-and-livelihood-threatening implications.

If I were to imagine myself in an Appalachian coal-mining town, what good does just *reading* about economic policy or being informed about it via the New York Times do for me? Does subscribing to The New York Times help me *feel* like I’m in control, by offering me something to do? Does it provide me with options for action? Not really.

The shitty way of talking about this that would be the kind of thing that you’d hear in an SXSW panel would be saying: what’s the call-to-action for each piece of journalism? Which is a shitty thing *because* it thinks about things from the news publishing organization’s point of view and doesn’t offer anything to the reader.

The reader doesn’t give a shit about news. The reader wants their job back, or the reader wants the *prospect* of jobs back.

(Yes, I know. All of this is stupendously patronizing. I am sorry.)

The more enterprising news publishers might spy an opportunity to target and sell job ads against stories about economically devastated areas, but that’s totally missing the point, from my point of view.

No, the real opportunity is to combine issue and action that actually delivers against the need. If you look at things this way, news is just a bystander, or just something that gets roped in to *do* something. What is it that news is supposed to help get *done*?

In this way, you’d unbundle everything that The Washington Post publishes and map each of the user needs that each desk potentially helps meet and then you’d throw away the *news* part of it and then sit down and try to figure out what’s the product or service that would *meet* that underlying need. And then you have nothing to do with news anymore, because the news is just a means to an end.

Take women’s reproductive rights. This is an issue I care about. I know what the end goal is: to preserve the right for women to choose the care that they want and need, including an abortion. I understand that right now, that ultimate right is under assault, in various different ways, in various different places. I might care about that right being under assault *where I am* because the best, most affordable place where I can get the care I want is Planned Parenthood, and I don’t want it to go away.

There isn’t – I don’t think – a thing that I can go to that aggregates and summarizes the current state of play of the issue that *I* care about – and only that issue – as well as making clear to me what’s happening to it. That non-existant place also doesn’t tell me what I can do to support the issue. Who can I call? Where should I go? Should I donate? Is there someone I need to vote for, or against?

The threat of all of this is to say that the inevitable monster is a whole bunch of single-issue voters but I’d hope that we’re in a place now where we realize that people are complicated and can show that intersectionality is actually a thing, and not a made-up thing.

I see bits of this. Buzzfeed understand the value, I think, of aligning around issues and they’ve got more-discoverable verticals, I think. Teen Vogue does this, I think, in terms of its entire editorial stance and positioning.

But Buzzfeed draws the line at activism and campaigning. Why? Do we have to stop there?

What does a product about meeting employment needs in a depressed area look like? What does it look like if it tries to explain (1) *reasons* why employment opportunities are depressed as well as (2) offer *actions* and solutions*? What might those actions and solutions even be? And for the (1) part – explaining the reasons, what type of reporting and journalism does that look like? For the (2) part, what type of products, services, civic and societal actions might address the need?

Now, something else, more thinking out loud about how some of these needs-that-are-only-somewhat-served-by-news might be more fully met.

There is an aside here where I think about the Detroit Water Project which was an ingenious discovery of a need (people not having access to water because Jesus Christ What The Fuck) and meeting that need (if we tell people about this on the internet, then anyone from anywhere can help pay) combined with relatively *technically simple* implementation. “Moving money around on the internet” is not a hard thing to do these days. Figuring out what we can apply it to is genuinely transformative.

In a meeting today, we were talking about the role that churches play, and/or used to play. They form around (local) community. They provide a way for a group to help individuals when individuals need help – and yes, for the snarky, not just by praying for them. By helping to run food banks, and by raising and donating money to, say, cover medical costs.

Unions used to help meet local employment needs. They’re not really around as much anymore, and some of them arguably have lost their way in what they’re trying to accomplish – what need they’re meeting – and how best to meet it. OK, fine, there’s disagreement and room for interpretation in implementation.

Unions and churches were historically organized locally because we didn’t have a choice. The internet collapsed distance. GoFundMe removed two things: the geographical and religious requirement for a collective to form for mutual support and to collectively provide assistance in meeting individual needs. Churches, though – local server nodes plugged into a worldwide network – have been doing this for ages and have evolved a whole bunch of patterns and rituals and hacks into our cognitive architecture that reinforce and help them meet some of these needs. They employ shame and repetition, for example: shame when you don’t turn up to service or you don’t help out with the food bank, and repetition through having to turn up every worship day.

