Dark Matter: 27 September 2017

First, a quick note:

From the outset, Dark Matter has been an exercise in proselytizing. I think more people should read Ben Bashford on music as software. I want more people to consider how the blockchain transforms what it means to be a street vendor in Kabul. Design principles, better app onboarding, and even other people’s newsletters are the kinds of things I wanted to spread.

Every week, a few thousand people click on a Dark Matter link. I’ve no aspirations to build a revenue stream on top of those clicks, no Blue Apron code to share with you. Instead, I’m asking this:

If you enjoy the newsletter this week, share it with someone else who might find something worthwhile in it. tinyletter.com/ianfitzpatrick

I’m not trying to build a brand, just a larger island of misfit toys.


This week in pipes you see, pipes you don’t:

Matt Webb begins with this video of self-guided Chinese warehouse robots and posits (3min):

It used to be that the pipes were visible, and the packets were dumb but had addresses. The junctions were smart and did the work. We call them routers. Here there are no routers and there are no pipes. But instead, autonomous packets.

And that’s the fascinating part of the future we’re peeking at: the news, music, products, and facts we want find their way to us — not through channels or pipes, but with a built-in, self-steering logic.

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Spend a few minutes with Ben Terrett on the underlying service models of smart cities (4min). Ben earns points for referencing Schelling Points, which are the new Overton Windows.

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The possibilities presented by a universe rich with super-low-cost Linux boards (2min) are every bit as compelling as a universe replete with Elon Musk products.

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Buried in a post on design challenges for mixed reality development (7min) by Greg Madison on the Unity 3D blog, this on the notion of ‘intention amplification’ (a new term to me):

By centering design around a user’s intent and using intelligent objects that respond to that intent by modifying themselves, our thought process is not limited by physical laws, but rather will allow us to achieve a new freedom.

Spend a few minutes with the entire piece — or better yet, start at the very beginning.


This week in notes from the department of legality & compliance:

I had lunch last week with my dear old friend Mike Sullivan, who once remarked that:

“In Japan, everything is illegal until it’s legal. In the USA, everything is legal until it’s illegal. It’s a compliance culture.”

It was significant enough an observation that I felt compelled to jot it down at the time. I was reminded of it this week in reading Giles Turnbull’s piece on permission (4min), as told through the ‘It’s OK’ prints made by the Government Digital Service:

I think what’s missing in some organisations is explicit, clear permission.

There are leaders who don’t realise that there are teams waiting for permission to work in different ways. There are teams who hear conflicting messages from different leaders about what’s allowed and what isn’t. This lack of clarity is slowing change down.

This mirrors my own experience, particularly inside organizations with younger, less-experienced teams.

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I’m particularly drawn to Lara Hogan’s explanation of language and framing inside her broader, and fantastic, piece on working toward ongoing compensation and promotion equity (9min). This is really smart (and it absolutely matters):

When describing the statistically significant difference in rates of promotion to those leadership groups, I chose my words carefully. Rather than “women and nonbinary people get promoted” or “earn promotions”, I used “we promote women and nonbinary people more slowly”. Because, after all, it is the group of managers who are doing the promoting at an unfair rate, rather than women and nonbinary people not earning the promotions as quickly.

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18F has published a brief guide to giving and receiving feedback (4min). Share it broadly and vigorously.

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This looks fascinating: a study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology that explores the propensity of three year-olds to ask for help in completing tasks (note: full study paywalled) finds distinctly different patterns in the seeking of outside expertise among children from Japan, Canada, and the United States. Tip of the hat to Andreea Nastase​ for the link.

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via James Boardwell, Lauren Kelly’s explanation of nudges and the role of choice architecture in the service design (or lack thereof) in Uber’s surge pricing (6min), on the Dura site, is wonderful. Spend a few minutes with it. The entire Dura site is lovely.

