2017 Wrapup: Top Reads

I’ve been curating my social media, as I do at the end of every year. By “curating” I mostly mean “deleting annoying rants” but also a whole lot of stuff that was timely when posted but irrelevant a week later. As I re-read things, some of them stand out, and are worth calling attention to. Mostly not the very elaborate and technical items, but the ones that go a long way to stating things in a way that most people will understand without deep knowledge of the subject matter.

In no particular order, the top 13 things I’ve read this year. Or at least the top ones I have found convenient links to. They’ve hit me for various reasons, some professional, some personal, some otherwise.

The Problem With the March for Science

Being “pro-science” has become a bizarre cultural phenomenon in which liberals (and other members of the cultural elite) engage in public displays of self-reckoned intelligence as a kind of performance art, while demonstrating zero evidence to justify it. On any given day, many of my most “woke” friends are quick to post and retweet viral content about the latest on what Science (and I’m capitalizing this on purpose) “says,” or what some studies “prove.” But on closer look, much of what gets shared and bandied about is sheer bullshit and is diagnostic of one thing only: The state of science (and science literacy) in this country, and most of the planet for that matter, is woefully bad.

This article addresses a lot of the reasons I find myself increasingly alienated from the skeptic and sometimes the scientific communities. Either they’re punching at incredibly obvious long-standing pseudo-scientific bullshit like homeopathy, or they’re worshiping aging “leaders” who haven’t had anything new to say for years and who in some cases need to be questioned themselves. Sorry, I have zero interest in ever hearing from Randi or Dawkins again. Nothing against them, they’ve done their part. But if we’re truly scientists and skeptics, maybe it’s time to shut down our own temples to heroes whose victories are rarely relevant to the state of the world today. There are plenty of things for us to question. What Feynman called “cargo cult science” does nobody any good.


In an age of robots, schools are teaching our children to be redundant

Our schools were designed to produce the workforce required by 19th-century factories. The desired product was workers who would sit silently at their benches all day, behaving identically, to produce identical products, submitting to punishment if they failed to achieve the requisite standards. Collaboration and critical thinking were just what the factory owners wished to discourage.

When they are allowed to apply their natural creativity and curiosity, children love learning. They learn to walk, to talk, to eat and to play spontaneously, by watching and experimenting. Then they get to school, and we suppress this instinct by sitting them down, force-feeding them with inert facts and testing the life out of them.

I read a piece recently in which the mayor of a small rural town spoke of what his workforce had to offer. These farm-raised kids, he said, would “get up, dress up, show up and never give up.” They are the products of our current educational establishment. And they have less and less to offer every year. When it comes to the first three items, robots do it better. As to the fourth, we now live in a world in which trying something, seeing if it works, and moving on if it doesn’t, has become the necessary norm. Never give up? How about “try something, fail fast and move on.” Our industrial-era schools don’t teach that one.


One of the most common questions in American small talk is considered rude in much of the world

“They will be offended, believing you’re trying to put them into a box,” Barlow, a French-Canadian, tells Quartz. “And they just don’t think it’s interesting to work for a living. There are other things they’d much rather talk about.”

To the French, she explains, conversations are for exchanging points of view, not finding things in common, the goal of conversation for North Americans.

What you do every day is far, far less interesting to me than your opinions or observations about events or new developments in the field that might be a mutual interest or concern. Your thoughts about such things will tell a whole lot more about you than the standard transactional “what do you do, what can you offer and what do you need right now” that is the de-facto starting point of too much conversation. It’s not unusual that the interesting thing you have to tell me is something you learned about at work. But I’m interested in what I can learn and what I can add to the discussion, not “what do you do?”


Productivity is Dangerous

… Every morning, I get messages asking me to click through to articles like “How I Optimized My Morning Routine To Get More Done Than ever — before 8 a.m.!” The people posting links like this have a sickness, and we need to stop it before it gets out of hand. Of course, if you actually click through to this trash, it’s a bit shocking to see what they actually do. Some guy is proud that he set aside his social life so that he could unleash four extremely psychologically damaging apps on the world by the age of 30. Or it’s like, “Congratulate Lisa on her new job as advertising director for Nestlé in Africa.”

Here’s a productivity idea: Just, fucking, don’t make shitty apps, or do advertising for Nestlé, or really for anything. I often see shit like, “Ten Habits I Have QUIT to Get More Done,” and I think, “Maybe quit writing posts like this.” If you’re waking up at 4 a.m. to write 1,000 words about how you write 1,000 words every day, what are you actually getting done? Just stay in bed. Whenever I am back in the Protestant centers of modern capitalism (New York or London, basically), it’s especially jarring to remember what it feels like to treat being busy as if it were a virtue.

In the same vein, I loved this tongue-in-cheek take on our obsession with work, business and productivity, often the exclusion of all else. Not that there’s anything wrong with being productive, but killing yourself to be perpetually busy on things that don’t matter isn’t going to make your life or anybody else’s any better. Prioritization is key, not busy-ness.

Oh, and Julia Galef nailed this one perfectly just today.


Dave Lee at SXSW: AI should help us do less, not more

Today, asking Siri to “handle my calls” prompts it to bring up a call history. Perhaps instead it should be able to intercept my incoming calls, ask the caller if it’s urgent, and only then disturb me if needed.

Sadly, it’s not in any tech firm’s interests to lessen the amount of time you spend interacting with your technology – so progress in this area may be slow. But as I take on the corridors of SXSW this week, I’ll be cheering on any company that wants to genuinely make my life easier.

