The interactive widgets embedded in this article are excellent teaching tools!
Tuesday, December 27th, 2022
Saturday, October 29th, 2022
Pessimism always sounds smarter than optimism because optimism sounds like a sales pitch while pessimism sounds like someone trying to help you.
I usually hate these kinds of lists of bumper-sticker aphorisms but some of these have me pondering my own work, like this one:
People learn when they’re surprised. Not when they read the right answer, or are told they’re doing it wrong, but when they experience a gap between expectations and reality.
There are two types of information: stuff you’ll still care about in the future, and stuff that matters less and less over time. Long-term vs. expiring knowledge.
Monday, September 6th, 2021
At its core, and despite its appropriation, Solarpunk imagines a radically different societal and economic structure.
Tuesday, August 3rd, 2021
A Few Notes on A Few Notes on The Culture
When I post a link, I do it for two reasons.
First of all, it’s me pointing at something and saying “Check this out!”
Secondly, it’s a way for me to stash something away that I might want to return to. I tag all my links so when I need to find one again, I just need to think “Now what would past me have tagged it with?” Then I type the appropriate URL:
There are some links that I return to again and again.
Back in 2008, I linked to a document called A Few Notes on The Culture. It’s a copy of a post by Iain M Banks to a newsgroup back in 1994.
Alas, that link is dead. Linkrot, innit?
But in 2013 I linked to the same document on a different domain. That link still works even though I believe it was first published around twenty(!) years ago (view source for some pre-CSS markup nostalgia).
Anyway, A Few Notes On The Culture is a fascinating look at the world-building of Iain M Banks’s Culture novels. He talks about the in-world engineering, education, biology, and belief system of his imagined utopia. The part that sticks in my mind is when he talks about economics:
Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces.
The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is — without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset — intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.
It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual immaturity and — through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others — a kind of synthetic evil.
Like I said, it’s a fascinating document. In fact I realised that I should probably store a copy of it for myself.
I have a section of my site called “extras” where I dump miscellaneous stuff. Most of it is unlinked. It’s mostly for my own benefit. That’s where I’ve put my copy of A Few Notes On The Culture.
Here’s a funny thing …for all the times that I’ve revisited the link, I never knew anything about the site is was hosted on—
vavatch.co.uk—so this most recent time, I did a bit of clicking around. Clearly it’s the personal website of a sci-fi-loving college student from the early 2000s. But what came as a revelation to me was that the site belonged to …Adrian Hon!
I’m impressed that he kept his old website up even after moving over to the domain
mssv.net, founding Six To Start, and writing A History Of The Future In 100 Objects. That’s a great snackable book, by the way. Well worth a read.
Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020
Sunday, May 3rd, 2020
Science-fiction writers don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else. Human history is too unpredictable; from this moment, we could descend into a mass-extinction event or rise into an age of general prosperity. Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen. Often, science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training. It can help you feel more oriented in the history we’re making now.
Kim Stanley Robinson knows the score:
Margaret Thatcher said that “there is no such thing as society,” and Ronald Reagan said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” These stupid slogans marked the turn away from the postwar period of reconstruction and underpin much of the bullshit of the past forty years.
Saturday, November 16th, 2019
The benchmarks that advertising companies use — intended to measure the number of clicks, sales and downloads that occur after an ad is viewed — are fundamentally misleading. None of these benchmarks distinguish between the selection effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that are happening anyway) and the advertising effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that would not have happened without ads).
It gets worse: the brightest minds of this generation are creating algorithms which only increase the effects of selection.
A terrificly well-written piece on the emperor’s new clothes worn by online advertising. Equal parts economic rigour and Gladwellian anecdata, it’s a joy to read! Kudos to Alana Gillespie for the great translation work (the original article was written in Dutch).
We currently assume that advertising companies always benefit from more data. … But the majority of advertising companies feed their complex algorithms silos full of data even though the practice never delivers the desired result. In the worst case, all that invasion of privacy can even lead to targeting the wrong group of people.
