🤖 Why the Dancing Robots Are a Really, Really Big Problem — “No, robots don’t dance: they carry out the very precise movements that their — exceedingly clever — programmers design to move in a way that humans will perceive as dancing. It is a simulacrum, a trompe l’oeil, a conjurer’s trick. And it works not because of something inherent in the machinery, but because of something inherent in ours: our ever-present capacity for finding the familiar. It looks like human dancing, except it’s an utterly meaningless act, stripped of any social, cultural, historical, or religious context, and carried out as a humblebrag show of technological might.”
💭 Why Do We Dream? A New Theory on How It Protects Our Brains — “We suggest that the brain preserves the territory of the visual cortex by keeping it active at night. In our “defensive activation theory,” dream sleep exists to keep neurons in the visual cortex active, thereby combating a takeover by the neighboring senses.”
✅ A simple 2 x 2 for choices — “It might be simple, but it’s not always easy. Success doesn’t always mean money, it just means that you got what you were hoping for. And while every project fits into one of the four quadrants, there’s no right answer for any given person or any given moment..”
To Bharat Mediratta, chief technology officer at Dropbox, the quarantine experience has highlighted a huge gap in the market. “What we have right now is a bunch of different productivity and collaboration tools that are stitched together. So I will do my product design in Figma, and then I will submit the code change on GitHub, I will push the product out live on AWS, and then I will communicate with my team using Gmail and Slack and Zoom,” he says. “We have all that technology now, but we don’t yet have the ‘digital knowledge worker operating system’ to bring it all together.”
OK, so this is a sponsored post by Dropbox on the WIRED website, but what it highlights is interesting. For example, Monday.com (which our co-op uses) rebranded itself a few months ago as a ‘Work OS’. There’s definitely a lot of money to be made for whoever manages to build an integrated solution, although I think we’re a long way off something which is flexible enough for every use case.
Today, I don’t define success the way that I did when I was younger. I don’t measure it in copies sold or dollars earned. I measure it in what my days look like and the quality of my creative expression: Do I have time to write? Can I say what I think? Do I direct my schedule or does my schedule direct me? Is my life enjoyable or is it a chore?
Tim Ferriss has this question he asks podcast guests: “If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it what would it say and why?” I feel like the title of this blog post is one of the answers I would give to that question.
We are a small group of volunteers who met as members of the Higher Ed Learning Collective. We were inspired by the initial demand, and the idea of self-study, interracial groups. The initial decision to form this initiative is based on the myriad calls from people of color for white-bodied people to do internal work. To do the work, we are developing a space for all individuals to read, share, discuss, and interrogate perspectives on race, racism, anti-racism, identity in an educational setting. To ensure that the fight continues for justice, we need to participate in our own ongoing reflection of self and biases. We need to examine ourselves, ask questions, and learn to examine our own perspectives. We need to get uncomfortable in asking ourselves tough questions, with an understanding that this is a lifelong, ongoing process of learning.
This is a fantastic resource for people who, like me, are going on a learning journey at the moment. I’ve found the podcast Seeing White by Scene on Radio particularly enlightening, and at times mind-blowing. Also, the Netflix documentary 13th is excellent, and available on YouTube.
If we put a small amount of time into caring for our gadgets, they can last indefinitely. We’d also be doing the world a favor. By elongating the life of our gadgets, we put more use into the energy, materials and human labor invested in creating the product.
Brian X. Chen (The new York times)
This is a pretty surface-level article that basically suggests people take their smartphone to a repair shop instead of buying a new one. What it doesn’t mention is that aftermarket operating systems such as the Android-based LineageOS can extend the lifetime of smartphones by providing security updates long beyond those provided by vendors.
EncroChat sold customized Android handsets with GPS, camera, and microphone functionality removed. They were loaded with encrypted messaging apps as well as a secure secondary operating system (in addition to Android). The phones also came with a self-destruct feature that wiped the device if you entered a PIN.
