Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Pinterest to pave Instapaper paradise and put up a parking lot

It's kind of a sad parallel to the incentives and economic realities that make your favorite local boutique or art shop get replaced by a Bank of America branch.

Not only is it hard to compete for space/talent with their money, they are additionally incentivized to aggressively expand because it's defense against good people/locations going to competing firms.

We like to fantasize that the basic currency of power in silicon valley is meaningful user delight, when it's really just a narrow kind of user attention hack...

...the kind that cheaply and emptily occupies Facebook and funds billionaires' pseudo-noble vanity quests against the same purveyors of cheap clickbait that make them their money in the first place.

Instapaper can't spam my attention like Pinterest can, so it and all your Pinterest joy are living in borrowed time.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

I'm learning some of Apple's tvOS (for developing AppleTV apps), and so far these are the introductory resources I have found most helpful:

Tobias Conradi (@toco91)'s intro slides:


Davis Allie’s quick intro on tutsplus, including a simple first app:


Greg Mojica’s quick intro on appcoda, more data-focused and extensive than Allie’s:


Mark Price’s Devslopes Apple TV Tutorial:

In-depth tutorial:

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Books I have given as gifts

There's a great Hacker News thread on what book you've given most as a gift.

Thinking of what I've given as a gift is easier, and less fraught with worries about what it says about me, than answering about my favorite books, period.

It's pretty incredible that in the nearly infinite universe of books, I keep hearing some of the same ones recommended comma such as The Easy way to stop smoking, William Zinsser's On Writing Well, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Ayn Rand, Bill Bryson. (not that I personally know and love all these.)

It gives me hope that there's a chance for quality to provide the engine of virality! Although it helps spread a book if the book subtly serves the reader's ego, like I accuse Michael Lewis of doing...

Here's my list:

For adults:

  • What Uncle Sam Really Wants by Noam Chomsky -- haven't read this forever, but I gave away dozens of copies in college... concise and effective introduction to the leftist critique of American foreign policy, which I think has proved right in its predictions since being published, even if I think Chomsky is a sloppy political thinker
  • Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock - mystery told in the form of other people's delightfully intricate mail that you read
  • Advice to a Young Wife from an Old Mistress, by Michael Drury -- real life observations on romance and life
  • Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud - incredible journey into how our minds see comics and make them into story and shared mental experience, way more fun than it sounds.
  • Ghost World by Daniel Clowes - great graphic novel to introduce a widely read adult to what comics can be outside of superheroes; very intellectual
  • Black Hole by Charles Burns (graphic novel) -- can't keep this on my shelf, it leaps into people's arms. Dark twisted coming of age parable.

For kids, age 5-105:

  • The Boy Who Reversed Himself by William Sleator- great kids' sci-fi that takes the ideas of Flatland and applies them to the 4th dimension.
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar-- kind of like Borges for kids
  • Bone vol. 1: out of Boneville by Jeff Smith - silly and irresistible fantasy comic by a master cartoonist
  • Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hanke - great kids' sci-fi graphic novel romp, with a strong girl at the center.

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Monday, August 08, 2016

The pedagogical power of fantasy

Deena Skolnick Weisberg writes up some interesting research that (provisionally) suggests that children learn certain kinds of information better from fantasy writing than realism:

A different, and richer, possibility is that there’s something about fantastical contexts that is particularly helpful for learning. From this perspective, fantastical fiction might do something more than hold children’s interest better than realistic fiction. Rather, immersion in a scenario where they need to think about impossible events might engage children’s deeper processing, precisely because they can’t treat these scenarios as they would every other scenario that they encounter in reality.

They must consider every event with fresh eyes, asking whether it fits with the world of the story and whether it could fit within the laws of reality. This constant need to evaluate a story might make these situations particularly ripe for learning.

My hypothesis is that we are creatures of story. Story can take control more clearly when unmoored from all the constraints of our specific reality. But it can't go too far.

"She was obsessed with getting through the asteroid belt faster" focuses me on the story more than "She was obsessed with getting through the car wash faster", but also more than an obscure sentence like "She was obsessed with getting through the Andromeda Nexus in fewer light years".

The right amount of novelty seems to help. And the novel scenarios of sci-fi can mean that every detail alludes to so much background story. Everything is new, except the background associations and history we bring to the story. So there is a mutually reinforcing power to the figure and the ground, to borrow a phrasing from Gestalt psychology.