This insight is conspicuously absent from the debate about online privacy. At the moment, we don’t even know whether all this privacy violation works as advertised.
The interaction design of this article is great too—annotations, charts, and more!
Saturday, December 22nd, 2018
Craig writes about reading and publishing, from the memex and the dynabook to the Kindle, the iPhone, and the iPad, all the way back around to plain ol’ email and good old-fashioned physical books.
We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve—I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building—everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t. Perhaps the form and interactivity of what we consider a “standard book” will change in the future, as screens become as cheap and durable as paper. But the books made today, held in our hands, digital or print, are Future Books, unfuturistic and inert may they seem.
Monday, May 21st, 2018
Almost every technological innovation over the last 300 years has had side effects which actually increase the number of opportunities for employment. The general trend is that the easier something is to do, the more demand there is for it.
Cameron looks at the historical effects of automation and applies that to design systems. The future he sees is one of increased design democratisation and participation.
This is actually something that designers have been championing for decades – inclusive design at all levels of the company, and an increase in design thinking at all stages of product development. Now that we finally have a chance of achieving that it’s not a time to be scared. It’s a time to be celebrated.
Saturday, March 10th, 2018
An astoundingly great piece of writing from Paul Ford, comparing the dot-com bubble and the current blockchain bubble. This resonates so hard:
I knew I was supposed to have an opinion on how the web and the capital markets interacted, but I just wanted to write stuff and put it online. Or to talk about web standards—those documents, crafted by committees at the World Wide Web consortium, that defined the contract between a web browser and a web server, outlining how HTML would work. These standards didn’t define just software, but also culture; this was the raw material of human interaction.
And, damn, if this isn’t the best description the post-bubble web:
Heat and light returned. And bit by bit, the software industry insinuated itself into every aspect of global enterprise. Mobile happened, social networks exploded, jobs returned, and coding schools popped up to convert humans into programmers and feed them to the champing maw of commerce. The abstractions I loved became industries.
Oof! That isn’t even the final gut punch. This is:
Here’s what I finally figured out, 25 years in: What Silicon Valley loves most isn’t the products, or the platforms underneath them, but markets.
Friday, February 2nd, 2018
A brilliant talk by Stuart on how privacy could be a genuinely disruptive angle for companies looking to gain competitive advantage over the businesses currently in the ascendent.
How do you end up shaping the world? By inventing a thing that the current incumbents can’t compete against. By making privacy your core goal. Because companies who have built their whole business model on monetising your personal information cannot compete against that. They’d have to give up on everything that they are, which they can’t do. Facebook altering itself to ensure privacy for its users… wouldn’t exist. Can’t exist. That’s how you win.
The beauty of this is that it’s a weapon which only hurts bad people. A company who are currently doing creepy things with your data but don’t actually have to can alter themselves to not be creepy, and then they’re OK! A company who is utterly reliant on doing creepy things with your data and that’s all they can do, well, they’ll fail. But, y’know, I’m kinda OK with that.
Thursday, February 1st, 2018
Paul is wondering why good people work for bad companies.
Maybe these designers believe that the respect and admiration they’ve garnered will provide leverage, and allow them to change how a company operates; better to be inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in, right? Well, short of burning down the entire piss-drenched campsite. To think you can change an organisation like Facebook – whose leadership has displayed scant regard for the human race beyond its eyeballs – you’re either incredibly naive, or lying to yourself.
Thursday, January 18th, 2018
The transcript of a talk by Charles Stross on the perils of prediction and the lessons of the past. It echoes Ted Chiang’s observation that runaway AIs are already here, and they’re called corporations.
History gives us the perspective to see what went wrong in the past, and to look for patterns, and check whether those patterns apply to the present and near future. And looking in particular at the history of the past 200-400 years—the age of increasingly rapid change—one glaringly obvious deviation from the norm of the preceding three thousand centuries—is the development of Artificial Intelligence, which happened no earlier than 1553 and no later than 1844.