The service had customers in 140 countries. While it was billed as a legitimate platform, anonymous sources told Motherboard that it was widely used among criminal groups, including drug trafficking organizations, cartels, and gangs, as well as hitmen and assassins.
EncroChat didn’t become aware that its devices had been breached until May after some users noticed that the wipe function wasn’t working. After trying and failing to restore the features and monitor the malware, EncroChat cut its SIM service and shut down the network, advising customers to dispose of their devices.
Monica Chin (The Verge)
It goes without saying that I don’t want assassins, drug traffickers, and mafia types to be successful in life. However, I’m always a little concerned when there are attacks on encryption, as they’re compromising systems also potentially used by protesters, activists, and those who oppose the status quo.
The findings demonstrate how common it is for dialog in TV shows and other sources to produce false triggers that cause the devices to turn on, sometimes sending nearby sounds to Amazon, Apple, Google, or other manufacturers. In all, researchers uncovered more than 1,000 word sequences—including those from Game of Thrones, Modern Family, House of Cards, and news broadcasts—that incorrectly trigger the devices.
“The devices are intentionally programmed in a somewhat forgiving manner, because they are supposed to be able to understand their humans,” one of the researchers, Dorothea Kolossa, said. “Therefore, they are more likely to start up once too often rather than not at all.”
Dan Goodin (Ars Technica)
As anyone with voice assistant-enabled devices in their home will testify, the number of times they accidentally spin up, or misunderstand what you’re saying can be amusing. But we can and should be wary of what’s being listened to, and why.
The Five Levels of Remote Work — and why you’re probably at Level 2
Effective written communication becomes critical the more companies embrace remote work. With an aversion to ‘jumping on calls’ at a whim, and a preference for asynchronous communication… [most] communications [are] text-based, and so articulate and timely articulation becomes key.
Steve Glaveski (The Startup)
This is from March and pretty clickbait-y, but everyone wants to know how they can improve – especially if didn’t work remotely before the pandemic. My experience is that actually most people are at Level 3 and, of course, I’d say that I and my co-op colleagues are at Level 5 given our experience…
All mammals, including us, breathe in through the same opening that we breathe out. Can you imagine if our digestive system worked the same way? What if the food we put in our mouths, after digestion, came out the same way? It doesn’t bear thinking about! Luckily, for digestion, we have a separate in and out. And that’s what the birds have with their lungs: an in point and an out point. They also have air sacs and hollow spaces in their bones. When they breathe in, half of the good air (with oxygen) goes into these hollow spaces, and the other half goes into their lungs through the rear entrance. When they breathe out, the good air that has been stored in the hollow places now also goes into their lungs through that rear entrance, and the bad air (carbon dioxide and water vapor) is pushed out the front exit. So it doesn’t matter whether birds are breathing in or out: Good air is always going in one direction through their lungs, pushing all the bad air out ahead of it.
Walter Murch (Nautilus)
Incredible. Birds are badass (and also basically dinosaurs).
In the many essays of his life he discovered the importance of the moderate life. In his final essay, “On Experience,” Montaigne reveals that “greatness of soul is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to circumscribe and set oneself in order.” What he finds, quite simply, is the importance of the moderate life. We must then, he writes, “compose our character, not compose books.” There is nothing paradoxical about this because his literary essays helped him better essay his life. The lesson he takes from this trial might be relevant for our own trial: “Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live properly.”
Robert Zaresky (The New York Times)
Every week, Bryan Alexander replies to the weekly Thought Shrapnel newsletter. Last week, he sent this article to both me and Chris Lott (who produces the excellent Notabilia).
Ten years ago, in my first foray into senior management, I was told by a consultant to the newly-installed Principal that “he’s very hierarchical”. She meant it in a good way, but I almost quit on the spot. To me, that’s shorthand for a very dictatorial style of management.
So Bartlett’s post, which I think I’ve mentioned before, is one I keep coming back to. He says that:
I don’t care about hierarchy. It’s just a shape. I care about power dynamics.
These days I have mostly removed “non-hierarchical” from my vocabulary. I still haven’t found a great replacement, but for now I say “decentralised”. But again, it’s not the shape that’s interesting, it’s the power dynamics.
