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Javier E

How 'The Good Place' Goes Beyond 'The Trolley Problem' - The Atlantic - 1 views

  • A sitcom may seem like an unlikely vehicle for serious discussions about moral philosophy, which viewers might expect to find in medical and legal dramas (albeit in less literal, didactic forms). But the subject and medium are surprisingly compatible. A comedy can broach otherwise tedious-sounding ideas with levity and self-awareness, and has more leeway to use contrived or exaggerated scenarios to bring concepts to life
  • bringing digestible ethics lessons to the masses can be seen as a moral act, ensuring that those who don’t spend hours poring over Kant and Judith Jarvis Thomson are also privy to what’s gained from understanding how people think.
  • The Good Place’s focus on ethics wouldn’t mean as much if it weren’t also remarkable in other ways—the performances, the top-notch writing, the wordplay and pun-laden jokes, the willingness to formally experiment with the sitcom genre.
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  • “While we’re discussing the issues that I want to discuss, I also know that I have a responsibility to the audience to tell a story. The goal is not to change the world; the goal of this is to make a high-quality, entertaining show that has good-quality acting.” On that front, Season 2 has certainly succeeded
Javier E

If Russia can create fake 'Black Lives Matter' accounts, who will next? - The Washingto... - 2 views

  • As in the past, the Russian advertisements did not create ethnic strife or political divisions, either in the United States or in Europe. Instead, they used divisive language and emotive messages to exacerbate existing divisions.
  • The real problem is far broader than Russia: Who will use these methods next — and how?
  • There is no big barrier to entry in this game: It doesn’t cost much, it doesn’t take much time, it isn’t particularly high-tech, and it requires no special equipment.
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  • I can imagine multiple groups, many of them proudly American, who might well want to manipulate a range of fake accounts during a riot or disaster to increase anxiety or fear.
  • Facebook, Google and Twitter, not Russia, have provided the technology to create fake accounts and false advertisements, as well as the technology to direct them at particular parts of the population.
  • There is no reason existing laws on transparency in political advertising, on truth in advertising or indeed on libel should not apply to social media as well as traditional media. There is a better case than ever against anonymity, at least against anonymity in the public forums of social media and comment sections, as well as for the elimination of social-media bots.
Javier E

Andrew Sullivan: Trump's Mindless Nihilism - 1 views

  • The trouble with reactionary politics is that it is fundamentally a feeling, an impulse, a reflex. It’s not a workable program. You can see that in the word itself: it’s a reaction, an emotional response to change. Sure, it can include valuable insights into past mistakes, but it can’t undo them, without massive disruption
  • I mention this as a way to see more clearly why the right in Britain and America is either unraveling quickly into chaos, or about to inflict probably irreparable damage on a massive scale to their respective countries. Brexit and Trump are the history of Thatcher and Reagan repeating as dangerous farce, a confident, intelligent conservatism reduced to nihilist, mindless reactionism.
  • But it’s the impossible reactionary agenda that is the core problem. And the reason we have a president increasingly isolated, ever more deranged, legislatively impotent, diplomatically catastrophic, and constitutionally dangerous, is not just because he is a fucking moron requiring an adult day-care center to avoid catastrophe daily.
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  • It’s because he’s a reactionary fantasist, whose policies stir the emotions but are stalled in the headwinds of reality
  • These are not conservative reforms, thought-through, possible to implement, strategically planned. They are the unhinged fantasies of a 71-year-old Fox News viewer imagining he can reconstruct the late 1950s. They cannot actually be implemented, without huge damage.
  • In Britain, meanwhile, Brexit is in exactly the same place — a reactionary policy that is close to impossible to implement without economic and diplomatic catastrophe
  • Brexit too was built on Trump-like lies, and a Trump-like fantasy that 50 years of integration with the E.U. could be magically abolished overnight, and that the Britain of the early 1970s could be instantly re-conjured. No actual conservative can possibly believe that such radical, sudden change won’t end in tears.
  • “The researchers start by simulating what happens when extra links are introduced into a social network. Their network consists of men and women from different races who are randomly distributed. In this model, everyone wants to marry a person of the opposite sex but can only marry someone with whom a connection exists. This leads to a society with a relatively low level of interracial marriage. But if the researchers add random links between people from different ethnic groups, the level of interracial marriage changes dramatically.”
  • the line to draw, it seems to me, is when a speech is actually shut down or rendered impossible by disruption. A fiery protest that initially prevents an event from starting is one thing; a disruption that prevents the speech taking place at all is another.
  • Maybe a college could set a time limit for protest — say, ten or fifteen minutes — after which the speaker must be heard, or penalties will be imposed. Heckling — that doesn’t prevent a speech — should also be tolerated to a reasonable extent. There’s a balance here that protects everyone’s free speech
  • dating apps are changing our society, by becoming the second-most common way straights meet partners, and by expanding the range of people we can meet.
  • here’s what’s intriguing: Correlated with that is a sustained, and hard-to-explain, rise in interracial marriage.
  • “It is intriguing that shortly after the introduction of the first dating websites in 1995, like, the percentage of new marriages created by interracial couples increased rapidly,” say the researchers. “The increase became steeper in the 2000s, when online dating became even more popular. Then, in 2014, the proportion of interracial marriages jumped again.” That was when Tinder took off.
  • Disruptions of events are, to my mind, integral to the exercise of free speech. Hecklers are part of the contentious and messy world of open debate. To suspend or, after three offenses, expel students for merely disrupting events is not so much to chill the possibility of dissent, but to freeze it altogether.
  • Even more encouraging, the marriages begun online seem to last longer than others.
  • I wonder if online dating doesn’t just expand your ability to meet more people of another race, by eliminating geography and the subtle grouping effect of race and class and education. Maybe it lowers some of the social inhibitions against interracial dating.
  • It’s always seemed to me that racism is deeply ingrained in human nature, and always will be, simply because our primate in-group aversion to members of an out-group expresses itself in racism, unless you actively fight it. You can try every law or custom to mitigate this, but it will only go so far.
Javier E

You Think With the World, Not Just Your Brain - The Atlantic - 2 views

  • embodied or extended cognition: broadly, the theory that what we think of as brain processes can take place outside of the brain.
  • The octopus, for instance, has a bizarre and miraculous mind, sometimes inside its brain, sometimes extending beyond it in sucker-tipped trails. Neurons are spread throughout its body; the creature has more of them in its arms than in its brain itself. It’s possible that each arm might be, to some extent, an independently thinking creature, all of which are collapsed into an octopean superconsciousness in times of danger
  • Embodied cognition, though, tells us that we’re all more octopus-like than we realize. Our minds are not like the floating conceptual “I” imagined by Descartes. We’re always thinking with, and inseparable from, our bodies.
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  • The body codes how the brain works, more than the brain controls the body. When we walk—whether taking a pleasant afternoon stroll, or storming off in tears, or trying to sneak into a stranger’s house late at night, with intentions that seem to have exploded into our minds from some distant elsewhere—the brain might be choosing where each foot lands, but the way in which it does so is always constrained by the shape of our legs
  • The way in which the brain approaches the task of walking is already coded by the physical layout of the body—and as such, wouldn’t it make sense to think of the body as being part of our decision-making apparatus? The mind is not simply the brain, as a generation of biological reductionists, clearing out the old wreckage of what had once been the soul, once insisted. It’s not a kind of software being run on the logical-processing unit of the brain. It’s bigger, and richer, and grosser, in every sense. It has joints and sinews. The rarefied rational mind sweats and shits; this body, this mound of eventually rotting flesh, is really you.
  • That’s embodied cognition.
  • Extended cognition is stranger.
  • The mind, they argue, has no reason to stop at the edges of the body, hemmed in by skin, flapping open and closed with mouths and anuses.
  • When we jot something down—a shopping list, maybe—on a piece of paper, aren’t we in effect remembering it outside our heads? Most of all, isn’t language itself something that’s always external to the individual mind?
  • Language sits hazy in the world, a symbolic and intersubjective ether, but at the same time it forms the substance of our thought and the structure of our understanding. Isn’t language thinking for us?
  • Writing, for Plato, is a pharmakon, a “remedy” for forgetfulness, but if taken in too strong a dose it becomes a poison: A person no longer remembers things for themselves; it’s the text that remembers, with an unholy autonomy. The same criticisms are now commonly made of smartphones. Not much changes.
Javier E

