Category Archives for "Society"

January 21, 2017

You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto

You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto

500 million people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard Sophomore.

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What’s it about?

Jaron Lanier, a master programmer and virtual reality pioneer, writes a book about the ways people “reduce themselves” in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate.

In Lanier’s view, there is no perfect computer analogue for a person. We all profess to know this, but when we get online it becomes easy to forget. In Facebook, as it is with other online social networks, life is turned into a database, and this is a degradation.

You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto:

  1. We know that having two thousand friends on Facebook is not what it looks like and we know that we are using software to behave in a certain, superficial way towards others. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us?
  2. Software is not neutral. Different software embeds different philosophies, and these philosophies, as they become ubiquitous, become invisible.
  3. Imagine a computer without the files. Or consider MIDI, an inflexible, early eighties digital music protocol for connecting different musical components, such as a keyboard and computer. It’s the basis of all the music we hear today, despite its limited musical range.
  4. Designs are often taken up in a slap-dash last minute manner and then become “locked-in.” Because they are software used by millions of people, they are too difficult to adapt or change.
  5. Is the software we are locked into really fulfilling our needs? Or are we reducing ourselves to the software? Giving it power it doesn’t have. Fetishizing technology, because we believe if it’s new it must be good.
  6. Lock-in happens quickly and we forget what exactly we are locking into. Facebook was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations. What is your relationship status? Do you have a life – prove it, post pictures. Do you like the right sorts of things – movies, music, books and television, (but not architecture, ideas, or plants).


These designs came together very recently, and there’s a haphazard, accidental quality to them. Resist the easy grooves they guide you into. If you love a medium made of software, there’s a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else’s careless thoughts. Fight against this!

The Careless thoughts of a Harvard Sophomore

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. We’re preoccupied with personal trivia because that’s what Mark Zukerberg thinks friendship is.

Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?


Take Away Points and Context

  • Because society places such an emphasis on new technology, it’s easy to believe that what is new is good. We seldom stop to think about whether the adoption of a technology is right.
  • In a sense, the big social media companies have pulled off a massive coup. We give them our time and attention and they make millions selling us stuff through advertisements.
  • Technological lock-in can happen quick: 500 million people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard Sophomore (and, no I don’t want to poke you).


Full Article:

Generation Why?

Zadie Smith


You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

by Jaron Lanier
Knopf, 209 pp., $24.95


You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto. Your comments are welcome below.

January 12, 2017

We Are All Mortal: The Importance of End of Life Care

We are all mortal

The tragedy of old age and death cannot be fixed by medicine. 

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What’s it about?

A surgeon, Atul Gawande, writes a book on mortality, the inevitability of decline and the how our medical systems fails us in the end. No matter how careful or healthy we are, we – like everyone else – will one day die. Most likely after a long period of decline and debility.

We Are All Mortal:

  1. The average Westerner spends a year or more disabled and living in a nursing home. The change from traditional ways of life, where families live together and children support their parents, has many reasons. These include increased age spans, improved medical practice and financial independence.
  2. Many elderly enjoy their independence and report greater contentment than the young do. Decline is inevitable though and there are three main types. Fatal diseases, such as an incurable cancer, for which treatment can hold death off for a short period of time. Chronic diseases, such as emphysema, treatable, but relapses wear the body down. Finally, there is frailty, the accumulated crumbling of one’s systems.
  3. The major threat to old people is that they will fall down. Most falls are due to muscle weakness and poor balance, and from taking multiple medications.  About 20 percent of elderly people who fall and fracture a hip will develop complications within a year that they will never recover from.