Richard D. Bartlett
That’s quite a challenging notion for me, having been in situations within very hierarchical organisations where people try and put me in a box, tie me to a particular role, or otherwise indicate I should stick to my own lane.
It’s something I’m continue to process. I’m not sure whether Bartlett’s correct. It’s a great argument, and I’ve certainly seen some great organisations structured by way of what I’d call the “default operating system” of hierarchy.
Perhaps the thing is that it’s easy to show the difference between the way an organisation is structured (its nodes) as opposed to the the difference between the way those nodes connect with one another. Interactions between other human beings are complicated, and difficult to put in a neat diagram.
Recently, Sam Altman, President of the famed startup accelerator Y Combinator, wrote a Twitter thread which he entitled How To Be Successful At Your Career. It’s what people do instead of blogging these days, it would appear.
One tweet in the thread really stuck out to me, especially in this context of hierarchy and coercive power relationships:
The most successful people (judged by history, not money) continually look for the most important thing they are able to work on, and that’s what they do. They do not get trapped in local maxima, and they do not deceive themselves if they find something more important.
In other words, what you’re attempting to do should transcend the organisation you currently work for and the people with whom you currently work. I believe Steve Jobs called this “making a dent in the universe”. It’s unlikely to happen if you’re playing politics within your organisation, if you’re abusing a position of power, or you’re spending all day in meetings.
Fred Wilson, a VC, says he often gets asked what to work on. This is understandable, given it’s his job to keep his finger on the pulse of companies in which he can invest. Wilson sums up by saying:
You must work on something that inspires you and others, you must work on something with a significant impact, and you must do it in a way that makes getting where you want to go as easy as possible and keeps you there as long as possible.
I think this is a good mantra, and I appreciate that he doesn’t just consider ‘impact’ to be ‘financial impact’, but also “how it changes the way people think and how they react to your product or service or innovation”.
Context is really important. It’s the reason why there is no one-size-fits-all approach to organisational structures, and why, unless you’re the founder of the organisation, you will never be 100% aligned with everything it does. And even then, if your organisation grows to make an impact, there will be a difference between you and the organisation you helped to gestate.
All we can do, at any given point, is to weigh up where we are, using principles such as Fred Wilson’s:
Am I working on something that inspires me (and others)?
Am I working on something with a significant impact?
Am I working in a way that makes getting where I want to go as easy as possible (and keeps me there as long as possible)?
As Altman writes, that’s likely to be in a place that doesn’t play politics and, to Bartlett’s point, it’s important to pay very close attention to power dynamics. In short, it’s important to ask ourselves regularly, “Am I best positioned to make the particular dent I’ve decided to make in the universe?”
It’s been a busy week, but I’ve still found time to unearth these gems…
The Dark Psychology of Social Networks(The Atlantic) — “The philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke have proposed the useful phrase moral grandstanding to describe what happens when people use moral talk to enhance their prestige in a public forum. Like a succession of orators speaking to a skeptical audience, each person strives to outdo previous speakers, leading to some common patterns. Grandstanders tend to “trump up moral charges, pile on in cases of public shaming, announce that anyone who disagrees with them is obviously wrong, or exaggerate emotional displays.” Nuance and truth are casualties in this competition to gain the approval of the audience. Grandstanders scrutinize every word spoken by their opponents—and sometimes even their friends—for the potential to evoke public outrage. Context collapses. The speaker’s intent is ignored.”
Live Your Best Life—On and Off Your Phone—in 2020(WIRED) — “It’s your devices versus your best life. Just in time for a new decade, though, several fresh books offer a more measured approach to living in the age of technology. These are not self-help books, or even books that confront our relationship with technology head-on. Instead, they examine the realities of a tech-saturated world and offer a few simple ideas for rewriting bad habits, reviewing the devices we actually need, and relearning how to listen amid all the noise.”