In Star Wars, Luke gasps "You know about the rebellion against the empire!?", and we know that it's kept hush-hush, that he sympathizes with it, and that it strikes him as daring in contrast to his mundane agricultural existence. We are bringing an immense amount of knowledge to that line, but it is able to cast a shadow without being encumbered by our knowledge.

Adding to that, since the scenarios are concocted from whole cloth, they can use bolder stitching. The galaxy can be in a rebellion that has a murky religious battle underneath... the stakes can be so high.

I recently reread CS Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to my daughter. It opens with a conservative takedown of what was then considered progressive education. Eustace, a schoolboy at such a school, is a jerk who only reads about real things--grain silo capacities and such--and is taught to look down on fantasy. Meanwhile, of course, the whole series is an argument for the power of fantasy to communicate about Jesus better than the church does.

From the last chapter of Dawn Treader:

"Dearest," said Aslan very gently, "you and your brother will never come back to Narnia."

"Oh, Aslan!!" said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

"You are too old, children," said Aslan, "and you must begin to come close to your own world now."

"It isn't Narnia, you know," sobbed Lucy. "It's OK. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?"

"But you shall meet me, dear one," said Aslan.

"Are—are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.

"I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."

It is a powerful argument for illumination through fantasy.

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Friday, August 05, 2016

One of these days, someone's going to cook up a use for Bitcoin

This William Mougayar talk about Bitcoin and the blockchain left me stumped.

He's clearly smart, but there's something I'm not getting. He keeps saying "the blockchain's potential is not about payments." But many of his prime examples (including one he's investing in!) are using blockchain for payments, and nothing else.

Don't get me wrong, the blockchain does seem useful for payments, due to the low chance of fraud. Checks can be stolen and forged, credit cards can be falsely charged. But as he emphasizes, the current system is basically working fine; overall fraud and fees are low enough that competition is hard and there is little incentive to start using cryptocurrencies instead.

I got the sense that he was dancing around a dearth of specific ideas, and just assuming that something amazing must be buildable on this.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Amazon, quality control and brand erosion

Amazon is the everything store for me and so many people, which is why it's such a problem that you can't trust their product listings to match what they say they match, or to distinguish between different editions or even different translations of a book.

It's a total mess. They aggregate the reviews as if it's the same book, so people criticize one translation in a review, and it's interpreted as a critique of a different translation!

And of course that means it's a gamble to order a used book... often Amazon hasn't even told the seller which edition you thought you bought. Then you're faced with the prospect of punishing the seller for something that's the platform's fault.

More broadly, Amazon has had a problem for many years with the fidelity of suppliers' items. You can't review a partner seller Amazon is in bed with, or report that they fraudulently pulled a bait and switch, only return the item at your own time expense. So plenty of these second-party sellers build up a few reviews by selling the real thing, often through the Amazon trusted reviewer program, then shift to knockoffs. Amazon makes it very easy for them to give Amazon extra money for this process, then makes it hard to resist that you're being sold a lower quality item than the one on the website.

I think it's a mistake to let their brand erode like this for nickels and dimes... I stopped buying much on eBay when it became clear that their PayPal fraud guarantee was designed to not pay you back even when eBay and PayPal admit your money was stolen. I'm much more cautious about buying on Amazon these days if there are multiple editions of a book, or there's any hint of fraud in the comments (which is startlingly often).

FWIW, the bookstore Schoenhof's in Cambridge MA is an excellent place to buy, and ask about, books in languages besides English. (I recommend reading Harry Potter in translation--it's a great way to improve at the intermediate level!)

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Imagination and its poisoners

I don't like arguments that seem to assume there is some kind of analysis that only deals with statistical data without additional reasoning, interpretation and imagination.

See the old debate between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait. I think Coates, for all his great points, is too quick to insist that the debate stop using speculation and stick to research. It's not that he's wrong about the value of research, but that he's wrong that it would do much to clarify his and Chait's debate. The deep problem is not that they have much specific disagreement, but that they are playing for different teams. I wonder if it is Chait's hitting close to the bone, rather than his missing the mark, that raises Coates's ire; cogent arguments by someone who disagrees with you are welcome when you feel you can safely allow the other side to score points, but they are panic-inducing when you feel you cannot give ground. Then, entertaining thought exercises feels unsafe.

In a response to Stephen Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature and its argument that violence has declined, Nassim Taleb recently commented that "You can't easily extract statistical information from fat tailed data". I think that phrasing suggests a basic misunderstanding of statistics and data and reasoning... there is no pure information devoid of context that can be extracted from data. (And Pinker stays away from misleadingly clean math in his argument for a decline in violence.) There is no point, in collecting evidence, at which you suddenly have enough data to justify interpretation.