Silicon Valley Is Not Your Friend - The New York Times - 0 views

  • By all accounts, these programmers turned entrepreneurs believed their lofty words and were at first indifferent to getting rich from their ideas. A 1998 paper by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, then computer-science graduate students at Stanford, stressed the social benefits of their new search engine, Google, which would be open to the scrutiny of other researchers and wouldn’t be advertising-driven.
  • The Google prototype was still ad-free, but what about the others, which took ads? Mr. Brin and Mr. Page had their doubts: “We expect that advertising-funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.”
  • He was concerned about them as young students lacking perspective about life and was worried that these troubled souls could be our new leaders. Neither Mr. Weizenbaum nor Mr. McCarthy mentioned, though it was hard to miss, that this ascendant generation were nearly all white men with a strong preference for people just like themselves. In a word, they were incorrigible, accustomed to total control of what appeared on their screens. “No playwright, no stage director, no emperor, however powerful,” Mr. Weizenbaum wrote, “has ever exercised such absolute authority to arrange a stage or a field of battle and to command such unswervingly dutiful actors or troops.”
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  • In his epic anti-A.I. work from the mid-1970s, “Computer Power and Human Reason,” Mr. Weizenbaum described the scene at computer labs. “Bright young men of disheveled appearance, often with sunken glowing eyes, can be seen sitting at computer consoles, their arms tensed and waiting to fire their fingers, already poised to strike, at the buttons and keys on which their attention seems to be as riveted as a gambler’s on the rolling dice,” he wrote. “They exist, at least when so engaged, only through and for the computers. These are computer bums, compulsive programmers.”
  • As Mr. Weizenbaum feared, the current tech leaders have discovered that people trust computers and have licked their lips at the possibilities. The examples of Silicon Valley manipulation are too legion to list: push notifications, surge pricing, recommended friends, suggested films, people who bought this also bought that.
  • Welcome to Silicon Valley, 2017.
  • Growth becomes the overriding motivation — something treasured for its own sake, not for anything it brings to the world
  • Facebook and Google can point to a greater utility that comes from being the central repository of all people, all information, but such market dominance has obvious drawbacks, and not just the lack of competition. As we’ve seen, the extreme concentration of wealth and power is a threat to our democracy by making some people and companies unaccountable.
  • As is becoming obvious, these companies do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. We need greater regulation, even if it impedes the introduction of new services.
  • We need to break up these online monopolies because if a few people make the decisions about how we communicate, shop, learn the news, again, do we control our own society?
Javier E

The Art of Thinking Well - The New York Times - 1 views

  • Thaler et al. were only scratching the surface of our irrationality. Most behavioral economists study individual thinking. They do much of their research in labs where subjects don’t intimately know the people around them.
  • It’s when we get to the social world that things really get gnarly. A lot of our thinking is for bonding, not truth-seeking, so most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group
  • This is where Alan Jacobs’s absolutely splendid forthcoming book “How to Think” comes in
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  • Jacobs’s emphasis on the relational nature of thinking is essential for understanding why there is so much bad thinking in political life right now.
  • Jacobs makes good use of C. S. Lewis’s concept of the Inner Ring. In every setting — a school, a company or a society — there is an official hierarchy. But there may also be a separate prestige hierarchy, where the cool kids are. They are the Inner Ring.

  • think of how you really persuade people. Do you do it by writing thoughtful essays that carefully marshal facts? That works some of the time.
  • Jacobs notices that when somebody uses “in other words” to summarize another’s argument, what follows is almost invariably a ridiculous caricature of that argument, in order to win favor with the team.
  • Jacobs nicely shows how our thinking processes emerge from emotional life and moral character. If your heart and soul are twisted, your response to the world will be, too.
  • I’d say that if social life can get us into trouble, social life can get us out.
  • “The passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
  • the real way to persuade people is to create an attractive community that people want to join. If you do that, they’ll bend their opinions to yours. If you want people to be reasonable, create groups where it’s cool to be reasonable.
  • Jacobs mentions that at the Yale Political Union members are admired if they can point to a time when a debate totally changed their mind on something. That means they take evidence seriously; that means they can enter into another’s mind-set. It means they treat debate as a learning exercise and not just as a means to victory.
  • How many public institutions celebrate these virtues? The U.S. Senate? Most TV talk shows? Even the universities?
Javier E

Documenting Sports With Tech, or It Didn't Happen - The New York Times - 0 views

  • The real-life issues now so embedded with the sports world — like debates over racial injustice, brain damage, the ethics of college sports and cheating at the Olympics, plus 100 other things — cannot be parsed to 140 characters.
  • ? Twitter has turned a lot of sports reporting into play-by-play, hot takes and snarky one-liners. With retweets and replies, the echo can be deafening.
  • The biggest transformation has been the use of social media, and Twitter is the opium of the sports-reporting masses
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  • I’m learning I can have nothing but an iPhone and I’m fine.
  • The game changer was the smartphone. It's not only my office phone. I can also use it to record interviews (its microphone is better than the one in my old Olympus, which is important in crowded, noisy places), take pictures and videos to help me remember the details of what I see, and even type or speak notes and interview answers into emails that I send myself.
  • I use it the way other people use their phones. I email, text, tweet, post to Instagram, get directions, set timers and alarms, change flights, check weather, update my calendar, map my jogs, and listen to podcasts and Spotify during long drives or plane rides. On assignment, I’ve had entire conversations with Google Translate, two of us passing my phone back and forth.
  • Besides being an all-in-one communication tool, the iPhone helps my writing. I take photographs of places I know I’ll want to describe in detail later — the inside of someone’s home, a rocky mountain summit, a piece of jewelry that a subject is wearing, the shape of the clouds and the color of the sky. I take videos of places, too, and narrate them as I shoot so that I can watch and listen later.
  • I often do stories overseas, and for the last couple of years, I have constantly connected with sources, interview subjects and my own family on my phone through WhatsApp, a brilliant messaging service that seems to be well known everywhere except the United States.
  • I use it to text, but also to trade photographs, short videos and voice messages, instantly. And you can call from it, even use it for face-to-face video conversations, free if you’re on Wi-Fi.
  • More than anything, technology has brought the sports world into the “now.”
  • Now we can see almost any game on television, in a dozen sports from anywhere in the world, with a computer on our laps and a phone in our hands. We receive and give instant analysis through the world of social media. We can track statistics for our fantasy teams. We can tweet nasty messages to famous athletes and coaches who disappoint us. Like so many other parts of society, we’re probably watching sports more physically alone than ever, but more connected in other ways.
Javier E

When bias beats logic: why the US can't have a reasoned gun debate | US news | The Guar... - 0 views

