043: From Tinder to Thomas the Tank Engine


Basically

This week, the healthcare bill snafu. Megyn Kelly’s NBC washout. Hugh Hefner’s lights out. Plus, Tom Price does the right thing (for once!) and Elon proposes a rocketship home for the holidays—nay, to your next meeting. And, well, Twitter doubled its character limit. Unless you’re Asian. Presumably an executive order, right?


Verbatim

Ignore the overwrought title. James Somers’ The Coming Software Apocalypse” at The Atlantic is a smart, deeply ambitious attempt to come to grips with the ramifications of how programmers work and how they think. Software is not a benevolent, unknowable god to which we can outsource humanity’s infrastructure. Nor is it just the plumbing. It is an amalgamation of tools, of ways of working and looking at and building the world. Its flaws are our own.

Our standard framework for thinking about engineering failures—reflected, for instance, in regulations for medical devices—was developed shortly after World War II, before the advent of software, for electromechanical systems. The idea was that you make something reliable by making its parts reliable (say, you build your engine to withstand 40,000 takeoff-and-landing cycles) and by planning for the breakdown of those parts (you have two engines). But software doesn’t break. Intrado’s faulty threshold is not like the faulty rivet that leads to the crash of an airliner. The software did exactly what it was told to do. In fact it did it perfectly. The reason it failed is that it was told to do the wrong thing. Software failures are failures of understanding, and of imagination.


ThingsHugh Hefner is dead, yes, but revived are some of the greatest interviews from his sexy archives. And among them this quote from a 29-year-old Steve Jobs: "It’s often the same with any new, revolutionary thing. People get stuck as they get older. Our minds are sort of electrochemical computers. Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them. It’s a rare person who etches grooves that are other than a specific way of looking at things, a specific way of questioning things. It’s rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to really contribute something amazing. Of course, there are some people who are innately curious, forever little kids in their awe of life, but they’re rare."

For The Guardian, Judith Deportail undertook the horrifying task of finding out exactly what Tinder knows about her – the 800-page dossier of facts and data she received is pretty eye-opening, even for those of us who are already resigned to the out-of-control lives of our data. As reliable ol’ security blogger Bruce Schneier points out, though, you shouldn’t just read this as an illustration of the privacy risks of online dating; this isn’t just for the swipers, this is how all of it works: surveillance is the business model of the internet.”

Mostly this email exists as an excuse to keep a group chat going between the gang that makes it (a gang that can’t even seem to get their shit together enough to go for a drink). This loving ode to the group chat at The Outline, and in particular its significance for people of colour, is just excellent.

A second reason this email exists is to vent our frustration with the church of techno-solutionism. Who would have thought, then, that a story of a Silicon Valley prophet with the frame of a bona fide religious organization established to realize and worship an AI Godhead would be so refreshing. The upfront piety of Way of the Future is an easier pill to swallow than the oblivious zeal of the likes of Singularity U. Not that we’d join either.

The Columbia Journalism Review looks at Mic’s disastrous pivot away from written words towards video as a canary in the coalmine we’re all trapped in. It’s a savage piece with many good things to say about the follies of trusting the whims of your platform gods, but perhaps its most important point is that for the most part the strategy tends to suck because the video does too: “If video were comparable to text-based digital journalism, visually most of it is right around Geocities, circa 1999...”

Clickbaity pseudoscience of the week: here’s a peer-reviewed paper which purports to show that the brains of metal listeners function differently to those of classical aficionados. Mostly we’re offended by its lack of appreciation for either genre (🤘), but if you see this one reported in the weeks ahead, keep in mind the broader scientific community’s immediate reaction. This is a perfect example of science crafted for attention, and mostly we post it for this excellent response from one internet commenter that so neatly sums up our problems with this kind of seductive junk science: “A policy maker, reporter, or parent would read this abstract with great concern, leaving the rest of us scientists to do damage control… we lose credibility by making irresponsible assertions simply to improve our work’s short-term impact, but at the same time mess up science in a long-term.”

An excellent illustrated explanation of complex adaptive systems and the myth of the clockwork knowable universe from Sarah Firth. With good toilet gags also.

Jia Tolentino is here to remind you that Thomas the Tank Engine is a bleak and brutal celebration of authoritarianism. Toot toot.

One of our favourite newsletters, Deep Thoughts, was recently revived as Cruising Altitude. You can subscribe here in time for its third instalment. There’s no site, and no view-in-browser option, so you’re just going to have to trust us. You do trust us, don’t you?

Twitter is testing twice the tweetage for some tweeters. But there’s a backdoor to that blue checkmark bullshit.


Sayonara suckers.
Tell your cool cousin about us.​