February 12, 2018

Interesting Things on the Internet: February 12th 2018

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February 08, 2018

Reductio Ad Spreadsheet

Matt Ward has written a great piece about spreadsheets (no, really!).

"Relationships between staff, moments of educational joy, transformative learning experiences, where buried under numeric representation. The performance of the software hid the nuance of the experience, which ultimately made it more difficult for me to think about new possibilities. I found myself ever more adept in my new realism, but evermore disconnected to the future I was aiming to produce."

I wonder if spreadsheets have driven the mania for reducing all of life to numbers. This is most visible when the numbers equate to money, when all artistic output is judged solely on "value for money" or "ROI", but is also endemic in business support's desire for surveys and the like which reduce all work to a count of businesses, or employees, or thousands of pounds of investment raised.

As ever, we need better tools, rather than to force more and more of life into terms that digital computers understand.

That's not to say spreadsheets aren't useful tools. They are, but the reduction-of-life-to-a-simple-number is a seductive draw.

I think I properly embraced spreadsheets as a tool when we ditched Microsoft Project and started using Excel for project planning when I was at STNC. At least that was partly in response to the understanding that project plans are permanently incomplete pictures of what you'd like to happen, and so tools to let you edit quickly and get a good-enough feel for the shape and realism of dates/work are far better than ones that encourage you to obsess endlessly for the perfect Gantt chart. That doesn't ever stop your boss asking for an exact deadline date, mind... maybe that's the pressure point to poke at?

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January 22, 2018

Interesting Things on the Internet: January 22nd 2018

  • Google Memory Loss. Seems Google's mission to organise the world's information should have the caveat "where information is defined as things we can monetize". Who could've guessed. Still, a decent argument for joining me in switching to Duck Duck Go as your search engine.
  • The Strange Brands in Your Instagram Feed. Lowering the barriers to global supply chains is good, but also makes it easier for a billion get-rich-quick chancers to join in too.
  • Beyond the Rhetoric of Algorithmic Solutionism. "in a zero-sum context, that means that the resources to do something about the information that is learned is siphoned off to the technology. And, worse, because the technology is supposed to save money, there is no budget for using that data to actually help people. Instead, technology becomes a mirage. Not because the technology is inherently bad, but because of how it is deployed and used."
  • The Last Chance Saloon. Good, if concerning, questions about whether Liverpool City Council should be involving itself so much in Everton's potential new stadium.
  • The Social Workings of Contract. There are many times when it benefits both parties to a contract to not strictly enforce all the terms. "Smart" contracts, which pour all those terms into code, don't allow that, which makes them less useful. The sooner us computer geeks realise that messy and imprecise can be a feature, not a bug, the better.
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January 15, 2018

Interesting Things on the Internet: January 15th 2018

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December 27, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: December 27th 2017

  • The Dangers of Elite Projection. The needs of the many are not the same as the needs of the few.
  • What Do You Call a World That Can’t Learn From Itself?. "So just as Americans don’t get how bad their lives really are, comparatively speaking — which is to say how good they could be — so too Europeans don’t fully understand how good their lives are — and how bad, if they continue to follow in America’s footsteps, austerity by austerity, they could be. Both appear to be blind to one another’s mistakes and successes."
  • Why is Southern Rail like an aircraft carrier? I think this captures some of the reason behind the last link - this focus on the appearance of things going well, rather than the work of making things go well.
  • Silicon Valley Is Turning Into Its Own Worst Fear "I used to find it odd that these hypothetical AIs were supposed to be smart enough to solve problems that no human could, yet they were incapable of doing something most every adult has done: taking a step back and asking whether their current course of action is really a good idea. Then I realized that we are already surrounded by machines that demonstrate a complete lack of insight, we just call them corporations."
  • No hack needed: Anonymisation beaten with a dash of SQL. Anonymising data is near impossible.
  • Computer latency: 1977-2017. In terms of speed-at-responding-to-us, modern computers are lots worse than those of the 80s. My first computer takes 2nd place, and my third computer is 5th. I expect the one I'm typing this on is far down the list.
  • My Internet Mea Culpa. I'm not sure where I sat on believing the elders of the Web, but my critical faculties have taken too long to develop and have had too little impact thus far. There is much work to do if we're to realise the promise of computers and the Internet. This Twitter thread from @seldo has some good thoughts on the topic.
  • Bernard Stiegler: “The time saved through automation must be granted to the people” [translation]. "The work of tomorrow will be discontinuous [intermittent]. Periods of employment will alternate with periods of acquiring, developing and sharing knowledge. The right to the contributory income will be “rechargeable”, based upon the number of hours of employment. In case of problems, the system will be accompanied by a minimum living wage [revenu minimum d’existence] – as a social protection system accompanying the scheme."
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December 11, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: December 11th 2017

And a fantastic talk about tech leadership, principles and ethics from Bryan Cantrill at Monktoberfest...

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December 10, 2017

We Should Stop Using AI As a Way to Duck Responsibility

I've been reading Eric Rodenbeck's Fake-but-good-enough-for-robots satellite imagery, drawn by artificial intelligences. It's a good and interesting read, but there's something in its language that needles me.

We shouldn't surrender agency to algorithms. As software engineers, system designers and technologists we should be wary of explanations that imply that "the AI did it". It's a convenient, and understandable, defence because the alternative is to admit that we built a system that doesn't work as we intended, that has bugs. Even if the bugs are really subtle and dependent on datasets used for training, or combinations of sensors that are hard to predict.

However, it's all a bit "a big boy did it and ran away".

It feels to me that it's similar to the "code isn't political" myth that I hope we can all agree was a lie.

Eric's examples, and I'm as guilty as he is for reaching for the same metaphors when trying to explain what I do, aren't really "how robots see us" or "how robots talk with us".

The green circles overlaid on the video imagery aren't something a robot has created, they're written by people to help said people get a better understanding of how their code works. When I build things like that they're little meta-tools to help me work out why my code isn't doing what I thought it would.

I think that if we frame it in that way - tools and techniques to help humans understand algorithms - it leads us into a different but more useful rabbithole. Chasing down that one leads people to ask better questions of the technologists about what they were trying to achieve, why that has ended up in this unintended consequence, and how we might fix that or build better tools to explain it further.

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December 04, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: December 4th 2017

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November 13, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: November 13th 2017

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November 06, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: November 6th 2017

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