I’m talking about the very old, very slow AIs we call corporations, of course.
Wednesday, November 1st, 2017
Nobody can afford to volunteer to be extra virtuous in a system where the only rule is quarterly profit and shareholder value. Where the market rules, all of us are fighting for the crumbs to get the best investment for the market. And so, this loose money can go anywhere in the planet without penalty. The market can say: “It doesn’t matter what else is going on, it doesn’t matter if the planet crashes in fifty years and everybody dies, what’s more important is that we have quarterly profit and shareholder value and immediate return on our investment, right now.” So, the market is like a blind giant driving us off a cliff into destruction.
Kim Stanley Robinson journeys to the heart of the Anthropocene.
Economics is the quantitative and systematic analysis of capitalism itself. Economics doesn’t do speculative or projective economics; perhaps it should, I mean, I would love it if it did, but it doesn’t. It’s a dangerous moment, as well as a sign of cultural insanity and incapacity. It’s like you’ve got macular degeneration and your vision of reality itself were just a big black spot precisely in the direction you are walking.
Wednesday, October 11th, 2017
Play the part of an AI pursuing its goal without care for existential threats. This turns out to be ludicrously addictive. I don’t want to tell you how long I spent playing this.
Keep your eye on the prize: remember that money (and superintelligence) is just a means to an end …and that end is making more paperclips.
Friday, September 8th, 2017
John makes the point that unless you’re one of the big, big players, your native app is really going to struggle to find an audience. But that’s okay—a progressive web app might be exactly what you need.
In short, using native apps as a path to reaching a large number of potential customers and benefitting from crucial network effects is close to impossible.
But, in the meantime, the Web has responded to the very significant impact that native apps had on user behaviour.
For me, the strength of the web has never been about how it can help big companies—it’s about how it can amplify and connect the niche players.
Wednesday, November 16th, 2016
If you’re in need of some long-term perspective right now—because, let’s face it, the short-term outlook is looking pretty damn bleak—then why not explore some of Max Roser’s data visualisations? Have a look at some of the global trends in inequality, disease, hunger, and conflict.
Sunday, July 3rd, 2016
The World Wide Web, with all of its pages, blogs and so on- has allowed human expression in ways that would have been uneconomic and out of reach before. The most dramatic effect has been this ability for almost anyone to express himself or herself whenever they want to- and potentially be heard by many others.
Vint Cerf there, taking part in this wide-ranging discussion with, among others, Kevin Kelly and Bob Metcalfe.
The introduction leans a bit too heavily on Nicholas Carr for my liking, but it ends up in a good place.
The internet connects us cognitively and becomes a membrane through which our minds can interact, manifesting a whole new iteration of our species, who have begun to exist in a connected symbiotic relationship with technology.
The internet is the first technology we have created, that makes us more human.
Tuesday, June 28th, 2016
People who excel at software design become convinced that they have a unique ability to understand any kind of system at all, from first principles, without prior training, thanks to their superior powers of analysis. Success in the artificially constructed world of software design promotes a dangerous confidence.
Great stuff as usual from Maciej, ending with a rallying cry for us to pay attention to history:
This is not the first time an enthusiastic group of nerds has decided to treat the rest of the world as a science experiment. Earlier attempts to create a rationalist Utopia failed for interesting reasons, and since we bought those lessons at a great price, it would be a shame not to learn them.
There is also prior art in attempts at achieving immortality, limitless wealth, and Galactic domination. We even know what happens if you try to keep dossiers on an entire country.
If we’re going to try all these things again, let’s at least learn from our past, so we can fail in interesting new ways, instead of failing in the same exasperating ways as last time.
Sunday, June 26th, 2016
A great talk from Bruce on the digital self-defence that ad-blockers provide. I think it’s great that Opera are building ad-blocking straight into the browser.