Think of the decisions we make in our lives and how little data we have available. Can I point to rigorous statistical studies that tell me my daughters will have a better outcome if they go to our local public school, where the administration and the teaching staff strike me as incompetent and unprofessional, versus if she goes to her actual current school, which is well run and staffed by people who seem, anecdotally, to love children? Of course not. Is my sense of confidence that this is a better choice a worthless illusion? No, it's not--I could well be wrong, and I should push myself to reduce bias in many ways, but my confidence is built on an understanding that is at least somewhat sound. Taleb would probably acknowledge that if asked in isolation, but he doesn't recognize that he precludes this sort of soundness when he dismisses the value of cogent reasoning from limited data. (Something which he himself does plenty of.)

There is no magic shortcut we can use in our analysis, statistical or not, that avoids the need for reasoned and impressionistic interpretation, nor any method that avoids the possibility of our reasoning leading us to being wrong. There is only the actual quality of our reasoning, the carefulness of our interpretation, the multifaceted understanding that we bring to bear, the clarity of our process, our willingness to consider conflicting evidence, and the intellectual honesty to keep score without regard to whether our side or the other has scored each point.

I have read plenty of work by those who bullshit the reader and lie to themselves to promote a point. They have certain consistent characteristics that act as tells: they use ridiculing phrasing to belittle opponents, even when mentioning something that is perfectly normal; they treat their perspective on complex topics as certain, rather than provisional and tentative; they treat their conclusion as so obviously correct as to shame those who have denied it. These are signs that thinkers are not merely our humble allies in processing the complexity of the world, but instead need to enlist our support in nursing their grudges and giving them back the power they deserve.

Pinker is not free of all of this; I would have preferred more recognition of his limitations and the limitations of the data available to him, and more humility in his asides about culture and identity politics. But Taleb's writing shows all of these signs of dishonesty and resentment. (Gary Taubes is another.) When I read his writing--I, one reader, because there are so many other valid readings--I perceive viscerally that the writer feels cornered and that there is danger in the air. An ally in interpreting the world, secure in the soundness of his reasoning, doesn't write publicly that "Problem with Pinker boy is that he made statistical claims without knowing what he is talking about." A bully, who prefers being respected to promoting depth of understanding, does.

When I read polemical writing--which the world needs!--I try to ask myself if the writer is trying to grow my imagination, or constrict it; to seed ideas plentifully, or to poison them selfishly. It can be very hard to notice this through talented prose; read Michael Lewis with this lens, and his romps through tricky topics look quite different.

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Friday, July 08, 2016

The Super Mario principle

The other day I saw a group of teenagers playing 3ds Smash Bros against each other. They said they never, ever use the 3d and just leave it off. (Actually a bunch of them just bought the bigger screen ds with no 3d at all.)

Just a reminder that technical advances in the presentation of entertainment are not necessarily a big part of its appeal, compared to UX design, networking, the social layer, simplicity, and cuteness.

Cf. Minecraft, Scratch, SMS, Candy Crush, Angry Birds.

My daughters LOVE playing Super Mario Bros. on an old NES--a game more than 30 years old.

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Monday, June 27, 2016

Integrated interfaces and their discontents

One thing that's been fascinating about teaching kids technology is to see how different their experience of technology is than mine was as a child.

The overall way I'd characterize their experience of technology is technologically integrated. They expect an iPhone-like minimal interface to be the window through which you perform all technological tasks; even a distinct UI like a TV remote control has been becoming more and more of a simple thin window into a complex on-screen interface.

Whereas my generation's technologies were technologically separate--each had its own distinct interface, physical location, and rules, often quite obscure and complex: the Nintendo required fiddling and blowing, TV and video cords needed to be switched in and out, videogame controllers for different systems had different layouts, cameras had a dozen quirky physical options and switches.

The telephone was such a fundamental communications medium that it became native to me and my siblings at a very early age. Same with keyboards and mice: I vividly remember going through the introductory exercises on the first Macintosh my family got in 1988, and learning what dragging and keyboard shortcuts were.