  • Jon Stokes, a writer and software developer, said he is frustrated after each mass shooting by “the sentiment among very smart people, who are used to detail and nuance and doing a lot of research, that this is cut and dried, this is black and white”.
  • Stokes has lived on both sides of America’s gun culture war, growing up in rural Louisiana, where he got his first gun at age nine, and later studying at Harvard and the University of Chicago, where he adopted some of a big-city resident’s skepticism about guns. He’s written articles about the gun geek culture behind the popularity of the AR-15, why he owns a military-style rifle, and why gun owners are so skeptical of tech-enhanced “smart guns”.
  • Even to suggest that the debate is more complicated – that learning something about guns, by taking a course on how to safely carry a concealed weapon, or learning how to fire a gun, might shift their perspective on whichever solution they have just heard about on TV – “just upsets them, and they basically say you’re trying to obscure the issue”.
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  • In early 2013, a few months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, a Yale psychologist created an experiment to test how political bias affects our reasoning skills. Dan Kahan was attempting to understand why public debates over social problems remain deadlocked, even when good scientific evidence is available. He decided to test a question about gun control.
  • Then Kahan ran the same test again. This time, instead of evaluating skin cream trials, participants were asked to evaluate whether a law banning citizens from carrying concealed firearms in public made crime go up or down. The result: when liberals and conservatives were confronted with a set of results that contradicted their political assumptions, the smartest people were barely more likely to arrive at the correct answer than the people with no math skills at all. Political bias had erased the advantages of stronger reasoning skills.
  • The reason that measurable facts were sidelined in political debates was not that people have poor reasoning skills, Kahan concluded. Presented with a conflict between holding to their beliefs or finding the correct answer to a problem, people simply went with their tribe.
  • It wasa reasonable strategy on the individual level – and a “disastrous” one for tackling social change, he concluded.
  • But the biggest distortion in the gun control debate is the dramatic empathy gap between different kinds of victims. It’s striking how puritanical the American imagination is, how narrow its range of sympathy. Mass shootings, in which the perpetrator kills complete strangers at random in a public place, prompt an outpouring of grief for the innocent lives lost. These shootings are undoubtedly horrifying, but they account for a tiny percentage of America’s overall gun deaths each year.
  • The roughly 60 gun suicides each day, the 19 black men and boys lost each day to homicide, do not inspire the same reaction, even though they represent the majority of gun violence victims. Yet there are meaningful measures which could save lives here – targeted inventions by frontline workers in neighborhoods where the gun homicide rate is 400 times higher than other developed countries, awareness campaigns to help gun owners in rural states learn about how to identify suicide risk and intervene with friends in trouble.
  • When it comes to suicide, “there is so much shame about that conversation … and where there is shame there is also denial,”
  • When young men of color are killed, “you have disdain and aggression,” fueled by the type of white supremacist argument which equates blackness with criminality.
Javier E

'Our minds can be hijacked': the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia | Technol... - 0 views

  • Rosenstein belongs to a small but growing band of Silicon Valley heretics who complain about the rise of the so-called “attention economy”: an internet shaped around the demands of an advertising economy.
  • “It is very common,” Rosenstein says, “for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.”
  • most concerned about the psychological effects on people who, research shows, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.
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  • There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”
  • Drawing a straight line between addiction to social media and political earthquakes like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, they contend that digital forces have completely upended the political system and, left unchecked, could even render democracy as we know it obsolete.
  • Without irony, Eyal finished his talk with some personal tips for resisting the lure of technology. He told his audience he uses a Chrome extension, called DF YouTube, “which scrubs out a lot of those external triggers” he writes about in his book, and recommended an app called Pocket Points that “rewards you for staying off your phone when you need to focus”.
  • “One reason I think it is particularly important for us to talk about this now is that we may be the last generation that can remember life before,” Rosenstein says. It may or may not be relevant that Rosenstein, Pearlman and most of the tech insiders questioning today’s attention economy are in their 30s, members of the last generation that can remember a world in which telephones were plugged into walls.
  • One morning in April this year, designers, programmers and tech entrepreneurs from across the world gathered at a conference centre on the shore of the San Francisco Bay. They had each paid up to $1,700 to learn how to manipulate people into habitual use of their products, on a course curated by conference organiser Nir Eyal.
  • Eyal, 39, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, has spent several years consulting for the tech industry, teaching techniques he developed by closely studying how the Silicon Valley giants operate.
  • “The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions,” Eyal writes. “It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later.” None of this is an accident, he writes. It is all “just as their designers intended”
  • He explains the subtle psychological tricks that can be used to make people develop habits, such as varying the rewards people receive to create “a craving”, or exploiting negative emotions that can act as “triggers”. “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation,” Eyal writes.
  • The most seductive design, Harris explains, exploits the same psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive: variable rewards. When we tap those apps with red icons, we don’t know whether we’ll discover an interesting email, an avalanche of “likes”, or nothing at all. It is the possibility of disappointment that makes it so compulsive.
  • Finally, Eyal confided the lengths he goes to protect his own family. He has installed in his house an outlet timer connected to a router that cuts off access to the internet at a set time every day. “The idea is to remember that we are not powerless,” he said. “We are in control.
  • But are we? If the people who built these technologies are taking such radical steps to wean themselves free, can the rest of us reasonably be expected to exercise our free will?
  • Not according to Tristan Harris, a 33-year-old former Google employee turned vocal critic of the tech industry. “All of us are jacked into this system,” he says. “All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.”
  • Harris, who has been branded “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”, insists that billions of people have little choice over whether they use these now ubiquitous technologies, and are largely unaware of the invisible ways in which a small number of people in Silicon Valley are shaping their lives.
  • “I don’t know a more urgent problem than this,” Harris says. “It’s changing our democracy, and it’s changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships that we want with each other.” Harris went public – giving talks, writing papers, meeting lawmakers and campaigning for reform after three years struggling to effect change inside Google’s Mountain View headquarters.
  • He explored how LinkedIn exploits a need for social reciprocity to widen its network; how YouTube and Netflix autoplay videos and next episodes, depriving users of a choice about whether or not they want to keep watching; how Snapchat created its addictive Snapstreaks feature, encouraging near-constant communication between its mostly teenage users.
  • The techniques these companies use are not always generic: they can be algorithmically tailored to each person. An internal Facebook report leaked this year, for example, revealed that the company can identify when teens feel “insecure”, “worthless” and “need a confidence boost”. Such granular information, Harris adds, is “a perfect model of what buttons you can push in a particular person”.
  • Tech companies can exploit such vulnerabilities to keep people hooked; manipulating, for example, when people receive “likes” for their posts, ensuring they arrive when an individual is likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or maybe just bored. And the very same techniques can be sold to the highest bidder. “There’s no ethics,” he says. A company paying Facebook to use its levers of persuasion could be a car business targeting tailored advertisements to different types of users who want a new vehicle. Or it could be a Moscow-based troll farm seeking to turn voters in a swing county in Wisconsin.
  • It was Rosenstein’s colleague, Leah Pearlman, then a product manager at Facebook and on the team that created the Facebook “like”, who announced the feature in a 2009 blogpost. Now 35 and an illustrator, Pearlman confirmed via email that she, too, has grown disaffected with Facebook “likes” and other addictive feedback loops. She has installed a web browser plug-in to eradicate her Facebook news feed, and hired a social media manager to monitor her Facebook page so that she doesn’t have to.
  • Harris believes that tech companies never deliberately set out to make their products addictive. They were responding to the incentives of an advertising economy, experimenting with techniques that might capture people’s attention, even stumbling across highly effective design by accident.
  • It’s this that explains how the pull-to-refresh mechanism, whereby users swipe down, pause and wait to see what content appears, rapidly became one of the most addictive and ubiquitous design features in modern technology. “Each time you’re swiping down, it’s like a slot machine,” Harris says. “You don’t know what’s coming next. Sometimes it’s a beautiful photo. Sometimes it’s just an ad.”
  • The reality TV star’s campaign, he said, had heralded a watershed in which “the new, digitally supercharged dynamics of the attention economy have finally crossed a threshold and become manifest in the political realm”.
  • “Smartphones are useful tools,” he says. “But they’re addictive. Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about. I’m not saying I’m mature now, but I’m a little bit more mature, and I regret the downsides.”
  • All of it, he says, is reward-based behaviour that activates the brain’s dopamine pathways. He sometimes finds himself clicking on the red icons beside his apps “to make them go away”, but is conflicted about the ethics of exploiting people’s psychological vulnerabilities. “It is not inherently evil to bring people back to your product,” he says. “It’s capitalism.”
  • He identifies the advent of the smartphone as a turning point, raising the stakes in an arms race for people’s attention. “Facebook and Google assert with merit that they are giving users what they want,” McNamee says. “The same can be said about tobacco companies and drug dealers.”
  • McNamee chooses his words carefully. “The people who run Facebook and Google are good people, whose well-intentioned strategies have led to horrific unintended consequences,” he says. “The problem is that there is nothing the companies can do to address the harm unless they abandon their current advertising models.”
  • But how can Google and Facebook be forced to abandon the business models that have transformed them into two of the most profitable companies on the planet?
  • McNamee believes the companies he invested in should be subjected to greater regulation, including new anti-monopoly rules. In Washington, there is growing appetite, on both sides of the political divide, to rein in Silicon Valley. But McNamee worries the behemoths he helped build may already be too big to curtail.
  • Rosenstein, the Facebook “like” co-creator, believes there may be a case for state regulation of “psychologically manipulative advertising”, saying the moral impetus is comparable to taking action against fossil fuel or tobacco companies. “If we only care about profit maximisation,” he says, “we will go rapidly into dystopia.”
  • James Williams does not believe talk of dystopia is far-fetched. The ex-Google strategist who built the metrics system for the company’s global search advertising business, he has had a front-row view of an industry he describes as the “largest, most standardised and most centralised form of attentional control in human history”.
  • It is a journey that has led him to question whether democracy can survive the new technological age.
  • He says his epiphany came a few years ago, when he noticed he was surrounded by technology that was inhibiting him from concentrating on the things he wanted to focus on. “It was that kind of individual, existential realisation: what’s going on?” he says. “Isn’t technology supposed to be doing the complete opposite of this?
  • That discomfort was compounded during a moment at work, when he glanced at one of Google’s dashboards, a multicoloured display showing how much of people’s attention the company had commandeered for advertisers. “I realised: this is literally a million people that we’ve sort of nudged or persuaded to do this thing that they weren’t going to otherwise do,” he recalls.
  • Williams and Harris left Google around the same time, and co-founded an advocacy group, Time Well Spent, that seeks to build public momentum for a change in the way big tech companies think about design. Williams finds it hard to comprehend why this issue is not “on the front page of every newspaper every day.
  • “Eighty-seven percent of people wake up and go to sleep with their smartphones,” he says. The entire world now has a new prism through which to understand politics, and Williams worries the consequences are profound.
  • g. “The attention economy incentivises the design of technologies that grab our attention,” he says. “In so doing, it privileges our impulses over our intentions.”
  • That means privileging what is sensational over what is nuanced, appealing to emotion, anger and outrage. The news media is increasingly working in service to tech companies, Williams adds, and must play by the rules of the attention economy to “sensationalise, bait and entertain in order to survive”.
  • It is not just shady or bad actors who were exploiting the internet to change public opinion. The attention economy itself is set up to promote a phenomenon like Trump, who is masterly at grabbing and retaining the attention of supporters and critics alike, often by exploiting or creating outrage.
  • All of which has left Brichter, who has put his design work on the backburner while he focuses on building a house in New Jersey, questioning his legacy. “I’ve spent many hours and weeks and months and years thinking about whether anything I’ve done has made a net positive impact on society or humanity at all,” he says. He has blocked certain websites, turned off push notifications, restricted his use of the Telegram app to message only with his wife and two close friends, and tried to wean himself off Twitter. “I still waste time on it,” he confesses, “just reading stupid news I already know about.” He charges his phone in the kitchen, plugging it in at 7pm and not touching it until the next morning.
  • He stresses these dynamics are by no means isolated to the political right: they also play a role, he believes, in the unexpected popularity of leftwing politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and the frequent outbreaks of internet outrage over issues that ignite fury among progressives.
  • All of which, Williams says, is not only distorting the way we view politics but, over time, may be changing the way we think, making us less rational and more impulsive. “We’ve habituated ourselves into a perpetual cognitive style of outrage, by internalising the dynamics of the medium,” he says.
  • It was another English science fiction writer, Aldous Huxley, who provided the more prescient observation when he warned that Orwellian-style coercion was less of a threat to democracy than the more subtle power of psychological manipulation, and “man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”.
  • If the attention economy erodes our ability to remember, to reason, to make decisions for ourselves – faculties that are essential to self-governance – what hope is there for democracy itself?
  • “The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will,” he says. “If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on.”
Javier E