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5 minutes well-spent: Jeff Guhin’s piece on the interaction models from which his professional (and non-professional) experiences borrow:

There’s a problem with treating the world we encounter like an ethnographer, and it’s helped me to realize that, as a sociological ethnographer, I have five different ways I can approach the world. Here are the kinds of interactions I’m interested in: (1) surviving, (2) completing, (3) understanding, (4) engaging, and (5) correcting.

It’s really fantastic, and broadly applicable across walks of life.

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Elizabeth Churchill — Director of User Experience at Google — posted a heady, frequently surprising, piece to the EPIC blog this week, on ‘new data dialects’ (11min). An especially tantalizing selection:

These ideas of ethnomining and of reading the logs and following the traces, and of interviewing databases, triangulated with more “traditional” ethnographic methods like interviewing and participant observation, have been very powerful in my work and in the work of my teams… at eBay, Michael Gilbert and I combined detailed behavioral log trace analysis with data visualizations of account holders’ search practices. Interviews revealed the shopping habits and patterns of consumers looking for bargains. The insights from this work would not have been possible with interviews alone, nor from purely studying behavioral logs, nor from aggregates like “daily actives” summaries. Our analyses convinced our product counterparts to think beyond “the user” as a single entity, perhaps a single person, and instead conceptualize a social entity—an example being multiple people on one account, or perhaps a single person with multiple accounts trying to maintain boundaries between social roles.

One of the benefits of supplementing traditional qualitative research with the ethnomining is the capacity to give shape to things like the ‘social entities’ that Churchill calls out. Absent the data, these behaviors are too-frequently dismissed as ‘edge cases’ not meriting investigation.

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Speaking of edges, Martin Weigel dropped a white privilege mixtape (2min) this week.


This week in the identity politics of our AI overlords:

“Information bottleneck” (9min) looks like it might be an important idea in both neuroscience and AI over the next decade, which makes it worth at least a few minutes of your time. Natalie Wolchover in Quanta:

The idea is that a network rids noisy input data of extraneous details as if by squeezing the information through a bottleneck, retaining only the features most relevant to general concepts. The bottleneck could serve “not only as a theoretical tool for understanding why our neural networks work as well as they do currently, but also as a tool for constructing new objectives and architectures of networks.”

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The most profoundly difficult thing I read this week was Shreeharsh Kelkar’s piece for Scatterplot on early developments artificial intelligence, post-foundationalism, and and Michal Kosinsky’s much-derided “gaydar” study (9min), which claims to have trained a machine to tease out sexual orientation from a library of facial images. This, among several graphs, rings true:

In what I have found to be one of the best descriptions of what it means to do technical work, Phil Agre, who worked both as an AI researcher and a social scientist, points out that AI researchers rarely care about ideas by themselves. Rather, an idea is only important if it can be built into a technical mechanism, i.e. if it can be formalized either in mathematics or in machinery.  Agre calls this the “work ethic”.

The whole post is worthy of your time.

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Erica Virtue has a easy-to-follow, razor-sharp piece on using AI in the Facebook Recommendations design process (8min), along with the best name ever.

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From a Wired UK profile of Finnish data scientist Harri Valpola (8min), this gem:

Valpola’s method is simple: “The best way to clean dirty data is to get the computer to do it for you.” His first attempt was revealed in a paper published in 2015, which described a ladder network: a neural network that trained itself to deal with complicated situations by injecting noise into its results as it went along, like a teacher keeping her students on their toes by throwing mistakes into a test.

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This, from Corin Faife’s fantastic article for How We Get to Next on access to genetic therapies and the socio-economic mechanics of CRISPR (13min):

As Kozubek has noted, a handful of American insurance companies have already issued policies that specifically exclude gene therapies in order to avoid bearing the cost, a move that could set a precedent across the industry. In the U.S., sickle-cell anemia most commonly afflicts African-Americans and other communities of color, which tend to be poorer and have worse access to healthcare than less-affected communities. (Princeton anthropology professor Carolyn Rouse has argued that “sickle-cell disease funding is a form of social justice for blacks as breast cancer funding is for women.”)