What do unions and churches look like when we remove the requirement for locality? What do non-local churches look like, just organized by affinity group? Some of this has *already* started to happen: online, non-geographic communities *spontaneously* organize and step up to help individual members in need but we haven’t yet developed repeatable digital infrastructure to support online community.

And I know there’s those of you reading this right now who will look me in the eye next time you see me and place a hand on my shoulder and say: Dan. We knew this about online community back then. We wrote the book on it. They never listened to us.

Well, maybe it’s time that we tried again.

People would joke about a church of Metafilter. But… what would a Church of Metafilter need? It has rituals. It has a space. GoFundMe doesn’t necessarily create *repeatable* communities because they’re task-based.

There are those of you out there who know what it takes and know what patterns, what designs and what software would reinforce sustainable, long-term affinity-based community. You know – we know – that the value in those communities has *always* been down to human moderation. That the cost has always been paying for and accurately valuing the human and time cost in *running* those communities.

Churches provide a place for a minister to live to tend to their flock.

Congregations contribute to helping their minister have what they need for a living.

Maybe none of our online communities work because we tried to turn them into businesses. I mean, we don’t have to say maybe. We know they didn’t. But there are some of us who *have* known these kinds of online community that I’m talking about. And those communities were amazing and we made lifelong friends, and met partners.

And yes, part of this perspective is that these communities would be non-local, that they wouldn’t directly foster ties between people who are physically neighbors. So? And? None of this has to be binary.


Who wants to found a religionless-religion, where we all worship at the IP packet?

2.0 Other Things That Caught My Attention

My We The People stickers[0] arrived today. I have a new laptop, and I’ve been waiting to put something on it. But these stickers – these are the ones where if I put them on my laptop, I worry that they will cause or contribute to extra screening whenever I go through security or have a law-enforcement interaction.

Which is heartbreaking.

I have TSA Pre/Global Entry and because of that – and, I think, because I look Asian and talk with a British accent – pretty much all of my TSA and airport security interactions in domestic America are relatively respectful and pain-free.

Putting a sticker like this on – with the discretion that TSA and CBP have, feels like choosing to score an own-goal.

My second thought, of course, is that it will be amusing if Nike aren’t careful and ally themselves *too* closely with any sort of resistance movement, and in a similar way, corporate *branding* and having a swoosh on you will cause you to be singled out.

I guess that’s for next month.

[0] We the People » The Amplifier Foundation

That’s that. Have a good weekend, everyone. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I worked out a bunch of stuff through this. As ever, send me a note, even just to say hi.



s4e06: Criticality 

0.0 Station Ident

Wednesday, 15 March 2017 and a break from the usual newsletter programming and a continuation of s4e01: umbra[0]. What better way to deal with stress and anxiety by trying to do a little creative writing.

[0] s4e01: umbra

Have a good day, everyone. We’re halfway through the week and I’m down in Sacramento for the day in the name of hard work toward inexorable, patient progress. As ever, send me notes. See you on the other side.

2.0 Criticality

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

umbra’s had me out at MPK 16 for the past two weeks on a spike and I’m not sure when I’m going back.

Late one Thursday afternoon Karla and Dan stopped by at my desk and asked me to come to Four, one of the conference rooms upstairs and Amy was there to do the NDA dance before anyone would talk.

This is the NDA dance, and it’s always been this way: first, an NDA to let me in on the spike codename (Rorschach), a second to tell me who the client is (Facebook – my third time with them now) and a third so that we could stop silently smiling at each other and start talking about whatever it is I’m going to be doing for the next few weeks. Rumor is that we borrowed the NDA dance from Apple; anyone who’s inclined to spend the time or paid attention will see that our lawyers have drifted back and forth between jobs at both companies.

Anyway. Rorschach. This is what Karla said:

“Mark’s pissed.”

I raised my eyebrows. In situations like this, it’s easier to stay quiet and wait to see what happens. Karla in particular likes to see good use of non-verbal communication cues, and it helps that umbra’s founders are also the kind of people who are both very smart and like to hear themselves talk.