In modern mating, sex isn't the only thing that's cheap - The Washington Post - 1 views

  • Regnerus relies on the concept of sexual economics, in which mating is seen as a marketplace. In this view, women are gatekeepers to a limited, highly desired product: sex. In exchange for access to this product, men proffer commitment, fidelity and resources.
  • Regnerus believes that the sharp drop in the value of sex has shifted the market, even its more conservative parts, leading to a massive overall slowdown in the creation of committed relationships like marriage, in large part because men see less of a need to make themselves into appealing long-term partners.
  • among younger women, especially those who want that sort of traditional relationship, there increasingly seems to be a vague dissatisfaction with the state of things. Why, when women have gained so much power, are we so often at impasse in our romantic relationships? Why do men our age seem so unmotivated to grow up and so ambivalent about committing? As uncomfortable as it may be to contemplate, the shifts this book describes may provide an inkling of an explanation.
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  • When it comes to commonly held modern ideals — of gender egalitarianism, individualism, the assumption that men might seek to improve themselves even without outside prodding — his response is skepticism bordering on exasperation. “In the domain of sex and relationships, men will act as nobly as women collectively demand,” he writes. “This is an aggravating statement for women to read, no doubt. They do not want to be responsible for ‘raising’ men. But it is realistic.”
  • Throughout his book, Regnerus prods the reader to be skeptical of utopianism and see the world as it is. It’s a useful, if unpleasant, reminder for an era in which our goals seem both loftier and further out of reach than ever
Javier E

