040: happy 40th


Basically

This week, even more ballistic hurricanes, earthquakes, missiles and heads of state. No day like today to start planning someone’s drive-thru funeral. Plus, plump little Mario a plumber no mo'.


Verbatim

Look, putting the bloggy snark tone aside, this is just an excellent cri de couer from Scott Locklin on the sorry state of contemporary science journalism (something we’ve grumbled about here before), and how easily that leads to us, dangerously, bestowing magic on the mundane.

Machine learning and its relatives are the statistics of the future: the way we learn about the way the world works. Of course, machines aren’t actually “learning” anything. They’re just doing statistics. Very beautiful, complex, and sometimes mysterious statistics, but it’s still statistics. Nobody really knows how people learn things and infer new things from abstract or practical knowledge. When someone starts talking about “AI,” based on some machine learning technique, the Berzerker rage comes upon me. There is no such thing as “AI” as a science or a technology. Anyone who uses that phrase is a dreamer, a liar or a fool. You can tell when a nebulous buzzword like “AI” has reached peak “human information centipede;” when oligarchs start being afraid of it.


Current Outlook


Things

There were monumental political developments in Kenya these last couple of weeks as the Supreme Court defied all expectations and annulled the results of the most recent election. Whether this results in genuine reforms in the country, it’s a pretty profound and surprising moment of opportunity for the country. It also means the international observers who signed off on the results with a “what ya gonna do?” shrug have some serious thinking to do about the role they’ve played in enabling these sorts of election results to date.

(Also - citing our sources here - we highly recommend the excellent This Week in Africa mailing list for a broad but digestible sweep of reporting and analysis on what’s going on across the continent)

Pour a healthy but overpriced one out for Juicero. The startup’s swift slide from ludicrous, ego-fuelled, overfunded and uncritical Valley excess to cautionary (or inspiring, maybe?) tale for the ages has finally reached bottom. Here is, from Bloomberg, one of the greatest pieces of tech reporting of all time. Everybody out, turn off the lights, grab a few of those juice packs before they go bad. Just please don’t use your hands. We can’t wait to see what terrible idea founder Doug Evans comes up with next. Pray his time at Burning Man has been used for somber reflection.

Juicero is but a sidenote in the ongoing autopsy of The Future: “irrelevant, over and retailed, entirely kaput.” Plenty more quotable phrases and tweets and epitaphs where that came from, with Jacob Silverman in fine Baffler form. Beyond catharsis, Silverman offers an analysis of futurists as a quasi-religious set, with “no political program, no collective vision except the faded memories of shared childhood entertainments. They have no shame and no self-knowledge, requesting praise for white-knighting their way into crises that their own highly valued companies may have helped to make.” OK, mostly catharsis.

Given the prevalence of the futurist pose, we can never opt-out as much as we might like to. But we do have coping strategies. LARB recommends reading their childish futurist fantasies—such as this summer’s blockbuster beach-read, Homo Deus—as prequels to more sincere writing that reaches out across boundaries of expertise with the earnest (and desperate) belief that ethical ruminations require collective dialogue.

As an antidote, we turn to two good friends of this here email. Reading Gillian Terzis lay out the practicalities of quantum entanglement and where it’s headed or Britt Wray doing similar for CRISPR and the potential de-extinction of the woolly mammoth, we’re reminded that you can produce good reporting that looks towards the wildest possibilities of what’s coming without being seduced by them.

On finding ways to exist in a world that, piece by piece, has changed entirely around you while you weren’t looking – Josephine Livingstone on John Le Carré and the return of George Smiley in a climate that’s a different kind of cold, and Carl Wilson on the return of LCD Soundsystem to that same place.

This may not be news, but it’s news to us: all your favourite Geocities websites, preserved, as a “living memorial on early Web culture.”

“Celery was the Avocado Toast of the Victorian Era.”

And Uno, after 46 years, has been redesigned to accommodate 350 million color blind people.


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