Blog posts

  • A Kind of Magic

    Kieran Healy's musings on living in a world where Apple tries hard to keep mere users from understanding what's going on in the background of their kit are worth a look:

    Arthur C. Clarke's third law of prediction is, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Clarke's premise is that the technology works, but in so sophisticated a way that it is opaque to our meagre understanding. His promise is that, in the future, we will have technologies like this to hand and we will understand them - or at least, understand them enough to relate to and command them rationally.

    What complaints about Apple's software design bring out, I think, is that Clarke only gave us half the story. Any sufficiently broken technology is also indistinguishable from magic. It just works … mostly. When it fails, it presents only a blank face by way of explanation. And when you want to intervene, it offers nothing. The result is that, instead of being the powerful wielder of a magical device, the user is forced back towards magic's traditional role in human societies: the ritual performance of obscurely relevant steps intended to force the Gods to do something.

    One of the reasons I switched to Mac OS X back in the day was that I liked the notion that much of that system's underpinnings had Unix roots, so if all else failed there would be a log file entry somewhere that would at least marked the spot where the stumble occurred and give me some chance of working out what just (didn't) happen and why.

    I like my iPad Mini 1 and my Mac Mini very much but I dread the day when Apple ends up pricing less well-off people out of the market for OS X systems and I have to choose between a locked-down iOS device and switching to something less elegant but more communicative.

    1. It's an ancient first-generation model, so old that it doesn't even have a Retina™ screen let alone a decent amount of RAM, but when it works it's really a delight to use. A nicely designed, very locked-down delight.

  • Monster's getting really good at finding new job openings

    Myke on Twitter: "Monster's getting really good at finding new job openings."

  • They fight as though they are insurgents while they operate as though they are kings

    danah boyd's reflections on how the technology business talked about what it could do for the world at this year's World Economic Forum at Davos are well worth a look:

    Conversations around tech were strangely juxtaposed with the broader social and fiscal concerns that rattled through the halls. Faced with a humanitarian crises and widespread anxieties about inequality, much of civil society responded to tech enthusiasm by asking if technology will destabilize labor and economic well-being. A fair question. The only problem is that no one knows, and the models of potential impact are so variable as to be useless. Not surprisingly, these conversations then devolved into sharply split battles, as people lost track of whether all jobs would be automated or whether automation would trigger a lot more jobs.

    Not only did any nuance get lost in this conversation, but so did the messy reality of doing tech. It's hard to explain to political actors why, just because tech can (poorly) target advertising, this doesn't mean that it can find someone who is trying to recruit for ISIS. Just because advances in AI-driven computer vision are enabling new image detection capabilities, this doesn't mean that precision medicine is around the corner. And no one seemed to realize that artificial intelligence in this context is just another word for "big data." Ah, the hype cycle.

    [Via Memex 1.1]

  • Vagabond Express

    Haley Cullingham's piece for The Awl about the many reasons American travellers find themselves on a Greyhound bus is fascinating, especially for someone like me who lives in a relatively small country where long-distance bus services have long since lost most of their market share to the rail network (and where in any case there's not the same sort of readiness by people to up sticks and move to a completely different part of the country). 1

    The long-haul nature of the rides meant that there was a lot of time to kill from Michigan to Tennessee to Kentucky, Texas to New Mexico to LA. When you're waiting, people tend to sidle up to you and tell you something about why they find themselves on the bus. Prior to 2008, almost everyone I spoke to was travelling to visit their children. An older man carrying a fold-up stroller pointed me to the best delis within safe walking distance in Buffalo; an eighteen-year-old who boarded the bus in Kentucky shared his fleece blanket with me, grinning as he told me that his best friend from back home in California was pregnant, and it was his, and he was going to help out, even though her boyfriend wasn't happy about it; a woman walked over at a station in Kansas, frenetic and happy, and told me she was waiting for her son, who had just come home from Iraq. But after 2008, all anyone on the buses talked about was finding work.

    I met a journalist in the Denver bus station just before Christmas in 2011. He had a neatly trimmed beard and one duffel bag. He had been riding around for about six months. His sister had gotten sick, and he spent his retirement money paying doctors to try to cure her cancer. By the time she died, his money had run out. He tried to find work near home, but there was none to be had, so he decided to get moving. "My neighbour's wife is six feet tall, so I gave them my king-sized bed," he said. "I gave my daughter my good kitchen knives, and I got on the bus."

    1. I realise that's a huge generalisation on my part, but I still think it's largely sound. In the UK particular groups - e.g. students seeking a post-graduation job who've already moved away from home to go to university, or people unable to find work in their chosen field who look to move to London because that's where much of the growth in the job market lies - clearly do make big life-changing cross-country moves, but it doesn't feel like there's a British equivalent of the 'Greyhound experience' that Cullingham is writing about.

  • Wife crashes her own funeral

    How can you not read on when a story starts like this?

    Noela Rukundo sat in a car outside her home, watching as the last few mourners filed out. They were leaving a funeral - her funeral.

    Finally, she spotted the man she'd been waiting for. She stepped out of her car, and her husband put his hands on his head in horror.

    "Is it my eyes?" she recalled him saying. "Is it a ghost?"

    "Surprise! I'm still alive!" she replied.

    Far from being elated, the man looked terrified. Five days earlier, he had ordered a team of hit men to kill Rukundo, his partner of 10 years. And they did - well, they told him they did. They even got him to pay an extra few thousand dollars for carrying out the crime. […]

    Cue the inevitable TV movie. Question is, given the penchant of TV movies to tweak things a bit in the interests of adding to the drama, what will the scene immediately following this reveal?

    1. The camera pulling back to reveal that her kids are sitting in her car, followed by a scene depicting her shooting her scumbag of a husband (between the eyes, in both kneecaps, whatever…) before driving off into the sunset to resume her life elsewhere; or,
    2. Set up a sequel where she spends the next decade living a life of luxury as she blackmails him in return for keeping his secret; or,
    3. Her getting her day in court and watching him get a nine year sentence for incitement to murder.


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