So far, AI is mostly used to try to interrupt you more effectively, but not to reduce the clutter of the interruptions that cause you to shut them all off. It would be nice to see an AI that is sensitive to the fact that context is everything and “more” does not necessarily translate into “better.”


America Made Me a Feminist

I used to think the word “feminist” reeked of insecurity. A woman who needed to state that she was equal to a man might as well be shouting that she was smart or brave. If you were, you wouldn’t need to say it. I thought this because back then, I was a Swedish woman.

When I was young we moved to a different country. One that was led by a woman who — shortly after my arrival — had to lead the country through a major and nearly-catastrophic war, while her “hero” defense minister was discussing surrender on the second day. Golda and the many like her who surrounded me even in grade school — where lots of girls would happily kick your ass if you deserved it — set the tone for my understanding of the relationship between the sexes. I will confess it was not easy, but I’m better for it. It was far closer to the “Sweden” model that Porizkova mentions than what I encounter in the 21st century United States.


Carmageddon is Coming

This is the real kicker: we don’t have to wait for people to get rid of their old cars; one morning, they’ll sit down and do their monthly budget, and realise it makes more sense to hail an autonomous, electric vehicle. Given a choice, people will select the cheaper option. And that option will not include ownership.

Sure, by 2030 most of the world’s stock of 1.1 billion vehicles will still be petrol powered, but they’ll just sit in the driveway gathering dirt, perhaps taken out for a pleasure spin on the weekends, or used for specialized tasks like hauling logs or moving furniture.

I often find myself thinking that my current, eight year-old car may very well be the last I own. At my current rate of use it’ll easily last another 10 years, and possibly longer. My need for regular drives far from town has declined as I’ve dropped certain outdoor activities that have been ruined to me by resortification of everything outdoors. I don’t know that I’ll sell it, but given the availability of pay-by-the-mile insurance and the low cost of hanging on to it otherwise, I may have it around until it literally falls apart. I’m using it for less and less of my regular transportation and that trend is likely to continue.

This is another I liked on the same topic.


Cassini: The dying of the light

It’s commonly said that funerals are for the living, not the dead. If this is a funeral for Cassini, what consolation does it afford us? The end of a successful mission demands answers to the question: What now? What of the people who worked on the mission? What holes are left behind? What are we doing next?

I spent the last night of Cassini’s mission in a hotel lobby in Christchurch, NZ. I was with a bunch of people who were going to leave for McMurdo Station and other Antarctic outposts the next morning. While my NZ trip was not much of a success, it was fun spending the last minutes of that mission watching the live webcast with a group of scientific minds. We wrapped it all by walking outside, where we could see Saturn overhead, to drink a toast.


The Gell-Mann Amnesia effect

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read.


[Hat tip to Julia Galef for highlighting this older bit of wisdom.]


Software 2.0

Software 2.0 is written in neural network weights. No human is involved in writing this code because there are a lot of weights (typical networks might have millions), and coding directly in weights is kind of hard (I tried). Instead, we specify some constraints on the behavior of a desirable program (e.g., a dataset of input output pairs of examples) and use the computational resources at our disposal to search the program space for a program that satisfies the constraints.

This explains why the coming generation of solutions is so wildly different from the ones we’ve built in the past and why it’s so hard for us to definitively limit how they work or what they will do and decide. Letting the (past) data dictate future decisions is both revolutionary and highly problematic. As this article — which almost made my top 10 — explains in greater detail. Also read links from that piece.

Read this one too, as it addressed both how this software is used, and how we can be led to bad conclusions: Anatomy of a Moral Panic.


The Patterns of Mesuta, Texas

This was a dead place; A forgotten place whose infinite prominence was once assured forever by geography, then ripped away by technology.

A twitter thread short story by @SwiftOnSecurity


What’s Causing the Retail Meltdown of 2017?

There is no question that the most significant trend affecting brick-and-mortar stores is the relentless march of Amazon and other online retail companies. But the recent meltdown for retail brands is equally about the legacy of the Great Recession, which punished logo-driven brands, put a premium on experiences (particularly those that translate into social media moments), and unleashed a surprising golden age for restaurants.

This one almost didn’t make it in, but today’s reports that there will be at least 8,600 major chain-store closings this year, more than in 2008 at the height of the great recession — put it back into the running and pushed my “top 10” to what is now a “top 13.” I’ve followed this business for a while and even commented on it earlier this year when I critiqued my friend Vitaliy’s assertion that it has little to do with Amazon. I suspect that even as the economy improves, this situation will continue to fester. Those pieces of retail that have to do with large physical purchases (cars, appliances) will continue to do OK. Restaurants and other entertainment that is categorized as “retail” in some statistics will also do well. But malls, major shopping corridors and the stores that inhabit them will be in trouble unless they’re able to pivot towards entertainment/recreation and away from people purchasing physical items. Some areas are more suited to that change than others. As Slate notes, the suburbs will be hit hardest. Cities have already been through this years ago.

I think there’s likely to be another crisis here that is even larger. The collapse of those types of retail establishment, along with other forces in the economy are really going to put the screws to the “entry level,” “part time,” “student” and “second job” economy. It’s going to get even tougher for those trying to start our, start over, or make a few extra dollars. This could very well be the economic backdrop of the next several election cycles.


The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.

Admitting you’re lonely feels very much like admitting you’re a loser. Psychiatry has worked hard to de-stigmatize things like depression, and to a large part it has been successful. People are comfortable saying they’re depressed. But they’re not comfortable saying they’re lonely, because you’re the kid sitting alone in the cafeteria.

I sometimes resemble this. Need to work more on resembling it less.