Safely Ignored

pattern-seeking meat robot

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Data Shaming

You’ve probably heard that Cape Town, South Africa, is in danger of becoming the world’s first major city (in modern times) to run out of water.

Residents are not impressed with their government’s leadership through this problem. But there is one action they’ve taken that deserves attention—they’ve published a water usage map.

If the comment threads are any indication, people are concerned about what the map says about them. It can be hoped, then, that it has the intended effect of adding some self-consciousness to their water consumption.

This reminds me of the Tidy Street project and makes me wonder what other data we could use to shame our neighbors. Here’s some idea that may require some new sensor networks or only work at the block level:

  • AirBnB nights rented
  • Noise level
  • Amount of waste generated
  • Recycling percentage
  • Wi-Fi and other RF pollution

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The Stars Do Not Foretell Our Doom

A computational neuroscientist, molecular engineer, and philosopher have recently published Dissolving the Fermi Paradox.

Rather than adding to the list of explanations, they question the validity of the “paradox” argument itself. They seem (to my layperson’s eyes) to attack both the math and the science.

First, they tsk-tsk the use of guessed values as single points rather than properly combining uncertain models. This leads to an accumulation of false certainty, which is a recipe for compounding bias.

Additionally, they question the use of pure modeling to create a “paradox” with observed reality. This reminds me of how pre-behavioral economics seems to be so often surprised by reality when their carefully constructed models fail to predict observations. It seems like a Science 101 mistake, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

This is a refreshing perspective and it gives me mixed feelings. I’m...

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Apple Glasses?

The usual pre-WWDC buzz is in full swing.

In hardware rumors, we all but know there will be a new flagship iPhone with less non-pixel surfaces, updated MacBooks, and something for Siri to live in that helps it compete with Alexa for space in the home. We’ll find out how serious Apple is about the Touch Bar.

On the software side, iOS-on-iPad is likely to get better multi-tasking (with drag-and-drop), and old-fashioned file management will continue leaking back into the mobile platforms. Photos needs to get smarter and less device-trapper to keep up with Google.

UI designers will be looking closely for new patterns in iOS 11, with some anticipation that navigation will adapt to the new reality of too-big-to-thumb screens. It’s certain SiriKit will add new capability domains for voice.

Father on the fringes of the rumor mill, we’ve heard that the iOS SpringBoard (home screen) may be...

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Amusing Ourselves

I recently joined some friends’ podcast to discuss how we’ll end up plugging ourselves into the Matrix. Though it’s a bit cliché to observe how our species is prone to avoiding reality for more pleasurable alternatives, I find the observation pleasurable, so here are some timely quotes:

The designers of the game of life, such as they are, may have erred in structuring the game in a way that encourages young people to seek an alternate reality. They have spread the thrills and valuable items too thinly and have tweaked the settings to reward special skills that cannot be mastered easily even by those prepared to spend long hours doing so. Unsurprisingly, some players are giving up, while others are filling the time not taken up in rewarding, well-compensated work with games painstakingly designed to make them feel good.

— Ryan Avent, Escape To Another World, The Economist 1843...

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Cheap Futures

At ThingsCon last week, Shannon and I participated in a speculative fiction workshop that resulted in a number of short stories with design morals.

This took less than 4 hours, and while the output was a bit rough and needed copyediting before being published in the resulting zine, it was believable work. The workshop was certainly a success in demonstrating how process can enable creative thinking, but it also shows how little effort is needed to produce a professional outcome.

So it re-haunted me about how shallow “futures” can be. When a highly capable design agency like IDEO spends minimal effort on forecasting but produces a polished presentation, the attention paid by the designophilic press is completely inappropriate. Their Future of Automobility project was beautiful but so conceptually weak that it inspired us to spend just one day responding with a future of our own.


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To My Compassionate Conservative Friends

Please talk to me.

I know we have our disagreements. But it seems we should agree about Trump.

You likely believe that unregulated markets and small government lead to a more rich society that benefits us all. As a social scientist I’ve grown to accept that civilization requires strong institutions and the protecting our common interests often requires hindering the aspirations of individuals. But we both are motivated by a desire for shared prosperity. Donald Trump talks about smaller government and deregulation, but his motives are clearly selfish. His wealth (what there is of it) does not trickle down. He wants us to believe his business savvy will lead to economic success, but successful business leaders discount him.

We probably agree that efficient government, should take place at the most local scope reasonable. The details likely cause some disagreement and we might fairly...

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Wards of the State

It is difficult to imagine the United States preserving its heritage of individualism, equal rights before the law, free people running their own lives, once it is accepted that a significant part of the population must be made permanent wards of the states.

This quote from The Bell Curve–taken out of it’s original racialist and xenophobic context–succinctly explains why I see more Americans (and their students of meritocracy, the UK and Australia) fretting about the end of work.

The communalist cultures of Western Europe, even with the neoliberal oligarchical trends of the last few decades, are much better prepared. Despite (or perhaps with the luxury of) high employment, these strong welfare states already support part-time work and can even experiment with basic income.

So when automation means less labor is needed, it will be sensible that people work less. Without labeling them...

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How will “privacy” limit Apple?

Apple’s been creeping towards privacy and encryption as a differentiator for some time, but last week’s address to EPIC was explicit. Tim Cook accused their neighbors of “lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information” and the digerati have taken note.

The result is some long-overdue public analysis of Google’s learn-everything-and-personalize strategy versus Apple’s. A false dilemma has emerged, driving concern that Apple will be obsessed with privacy at the risk of product quality. Dustin Curtis offers a thoughtful example of this narrative, where he has wisely reframed from privacy to security1 and pointed out that Google’s explicit sale is of user attention rather then data. Representative of the zeitgeist, he worries about “vast improvements in user experience” that Google’s aggregation of user data does or will enable.

So how might Apple’s stance...

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Prototype communication

The engineer thinks

a prototype is a conversation with yourself

– Paul Graham, Holding a Program in One’s Head, August 2007

…while the designer hopes

a prototype is a conversation between designers and engineers

– Amit Pitaru, Eyeo Festival, June 2015

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The Anosognosic Phone

Back in September, a design student posted a design fiction video of Phonebloks, a modular phone platform. It got a lot of attention, but I counted myself among numerous skeptics of the design, given how much size and weight would be added and the unrealistic sizing of the imagined modules.

During October’s Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven, I had the chance to chat with aforementioned student, who seemed more interested in his small-scale plastic recycling project. It did not take long to confirm that he was an “idea guy”, not to be bothered with the realities of implementation; that’s for the magician engineers to work out. My skepticism was confirmed.

But that same week, Google Motorola (no slouch of engineering) announced Project Ara, which is basically the same concept, and “partnered” with Phonebloks to share in the attention. Later, I learned that 3D Systems would be working with...

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