The teaching of economics gets an overdue overhaul - 0 views

  • Change, however, has been slow to reach the university economics curriculum. Many institutions still pump students through introductory courses untainted by recent economic history or the market shortcomings it illuminates.
  • A few plucky reformers are working to correct that: a grand and overdue idea. Overhauling the way economics is taught ought to produce students more able to understand the modern world. Even better, it should improve economics itself.
  • Yet the standard curriculum is hardly calibrated to impart these lessons. Most introductory texts begin with the simplest of models. Workers are paid according to their productivity; trade never makes anyone worse off; and government interventions in the market always generate a “deadweight loss”. Practising economists know that these statements are more true at some times than others
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  • Economics teaches that incentives matter and trade-offs are unavoidable. It shows how naive attempts to fix social problems, from poverty to climate change, can have unintended consequences. Introductory economics, at its best, enables people to see the unstated assumptions and hidden costs behind the rosy promises of politicians and businessmen.
  • “The Economy”, as the book is economically titled, covers the usual subjects, but in a very different way. It begins with the biggest of big pictures, explaining how capitalism and industrialisation transformed the world, inviting students to contemplate how it arrived at where it is today.
  • Students pay $300 or more for textbooks explaining that in competitive markets the price of a good should fall to the cost of producing an additional unit, and unsurprisingly regurgitate the expected answers. A study of 170 economics modules taught at seven universities found that marks in exams favoured the ability to “operate a model” over proofs of independent judgment.
  • A Chilean professor, Oscar Landerretche, worked with other economists to design a new curriculum. He, Sam Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute, Wendy Carlin, of University College London (UCL), and Margaret Stevens, of Oxford University, painstakingly knitted contributions from economists around the world into a text that is free, online and offers interactive charts and videos of star economists. That text is the basis of economics modules taught by a small but growing number of instructors.
  • That could mean, eventually, a broader array of perspectives within economics departments, bigger and bolder research questions—and fewer profession-shaking traumas in future.
  • Messy complications, from environmental damage to inequality, are placed firmly in the foreground.
  • It explains cost curves, as other introductory texts do, but in the context of the Industrial Revolution, thus exposing students to debates about why industrialisation kicked off when and where it did.
  • But the all-important exceptions are taught quite late in the curriculum—or, often, only in more advanced courses taken by those pursuing an economics degree.
  • “The Economy” does not dumb down economics; it uses maths readily, keeping students engaged through the topicality of the material. Quite early on, students have lessons in the weirdness in economics—from game theory to power dynamics within firms—that makes the subject fascinating and useful but are skimmed over in most introductory courses.
  • Homa Zarghamee, also at Barnard, appreciates having to spend less time “unteaching”, ie, explaining to students why the perfect-competition result they learned does not actually hold in most cases. A student who does not finish the course will not be left with a misleading idea of economics, she notes.
  • Thomas Malthus’s ideas are used to teach students the uses and limitations of economic models, combining technical instruction with a valuable lesson from the history of economic thought.
  • Far from an unintended result of ill-conceived policies, she argues, the roughly 4m deaths from hunger in 1932 and 1933 were part of a deliberate campaign by Josef Stalin and the Bolshevik leadership to crush Ukrainian national aspirations, literally starving actual or potential bearers of those aspirations into submission to the Soviet order
  • The politics in this case was the Sovietisation of Ukraine; the means was starvation. Food supply was not mismanaged by Utopian dreamers. It was weaponised.
  • . “Red Famine” presents a Bolshevik government so hell-bent on extracting wealth and controlling labour that it was willing to confiscate the last remaining grain from hungry peasants (mostly but not exclusively in Ukraine) and then block them from fleeing famine-afflicted areas to search for food.
  • . Stalin was not only aware of the ensuing mass death (amounting to roughly 13% of Ukraine’s population). He actively sought to suppress knowledge of it (including banning the publication of census data), so as not to distract from the campaign to collectivise Soviet agriculture and extend the Communist Party’s reach into the countryside—a campaign Ms Applebaum calls a “revolution...more profound and more shocking than the original Bolshevik revolution itself”
  • The book’s most powerful passages describe the moral degradation that resulted from sustained hunger, as family solidarity and village traditions of hospitality withered in the face of the overwhelming desire to eat. Under a state of siege by Soviet authorities, hunger-crazed peasants took to consuming, grass, animal hides, manure and occasionally each other. People became indifferent to the sight of corpses lying in streets, and eventually to their own demis
  • While stressing Stalin’s goal of crushing Ukrainian nationalism, moreover, Ms Applebaum passes over a subtler truth. For along with its efforts to root out “bourgeois” nationalisms, the Kremlin relentlessly promoted a Soviet version of Ukrainian identity, as it did with most other ethnic minorities. Eight decades on, that legacy has done even more to shape today’s Ukraine than the Holodomor.
Javier E

Most Campaign Outreach Has No Effect on Voters - The Atlantic - 0 views

  • David Broockman, a Stanford University assistant professor, and Joshua Kalla, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed data from 49 field experiments—state, local, and federal campaigns that let political scientists access their data to evaluate their methods
  • For every flyer stuck in a mailbox, every door knocked by an earnest volunteer, and every candidate message left on an answering machine, there was no measurable change in voting outcomes. Even early outreach efforts, which are somewhat more successful at persuading voters, tend to fade from memory by Election Day.
  • Broockman and Kalla also estimated that the effect of television and online ads is zero, although only a small portion of their data speaks directly to that point.
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  • The findings suggest that a lot of the time, energy, and money poured into traditional campaigning methods is wasted, and that the campaign operatives hawking tried-and-true tactics don’t have the evidence to back up their claims.
  • It also casts doubt on the theory of the swing voter who can be persuaded with enough flyers, ad exposure, and conversations with earnest volunteers
  • In reality, Broockman and Kalla find, direct outreach is most effective at improving voter turnout, suggesting that campaigns should focus on getting their core supporters to the polls than reaching out to a mythical middle.
  • This new study suggests that intentionally curated, issue-specific persuasion campaigns may shift people’s views more easily than partisan political campaigns.
  • Emma Green: So, is political campaigning useless?

    Joshua Kalla: The short answer is ‘no.

  • There are lots of things that campaigning can accomplish. Two decades of research on voter registration and hundreds of field experiments show really cost-effective ways to increase turnout in the base.

    But on persuasion, yes, we find that on average, there are very small effects.

  • Kalla: A lot of campaign operatives think there’s this big pool of moderate, undecided voters that we can spend money on to persuade them to our side. That strategy is probably not the right strategy. And we should be skeptical of big claims of persuasion.
  • Kalla: All the money is being poured into the same time and the same place. It’s hard to imagine that the hundredth TV ad that a person views is really worth it from a monetary perspective, versus that same money spent in a different race or a lower race. There’s a case to be made that too much money is being spent in the same ways and on the same people.
  • But the takeaway from this paper should not be that campaigns should stop. Campaigns do a lot of work that is measurable in return on getting voters to vote, and persuading voters. It’s just a question of how the money is spent.
  • Kalla: The first order of understanding an election and how people vote is partisan identity. Most people vote based on whether there’s a D or an R next to their name. Unpacking that should be more the focus than the horserace.
  • We don’t see persuasive effects in general elections where a Democrat is talking to a Republican. But in ballot-measure campaigns and primaries and the transgender work, it seems that persuasion is possible.
  • Most Americans view themselves in a partisan lens. When it comes time to vote, it’s less a function of a person running for office than a person with a party label beside his or her name.
  • Green: But what about the roughly 39 percent of Americans who identify as independents?

    Kalla: A lot of independents tend to be what political scientists term as “closeted partisans.” They might not explicitly identify with a party, but if you ask them which party they lean toward, they’ll often give you an answer. Their behavior tends to look a lot like the behavior of people who explicitly identify as partisans.

  • Green: Our democracy is based on this romantic idea that encounters in the public square—conversations, essays, speeches, etc.— have the power to change how people view the world. If you’re saying that’s basically not true, where does that leave us? Are we all just destined to remain isolated in the prisons of our own convictions?
  • Kalla: I want to draw a distinction with the transgender canvassing work. That was very much focusing on getting people to be introspective and think about times that they or their loved ones have been discriminated against, and how that made them feel, and how that real, lived experience informs their views on non-discrimination laws and views toward LGBT people. That’s close to an ideal of how we want democracy to function.
  • That’s not the type of discourse you see in campaigns. I don’t think TV ads or every glossy postcard is really going to lead to enlightened discourse among the American public.
Javier E

