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.