We Are All Mortal:

  1. Nursing homes arose as a solution for hospitals that needed to empty their beds of patients who had nowhere else to go. They were not foremost designed as places where the elderly would be content. There quality varies. In the worst, residents sleep two to a room and are medicated when awake. All place safety before autonomy and are designed to appeal to the residents children not the resident themselves. Many elderly dislike the lack of control and the unfamiliarity of their surroundings, preferring their own homes, despite the dangers.
  2. Death comes for most people after a long medical struggle. No one wants to give up, it’s even harder if the victim is still young. Even when physicians know how bleak the outcome is they often hide it from their patients. Survival statistics form a long bell-shaped curve in which a few people live longer than the norm. Most believe they can beat the odds, and physicians are loath to discourage them.
  3. When the suffering outweighs the benefits, the author favors palliative care. He cites research that shows that those who see a palliative care specialist stop treatment sooner, enter hospice earlier, experience less suffering at the end of their lives—and live 25 percent longer.


The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit. They are spent in institutions—nursing homes and intensive care units—where regimented, anonymous routines cut us off from all the things that matter to us in life. Our reluctance to examine the experience of aging and dying has increased the harm we inflict on people and denied them the basic comforts they most need.

No one ever has control. Physics and biology and accident have their way in our lives. But the point is that we are not helpless either. Courage is the strength to recognize both realities. We have room to act, to shape our stories, though as time goes on it is within narrower and narrower confines.

A few conclusions become clear when we understand this: that our most cruel failure is how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond being safe and living longer.

That the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.

Hard Facts

Our mortality is often something we need reminding about.  Around the age of forty a person begins to lose muscle mass and power. As we age lung capacity decreases, bowls slow down, glands stop functioning, even our brain shrinks. By the age of seventy there is a inch of space in the skull that wasn’t there before and falls can easily lead to cerebral bleeding.

The progress in medical and public health has been remarkable. We no longer keel over at thirty. For most of us the end is not sudden and dramatic, but a slow deterioration of health. A decline,  then a plateau, then another deterioration. Travelling along these downhill stretches we often regard the declines as embarrassments.

We regard dependence as weakness and hold up examples of the long tail as something we should all aspire to. Often the medical system supports us in these aspirations, providing minimal-benefit treatments or striving to keep us alive no matter the cost – both physically and mentally.

Hard talks matter. Before under-going any treatment Gawande implores us discuss and understand what matters to us most and what we are willing to risk.

Take Away Points and Context

  • The tragedy of old age and death cannot be fixed by medicine and as society we need to find a better way to deal with it.
  • Several studies have shown that nursing homes that have more stimulation and autonomy increase both longevity and the happiness of patients.
  • Endings matter and it important to understand a person’s priorities, what their fears are, what they can accept what they cannot.

Full article:

A Better Way Out

Marcia Angell


Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

by Atul Gawande
Metropolitan, 282 pp., $26.00

We Are All Mortal: End of Life Care’s Importance. Your comments welcome below.

December 29, 2016

The Future of Driverless Cars

The question is not if driverless cars can happen, but when and under what circumstances.

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What’s it about?

Sue Halpern looks at driverless cars: the technology, debate, risks, and the road ahead.

The world’s first self-driving taxi service entered into operation in Singapore this August (2016). A few weeks later, Uber, the app based taxi service, launched a fleet of autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh. The vehicles keep a human in the seat in case of emergencies, but the cars otherwise drive themselves.

Google, Baidu, Lyft, GM, Ford, Delphi and Daimler and several other companies are competing to do away with drivers once and for all.

The Future of Driverless Cars:

  1. The timelines for implementation of autonomous vehicles vary from report to report. Morgan Stanley’s bullish view is “100% autonomous penetration” by 2026. The university of Michigan says 2030, IHS automotive 2050.
  2. Google’s recent autonomous car division project manager, Chris Umson, states the technology will implemented incrementally: Starting in safe places, or places willing to experiment, or with early adopters.
  3. Many new cars already have machines undertake certain tasks: automatic windscreen wipers, brakes, blind-spot detectors, cruise control, self-parking, and for Tesla – autopilot mode. Machines take in information from the environment and then implement an outcome based on predetermined algorithms.
  4. Although self-driving cars have the potential to be safer than the human-driven sort, there is likely to be a point during their early adoption where they are less safe. This danger could be heightened where there is split responsibility between human and machine. Already there have been three deaths in Tesla cars while on auto-pilot.
  5. As the technology becomes widely adopted the point of increased danger should recede. More cars will be able to talk to each other, artificial intelligence will learn and improve, technology will improve. Data from GPS, radar, laser radar (lidar), sonar, inertial measurement utility and ordinary cameras will become better integrated and the decision making algorithms more accurate.
  6. The biggest hurdles may be ethical and legal. Who will need the insurance, the driver or the software manufacturer? Who will be responsible in the event of an accident? How will we distinguish blame in semi-autonomous, mixed cars? How will the algorithms be written? Will we favour children over adults? Will we kill two adults to save one child?


