s08e21: An amateur with opinions

No, really, I am.

0.0 Context setting

It is Saturday 17 October 2020, some time in the afternoon. Here in Portland, Oregon in the United States, it’s a mild autumn day. I can see patches of blue. There are fluffy clouds. The kids have stopped yelling at each other, temporarily.

The past two weeks have been the stupid-busy kind of weeks. The kind where I’ve had the conversation with myself about what I really need to be focussing on, and then agreeing with a whole bunch of other people that it would be a better use of my time to do the thing than to be in meetings related to the thing. So, instead, I have been doing the thing. Lots of typing and writing and then getting rid of it and a Google drive folder that is, honestly, a mess. But! The last few months worth of thinking and concepts and stuff I’ve learned float around in my head have paid off, and now the words got squeezed out and they work.

1.0 Some things that caught my attention

I’ll just get this out of the way and point to a few Star Trek things:

The inimitable Lou Huang has been putting threads of Star Trek UI (specifically, the Library Computer Access and Retrieval System from The Next Generation) and how it’s been applied in the latest series, Lower Decks (which, oh my gosh, so funny, and no, it’s not Rick And Morty Does Star Trek even if the first couple of episodes seem so, no, it’s Big And Has Heart").

His first thread covers Star Trek essentially inventing the tablet computer on screen and takes it through to its latest incarnation and how we use the words “tap”, “click” and the rich vocabulary both spoken and physical of using computers widespread familiarity with tablets has brought. The second thread is about device orientation, and the third, which I haven’t even read yet is about colour schemes. If you like that stuff, then you’ll like Chris Noessel’s Sci-Fi Interfaces website and book for all the obvious reasons.

OK, a brief interlude:

Here’s some of my favorite dumb fiction so far. Click/tap on each tweet to go through to the thread, I guess.

There’s this one, on the pivot to video:

Okay, fine, here’s a very specific thread about the time when Worf and Wesley inadvertently shut down the Enterprise because Worf wanted to cheat at completing his exercise rings:

And lastly, this most recent one, a weird, admittedly very myopic and stupendously optimistic look at an alternate future based on people making some different choices about the internet and software:

Dan Hon @hondanhon
Idly imagining a world where Facebook and Twitter don’t exist, the world’s biggest social platform is
Blogger.com with over three billion users, where people write “blog posts”, owned by independent company “Pyra”, and Google is a small search engine company.

And now some (hopefully) little bullet points:

  • I started sticking post-its of the leftovers we have in the fridge on the front door of our fridge to help us remember what food we have in there before it goes bad, like everything else in life. As someone else pointed out, this is not entirely like making your food and fridge a kanban board, which I have complicated feelings about.

  • Here is a set of sweatshirts that say THE FUTURE IS TK [via] and I like jokes based on jargon and insider knowledge which is probably super elitist of me.

  • I learned about Ursula K. Le Guin’s book Steering the Craft, about writing narrative, because I can’t figure out how to do plot, or my approach to plot is “write something and keep going and maybe there’s a plot?” NARRATOR: 99% OF THE TIME, THERE WAS NO PLOT

  • Matt Webb has smart thoughts, continued, this time about video calling interoperability and it prompted a whole bunch of reactions that I have not written down. You could read this and have your own great reactions too! One change: I have started having a Zoom room just… open? all the time for people to drop in to.

  • A collection of post-mortems, mostly technology ones. It is impossible for me to write about post-mortems without pointing you in the direction of John Allspaw’s amazing work on blameless post-mortems.

  • Software Aspects of Strategic Defense Systems (PDF) is an ACM paper that very clearly points out how software is hard and SDI was a very hard problem that wasn’t going to be magically solved by computers. It is left as an exercise for the reader to consider whether there are any modern-day situations to which this might be relevant.

  • A 2016 article from Jonathan Zittrain on subpoenas and searches and computer systems and our legal and legislative framework now that it’s relatively trivial to do population-level searches for incriminating material (if you’re unaware, this is already done in realtime for child pornography).

  • Darius Kazemi made a Person Generator that pairs generated faces with phrases from personality assessments and the choice of using the second was genius and in my opinion is what makes it work in a horrifyingly spooky way.

  • Dropbox… marketing? Content marketing? Did this a Content on how to prepare an emergency “go box” which I feel shows how content marketing frustratingly misses the mark sometimes. Putting together an emergency go box is a totally useful thing! We had to do this work over the summer when it looked like we might need to leave the area not for fire, but because the air was stupendously dangerous to breathe. But the Content here just kind of tells you about Dropbox features, like password management, and reminds you why it’s a good idea to have backup copies of your documents. And so there’s nothing that actually helps you do the task. Feels like a big miss, and I know it’d be a lot more work because that would actually be a service, but on the other hand I treated it as something that was more a waste of time. I already use Dropbox and am a customer, so yeah, I guess it’s not even really for me anyway?

  • This is a list of 351 physical visualizations which starts at 5,500 BC all the way up to last year. Admittedly there are only 3 in the list between 5,500 BC and 1 AD.

  • Some of you may already have read Flamethrowers and Fire Extinguishers, a criticism of The Social Dilemma and if you haven’t, then you should.

  • Data breach remediation efforts and their implications for hospital quality [pubmed, free fulltext] is a paper that appears to show that remediation efforts (ie what hospitals do in terms of cybersecurity after a breach) may result in more deaths. Here’s a PBS writeup, too: Ransomware and data breaches linked to uptick in fatal heart attacks.