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I love being alive in 2017: The Ambient Shipping repo on Github “contains utilities for capturing AIS messages broadcast by passing ships and then joining them with public data sets that reveal what the ships are carrying.”

Until next week.

Dark Matter: 19 September 2017

I took a bit of time off to rest and recover. For the long-form inclined, my reading list: The Shepherd’s LifeSpeculative EverythingHow to Be Both.

Thanks, as always, to those of you who share Dark Matter with colleagues and friends on the Twitters. It means loads.


This week in Amazigh breaks and fantastic Dutch names:

I’ve been re-reading Jace Clayton’s magnificent Uproot — which my old friend Patrick Tomasiewicz was kind enough to send to me a few months back. This particular passage — taken from a chapter that finds Clayton in the bodegas of Morocco searching for Berber beats — caught my attention again:

“Find the sellers of cheap plastic and you’ll have found the sellers of music, because for most of the world music is only worth as much as the plastic it comes delivered on. A fraction of a dollar for hundreds of songs, crammed on as MP3s.”

Closely related: Joris van den Boom (Best.Name.Ever) has a dispatch this week from Addis Ababa on public vending machines dispensing pirated movies and television shows to thumb drives for as little as $0.13 apiece (3 min). The lesson, again: most content is only worth as much as the cheap container it fits inside.

Also related — but from the other end of the price/value spectrum — this from a Daniel Knowles piece for 1843 Magazine on the surreal role of The Internet in The Congo (4min):

Anderson turned to YouTube. This was not easy, because a gigabyte of data in Congo costs $10 – a fortune for most Congolese. But by sitting up after midnight, he could get off-peak internet for far less. On his ancient, battered Chinese smartphone, he showed me instructional videos he had downloaded about how to conjugate verbs, old American movies (“Coming to America” was a favourite), and speeches by Barack Obama. It was Obama who taught him to drop his Ts. “I heard him say this expression ‘gotta’. It was so complicated to me. I felt I had to learn to speak all over again.”

An aside: if you’ve not heard it lately (or ever), go stream Clayton’s legendary DJ mix Gold Teeth Thief.

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Julian Oliver has a wonderful writeup on Harvest : a project to use wind power to mine cryptocurrency that’s used to fund climate research (4 min), complete with abundant source code and technical specification.

H/T on the above to CreativeApplicationswhich is using ‘a javascript miner for the Monero Blockchain’ — essentially using visitors’ browser to mine currency while on the site in return for delivering an ad-free experience. This is a wonderful idea, if sustainable, and one more publishers should explore.

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Lucia Moses published a fascinating piece for Digiday on the output of The Washington Posts’s Heliograf (3 min) — a primitive AI that the paper has used to publish more than 850 articles in the last year. Once again, the value of the content seems perilously bound to the container.


This week in the aggregation of seventh-level druids:

Sam Ford — he of the Convergence Culture Consortium and Spreadable Media — was in town last week to address the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and spent a few hours with me over breakfast in Kendall Square talking professional wrestling, consulting models, and his adventures through his home state of Kentucky developing the Artisanal Economies Project. I’ve referenced this collaboration with Grant McCracken in Dark Matter before, but if you’ve not spent time with it please do give it a look.

Speaking of Kendall Square: stop what you’re doing and read Audrey Watters lecture to MIT’s Comparative Media Studies course on the history of learning objects (10min) — and what they have to tell us about our future(s). At a minimum, bookmark it for a few minutes of uninterrupted time, if only for passages like this:

There’s a long history of criticism of the idea of “intelligence” – its origins in eugenics; its use as a mechanism for race- and gender-based exclusion and sorting. It’s a history that educational psychology, deeply intertwined with the development of measurements and assessments, has not always been forthright about. Education technology, with its origins in educational psychology, is implicated in this. And now we port this history of “intelligence” – one steeped in racism and bias – onto machines.