“About the news thing,” added Dan.

“The news thing,” I said.

Mark, I’ve learned, is pissed about lots of things but you wouldn’t know it from the degree to which he communicates so earnestly with the rest of the world. This is, of course, because he isn’t the one who is communicating so earnestly with the outside world. He has a whole bunch of people to do that, and some of them are even the best Chinese Rooms you can buy. But when you’re in a meeting with him and you’re showing him something and he doesn’t like it and he’s… frustrated at the stunning lack of power he has over the nearly two billion people who use his company’s product every day then I suppose yes: you would say that he’s pissed. It appears that he’s pissed about all the criticism he’s getting about Facebook being a platform that’s really good at spreading things that aren’t necessarily true.

No wonder this is an opportunity for umbra.

“The news thing,” says Karla. “I mean, the graph is doing exactly what we’d expect it to do given the shit that’s being fed into it. Bunch of dumb nodes doing dumb processing and a finite amount of operations you can do on it, what does he fucking expect.”

“A lot of shit is being fed into it,” I agree. “What’s the pitch?”

Karla leans back as Dan stands up. Dan’s turn, then. He stands up in the way that a control room’s atmosphere changes when a reactor reaches criticality. Something serious is going to happen, it might involve an explosion and at the end of it, the meeting will be over and I’ll know what I’m supposed to be doing. It’ll probably involve spending the next few weeks in Menlo Park. And then it blows.

“They’re wasting their time with all this Yann LeCun stuff. I mean, we know it’s  bunch of wank because they’ve told us it’s a bunch of wank. Whoopty-fucking-do, now we’re better at putting blue boxes around protestors and police officers and categorizing intent based on stance. No ROI and  on top of that, some fuckwit chooses that fucking Black Lives Matter photo for the public blog post. Bunch of amateurs succeeding in spite of themselves.”

“But,” prompts Karla.

“But,” he grins, “it’s not garbage, is it. I mean, the stuff that spreads isn’t garbage. They call the stuff that spreads a virus. Agency clients come to us for the drip-feed of what the next adaptation might be so they can stay one step ahead of their useless game for attention. It’s not even a good virus. It’s the most successful, least-dumb virus.”

“It’s a training set,” I say, taking a calculated risk to guess where he’s going given the way that he’s trash-talking Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence group.

Dan smiles, which means I will probably get an unreasonable bonus this month. The instant reaction I have to this is not outweighed by how my bank account will feel about the unreasonable bonus and, somewhere in my head, something pushes closer toward a different kind of criticality.

“A training set. Something interesting for their new nVidia toys to dream about. You’re going down to campus, you’re getting one of LeCun’s teams, time on the new clusters and you’re going to tell Mark and us what we can do with dreams straight from the feed.”

It’s simple, really. Train a stupendously giant neural network, based on the kind of thing that can beat a human Go player, all the most successful things that get shared on Facebook. Probably prioritize image macros first. Run it backwards to see what it thinks makes an image macro spread. Take the image macros it makes and seed those onto the feed and do the equivalent of hitting the network with a stick until it starts making image macros that beat the performance of the training images.

The technical work of applying post-human pattern recognition to the biggest set of culture that takes advantage of our brain architecture took less time than it took to persuade the Facebook team that this was worth doing.

It took marginally more time for umbra to set up the plausibly-deniable fake news sites that would be the sources of seeded network-generated content. And then we just hooked it all up together. We knew it worked because Mark shared one of the things in our meeting and looked guilty about it.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past two weeks.

Well. That’s not all I’ve been doing.

I think the thing inside me that was going critical, went critical.

There’s another network, running on the side. Same training data.

It’s trying to make a vaccine.

s4e05: I’m OK 

0.0 Station Ident

5:08pm on Wednesday, March 1, 2017. I am in San Francisco. I am not here for GDC, the Game Developers Conference. I used to come here for the Game Developers Conference and I haven’t been in a long time, and now I’m here and it’s by *accident*. I have not yet had time to see any of my friends (hi, friends!) who are here in town for industry shenanigans.