The seven- and eight-year-olds I teach are very unfamiliar with physical keyboards, mice and even touchpads. There's all sorts of elementary concepts that I have to specifically teach them, like:

  • how to anchor the position of a mouse with the fingers that touch the table so it doesn't move when you click it
  • the existence of different mouse buttons
  • the fact that you can lift your mouse or finger up and bring it down further away to give yourself more room
  • the idea that the meaningful area of the on-screen cursor is the tip of the arrow or finger and not the center
  • the role of the shift key and the need to hold it down while briefly pressing another key rather than pressing both at once
  • common keyboard shortcuts.
Meanwhile, my daughters, who are pretty computer savvy, have a hard time communicating on the phone because they do it so seldom. We actually have a landline in case we or a babysitter needs to call 911 and our cellphone isn't charged, and it's turned out to be a useful tool to teach technology to my kids! Since the design hasn't gotten much easier in two generations, they have to really adapt to its technological assumptions in a way that modern friendly app interfaces generally don't require. They love to call my wife and me on the phone randomly.

I've been seriously thinking about getting a typewriter!

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My encounter with the EU: appeasing Putin while Europe burns

With Britain leaving the EU, I'm reminded of my own experience seeing just how differently Britain handles things than the EU does, and why some smart and sober Britons might see the EU as having failed them internationally -- not that these few were a significant part of the vote for leaving.

Ten years ago, I spent a year in former Soviet Georgia working for their president, mostly organizing international conferences.

Our big enemy was Russia: Georgia sees Russia as an eternal imperialist antagonist, and Georgia was a totally independent republic before Russia swallowed it up in like 1921 or so.

Russia was totally spying on the administration--the intelligence services actually caught the president's (totally inept) press director passing information to the FSB, and Russia tried to derail the conferences we were organizing by announcing their own competing conferences and demanding that European countries choose one of the other.

The whole experience made me agree with the Georgians that Russia is unabashedly arrogant, vindictive, and proudly destructive. one small anecdote from that period: At the time I was there, each winter there had been blackouts because of the poor energy infrastructure, but in the winter of 2005-6 it looked like the infrastructure was ready for the first winter without blackouts in as long as anyone can remember. But then there was an explosion in southern Russia that destroyed a section of natural gas pipeline that fed into Georgia, so there were blackouts and homes without heat for weeks anyway. The explosion was mysterious and seemed clearly like an intentional sabotage in a region with lots of Islamic terrorism, and yet no group claimed responsibility.

So basically there was a mysterious act of terrorism that destroyed a crucial piece of Russia's energy infrastructure and cost Russia tens of millions of dollars in damage and lost revenue, as well as incalculable damage to their ability to assure other countries that they can rely on energy supply from Russia. which is a huge deal because without their incredible energy deposits and energy traffic fees, Russia would be a destitute nation.

One of the great foreign correspondents of the last generation, CJ Chivers, met with us when he was in town and told us that he had been hanging out in a mountain cabin with a bunch of FSB guys nearby in southern Russia when word came of this attack.

Consider how the FBI or CIA might respond to hearing about a successful terrorist attack on America's energy infrastructure. Chivers said that instead, their response was to laugh heartily at how much pain this was going to cause Georgia. (Georgia has plenty of its own sins, including oppression of ethnic minority minorities, but absolutely no one thinks they're any kind of threat to Russia.) In short, a big part of the ruling class of Russia -- Putin's FSB and kleptocrats -- is happy to watch their own country burn if it makes other people feel like you don't fuck with Russia. (The Moscow opera hostage blitz is a great encapsulation of this... the Russian response to terrorists taking Russians hostage is to just kill the hostages and then kill the terrorists, which does make a certain horrifying sense.)

It's no wonder that Trump is such a fan of Putin. Putin is exactly the kind of ruler Trump wishes he could be: one who has the military power and resource wealth to support casual braggadocio, so he can sort of do whatever and have it work out in his favor, who isn't afraid to blow up things within his own country or impoverish it if it means proving a point.

Now, back to the EU! I'm saying all this because one of the shocking things about these conferences I organized was seeing EU leader after EU leader lie in service to appeasing Russia. The energy conference I organized came just a few weeks after Russia shut down natural gas pipelines to pretty much all of Europe just to spite Ukraine.

You would think this would give a perfect opportunity for EU countries to say we need to demand that our energy supply not be subject to political whim; Russian energy supplies only accounted for something like 15% of EU usage, while that output was something like 50% of Russian energy output, so the EU had plenty of negotiating leverage, and it's not like lives were in danger if Russia got so mad it cut off more supply. But instead the EU people gave speeches that said things like "the supply of energy from Russia to the EU is the very model of a successful free market".

