Tag: Fast Company

Friday feastings

These are things I came across that piqued my attention:

  • What do cats do all day? (The Kid Should See This) — “Catcam footage from collar cameras captured the activities of 16 free-roaming domestic cats in England as they explored, stared, touched noses, hunted, vocalized, and more.”
  • These researchers invented an entirely new way of building with wood (Fast Company) — “Each of the 12 wooden components of the tower was made by laminating two pieces of wood with different levels of moisture. Then, when the laminated pieces of wood dried out, the piece of wood curved naturally–no molds or braces needed.”
  • What Did Old English Sound Like? Hear Reconstructions of Beowulf, The Bible, and Casual Conversations (Open Culture) — “Over the course of 1000 years, the language came together from extensive contact with Anglo-Norman, a dialect of French; then became heavily Latinized and full of Greek roots and endings; then absorbed words from Arabic, Spanish, and dozens of other languages, and with them, arguably, absorbed concepts and pictures of the world that cannot be separated from the language itself.”
  • Adversarial interoperability: reviving an elegant weapon from a more civilized age to slay today’s monopolies (BoingBoing) — “This kind of adversarial interoperability goes beyond the sort of thing envisioned by “data portability,” which usually refers to tools that allow users to make a one-off export of all their data, which they can take with them to rival services. Data portability is important, but it is no substitute for the ability to have ongoing access to a service that you’re in the process of migrating away from.”
  • Fables of School Reform (The Baffler) — “Even pre-internet efforts to upgrade the technological prowess of American schools came swathed in the quasi-millennial promise of complete school transformation.”

Friday fathomings

I enjoyed reading these:


Image via Indexed

There’s no viagra for enlightenment

This quotation from the enigmatic Russell Brand seemed appropriate for the subject of today’s article: the impact of so-called ‘deepfakes’ on everything from porn to politics.

First, what exactly are ‘deepfakes’? Mark Wilson explains in an article for Fast Company:

In early 2018, [an anonymous Reddit user named Deepfakes] uploaded a machine learning model that could swap one person’s face for another face in any video. Within weeks, low-fi celebrity-swapped porn ran rampant across the web. Reddit soon banned Deepfakes, but the technology had already taken root across the web–and sometimes the quality was more convincing. Everyday people showed that they could do a better job adding Princess Leia’s face to The Force Awakens than the Hollywood special effects studio Industrial Light and Magic did. Deepfakes had suddenly made it possible for anyone to master complex machine learning; you just needed the time to collect enough photographs of a person to train the model. You dragged these images into a folder, and the tool handled the convincing forgery from there.

Mark Wilson

As you’d expect, deepfakes bring up huge ethical issues, as Jessica Lindsay reports for Metro. It’s a classic case of our laws not being able to keep up with what’s technologically possible:

With the advent of deepfake porn, the possibilities have expanded even further, with people who have never starred in adult films looking as though they’re doing sexual acts on camera.

Experts have warned that these videos enable all sorts of bad things to happen, from paedophilia to fabricated revenge porn.

[…]

This can be done to make a fake speech to misrepresent a politician’s views, or to create porn videos featuring people who did not star in them.

Jessica Lindsay

It’s not just video, either, with Google’s AI now able to translate speech from one language to another and keep the same voice. Karen Hao embeds examples in an article for MIT Technology Review demonstrating where this is all headed.

The results aren’t perfect, but you can sort of hear how Google’s translator was able to retain the voice and tone of the original speaker. It can do this because it converts audio input directly to audio output without any intermediary steps. In contrast, traditional translational systems convert audio into text, translate the text, and then resynthesize the audio, losing the characteristics of the original voice along the way.

Karen Hao

The impact on democracy could be quite shocking, with the ability to create video and audio that feels real but is actually completely fake.

However, as Mike Caulfield notes, the technology doesn’t even have to be that sophisticated to create something that can be used in a political attack.

There’s a video going around that purportedly shows Nancy Pelosi drunk or unwell, answering a question about Trump in a slow and slurred way. It turns out that it is slowed down, and that the original video shows her quite engaged and articulate.

[…]

In musical production there is a technique called double-tracking, and it’s not a perfect metaphor for what’s going on here but it’s instructive. In double tracking you record one part — a vocal or solo — and then you record that part again, with slight variations in timing and tone. Because the two tracks are close, they are perceived as a single track. Because they are different though, the track is “widened” feeling deeper, richer. The trick is for them to be different enough that it widens the track but similar enough that they blend.

Mike Caulfield

This is where blockchain could actually be a useful technology. Caulfield often talks about the importance of ‘going back to the source’ — in other words, checking the provenance of what it is you’re reading, watching, or listening. There’s potential here for checking that something is actually the original document/video/audio.