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Unrelated, but wonderful: Grant had a post this week on his affinity for the phrase ‘goat rodeo’ as a substitute for ‘dumpster fire’ (4min):

“Dumpster fire” doesn’t carry any class hostility, but goat rodeo really does evoke that old fashioned contempt that city folk used to love to cultivate for anyone who had committed the unpardonable sin of being a “hayseed.” So we are brushing off an age-old prejudice to stage this act of criticism.

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There are some gems in Michael Bobick’s piece for the Cooper blog on the symbiotic relationship between participatory ethnography and user experience (6min). Most of this won’t be especially new to the Jan Chipchase fanboy set — a number of whom subscribe to this newsletter — but there are certainly good points to be made here, and Bobick makes them elegantly.

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Aaron Renn asks an important, and under-represented question lost in the rush to wallpaper the modern experience with back issues of FastCompany:

where is the expansive treatment of the economic value – the negative economic value – of declines in social conditions? (5min) Is the fully expansive impact of violence in some of Chicago’s neighborhoods fully counted? Is the quality of life impact of having a mother strung out on opioids, or having a father who is just plain gone? What’s the impact of going from being able to leave your keys in your car and your house unlocked to realizing that burglary is a very real possibility? And speaking of health, what is the all in effect on a community of the declining life expectancy we’ve experienced?

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Janelle Shane is training a neural network to create and name Dungeons and Dragons characters, and could use any past characters you have lying around in your archives to help her train the model with backstories. Really. You absolutely know you want to help.


This week in synthetic cartography:

I was delighted this weekend to tune in to the odd NPR program and hear Anab Jain’s voice pouring through my car radio — speaking to the TED Radio Hour on Superflux’s work around envisioning environmental conditions of future cities. A few short days later, the studio posted about the latest release of its’ Buggy Air prototype (2min):

You can put it on a buggy, a bike, or even a rucksack/handbag. It’s more adaptable for different users with a new strap design, so we can get people using it in a wider range of situations. The device has a smaller circuit board with smaller sensors attached which allows for the new smaller design. The intention is to collect varied and diverse data sets, which can create a more dynamic map of the city’s air pollution. We want to connect this data with local councils, schools and other institutions for direct, location action.

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In similarly speculative territory: a terrain-authoring prototype (2min) that allows an artist to render three-dimensional topographies from a Wacom tablet and tools like an ‘erosion synthesizer’. It makes more sense when you see it come to life.

You know that you want an erosion synthesizer.

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I just found Krystal Higgins’ First Time User Experiences : a delightfully well-authored log of user onboarding notes. Make particular note of her clear, succinct language — so rare in this community. Also: tumblr.

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From Semil Shah’s piece on Nestle’s acquisition of a majority stake in Blue Bottle (4min), this:

Frequent consumer interactions are rare and therefore valuable. Consumer attention in the age of iPhones and Instagram is the most finite resource these days. So, when loyal coffee drinkers in urban centers wait for 20 minutes for an individually-brewed cup of coffee, and those drinkers come by once, twice, or even three times per day, the frequency of consumer interactions are likely valued by the acquirer (in this case, Nestle) more than a simple model of forward-looking revenues.

I’d not really thought of the really world in quite that way: that the interactions are (potentially, contextually) of greater aggregate value than the transactions. Amazon, which primes us not to build our cart but to transact against it, would probably agree.

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Finally, spend six minutes with Leyla Acaroglu’s fabulous piece on the six fundamental concepts of systems thinking: interconnectedness, synthesis, emergence, feedback loops, causality, and systems mapping.

I’ve experienced, in recent years, that no factor plays a more profound role in the capacity for 2 or more organizations to plug-in to one another than a shared understanding of systems thinking and the role it plays in internal workflows and business (and experience) planning. It trumps (and transcends) digital vs. traditional, legacy vs. startup. Give Leyla’s piece a read, and share it liberally.

Until next week.