The only Europeans who would talk frankly about what was going on were the British contingent, whose main academic representative spoke in such forceful terms that it was a minor scandal. (I wish I could say the US presented a similarly clear voice, but unfortunately, the Bush administration sent a complete idiot with zero knowledge of energy policy or international relations, a Moonie who bought her way into what was obviously supposed to be a meaningless and cushy superficial role in foreign service, which insulted all the other countries who took this seriously, and is SO TYPICAL of the corrupt and stupid Bushies)

Europeans absolutely know Putin is a bully who wants to get away with his much as he can, but no individual country wants to risk standing up to him. But rather than the EU granting bargaining power that lets each country collectively stand up to Russia, it has served as a pass-the-buck bureaucratic apparatus unable to take steps for the long term that might risk disrupting the short-term status quo. It seemed to me (here i'm giving a pretty uninformed, vague opinion) like anyone in the EU bureaucracy who would push for any sort of ultimatum on Russia's policies would be seen internally as a disruptive wild card, the sort of person who belongs in America and not Europe.

If there was sense to the EU position, it was that Russia is so crazy that you cannot get it to back down by taking aggressive measures. My allies and I (everyone else more important than me!) argued instead that there had to be pushback, that Putin would take the lack of resistance as a signal that he could keep pushing, and that it was better to have the pushback earlier than later, when the stakes would be higher. Since then, Russia has invaded two other European countries, though thankfully both times the invasion was pretty restrained from how aggressive and violent it could've been. I think you can fairly analyze the EU approach as having failed, and the EU structure might be part of why it failed.

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Friday, June 10, 2016

Proposing a plan for integration in NYC schools

Sunday, May 29, 2016

When a robot takes your life

I think one of the underappreciated potential revolutions is a revolution in the ability for "fast, cheap, and out of control" weapons to destroy any semblance of psychological and social stability.

If you think about it, we are extremely lucky that so far people have needed to do quite a bit of planning in order to kill large numbers of people, and the easiest way to do that comma with machine guns and handguns, seems to cap out at something like 50 murders per killer.

Our great mental limitation as humans is that we insist on seeing meaning in everything. That means if something bad would be limited by social and storytelling principles like just desserts and hubris, we underestimate its danger. We sort of assume that the universe wouldn't allow there to be the ability for disturbed or motivated individuals to kill thousands of people on a whim and then do it again the next day and the next day.

Weapons are coming that require no training, no ammunition, no forensic residue, no complex sourcing--they just exploit bootstrapping patterns of self-replicability.

What exactly am I imagining is coming? Well, I'm speculating about the convergence of several trends.

The model for the threat from replication is cancer. Can you produce a cheap microbot that runs on energy it collects from sun and the air? can you make a robot that builds them? can you tell the difference between them? Can you equip a fleet of cheap drones with cheap mini-guns? Can you project a razor-thin, nearly one dimensional thin beam of focused radiation with the right power source?

The engineering of all these things is tricky, but not the physics. And while we human animals are pretty physically robust to a small chance of major trauma, we're very physically fragile to a high chance of micro damage; and that damage need involve very little matter and energy.

You might be able to kill all large animals on earth with a few thousand watts and a few pounds of matter. You might end up doing that by accident, just because your efficient goal-focused AI organizes a replicating pattern of distributed intelligence and robotics that never stops replicating.

The specific scenarios aren't so likely at this point that we can describe them in detail, at least not casual observers like me. But there are no clear barriers to this threat; and if the threat is real, there's really no way to stop it from happening.

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How long has the "party of Lincoln" really been the party of Trump?

Trump's latest poll numbers have me considering the lessons this election is teaching me about what's been really going on in US politics for decades.
There's been chatter all year about this possibly being a "realignment" election like 1856 or 1964 or 1988, but that notion has been based on the presumption that a good half of Republican voters wouldn't support Trump, and that these rejects would want a party that represents them.
Now it's looking increasingly likely that Republican voters and politicians will support Trump after all, and that the election will break down under traditional partisan lines. Which raises the question: have liberals been right this whole time that conservativism and the GOP are based upon a reactionary desire for more oppression?
Even if Trump loses, a majority of politicians at all levels nationally have been elected by voters who now say they're willing to vote for Trump. Which is terrifying, and has been terrifying for years.
Compare the wide appeal of apocalyptic politicians like Trump, Cruz, and Palin--with policy proposals that are not even designed to make sense--to the absence of any comparable politicians on the left. The Republican voter base has turned out to include a shocking number of people who want these horsemen of the apocalypse in power.
Not that there haven't been some decent, Jack Kemp-style wonks involved over the years, but it turns out that the progressives were right: these have been little more than stalking-horses for a mass of ecstatically repressive, aggressively closed-minded voters.
And this apocalyptically destructive appeal has always been there. Look back at US electoral history since 1960 through the lens of the 85% of self identified conservatives who say they'll vote for Trump; it seems like a decades-long, extended struggle of pluralistic civilization against a party that most wants, deep down, to root out and purge that pluralism in holy fire.

