Find some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last fews weeks below reflecting current events and wider trends and changes:
Digits to Dollars looks at the challenges in launching a fundamental technology as opposed to those for which there’s already a proven market:
One of the hardest problems faced by such companies is that not only do they lack for customers, they lack for partners. Typically, they need a whole ecosystem of partners and developers to make their technology viable. For a start-up this often translates into a vast amount of time spent doing custom work and educating partners. These other parties are always larger which means they are going to make the start-up jump through hoops. Every start-up faces this when selling to enterprises, but here the challenged is doubled. Just to get to a working product means working with large, hard-to-work-with partners and only then selling to large, hard-to-work-with customers.
For all the talk of the machines are coming to get you, there are some interesting examples of where artifical intelligence falls short including GPT-3’s pick up lines and OpenAI’s image recognition tool being fooled by text.
It has been interesting watching the growing environmental criticisms of proof of work as a foundation for consensus in blockchain technologies. Whilst advocates have pointed to the option of using renewable energy, this is arguably simply displacing consumption from arguably more productive economic activities. As Noah Smith comments:
This spiraling resource consumption indicates a basic weakness in the technology that supports Bitcoin. For most financial assets, like gold, the cost of storage doesn’t go up much as the price goes up; it’s just about as easy to guard the world’s gold at $2,000 an ounce as at $200 an ounce. And for most currencies, transactions are super cheap. Because people already trust banks and the government, these centralized institutions can handle massive amounts of transactions with near-costless efficiency. Bitcoin’s decentralized trust, in contrast, keeps getting more expensive as Bitcoin gets more valuable.
You can tell Facebook is in damage control mode when it’s advertising for internet regulations on high profile podcasts. Another facet of Facebook’s attempt to control the narrative is its launch of an Oversight Board although it’s not without its criticisms as Pema Levy reports:
“What I worry is going to happen here is that there’s this kind of theater around the board’s decision that is entrenching the notion that it’s the content moderation decision that matters,” says Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “It’s much, much less important than all these design decisions”—algorithms that sort people into filter bubbles and amplify hate, for example—”that Facebook isn’t talking about, that Facebook doesn’t want anyone to talk about. And that Facebook will never turn over to the board, because those design decisions are what ultimately determine whether Facebook makes money or not.”
Lee Vinsel provides a rather different framing of the power of social media, not exactly excusing them but warning against making them out to be worse than they are:
To be clear, I am NOT saying that there’s nothing to worry about or study when it comes to how social media use shapes behavior. There are many things to be concerned about and try to better understand, including misinformation, radicalization, the formation of mobs through online platforms, and more. There are also plenty of reasons to question Facebook’s, Google’s, and other firms’ monopolistic powers and potentially even to break them up. But none of these problems or our criticisms of them have anything to do with social media companies being able to control our minds.
Therapy on demand sounds like a dream come true. Molly Fischer’s look into the growth of startups therapy providing therapy online provides a much more mixed picture with providers struggling to meet demand and concerns about the quality of care:
But chatbots and mood scores aren’t generally what people are imagining when they say, for example, that their ex needs therapy. “Therapy” here conjures an intervention to fix the personality and save the soul. Different people want different things from therapy. They want to break bad habits, work through trauma, vent about their boss, their boyfriend, their mom. They want to feel better (always easier said than done). They want someone to talk to, and they want some tools. When I resumed seeing my longtime therapist over video, I wanted her to tell me whether the problem was my brain or the pandemic — I needed someone I trusted to judge the situation. That is to say, I wasn’t sure what I needed, but I wanted the help of someone who knew better. And this — expert counsel in the palm of your hand — is what the high end of an emerging class of therapy apps claims to deliver.
Mark Leopold drawing on his research into the life of Idi Amin points to benefits of political buffoonery with obvious parallels with some of our contemporary politicians:
1) It leads opponents to underestimate the ability and intelligence of the buffoon.
2) It provides deniability— “it was only a joke.”
3) It appeals to core supporters (many Africans loved Amin’s teasing of the former colonial masters).
4) It serves as a distraction from the more serious, perhaps frightening or incompetent, actions of the leader, what we now call the “dead cat” tactic.
5) It leads to ambiguity (was it a joke or not?), producing confusion and uncertainty about how to respond.
Musicians are one of the parts of society most hurt by the coronavirus pandemic and will be among the last to see a return to “normal.” David Dayen in his look at the music market points to musicians as being increasingly powerless particularly in the US where they are at the mercy of a consolidated network of distributors, venues and ticketsellers:
This has severed the traditional relationship between musicians and commerce. Artists used to rely on labels, and while that could get antagonistic, the labels still needed hit music to stay alive. “Apple stepped in, if they abandoned music tomorrow, it wouldn’t change their bottom line,” said Damon Krukowski. “They’re not a music company, Spotify is not a music company, YouTube is not a music company. None of them need me, but I need them. That is unsustainable for music.”
A recent addition to my podcast feed is Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes’s Maintenance Phase. It describes itself as “debunking the junk science behind health fads, wellness scams and nonsensical nutrition advice” and is great for reframing issues of body image.
Providing a good complement to the podcast is the Shimano sponsored film All Bodies on Bikes. The video follows Kailey Kornhauser and Marley Blonsky, a couple of self described fat women on their two wheeled adventure. It provides a refreshing look at an activity that all too often fetishes suffering rather than having fun.