Erick Erickson: How to Find Common Ground - The New York Times - 1 views

  • Our family life is now focused on three-month windows of normalcy between my wife’s CT scans.
  • Contemplating these things, last November I posted a short essay on my website of things I would want my children to know if their mother and I died before they woke.
  • I want them to do what is right, not what is popular, and I want them to measure their self-worth by being ethical individuals, not by the applause they receive on social media.
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  • As we have moved more of our lives onto the internet, we have stopped living in actual communities. Instead we have created virtual communities where everyone thinks the same. We do not have to worry about the homeless man under the bridge because he is no longer part of our community. He is someone else’s problem. But that simply is not true.
  • Not everything should be political, and we can only make everything political when we decide the other side is evil just because they disagree with us. We can see the world only in this polarized way if we never take the time to know anyone on the other side, if we never find ways to build friendship despite our differences.
  • Even as the internet provides us great advances, it also segments us. We have social-media tribes and our self-esteem is based on likes and retweets. We have hundreds of television channels and even more video choices online where Hollywood no longer has to worry about broad appeal. There is a channel for everyone, and everyone in the tribe will get the inside jokes. Social-media interactions have replaced the value of character.
  • The kitchen table is the most important tool they have to reshape their community. Preparing a home-cooked meal and inviting people over, both those we know and those we want to know, forces us to find common ground.
  • The truth, though, is that our Facebook friends are probably not going to water our flowers while we are on vacation and our Twitter followers will not bring us a meal if we are sick. But the actual human being next door might do both if we meet him.
  • Every person has an interesting story to tell. I want my children to know my story.
  • We may also never find that common ground with people whose politics or faith conflicts with ours. But we owe it to one another to disagree agreeably, without anger or intimidation, whether on a front porch or a Facebook page. A little more grace among us all would go a long way toward healing the nation.
Javier E

History News Network | We Traded in One of the Most Self-Disciplined Presidents for the... - 1 views

  • How ironic it is then that President Obama, the bane of conservatives, possessed an abundance of self-discipline, and President Trump, who most conservatives (including Bennet) favored over Hilary Clinton, possesses almost none.
  • The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle thought that political leaders should exercise practical wisdom (phronesis) or prudence. He considered temperance (i.e., moderation, self-restraint) and self-discipline two of the most important virtues required for such wisdom. He believed that the two virtues should help us regulate what he called “the appetitive faculty,” which deals with our emotions and desires
  • One of the twentieth-century’s most prominent commentators on political wisdom, Britain’s Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), viewed temperance as an important political virtue, and he connected it to humility and tolerance—neither of which Trump displays. And in his “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin wrote, “Freedom is self-mastery.”
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  • Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe in their Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing (2010) state that such wisdom is greatly needed
  • The authors quote Aristotle and give the example of a man practicing practical wisdom and mention that “he had the self-control—the emotion-regulating skills—to choose rightly.”
  • Psychologist, futurist, and editor of The Wisdom Page Tom Lombardo also stresses the importance of temperance and self-control. In his new book on Future Consciousness
  • he includes a whole chapter (of 45 pages) on “Self-Control and Self-Responsibility.” In it he cites favorably two authors who claim that “most human problems are due to a lack of self-control.” He also states that “we cannot flourish without self-responsibility, self-control, and . . . . one of the most unethical forms of thinking and behavior in life . . . is to abdicate self-responsibility and self-control in ourselves.”
  • In Inside Obama’s Brain (2009), journalist Sasha Abramsky talked to over a hundred people who knew Obama and reported that “during the election campaign Obama almost never got upset, or panicked, by day-to-day shifts in momentum, by the ups and downs of opinion polls.” Almost a year into his presidency, Abramsky refered to the president as “a voice of moderation in a corrosively shrill, partisan political milieu.”
  • Up until the end of his presidency, Obama maintained his self-control and temperance. As a Huffington Post piece noted in 2016, he “has been the model of temperance in office on all fronts.”
  • Just as many individuals have commented on Obama’s self-discipline and temperance, so too have many remarked on Trump’s lack of these virtues
  • In May 2017, Brooks stated: “At base, Trump is an infantalist. There are three tasks that most mature adults have sort of figured out by the time they hit 25. Trump has mastered none of them. Immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif.”
  • Two months later, Douthat opined about Trump: “He is nonetheless clearly impaired, gravely deficient somewhere at the intersection of reason and judgment and conscience and self-control. . . . This president should not be the president, and the sooner he is not, the better.”
  • Karl Rove, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, insisted that Trump “lacks the focus or self-discipline to do the basic work required of a president.”
  • At about the same time former Republican senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) declared “The question is, does he have the self-discipline and some control over his ego to be able to say ‘I’m wrong’ every now and then? I haven’t seen that.
  • it is Trump’s narcissism and lack of humility that are his chief faults and hinder him most from being even a mediocre president.
Javier E

Scientists Discover Some of the Oldest Signs of Life on Earth - The Atlantic - 0 views

  • The Earth was formed around 4.54 billion years ago. If you condense that huge swath of prehistory into a single calendar year, then the 3.95-billion-year-old graphite that the Tokyo team analyzed was created in the third week of February. By contrast, the earliest fossils ever found are 3.7 billion years old; they were created in the second week of March.

  • Those fossils, from the Isua Belt in southwest Greenland, are stromatolites—layered structures created by communities of bacteria. And as I reported last year, their presence suggests that life already existed in a sophisticated form at the 3.7-billion-year mark, and so must have arisen much earlier. And indeed, scientists have found traces of biologically produced graphite throughout the region, in other Isua Belt rocks that are 3.8 billion years old, and in hydrothermal vents off the coast of Quebec that are at least a similar age, and possibly even older.
  • “As far back as the rock record extends—that is, as far back as we can look for direct evidence of early life, we are finding it. Earth has been a biotic, life-sustaining planet since close to its beginning.”
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  • living organisms concentrate carbon-12 in their cells—and when they die, that signature persists. When scientists find graphite that’s especially enriched in carbon-12, relative to carbon-13, they can deduce that living things were around when that graphite was first formed. And that’s exactly what the Tokyo team found in the Saglek Block—grains of graphite, enriched in carbon-12, encased within 3.95-billion-year-old rock.
  • the team calculated the graphite was created at temperatures between 536 and 622 Celsius—a range that’s consistent with the temperatures at which the surrounding metamorphic rocks were transformed. This suggests that the graphite was already there when the rocks were heated and warped, and didn’t sneak in later. It was truly OG—original graphite.
  • Still, all of this evidence suggests Earth was home to life during its hellish infancy, and that such life abounded in a variety of habitats. Those pioneering organisms—bacteria, probably—haven’t left any fossils behind. But Sano and Komiya hope to find some clues about them by analyzing the Saglek Block rocks. The levels of nitrogen, iron, and sulfur in the rocks could reveal which energy sources those organisms exploited, and which environments they inhabited. They could tell us how life first lived.
Javier E

I asked Tinder for my data. It sent me 800 pages of my deepest, darkest secrets | Techn... - 0 views

  • I emailed Tinder requesting my personal data and got back way more than I bargained for.

    Some 800 pages came back containing information such as my Facebook “likes”, my photos from Instagram (even after I deleted the associated account), my education, the age-rank of men I was interested in, how many times I connected, when and where every online conversation with every single one of my matches happened … the list goes on.

  • “You are lured into giving away all this information,” says Luke Stark, a digital technology sociologist at Dartmouth University. “Apps such as Tinder are taking advantage of a simple emotional phenomenon; we can’t feel data. This is why seeing everything printed strikes you. We are physical creatures. We need materiality.”
  • What will happen if this treasure trove of data gets hacked, is made public or simply bought by another company? I can almost feel the shame I would experience. The thought that, before sending me these 800 pages, someone at Tinder might have read them already makes me cringe.
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  • In May, an algorithm was used to scrape 40,000 profile images from the platform in order to build an AI to “genderise” faces. A few months earlier, 70,000 profiles from OkCupid (owned by Tinder’s parent company Match Group) were made public by a Danish researcher some commentators have labelled a “white supremacist”, who used the data to try to establish a link between intelligence and religious beliefs. The data is still out there.
  • The trouble is these 800 pages of my most intimate data are actually just the tip of the iceberg. “Your personal data affects who you see first on Tinder, yes,” says Dehaye. “But also what job offers you have access to on LinkedIn, how much you will pay for insuring your car, which ad you will see in the tube and if you can subscribe to a loan.