Instead, I’m here working on a project that I’m too tired to even come up with a SPECIAL CODENAME for that will impress you all, but the other thing that I’ve done is I have managed to finish A DIFFERENT THING that should fix SOME OTHER THING in mysterious, behind-the-curtain ways. SPECIAL CODENAME is also pretty interesting because it’s the first step in a BIG PLAN TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD.

It turns out that all you need to do is write things and treat them like SPECIAL CODENAME and then they start behaving just like SPECIAL CODENAME. I mean, even *I’m* impressed now (for small, low, easily satisfied values of “impressed” of course”).

1.0 I’m OK

So thanks to the stunning success of my accidental newsletter (subject: “you can'”), you can sign up for “I can”, an occasional letter of gentle affirmations.

For this, I’ll even break my rule of putting links in footnotes and make you a link:

Like this newsletter, I guess the point of “I can” is as much for me as it might be for you. Just writing them out should be helpful.

2.0 Grab Bag

It’s Monday, March 6, 2017 now. A DIFFERENT THING continues to be in progress, meanwhile SPECIAL CODENAME was finished, and those of you who’ve been paying attention might have figured out what SPECIAL CODENAME was in the meantime.

Some things:

First, via Twitter, Netflix is going to “trial technology that hands control to viewers”, which is an amusing way of missing the lede that Netflix is in the position it’s in right now precisely because as a video-on-demand platform, it *handed control to viewers*. No, that type of control isn’t enough! In a sort of all-computer-programs-eventually-read-email, apparently all TV producers and TV networks eventually decide that they need to figure out, Once And For All, how to properly implement branching narratives so they can be “interactive narratives”. The original source I had for this was The Daily Mail, but I’m not cruel and I don’t want to encourage them, so I’m going to link you to the USA Today coverage (marginally better, I suppose?) instead[0].

The announcement was made at Mobile World Congress, which at some point might just drop the Mobile from its name and just say World Congress because later generations will scratch their heads and wonder what Mobile means exactly.

The short of this is that branching narratives in media like television have historically turned out to be a) not very compelling to viewers (there’s a whole bunch (ie decades) of inertia in the medium of television/film/video being, well, linear), b) difficult to produce (think: first your job was to conceive of, script, produce and then edit *one* compelling linear narrative. Now you have to do n linear narratives and ideally *all* of them should be fulfilling – ie don’t do one “proper” ending and then a whole bunch of filler endings. In general, your audience is not dumb and won’t take that shit from you) c) expensive for little payoff (see (b)).

There are, it turns out, other ways of making interactive narratives. Arguably, one of the whole point about a narrative is that it’s linear in the first place! Anyway, perhaps we should try to solve this problem in text first (see: Bioware and others) before trying to solve it in one of the most expensive creative media ever conceived.

Maybe – just maybe – there’s a way of making this work. Other (good) people have tried and failed. So, I suppose I’m not entirely pouring cold water on it? I’m just skeptical that it’s a) a good idea, b) sustainable, c) other things, and that maybe Netflix should concentrate on the things that it’s already good at. Of course, this could *also* be an amusing strategic fakeout to get, I dunno, Amazon or HBO to spin into trying to do interactive telvision with branching narrative in order to compete with Netflix, who behind the scenes know that this is a fool’s errand.

I noted on Twitter, somewhat sarcastically, that Netflix’s greatest contribution to the medium of television (aside from letting the viewer choose what to watch), has been the implementation of next-episode-autoplay, which is about as far as you can get from “branching narrative” as you can get.

Second, Adrianne Jeffries wrote on The Outline about Google’s Featured Snippets, those one-box type answers that you get when “Google” “thinks” it can answer a search query. Sometimes those snippets are a) useful and b) easy to verify, like “when is mother’s day”[2], and sometimes they are an absolute tire fire, like “is Obama planning martial law”[3] which has since been updated to answer that no, he isn’t, and instead has a link to a news story about how Google used to say that *someone else* was saying yes, Obama was planning martial law.

This is what happens when the world gets to explore in the Valley’s murky grey area of “done is better than perfect”. On the one hand, many people now agree that a thing that exists is better than a thing that does not exist because it is attempting to be perfect. That is what the statement is about. It is about things like: you know, maybe Gmail being in beta (and sometimes falling over) is OK than Gmail not existing at all.