Ultimately, however, people believe what they want to believe. If they want to believe Donald Trump is an idiot, they’ll read and share things showing him in a negative light. It doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not.


Also check out:

Man must choose whether to be rich in things or in the freedom to use them

So said Ivan Illich. Another person I can imagine saying that is Diogenes the Cynic, perhaps my favourite philosopher of all time. He famously lived in a large barrel, sometimes pretended he was a dog, and allegedly told Alexander the Great to stand out of his sunlight.

What a guy. The thing that Diogenes understood is that freedom is much more important than power. That’s the subject of a New York Times Op-Ed by essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreiger, who explains:

I would define power as the ability to make other people do what you want; freedom is the ability to do what you want. Like gravity and acceleration, these are two forces that appear to be different but are in fact one. Freedom is the defensive, or pre-emptive, form of power: the power that’s necessary to resist all the power the world attempts to exert over us from day one. So immense and pervasive is this force that it takes a considerable counterforce just to restore and maintain mere autonomy. Who was ultimately more powerful: the conqueror Alexander, who ruled the known world, or the philosopher Diogenes, whom Alexander could neither offer nor threaten with anything? (Alexander reportedly said that if he weren’t Alexander, he would want to be Diogenes. Diogenes said that if he weren’t Diogenes, he’d want to be Diogenes too.)

Tim Kreider

Of course, Tim is a privileged white dude, just like me. His opinion piece does, however, give us an interesting way into the cultural phenomenon of young white men opting out of regular employment.

As Andrew Fiouzi writes for Mel Magazine, the gap between what you’re told (and what you see your older relatives achieving) and what you’re offered can sometimes be stark. Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress, is cited by Fiouzi in the article.

While there’s a lot of speculation as to why this is the case, Madowitz says it has little to do with the common narrative that millennial men are too busy playing video games. Instead, he argues that millennials… who entered the labor market at a time when it was less likely than ever to adequately reward them for their work — “I couldn’t get any interviews and I tried doing some freelance stuff, but I could barely find anything, so I took an unpaid internship at a design agency,” says [one example] — were simply less likely to feel the upside of working.

Andrew Fiouzi

By default in our western culture, no matter how much a man earns, if he’s in a hetrosexual relationship, then it’s the woman who becomes the care-giver after they have children. I think that’s changing a bit, and men are more likely to at least share the responsibilities.

So in the end, it may be the very inflexibility of an economy built on traditional gender roles that ultimately brings down the male-dominated labor apparatus, one stay-at-home dad at a time.

ANDREW FIOUZI

Part of the problem, I think, is the constant advice to ‘follow your heart’ and find work that’s ‘your passion’. While I think you absolutely should be guided by your values, how that plays out depends a lot on context.

Pavithra Mohan takes this up in an article for Fast Company. She writes:

Sometimes, compensation or job function may be more important to you than meaning, while at other times location and flexibility may take precedence. 

[…]

Something that can get lost in the conversation around meaningful work is that even pursuing it takes privilege.

[…]

Making an impact can also mean very different things to different people. If you feel fulfilled by your family or social life, for example, being connected to your work may not—and need not—be of utmost importance. You might find more meaning in volunteer work or believe you can make more of an impact by practicing effective altruism and putting the money you earn towards charitable causes. 

Pavithra Mohan

I’ve certainly been thinking about that this Bank Holiday weekend. What gets squeezed out in your personal life, when you’re busy trying to find the perfect ‘work’ life? Or, to return to a question that Jocelyn K. Glei asks, who are you without the doing?


Also check out:

  • Is pleasure all that is good about experience? (Journal of Philosophical Studies) — “In this article I present the claim that hedonism is not the most plausible experientialist account of wellbeing. The value of experience should not be understood as being limited to pleasure, and as such, the most plausible experientialist account of wellbeing is pluralistic, not hedonistic.”
  • Strong Opinions Loosely Held Might be the Worst Idea in Tech (The Glowforge Blog) — “What really happens? The loudest, most bombastic engineer states their case with certainty, and that shuts down discussion. Other people either assume the loudmouth knows best, or don’t want to stick out their neck and risk criticism and shame. This is especially true if the loudmouth is senior, or there is any other power differential.”
  • Why Play a Music CD? ‘No Ads, No Privacy Terrors, No Algorithms’ (The New York Times) — “What formerly hyped, supposedly essential technology has since been exposed for gross privacy violations, or for how easily it has become a tool for predatory disinformation?”