People Who Are Obsessed With Success and Prestige(Bennett Notes) — “What does it look like to be obsessed with success and prestige? It probably looks a lot like me at the moment. A guy who starts many endeavors and side projects just because he wants to be known as the creator of something. This a guy who wants to build another social app, not because he has an unique problem that’s unaddressed, but because he wants to be the cool tech entrepreneur who everyone admires and envies. This is a guy who probably doesn’t care for much of what he does, but continues to do so for the eventual social validation of society and his peers.”
The Lesson to Unlearn(Paul Graham) — “Merely talking explicitly about this phenomenon is likely to make things better, because much of its power comes from the fact that we take it for granted. After you’ve noticed it, it seems the elephant in the room, but it’s a pretty well camouflaged elephant. The phenomenon is so old, and so pervasive. And it’s simply the result of neglect. No one meant things to be this way. This is just what happens when you combine learning with grades, competition, and the naive assumption of unhackability.”
The End of the Beginning(Stratechery) — “[In consumer-focused startups] few companies are pure “tech” companies seeking to disrupt the dominant cloud and mobile players; rather, they take their presence as an assumption, and seek to transform society in ways that were previously impossible when computing was a destination, not a given. That is exactly what happened with the automobile: its existence stopped being interesting in its own right, while the implications of its existence changed everything.”
Populism Is Morphing in Insidious Ways(The Atlantic) — “If the 2010s were the years in which predominantly far-right, populist parties permeated the political mainstream, then the 2020s will be when voters “are going to see the consequences of that,” Daphne Halikiopoulou, an associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Reading, in England, told me.”
It’s the network, stupid: Study offers fresh insight into why we’re so divided(Ars Technica) — “There is no easy answer when it comes to implementing structural changes that encourage diversity, but today’s extreme polarization need not become a permanent characteristic of our cultural landscape. “I think we need to adopt new skills as we are transitioning into a more complex, more globalized, and more interconnected world, where each of us can affect far-away parts of the world with our actions,” said Galesic.”
Memorizing Lists of Cognitive Biases Won’t Help (Hapgood) — “But if you want to change your own behavior, memorizing long lists of biases isn’t going to help you. If anything it’s likely to just become another weapon in your motivated reasoning arsenal. You can literally read the list of biases to see why reading the list won’t work.”
How to get more done by doing less(Fast Company) — “Sometimes, the secret to doing more isn’t optimizing every minute, but finding the things you can cull from your schedule. That way, you not only reduce the time you spend on non-essential tasks, but you can also find more time for yourself.”
I can’t remember now where I came across this link to a 1947 essay entitled ‘The Catastrophe of Success’ written by Tennessee Williams’ for The New York Times. It’s excellent, and I’m not sure how to keep this down to my customary maximum limit of three quotations.
Williams talks about being suddenly thrust into the limelight and a life of luxury after, well, the opposite:
The sort of life that I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.
Staying in a ‘first-class hotel suite’ didn’t bring him pleasure but rather made him rather depressed. He didn’t feel inspired or ready to create a follow-up to his breakout play The Glass Menagerie and was rather embarrassed not only by the attention, but because he no longer had to perform any menial tasks:
I have been corrupted as much as anyone else by the vast number of menial services which our society has grown to expect and depend on. We should do for ourselves or let the machines do for us, the glorious technology that is supposed to be the new light of the world. We are like a man who has bought up a great amount of equipment for a camping trip, who has the canoe and the tent and the fishing lines and the axe and the guns, the mackinaw and the blankets, but who now, when all the preparations and the provisions are piled expertly together, is suddenly too timid to set out on the journey but remains where he was yesterday and the day before and the day before that, looking suspiciously through white lace curtains at the clear sky he distrusts. Our great technology is a God-given chance for adventure and for progress which we are afraid to attempt.
The biggest takeaway for me is the line I’ve highlighted below. We’re meant to struggle in life. That doesn’t mean a life of poverty or hardship, but it is important to struggle towards something, particularly in creative endeavours:
One does not escape that easily from the seduction of an effete way of life. You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will not continue my life as it was before this thing, Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation. Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to—-why, then with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies.