So long, Sergeant Schlock

Being a creature of habit, I’m very grumpy that this week we’ve all had to say farewell to Schlock Mercenary. After 20 years of steady daily posts telling stories of Tagon’s Toughs, Howard Tayler is taking a little well-earned time off:

Parentheticals aside, here we are, 19 years after 9-11, and I’ve been doing this job pretty well—or at least very consistently—for that entire time.

But it is now entirely time for me to stop.

I need a break, and it’s the kind of break which, until I take it, I don’t know how long I’ll need it to be.

I look forward to him coming back to share whatever stories he feels like telling one day, but even if he decided to rest on his laurels and leave us with 20 years of stories about Tagon’s Toughs he’s earned that right. Nobody’s been short-changed here.

So long and thanks for all the fun you’ve shared along the way, Howard. Really good work.

If not Netflix, who?

M.G. Siegler ponders Netflix’s ability to get us watching, even when the content isn’t all that special (sparked by his watch of The Old Guard, but prompted by the wider pattern of so-so content on the platform:

The real risk here is that the audience starts to associate Netflix with mediocre films. It may not matter now — and certainly not right now, in the time of COVID. But down the line, if the audience can’t trust that what Netflix is putting in front of them is good, they’ll lose faith.

But then, Netflix might well decide that they’d much rather end up replacing the multiplex cinema business and showing stuff that doesn’t get the critical plaudits, rather than replacing the arthouse cinemas where critical praise doesn’t necessarily translate into dollars and cents. This might be a problem for Netflix, but only if one of the other major streaming platforms finds itself with an HBO-like reputation for excellent content.1

It’s less about Netflix customers losing faith, more about their having somewhere else to put their faith in.

  1. Apple TV+ would like that to be them, but even if you’re an Apple optimist they’ve clearly got a long, long way to go yet. Disney would like to step into the HBO role but they own such a large chunk of the US studios that they might have to hive off a chunk of their more refined content and put it out under a different brand to make that stick. Amazon’s algorithms probably don’t care either way what Prime Video subscribers are watching so long as the Amazon Prime subscription income keeps rolling in. 

Amazon Apostate

Now that he’s left Amazon, Tim Bray can express heretical thoughts about the company’s priorities out loud, in public:

On a Spring 2019 walk in Beijing I saw two street sweepers at a sunny corner. They were beat-up looking and grizzled but probably younger than me. They’d paused work to smoke and talk. One told a story; the other’s eyes widened and then he laughed so hard he had to bend over, leaning on his broom. I suspect their jobs and pay were lousy and their lives constrained in ways I can’t imagine. But they had time to smoke a cigarette and crack a joke. You know what that’s called? Waste, inefficiency, a suboptimal outcome. Some of the brightest minds in our economy are earnestly engaged in stamping it out. They’re winning, but everyone’s losing.

Bray’s post goes on to reference troubling reports of shortcomings in Amazon’s corporate attitude to the health and safety of warehouse staff.

I wonder if Amazon would respond by pointing out that this is all just a stopgap until they can replace almost all of those weak, imprecise humans with much more efficient and meticulous robots.1 Instead they seem to rely on a mix of buying local political influence and being economical with the truth to avoid damage to their image with customers, just like old-fashioned capitalists do.

It might well be that a decade or two from now Jeff Bezos will be too preoccupied with beating Elon Musk in the campaign for First Speaker of the Martian Assembly to care about what’s happening back on Terra, where Amazon will still be relying on the vast, cheap supply of humans desperate to earn a living doing the bits of a warehouse job that it’s still too expensive and complicated and impractical to computerise, while still holding over everyone’s head the threat that a computer could replace them any day now. Or he could be yet another billionaire back on Earth contemplating how much he’s going to have to pay for the private army he’ll need to defend his castle from the socialists who can’t see that he just wanted to improve the lot of book buyers everywhere and are determined to be ungrateful that he happened to make some money along the way.

  1. Never mind that deploying robots at the scale they’d need to do that would both cost a great deal and potentially burn up a lot of political capital. 

This is fine

It’s almost as if the manufacturers of smart speakers want everyone to get used to accidental activations:

Voice assistants in smart speakers analyze every sound in their environment for their wake word, e.g., «Alexa» or «Hey Siri», before uploading the audio stream to the cloud. This supports users’ privacy by only capturing the necessary audio and not recording anything else. The sensitivity of the wake word detection tries to strike a balance between data protection and technical optimization, but can be tricked using similar words or sounds that result in an accidental trigger.

[Via Things That Have Caught My Attention s08e16]