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Friday, May 13, 2016

PocketCasts UI criticisms

A lot of the problems I have with PocketCasts (which I do love overall) are with unnecessarily complex and counterintuitive aspects of UI and UX.

1. Cannot browse past episode titles and dates:

Generally, I cannot view past episode titles and dates without first turning off automatic cleanup, which makes no sense. Why not just store a bit of metadata--titles, length, show notes from the last 50 episodes of each podcast you subscribe to, and fetch anything older over the network if the user scrolls that far? As it is, I frequently leave the app and use other apps or the web just to see the titles and dates of past episodes! And/or I lose my cleanup settings over and over. (Not to mention that I can't browse these titles at all if i'm not in a location with good connectivity!)

2. Fiddly auto-download settings

I spend lots of time fiddling with the podcast-by-podcast auto download and auto cleanup settings. This is an enormous pain when you follow 25 podcasts like I do. As it is, if there is an episode that isn't automatically downloading that I see get my, and I want that podcast to automatically download and cleanup, it takes 10 taps (!) to make that change and navigate back to the feed where I was.

I would much rather have a total storage size and have the app intelligently manage the downloading and cleanup. This would take a bit of predictive logic, but that logic could do a pretty good job without being very complex. For instance, you could start by defaulting podcasts to automatically download and maintain just the most recent episode. Then, rank podcasts internally by time spent listening, and just map this ranking statically to a set of numbers of episodes to maintain and download. (Eg, the 4th most-listened podcast gets 4 episodes downloaded and cached at any one time... the 20th most-listened podcast gets 1 episode downloaded and cached. Historical minutes spent listening could expire after 3 months.)

You could improve this by allowing users to make any podcast a favorite by starring the whole podcast, with the most-listened 5 automatically receiving stars; then a user could un-star if they really don't want to download automatically, which would clear the listening count history.

3. Playlists too fiddly

Similarly, I would love to have smart playlists that just use that same priority ranking and play whatever is both high priority and recent. There are several podcasts where I listen to essentially every single episode. Shouldn't I be able to just open the app and hit "smart play" and have it start playing stuff i like? You could keep this limited to, say, 10 episodes, and many users wouldn't use it at all, but for heavy listeners it could be a killer feature.

Playlist UI never does quite what I expect. I can "play all" but I really just want to play stuff that doesn't have to stream over cell data.

4. Navigation mysteries

You can't get to the screen for a podcast from the screen where an episode is playing--there is no link to the podcast as a whole.

There's a bug in the playlist screen, screenshot attached.

The icon change that happens to episodes in the feed depending on playlist state is mystifying. If I have an empty playlist, the episodes all show a downloaded state or a streamable state. Fine. Then I chose play all, and now the icons all show a minus, to remove them from the queue. It's hard then to see the downloaded state. If I then later clear the playlist, the icons have a plus to add to the queue, instead of going back to the original normal state. It's all counterintuitive and bizarre.

It's never been clear to me how to get to the currently playing playlist screen from the episode feed screen. 

5. Partially played mysteries

It's silly for there to be separate unplayed and in progress feeds. That just doesn't reflect how I listen to podcasts. I want to see podcasts in progress mixed in with unplayed podcasts. And that's what PocketCasts does show me... sometimes! Sometimes a partially played episode leaves the unplayed feed and sometimes it doesn't. Why? Beats me.

Partial downloads do not present with consistent appearance and UI state; often I'll download half of an episode and then lose connectivity, only to find that the state of the episode has been shifted to an error, and all the content downloaded so far is inaccessible. Other times, a partially downloaded episode will present itself with a play icon.

6. Forgetfulness

The app forgets my place in a podcast often. This seems to maybe happen when playback is  interrupted by playlist actions for relegation to the in progress list?

7. Swiping sucks

I appreciate that swiping is a popular UI element in theory, at least for social apps we spend all day on. But there's a very good reason it hasn't been a bigger part of material design, and that is because there is too much ambiguity over what the adjacent screens are, and too much ambiguity over when a touch is intended as a full screen swipe vs a drag or slightly ham fisted tap. 