Utopia looks something like this: fleets of autonomous vehicles—call them taxi bots—owned by companies like Uber and Google, able to be deployed on demand, that will eliminate the need for private car ownership. (Currently, most privately owned cars sit idle for most of the day, taking up space and depreciating in value.)

Fewer privately owned vehicles will result in fewer cars on the road overall. With fewer cars will come fewer traffic jams and fewer accidents. Fewer accidents will enable cars to be made from lighter materials, saving on fuel. They will be smaller, too, since cars will no longer need to be armored against one another.

With less private car ownership, individuals will be freed of car payments, fuel and maintenance costs, and insurance premiums. Riders will have more disposable income and less debt. The built environment will improve as well, as road signs are eliminated—smart cars always know where they are and where they are going—and parking spaces, having become obsolete, are converted into green spaces.

Morgan Stanley analysts estimate that switching to full vehicle autonomy will save the United States economy alone $1.3 trillion a year.

A big change

The major car makers understand their days of dominance are over, all are making alliances with tech companies.

The companies with the best software will win.

Driverless cars will become more noticeable on the streets, smaller, made of different material and designs and without steering wheels and brake peddles.

Capital will be the winner. Those with the robots will prosper, while many middle class jobs are likely to go.

Mass transit systems, too, may disappear, made cost ineffective by the ubiquitous fleet of self-driving cars.

Take Away Points and Context

  • The pace of technological innovation is rapid, particularly in the case of artificial intelligence and the area of ‘deep learning’, the ability of machines to process and learn from information.
  • The question is not if driverless cars can happen, but when and under what circumstances.
  • There were 35,000 traffic fatalities in the US alone last year, and over six million accidents, almost all due to human error. Self-driving cars have the potential to eliminate road deaths, making the time where we tolerated such casualties an anachronism of the past.
  • There are dangers in the effect on jobs. Taxi driving has traditionally been a route into the middle class for the less-educated or for immigrants.
  • There are dangers that privacy will be eroded, with big tech companies, such as Google, collecting data on where passengers go, what they do in the cars, and what advertisements to best show them during their ride.


Full Article:


Our Driverless Future

Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead

by Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman
MIT Press, 312 pp., $29.95


The Future of Driverless Cars. Comments welcome below.

December 27, 2016

Frank Ramsey: A Great Intellect cut short

In his brief lifetime Frank Ramsey made ground-breaking contributions to mathematics, economics and philosophy.

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What’s it about?

Ray Monk pays homage to Frank Ramsey (1903-1930), a man who by age 25 was already recognized as a great intellect. He lived only another year, but in his brief lifetime he made ground-breaking, lasting contributions to mathematics, economics and philosophy. A new biography by his sister looks at his life.

Frank Ramsey: A Great Intellect cut short:

  1. Ramsey undermined the logic in Luwig Wittgenstein’s Tractus Logico-Philosophicus, which philosophers in both Cambridge and his home city of Vienna called a work of genius.
  2. Wittgenstein had previously been at Cambridge before World War I as a student of Bertrand Russell, but had left believing his work complete. Ramsey’s challenge drew him back.
  3. Wittgenstein concerned himself with the logical relationship between propositions and the world and believed that, by providing an account of the logic underlying this relationship, he had solved all philosophical problems.
  4. Ramsey’s paper’s on Economics were also well received. One showed that, on certain assumptions, taxes did the least harm when the production of goods fell in proportion with the tax size.
  5. His second paper set out to discover how much of its income a nation should save each year in order to reach the state where everyone would have as much goods as they wanted.
  6. John Maynard Keynes stated it was “one of the most remarkable contributions to mathematical economics ever made.”