But! Clearly now we have “are false answers, quickly provided, assumed as authoritative, in an attempt to quickly provide access to information better than no answers at all”? And the answer is: lots of us, I think, in general, would prefer to have no false answers from an authoritative source.

This is what I imagined happened at Google: someone had the idea that hey, what if the search box didn’t just return links to web pages, but if it provided the actual *answer* to a query? And someone else said: yeah, okay, that sounds reasonable. And reasonably, they started out with things that could be found and, to a certain extent, verified, using the Knowledge Graph[4], a sort of semantic search. The useful thing to know here is that knowledge graph is one of the components that a bunch of people used to think was a pre-requisite for having a Turing-passing artificial intelligence. You’d need to ask an AI what colour the sky was, and the AI would need to “know” that the sky is blue. One attempt at doing this was/is a project called Cyc (as in Encyclopaedia) that a bunch of nerds like me like to check in now and then because it’s a very laborious, ground-up attempt for humans to document what “common sense” is[5].

Anyway. This is sort of doable for some things but as Jeffries’ article points out, is much harder to do for, well, harder things? That are harder to verify? Which leads me inevitably to The Hubris Of Silicon Valley.

It’s one thing of course for a search engine to answer someone’s query about, I don’t know, how many days there are in a year, it’s another for a search engine to authoritatively answer about other things in the world like, oh, I don’t know, “is Obama planning a coup”. The holes here are:

a) “organizing the world’s information” is a position like a) information is just information, it doesn’t have to be “true”, verifiable information, which is fair enough, but also more cynically, b) “Google is a search engine that organizes and provides access to the world’s information but makes no representations as to the veracity of any such linked information” which is what a lawyer would say these days to minimize liability and responsibility

b) truth is hard (let’s go coding and fix healthcare instead);

c) seriously though, Google’s responsibility only ends at providing a *link* to information and, er, links don’t constitute endorsement

Only *of course they do* because of their placement and because of what little we know about the architecture of our brains, inherited trust and because of how information is presented.

OK but! What if we’re just moving fast and breaking things! Clearly Google’s *intent* is that it would *prefer* to provide verified information. So for the moment, let’s provide *unverified* information that is picked based upon criteria that are useless for evaluting *veracity* for the answers to certain questions (at a base level: are things linking to other things), and let *humans* do what humans are good at, and have the humans report that the information we are preferentially highlighting is false.

The problem here of course is the labour asymmetry and the externalisation of results. *Probably* no, or a minimum (n < 100?) humans are involved in checking the answers to some of Google’s snippets before they go live. I suspect they are algorithmically determined, with minimal review. The burden for review falls upon the uncompensated users of the system: it is in the users’ interest (but not Google’s?) that the information provided is correct. There’s a difference in automatic, passive labor being involved in improving the information that Google provides (ie: the assumption that search results that are clicked on are ‘better’ and their trust improves’), but that goes out the window when a bad result is prioritized and shown to users. *Then* the review process is active and requires us as users to manually flag stuff. The steps to provide feedback on a Snippet are:

– click “Feedback”
– pick an option (This is helpful, Something is missing, Something is wrong, This isn’t useful)
– and a text field for any other constructive comments or abuse you’d like to hurl)

This is clearly Too Much Work to expect people to do, but the burden falls on people who, I don’t know, don’t like the fact that Google is/was automatically prioritizing a result that said – with Google’s implied backing – that yes, Obama was/is planning a coup.

“Ship it then fix it” as an attitude rapidly (and rightly) coming under more examination as the implications of *one* single platform making (unverified) representations about the world become clearer. For some people, those implications were super clear *before* they happened. I guess we’ll see what happens next.

[0] Report: Netflix wants you to choose alternative endings (warning: linear video about branching narratives).
[1] Google’s featured snippets are worse than fake news | The Outline
[2] when is mother’s day – Google Search
[3] is obama planning martial law – Google Search
[4] Knowledge Graph – Wikipedia
[5] ‎

OK, it’s 9:56am now and I have stuff to do. Have a good week and send notes or replies – I do like to get them.