One of the things I do most often is play an episode and attempt to advance the place in the episode to some later point. Maybe I started listening to the podcast on Sonos and I'm switching to the app, maybe I want to skip to a part of the episode I saw in the show notes, maybe PocketCasts just forgot my position. More than half the time I do this it interprets my motion as a full screen swipe and takes me to a different view.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

When a robot takes your job, cont'd

I think there's a fundamental error in assuming that lack of productive employment among much of the population necessarilyequals poverty.
I actually think that the scenario where technology grows our collective productivity so well that few of us have marginally productive capability is a very good thing for the wealth of the poor--at least in the moderately democratic first world.
Why? Because it means there's way more wealth in general. Yes, in an autocracy the unproductive could be left to starve... but in any slight democracy there will be constant political work being done to share the wealth.
Much of that work will be ideological and identity-based cover for what is effectively a clumsy, haphazard socialism. Hence you have the anti-government Nevada racist rancher guy who happily takes government land subsidy checks and advocated for massive government seizure of labor wealth and private wealth to pay for a security state. 
Isn't this the old argument for supply-side, or trickle-down, economics? Not quite. That argument was an argument for redirecting wealth away from the welfare state and towards the already wealthy, with the justification that this would indirectly serve the working class even better than direct subsidies.
My argument is that overall productivity growth, which expands the whole pie, will make up for the reduction in wealth of the working class and poor due to replacement of unskilled and semi-skilled labor due to computerization. This process will be painful and problematic, but not apocalyptic.
We'll be amusing ourselves to death, but we won't be starving to death. At least in the first world, where there is a practical cost to too much poverty.

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Blogger Benjamin Chambers on Tue May 10, 09:44:00 PM:
Well ... maybe. I just wrote you a longish and nicely-reasoned response, but my blinking browser chose to crash when I tried to post it. Perhaps tomorrow.
Blogger Ben on Wed May 11, 11:37:00 AM:
Sorry to hear that! I'd love to know your thoughts!
Blogger Benjamin Chambers on Wed May 11, 02:41:00 PM:
What I said in my now-vanished comment, basically, was that you seem to assume that automation will only affect unskilled and low-skilled jobs, but that all the commentary I've seen on the widespread automation of labor argues that almost *all* jobs will be eliminated (except caring professions like childcare and elderly care), including jobs we currently think of as impossible to automate. This is why universal basic income is being seriously discussed on both the left and the right.

I can't assess how likely this outcome actually is, but the automation of some aspects of high-skilled jobs like law and medicine makes me think it's at least a plausible scenario. But let's say it happens. Human beings need a purpose to their lives, and a sense that we're contributing to something -- for most of us, work fills that bill. It's obviously foolish to imagine that the vast majority of people will suddenly amuse themselves with philosophy and the arts; most of us aren't even that good at providing direction to our lives for long periods of time (though we all think we'd be good at unending leisure). So what do people do? I think a mass lack of purpose and sense of powerlessness are likely to lead to increased xenophobia, chaos, violence, and war ... a surefire recipe for poverty. (That's not even taking into account vast income disparities, probable mass movements of climate change refugees (the Syrian refugee crisis, according to one view, has its roots in the drought that drove massive numbers of agricultural workers into the cities), and the increasing scarcity of clean water.)

Maybe this is too dark a view -- it's always easy to see doomsday on the horizon, and would-be Cassandras are often wrong -- but I think our own democracy is less and less interested in "sharing the wealth" (even among those who would most benefit from it), and with the capacity (and willingness) of large corporations and the very rich to disconnect themselves from the United States, there's less and less political motivation to care about the disenfranchised -- especially if you need very few of them for labor.
Blogger Ben on Thu May 12, 11:00:00 AM:
I agree with your economic predictions but not your philosophical and social ones! There is so much room for a sense of meaning, purpose, direction and accomplishment without there needing to be an economic reason for your work at all. Just look at the army! Many army jobs are the equivalent of digging a hole and filling it up again. And yet the army is known as a place where people find direction. And if you don't think many more people could be satisfied as artisans of some sort, try asking well paid lawyers and finance and restaurant workers and the unemployed what they really want to do... very many would like to do boutique, artisanal curation or creation.

Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a good argument in this direction.
Blogger Benjamin Chambers on Mon May 16, 01:38:00 AM:
(Part 1/2)In spite of the stereotypes -- all the wait staff who want to be actors, etc. -- and people's common avowals that they would love to write a book if only they didn't have to work, etc., I'm unconvinced that a vast number of people would take up some form of art or artisanship to give their lives meaning, in the absence of employment.