Friday finds

Check out these links that I came across this week and thought you’d find interesting:

  • Netflix Saves Our Kids From Up To 400 Hours of Commercials a Year (Local Babysitter) — “We calculated a series of numbers related to standard television homes, compared them to Netflix-only homes and found an interesting trend with regard to how many commercials a streaming-only household can save their children from having to watch.”
  • The Emotional Charge of What We Throw Away (Kottke.org) — “consumers actually care more about how their stuff is discarded, than how it is manufactured”
  • Sidewalk Labs’ street signs alert people to data collection in use (Engadget) — “The idea behind Sidewalk Labs’ icons is pretty simple. The company wants to create an image-based language that can quickly convey information to people the same way that street and traffic signs do. Icons on the signs would show if cameras or other devices are capturing video, images, audio or other information.”
  • The vision of the home as a tranquil respite from labour is a patriarchal fantasy (Dezeen) — “[F]or a growing number of critics, the nuclear house is a deterministic form of architecture which stifles individual and collective potential. Designed to enforce a particular social structure, nuclear housing hardwires divisions in labour, gender and class into the built fabric of our cities. Is there now a case for architects to take a stand against nuclear housing?
  • The Anarchists Who Took the Commuter Train (Longreads) — “In the twenty-first century, the word “anarchism” evokes images of masked antifa facing off against neo-Nazis. What it meant in the early twentieth century was different, and not easily defined. “

Image from These gorgeous tiny houses can operate entirely off the grid (Fast Company)

Remote work is a different beast

You might not work remotely right now, but the chances are that at some point in your career, and in some capacity, you will do. Remote work has its own challenges and benefits, which are alluded to in three articles in Fast Company that I want to highlight. The first is an article summarising a survey Google performed amongst 5,600 of its remote workers.

On the outset of the study, the team hypothesized that distributed teams might not be as productive as their centrally located counterparts. “We were a little nervous about that,” says [Veronica] Gilrane [manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab]. She was surprised to find that distributed teams performed just as well. Unfortunately, she also found that there is a lot more frustration involved in working remotely. Workers in other offices can sometimes feel burdened to sync up their schedules with the main office. They can also feel disconnected from the team.

That doesn’t surprise me at all. Even though probably spend less AFK (Away From Keyboard) as a remote worker than I would in an office, there’s not that performative element, where you have to look like you’re working. Sometimes work doesn’t look like work; it looks like going for a run to think about a problem, or bouncing an idea off a neighbour as you walk back to your office with a cup of tea.

The main thing, as this article points out, is that it’s really important to have an approach that focuses on results rather than time spent doing the work. You do have to have some process, though:

[I]t’s imperative that you stress disciplinary excellence; workers at home don’t have a manager peering over their shoulder, so they have to act as their own boss and maintain a strict schedule to get things done. Don’t try to dictate every aspect of their lives–remote work is effective because it offers workers flexibility, after all. Nonetheless, be sure that you’re requesting regular status updates, and that you have a system in place to measure productivity.

Fully-remote working is different to ‘working from home’ a day or two per week. It does take discipline, if only to stop raiding the biscuit tin. But it’s also a different mindset, including intentionally sharing your work much more than you’d do in a co-located setting.

Fundamentally, as Greg Galant, CEO of a full-remote organisation, comments, it’s about trust:

“My friends always say to me, ‘How do you know if anyone is really working?’ and I always ask them, ‘How do you know if anybody is really working if they are at the office?’” says Galant. “Because the reality is, you can see somebody at their desk and they can stay late, but that doesn’t mean they’re really working.”

[…]

If managers are adhering to traditional management practices, they’re going to feel anxiety with remote teams. They’re going to want to check in constantly to make sure people are working. But checking in constantly prevents work from getting done.

Remote work is strange and difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. You can, for example, in the same day feel isolated and lonely, while simultaneously getting annoyed with all of the ‘pings’ and internal communication coming at you.

At the end of the day, companies need to set expectations, and remote workers need to set boundaries. It’s the only way to avoid burnout, and to ensure that what can be a wonderful experience doesn’t turn into a nightmare.


Also check out:

  • 5 Great Resources for Remote Workers (Product Hunt) — “If you’re a remote worker or spend part of your day working from outside of the office, the following tools will help you find jobs, discover the best cities for remote workers, and learn from people who have built successful freelance careers or location-independent companies.”
  • Stop Managing Your Remote Workers As If They Work Onsite (ThinkGrowth) — “Managers need to back away from their conventional views of what “working hard” looks like and instead set specific targets, explain what success looks like, and trust the team to get it done where, when, and however works best for them.”
  • 11 Tools That Allow us to Work from Anywhere on Earth as a Distributed Company (Ghost) —”In an office, the collaboration tools you use are akin to a simple device like a screwdriver. They assist with difficult tasks and lessen the amount of effort required to complete them. In a distributed team, the tools you use are more like life-support. Everything to do with distributed team tools is about clawing back some of that contextual awareness which you’ve lost by not being in the same space.”