Extraordinarily, Ramsey wrote this groundbreaking paper while working on a book (that he never finished) on logic. What for economists and most mere mortals was “terribly difficult” was, for him, a kind of relaxing distraction, “a waste of time.”

Today, economists regard it as one of the founding papers in the branch of their discipline known as “optimal accumulation,” which seeks to calculate the amount of a society’s economy that should be invested rather than consumed so as to maximize utility.

Take Away Points and Context

  • Frank Ramsey’s sister, Paula, died before she completed his biography and it remains incomplete.
  • Ramsey’s achievements remain under-appreciated by the general public.
  • A beautifully intelligent mind existed, cut short by hepatitis.


Full article:

‘One of the Great Intellects of His Time’

Ray Monk

Frank Ramsey (1903–1930): A Sister’s Memoir

by Margaret Paul, with a foreword by Brian McGuinness and an afterword by Gabriele Taylor
Cambridgeshire: Smith-Gordon, 304 pp., £20.00 (paper)
Frank Ramsey: A Great Intellect cut short. Your comments welcome below.
December 19, 2016

Is Facebook collecting too much data on us?

We give away our data in dribs and drabs and are seldom aware how it is used to target us to purchase more.

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What’s it about?

Sue Halpern looks at the issue of data collection by Facebook. Along the way she finds out what information Facebook holds on her and how accurate it is; meets the people behind the algorithms that shape the online world; and looks at problems and ethics in the algorithm driven economy.

Is Facebook collecting too much data on us?

  1. Facebook collects ninety-eight data points on each of its two billion users.
  2. Some of it you volunteer (in your profile), some comes from pictures that you are in (yours or others); some comes from following you around (regardless of what your “do not track” setting are).
  3. The company also buys information from data brokers worldwide, who collect information from store and loyalty cards and other places.
  4. Facebook both uses and sells this information to other advertisers.
  5. Facebook makes a lot of money from this. $2.3 billion in the third quarter of 2016 alone.
  6. The information Facebook and other companies have is not always accurate and uses assumptions or proxies (i.e. credit score as a proxy for being a good employee).


Advertisements show up on our Internet browser or Facebook page or Gmail and we tend to think they are there because some company is trying to sell us something it believes we want based on our browsing history or what we’ve said in an e-mail or what we were searching for on Google.

We don’t think they are there because we live in a particular neighbourhood, or hang out with certain kinds of people, or that we have been scored a particular and obscure way by a certain rendering of our lives. And most likely, we don’t imagine we are seeing those ads because an algorithm has determined that we are losers or easy marks or members of a particular ethnic or racial group.

Not Neutral

Data is not neutral. Someone decides what goes into an algorithm. Building presumption and prejudice into the formulas. That matters as the spread and influence of algorithms grows. And it matters when preferences, habits, zip codes and skin colour are used target the vulnerable with overpriced loans or dead end jobs. Adverts now target our pain points and offer us a market solution. Goods or services that we don’t need.

Take Away Points and Context

  • We give away our data in dribs and drabs and are seldom aware how it is used to target us to purchase more.
  • And there’s a political issue. There is no firewall between commercial surveillance and government surveillance. Police and intelligence agencies purchase and use this data all the time.
  • We could be trading hard won liberties to both the state and private enterprises. Giving away our personalities and preferences for things we believe are free.


Full article:

They Have, Right Now, Another You

by Sue Halpern

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

by Cathy O’Neil
Crown, 259 pp., $26.00

Virtual Competition: The Promise and Perils of the Algorithm-Driven Economy

by Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice E. Stucke
Harvard University Press, 356 pp., $29.95


Is Facebook collecting too much data on us? Comments Welcome below.