On the plus side, creativity comes in a million forms, and I think if people have an inch of luxury to do so, they do find ways to apply it or express it. On the down side, the disappearance of work would wipe out a lot of culturally understood avenues for leading a meaningful life, and I simply don't have the confidence that you do that very many people would be able to build that for themselves. (I haven't read Doctorow's book (Wikipedia's summary makes it sound a bit baroque) but I'm familiar with some of his essays and a recent YA book of his, and he strikes me, fundamentally, as an optimist about people's capacity to self-organize and self-direct themselves. I could be way off base about this.) There's a huge number of people who don't value intellectual or what we now class as creative work *as* work -- in their eyes, it's effete, it's pointless.

So I don't know that I have all that much more to add here, since we simply disagree. But as I've been thinking about this over the past few days, I recognize that I have, well, more thinking to do on the subject. Needless to say, my premise that universal basic income will destroy the world of work for most people has some problems. For one thing, I haven't read enough on the subject of basic income to understand how it's supposed to be funded. For another, it raises the question: if almost everyone is receiving basic income, will there be markets to raise the capital to fund that income? Will there be enough of the rare elements needed for processors that will run the AIs that are supposed to take our jobs? The entertainment industry might grow further -- we'll still need human actors and many of the supporting technicians; some direct care jobs in the health industry would likely still be human; and there are a large number of government jobs that would, I think, still probably be staffed by humans: public health, community justice (probation, parole, law enforcement), mental health, alcohol and drug treatment, and support of the elderly and developmentally delayed. These examples aren't a huge portion of the labor force, but I'm guessing that there are quite a few sectors of the economy where AIs either wouldn't do the job we wanted, or we wouldn't be likely to let them.
Blogger Benjamin Chambers on Mon May 16, 01:39:00 AM:
(Part 2/2) And from another angle: how do people who can't or don't need to work *now* fill their time and their lives with meaning? I'm sure studies have been done of what retirees or folks on unemployment, SSI, or other subsidies do, and how they feel, though I'm unfamiliar with them in any detail. Retirees have the advantage that there is a cultural niche for them -- I think many of them struggle with feelings of irrelevance and not contributing, but there is a strong belief that they have "earned" their retirement, that their status is something to be coveted, and I'm not sure how that changes when everyone is "retired," albeit without money to travel, golf, finally rebuild the engine in that 57 Chevy, become a patron of the arts, etc. The unemployed, I think, mostly don't want to be -- if for no other reason than they want to contribute, provide for their families, etc. -- but after a while, if you can't get work, what do you do with your time? I'm not sure of the answers here. All I'm really saying is that I don't know, but the answers might have a bearing on what would happen if the ranks of the unemployed/retired poor grew exponentially. It could lead to widespread unrest ... or not. I really don't know.

I just think that we're talking about a potentially enormous cultural shift in how we value ourselves and our roles in society -- we're talking about eliminating, for most people, potentially, the pathways they have to participate in culturally recognized and valued ways in that society, and not giving them anything in return except subsistence. The work of creating new roles that are valued will be, I fear, hard, chaotic and violent, and therefore, an economic disaster for most. But who knows? I don't.
Blogger Ben on Mon May 16, 02:11:00 PM:
You make some really great points, and I appreciate your perspective. I might be overestimating how many people dream of being some sort of business owning artisan. But my broader point is that being rich enough not to have to work is something that for most people is basically liberating, not basically oppressive. The people whose work is farthest from being artisanal -- unskilled service laborers -- are largely working mindnumbing jobs that they don't leap out of bed for in the morning. Of course these jobs do provide them a sense of being valuable, require them to structure their day and their appearance, etc., but I don't think there is something magically better for them than just being paid the money and given infinite days off :)

But I see your point that subsistence income is not a substitute for the income from a real job like, say, being a bus driver or a typical clerical worker. Here's where I appeal to the democracy, or pseudo-democracy, that a quasi-empire like the United States enjoys: the power structure is willing to spend money to buy off the population and increase social stability, in part because the people really are part part of the power structure. (Even antigovernment folks insist that Social Security and Medicare not be touched, so they aren't.) Maybe in our technological future that means there have to be all sorts of fake jobs concocted to keep people docile, but I think the power structure is completely capable of delivering that, especially with all of the added wealth that technological innovation brings.

So I expect inequality to keep increasing drastically, but because the whole pie is increasing so fast and because we have something of a "chicken in every pot" democratic politics, I think robot capabilities are not going to increase poverty in the United States or the rest of the first world.