  • Landlord Tech Watch looks good.

  • Wikipedia is an MMORPG, which should be read in my opinion as an example of where game-like conditions and behaviors exist and anything can be anything if you think hard enough. If it sounds like I’m dissing it, I’m not.

2.0 The Ministry for the Future

I started reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future [eliot peper interview; Tor.com interview] a few days ago. I have a confession to make. I have not read much of Robinson’s work. Most of the time, I have started them and not been able to make it through. Part of me considers this a personal failing.

I’m not even halfway through yet, and my copy is littered with highlights and notes. The Ministry for the Future itself is the novel’s fictional organization, set up with the purpose of advocating for the world’s future citizens through a bureaucratic, negotiated process under the remit of the Paris Climate Agreement. The climate, as it is in real life, is fucked. The book essentially opens with a wet bulb temperature heatwave of 34 degrees celsius in India that kills over 20 million people in the course of two weeks. Those deaths are the precipitating event that kicks the world (of a sort) into action (of a sort). So far, the story has covered all of those sorts of action, and lots of discussion about why despite all the available evidence that we’re (sorry, the fictional people of a fictional earth) completely fucked, we continue to do nothing about it. And the why includes social structures, systems, incentives, economics and moral philosophy and, to my delight, not so much sneering at those abstract concepts, but the repeated proposition that, say, you only can’t afford something if you can’t find the money for it and, well, money isn’t real. What is real, at the end, is land, people, and work. And even the people don’t really matter that much, from a biosphere point of view. The planet and its biosphere will be fine. (There is a fine part about how the term natural catastrophe is somewhat of a misnomer).

Normally, I’m not a fan of big infodump, expository sequences. That said, I tell a lie, sometimes I really love them when they’re what I’m interested in. I was interested in these, and I think part of it is how KSR constructs them. They’re in the form of short, sharp conversations. Not actual dialogue, more like summaries of dialogue? Anyway, all of this is to say that one particular quote stuck out to me.

It happens in chapter forty, which opens by introducing Jevons Paradox [Wikipedia; New Yorker, 2010], about the idea that when the use of a resource gets more efficient, the resource is used more, not less. Jevons wrote it in 1865. KSR starts at this point and barrels straight into what otherwise might be a late night undergraduate conversation about what is efficiency, really, only getting to the point within two pages by saying:

“But the evidence shows that there is good efficiency and bad efficiency, good inefficiency and bad inefficiency. Examples of all four can easily be provided, though here we leave this as an exercise for the reader, with just these sample pointers to stimulate reflection: preventative health care saves enormous amounts in medical costs later, and is a good efficiency. Eating your extra children (this is Swift’s character’s “modest proposal”) would be a bad efficiency.”

Yes, right, I’m totally with you. There are lots of bad efficiencies. All of those negative externalities. And then, at least this week, what stuck in my head because it was (is) relevant to my work at the moment: (my emphasis)

“In light of that principle, many efficiencies are quickly seen to be profoundly destructive, and many inefficiencies can now be understood as unintentionally salvational. Robustness and resilience are in general inefficient; but they are robust, they are resilient. And we need that by design.”

Because my work right now is working with the State of California’s department of technology to figure out the state’s information technology strategic plan, to guide the acquisition, management, and use of information technology, of which: wow, that’s a brief for a plan.

But if you’re talking about something like, say, a resource or reservoir of technologically-enabled capability, and if your hypothetical resource has been under-invested, or misunderstood, or its hypothetical acquisition, maintenance and use has been guided by principles such as cost efficiency or by reducing risks, or, as in many (hypothetical, of course) cases of a general aim to have improved performance, then this is a money quote to help refocus in terms of defining specific areas that require spending money that might not look efficient.

If I were to put it another way: robustness and resilience are things that let you be flexible. They give you room. A capacity of robustness and resilience would mean, say, a supply chain that does not feel thin and sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.

And so the realization, a sort of slow-motion creeping horror, that we’re doing this work on putting together an information technology strategy and it’s supposed to cover the use of information technology, then… do you know what you’re using it for? Do you know why? And doing that work was fun, and also somewhat easy, because at some level you go to the amusingly domained gov.ca.gov and look at administration priorities, and the slow-motion creeping horror that it hadn’t even crossed your mind to even consider whether climate change should be in an information technology strategy. Because clearly there are dumb ways that information technology can include climate change, like saying you’ll make sure all your clouds are renewable and the like. And it’s not like you want to shoehorn information technology and have a gratuitous reference to climate change. But more a sense of personal shame for it not even having crossed my mind to make that decision. This is a serious thing!

And so, I think I figured it out in a way that makes sense, and in a way that makes sense with the entire rest of the strategy. We use technology to achieve our goals. One of the state’s goals is to combat climate change. Go neutral, then negative. You’re not going to be able to do that well if you don’t have a robust, resilient foundation of technology to support your work.

Related: Is Resilience Overrated? [New York Times]

Okay, that’s it!

I am doing better this week than before, but that’s before I start worrying that one of the reasons why I’m doing better is that I’ve done less doomscrolling, and perhaps I wasn’t doomscrolling enough? I did not listen to or watch or to be honest even read that much coverage about the supreme court vacancy nomination hearings this past week, and my reasoning for that is: whatever is going to happen is going to happen. There are other things I can actually be doing that are helpful.

Anyway. How are you?