    “We are leaning towards a more and more opaque society, towards an even more intangible world where data collected about you will decide even larger facets of your life. Eventually, your whole existence will be affected.”

  • As a typical millennial constantly glued to my phone, my virtual life has fully merged with my real life. There is no difference any more. Tinder is how I meet people, so this is my reality. It is a reality that is constantly being shaped by others – but good luck trying to find out how.
Javier E

The Coming Software Apocalypse - The Atlantic - 1 views

  • Our standard framework for thinking about engineering failures—reflected, for instance, in regulations for medical devices—was developed shortly after World War II, before the advent of software, for electromechanical systems. The idea was that you make something reliable by making its parts reliable (say, you build your engine to withstand 40,000 takeoff-and-landing cycles) and by planning for the breakdown of those parts (you have two engines). But software doesn’t break. Intrado’s faulty threshold is not like the faulty rivet that leads to the crash of an airliner. The software did exactly what it was told to do. In fact it did it perfectly. The reason it failed is that it was told to do the wrong thing.
  • Software failures are failures of understanding, and of imagination. Intrado actually had a backup router, which, had it been switched to automatically, would have restored 911 service almost immediately. But, as described in a report to the FCC, “the situation occurred at a point in the application logic that was not designed to perform any automated corrective actions.”
  • The introduction of programming languages like Fortran and C, which resemble English, and tools, known as “integrated development environments,” or IDEs, that help correct simple mistakes (like Microsoft Word’s grammar checker but for code), obscured, though did little to actually change, this basic alienation—the fact that the programmer didn’t work on a problem directly, but rather spent their days writing out instructions for a machine.
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  • Code is too hard to think about. Before trying to understand the attempts themselves, then, it’s worth understanding why this might be: what it is about code that makes it so foreign to the mind, and so unlike anything that came before it.
  • Technological progress used to change the way the world looked—you could watch the roads getting paved; you could see the skylines rise. Today you can hardly tell when something is remade, because so often it is remade by code.
  • Software has enabled us to make the most intricate machines that have ever existed. And yet we have hardly noticed, because all of that complexity is packed into tiny silicon chips as millions and millions of lines of cod
  • The programmer, the renowned Dutch computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra wrote in 1988, “has to be able to think in terms of conceptual hierarchies that are much deeper than a single mind ever needed to face before.” Dijkstra meant this as a warning.
  • As programmers eagerly poured software into critical systems, they became, more and more, the linchpins of the built world—and Dijkstra thought they had perhaps overestimated themselves.
  • What made programming so difficult was that it required you to think like a computer.
  • “The problem is that software engineers don’t understand the problem they’re trying to solve, and don’t care to,” says Leveson, the MIT software-safety expert. The reason is that they’re too wrapped up in getting their code to work.
  • Though he runs a lab that studies the future of computing, he seems less interested in technology per se than in the minds of the people who use it. Like any good toolmaker, he has a way of looking at the world that is equal parts technical and humane. He graduated top of his class at the California Institute of Technology for electrical engineering,
  • “The serious problems that have happened with software have to do with requirements, not coding errors.” When you’re writing code that controls a car’s throttle, for instance, what’s important is the rules about when and how and by how much to open it. But these systems have become so complicated that hardly anyone can keep them straight in their head. “There’s 100 million lines of code in cars now,” Leveson says. “You just cannot anticipate all these things.”
  • a nearly decade-long investigation into claims of so-called unintended acceleration in Toyota cars. Toyota blamed the incidents on poorly designed floor mats, “sticky” pedals, and driver error, but outsiders suspected that faulty software might be responsible
  • software experts spend 18 months with the Toyota code, picking up where NASA left off. Barr described what they found as “spaghetti code,” programmer lingo for software that has become a tangled mess. Code turns to spaghetti when it accretes over many years, with feature after feature piling on top of, and being woven around
  • Using the same model as the Camry involved in the accident, Barr’s team demonstrated that there were actually more than 10 million ways for the onboard computer to cause unintended acceleration. They showed that as little as a single bit flip—a one in the computer’s memory becoming a zero or vice versa—could make a car run out of control. The fail-safe code that Toyota had put in place wasn’t enough to stop it
  • . In all, Toyota recalled more than 9 million cars, and paid nearly $3 billion in settlements and fines related to unintended acceleration.
  • The problem is that programmers are having a hard time keeping up with their own creations. Since the 1980s, the way programmers work and the tools they use have changed remarkably little.
  • “Visual Studio is one of the single largest pieces of software in the world,” he said. “It’s over 55 million lines of code. And one of the things that I found out in this study is more than 98 percent of it is completely irrelevant. All this work had been put into this thing, but it missed the fundamental problems that people faced. And the biggest one that I took away from it was that basically people are playing computer inside their head.” Programmers were like chess players trying to play with a blindfold on—so much of their mental energy is spent just trying to picture where the pieces are that there’s hardly any left over to think about the game itself.
  • The fact that the two of them were thinking about the same problem in the same terms, at the same time, was not a coincidence. They had both just seen the same remarkable talk, given to a group of software-engineering students in a Montreal hotel by a computer researcher named Bret Victor. The talk, which went viral when it was posted online in February 2012, seemed to be making two bold claims. The first was that the way we make software is fundamentally broken. The second was that Victor knew how to fix it.
  • This is the trouble with making things out of code, as opposed to something physical. “The complexity,” as Leveson puts it, “is invisible to the eye.”
  • in early 2012, Victor had finally landed upon the principle that seemed to thread through all of his work. (He actually called the talk “Inventing on Principle.”) The principle was this: “Creators need an immediate connection to what they’re creating.” The problem with programming was that it violated the principle. That’s why software systems were so hard to think about, and so rife with bugs: The programmer, staring at a page of text, was abstracted from whatever it was they were actually making.
  • “Our current conception of what a computer program is,” he said, is “derived straight from Fortran and ALGOL in the late ’50s. Those languages were designed for punch cards.”
  • WYSIWYG (pronounced “wizzywig”) came along. It stood for “What You See Is What You Get.”
  • Victor’s point was that programming itself should be like that. For him, the idea that people were doing important work, like designing adaptive cruise-control systems or trying to understand cancer, by staring at a text editor, was appalling.
  • With the right interface, it was almost as if you weren’t working with code at all; you were manipulating the game’s behavior directly.
  • When the audience first saw this in action, they literally gasped. They knew they weren’t looking at a kid’s game, but rather the future of their industry. Most software involved behavior that unfolded, in complex ways, over time, and Victor had shown that if you were imaginative enough, you could develop ways to see that behavior and change it, as if playing with it in your hands. One programmer who saw the talk wrote later: “Suddenly all of my tools feel obsolete.”
  • hen John Resig saw the “Inventing on Principle” talk, he scrapped his plans for the Khan Academy programming curriculum. He wanted the site’s programming exercises to work just like Victor’s demos. On the left-hand side you’d have the code, and on the right, the running program: a picture or game or simulation. If you changed the code, it’d instantly change the picture. “In an environment that is truly responsive,” Resig wrote about the approach, “you can completely change the model of how a student learns ... [They] can now immediately see the result and intuit how underlying systems inherently work without ever following an explicit explanation.” Khan Academy has become perhaps the largest computer-programming class in the world, with a million students, on average, actively using the program each month.
  • The ideas spread. The notion of liveness, of being able to see data flowing through your program instantly, made its way into flagship programming tools offered by Google and Apple. The default language for making new iPhone and Mac apps, called Swift, was developed by Apple from the ground up to support an environment, called Playgrounds, that was directly inspired by Light Table.
  • “Typically the main problem with software coding—and I’m a coder myself,” Bantegnie says, “is not the skills of the coders. The people know how to code. The problem is what to code. Because most of the requirements are kind of natural language, ambiguous, and a requirement is never extremely precise, it’s often understood differently by the guy who’s supposed to code.”
  • In a pair of later talks, “Stop Drawing Dead Fish” and “Drawing Dynamic Visualizations,” Victor went one further. He demoed two programs he’d built—the first for animators, the second for scientists trying to visualize their data—each of which took a process that used to involve writing lots of custom code and reduced it to playing around in a WYSIWYG interface.
  • Victor suggested that the same trick could be pulled for nearly every problem where code was being written today. “I’m not sure that programming has to exist at all,” he told me. “Or at least software developers.” In his mind, a software developer’s proper role was to create tools that removed the need for software developers. Only then would people with the most urgent computational problems be able to grasp those problems directly, without the intermediate muck of code.
  • Victor implored professional software developers to stop pouring their talent into tools for building apps like Snapchat and Uber. “The inconveniences of daily life are not the significant problems,” he wrote. Instead, they should focus on scientists and engineers—as he put it to me, “these people that are doing work that actually matters, and critically matters, and using really, really bad tools.”
  • Bantegnie’s company is one of the pioneers in the industrial use of model-based design, in which you no longer write code directly. Instead, you create a kind of flowchart that describes the rules your program should follow (the “model”), and the computer generates code for you based on those rules
  • In a model-based design tool, you’d represent this rule with a small diagram, as though drawing the logic out on a whiteboard, made of boxes that represent different states—like “door open,” “moving,” and “door closed”—and lines that define how you can get from one state to the other. The diagrams make the system’s rules obvious: Just by looking, you can see that the only way to get the elevator moving is to close the door, or that the only way to get the door open is to stop.
  • . In traditional programming, your task is to take complex rules and translate them into code; most of your energy is spent doing the translating, rather than thinking about the rules themselves. In the model-based approach, all you have is the rules. So that’s what you spend your time thinking about. It’s a way of focusing less on the machine and more on the problem you’re trying to get it to solve.
  • “Everyone thought I was interested in programming environments,” he said. Really he was interested in how people see and understand systems—as he puts it, in the “visual representation of dynamic behavior.” Although code had increasingly become the tool of choice for creating dynamic behavior, it remained one of the worst tools for understanding it. The point of “Inventing on Principle” was to show that you could mitigate that problem by making the connection between a system’s behavior and its code immediate.
  • On this view, software becomes unruly because the media for describing what software should do—conversations, prose descriptions, drawings on a sheet of paper—are too different from the media describing what software does do, namely, code itself.
  • for this approach to succeed, much of the work has to be done well before the project even begins. Someone first has to build a tool for developing models that are natural for people—that feel just like the notes and drawings they’d make on their own—while still being unambiguous enough for a computer to understand. They have to make a program that turns these models into real code. And finally they have to prove that the generated code will always do what it’s supposed to.
  • tice brings order and accountability to large codebases. But, Shivappa says, “it’s a very labor-intensive process.” He estimates that before they used model-based design, on a two-year-long project only two to three months was spent writing code—the rest was spent working on the documentation.
  • uch of the benefit of the model-based approach comes from being able to add requirements on the fly while still ensuring that existing ones are met; with every change, the computer can verify that your program still works. You’re free to tweak your blueprint without fear of introducing new bugs. Your code is, in FAA parlance, “correct by construction.”
  • “people are not so easily transitioning to model-based software development: They perceive it as another opportunity to lose control, even more than they have already.”
  • The bias against model-based design, sometimes known as model-driven engineering, or MDE, is in fact so ingrained that according to a recent paper, “Some even argue that there is a stronger need to investigate people’s perception of MDE than to research new MDE technologies.”
  • “Human intuition is poor at estimating the true probability of supposedly ‘extremely rare’ combinations of events in systems operating at a scale of millions of requests per second,” he wrote in a paper. “That human fallibility means that some of the more subtle, dangerous bugs turn out to be errors in design; the code faithfully implements the intended design, but the design fails to correctly handle a particular ‘rare’ scenario.”
  • Newcombe was convinced that the algorithms behind truly critical systems—systems storing a significant portion of the web’s data, for instance—ought to be not just good, but perfect. A single subtle bug could be catastrophic. But he knew how hard bugs were to find, especially as an algorithm grew more complex. You could do all the testing you wanted and you’d never find them all.
  • An algorithm written in TLA+ could in principle be proven correct. In practice, it allowed you to create a realistic model of your problem and test it not just thoroughly, but exhaustively. This was exactly what he’d been looking for: a language for writing perfect algorithms.
  • TLA+, which stands for “Temporal Logic of Actions,” is similar in spirit to model-based design: It’s a language for writing down the requirements—TLA+ calls them “specifications”—of computer programs. These specifications can then be completely verified by a computer. That is, before you write any code, you write a concise outline of your program’s logic, along with the constraints you need it to satisfy
  • Programmers are drawn to the nitty-gritty of coding because code is what makes programs go; spending time on anything else can seem like a distraction. And there is a patient joy, a meditative kind of satisfaction, to be had from puzzling out the micro-mechanics of code. But code, Lamport argues, was never meant to be a medium for thought. “It really does constrain your ability to think when you’re thinking in terms of a programming language,”
  • Code makes you miss the forest for the trees: It draws your attention to the working of individual pieces, rather than to the bigger picture of how your program fits together, or what it’s supposed to do—and whether it actually does what you think. This is why Lamport created TLA+. As with model-based design, TLA+ draws your focus to the high-level structure of a system, its essential logic, rather than to the code that implements it.
  • But TLA+ occupies just a small, far corner of the mainstream, if it can be said to take up any space there at all. Even to a seasoned engineer like Newcombe, the language read at first as bizarre and esoteric—a zoo of symbols.
  • this is a failure of education. Though programming was born in mathematics, it has since largely been divorced from it. Most programmers aren’t very fluent in the kind of math—logic and set theory, mostly—that you need to work with TLA+. “Very few programmers—and including very few teachers of programming—understand the very basic concepts and how they’re applied in practice. And they seem to think that all they need is code,” Lamport says. “The idea that there’s some higher level than the code in which you need to be able to think precisely, and that mathematics actually allows you to think precisely about it, is just completely foreign. Because they never learned it.”
  • “In the 15th century,” he said, “people used to build cathedrals without knowing calculus, and nowadays I don’t think you’d allow anyone to build a cathedral without knowing calculus. And I would hope that after some suitably long period of time, people won’t be allowed to write programs if they don’t understand these simple things.”
  • Programmers, as a species, are relentlessly pragmatic. Tools like TLA+ reek of the ivory tower. When programmers encounter “formal methods” (so called because they involve mathematical, “formally” precise descriptions of programs), their deep-seated instinct is to recoil.
  • Formal methods had an image problem. And the way to fix it wasn’t to implore programmers to change—it was to change yourself. Newcombe realized that to bring tools like TLA+ to the programming mainstream, you had to start speaking their language.
  • he presented TLA+ as a new kind of “pseudocode,” a stepping-stone to real code that allowed you to exhaustively test your algorithms—and that got you thinking precisely early on in the design process. “Engineers think in terms of debugging rather than ‘verification,’” he wrote, so he titled his internal talk on the subject to fellow Amazon engineers “Debugging Designs.” Rather than bemoan the fact that programmers see the world in code, Newcombe embraced it. He knew he’d lose them otherwise. “I’ve had a bunch of people say, ‘Now I get it,’” Newcombe says.
  • In the world of the self-driving car, software can’t be an afterthought. It can’t be built like today’s airline-reservation systems or 911 systems or stock-trading systems. Code will be put in charge of hundreds of millions of lives on the road and it has to work. That is no small task.
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