125: The algorithms officer


Things

One of our favourite emails that we wish still existed was Heath Killen’s In Wild Air, a formerly weekly collection of interesting recommendations from interesting people, which had an honesty and warmth to it that these things so rarely have. We were delighted to see Heath launch an archive site of every edition of the email this week—what’s left behind is a treasure trove of people we really want to get to know and the things they care about. This here email medium is such an ephemeral thing, and it’s nice to see the narratives, stories, and surprising permanence that emerge only afterwards.

“The music I like and the artists I like are in the business of making meaning. Tools will change and new rituals will emerge, but it does not really matter how easy it is to make meaningless art.” We try to spare you the tedium of celebrity Twitter arguments here because we figure you’re like us and can inflict your own self-punishing scrolling through those, as and when you need. But we do want to share this great three-screengrab response from the musician Holly Herndon to a claim by Grimes that AI could bring about the end of human art. What Herndon’s music explores, and what she articulates well here, is that there’s nothing magical or out of control about AI, it is simply a trained and algorithmic interpretation of us, “a new coordination mechanism in the legacy of human coordination systems” which requires a different kind of logic to interpet and reckon with, to understand how we value our labour of both input and consumption.


For a couple of years now, New York City has been reviewing how to regulate the kind of algorithmic decision-making systems that are already driving civic decision making (and policing, and healthcare, and…) worldwide in highly problematic ways. The city convened a taskforce that initially had a broad and exciting mandate, but alas, it does seem like the final report was bureaucratised into a nothingness of phased approaches, frameworks to create frameworks, and recommendations for extra layers of management. The most tangible outcome so far has been the creation of the position of “algorithms officer” deep within City Hall. One formerly hopeful participant of the taskforce is furiously describing it as a “spectacular failure”, and another (Meredith Whittaker of the AI Now Institute) laments that the report could have been written without a task force convened.

In related “cities making highly problematic planning decisions that masquerade as tech innovation” news, Daniel Harvey at 20 Minutes Into The Future takes a look at the financial mess that resulted from the decision by the suburban Ontario enclave of Innisfil to outsource their public transit needs to Uber.


At Gen, Maya Kosoff on Texas Instruments and the weird and damaging monopoly they hold over graphing calculators in classrooms.

Also on Gen, A.S. Hamrah’s description of Netflix’s latest theatre premiere and activation of Manhattan’s Little Italy for Scorsese’s The Irishman draws parallels to the theme-parkification of New York City itself. Netflix is restoring old single-screen theatres to a) host theatre runs required for Oscar qualification; b) compete with Disney’s theme park advantage; c) accelerate the decline of multiplexes by stealing their wealthiest, most influential inner-city customers. It’s especially devious since antitrust legislation prevents traditional studios from owning theatre chains—at least for now.

Netflix isn’t just breaking the distribution model of the industry, but something even more sacred to audiences: the sitcom holiday special. Weekly sitcoms were limited to a couple holiday specials per year, but the one-day full-season drops (and weekend bingeability) of streaming platforms have given rise to a new miracle: the season-long holiday special. We’re not recommending Merry Happy Whatever, just saying.

Max Read goes wide and gets some great lines from Jonah Peretti on everything from the dress, to unions, to Breitbart and Gawker. Our fave: Jonah prefers not to think of Buzzfeed’s algorithms as surveillance, but as the live performance of a musician or comedian.


More Things

A decade ago, a group of climate scientists identified nine potential tipping points in Earth’s ecosystem that would indicate us having fallen over the real ledge (or, in drier science talk, having pushed “components of the Earth system past critical states into qualitatively different modes of operation”). In a follow-up this week, those scientists suggested we may already have reached half of those tipping points. “The intervention time left to prevent tipping could already have shrunk towards zero,” they write in Nature, but beyond that dramatic claim, they do still offer something meant to sound like hope. As they attempt to apply mathematical proof and shake just a few more skeptics awake and get them to accept we’re living in a state of emergency, they write:

“We might already have lost control of whether tipping happens. A saving grace is that the rate at which damage accumulates from tipping — and hence the risk posed — could still be under our control to some extent. The stability and resilience of our planet is in peril. International action — not just words — must reflect this.”

Did you see the thing about koalas being functionally extinct, though? We’re not linking to that, because it was as untrue as it was sad. Just using it as your periodic reminder that regardless of topic, Forbes is not and never will be again a reliable source of any actual information. Make sure your panic is peer reviewed.

At The Verge, Willy Blackmore writes on the arrival of the emerald ash borer in Maine, and a fascinating approach for inventorying the remaining ash trees that combines the knowledge of the local Wabanaki basket weavers with western science models. As we’ve learned in Ontario, you can’t save every tree from the borer once it’s here, but with careful management and genuine understanding, you can maybe stave it off enough to at least keep a little tradition alive.

The description for the new issue of Logic, on the theme of nature, puts a thought that’s one of the primary drivers of Buckslip into better words than we’ve yet managed:

“We change our nature as we change our technologies, and our technologies change us. Every story about technology is also a story about nature. In any tool, the nature of the user entangles itself with the nature she shapes, and which in turn shapes her.”

At The Outline, Shuja Haider on how Johnnie Walker Black became the go-to tipple of the Muslim world.

Every so often, somebody on the internet comes across a spectacularly weird but genuine Pizza Hut ad from 1997 starring Mikhail Gorbachev. A minor flurry of useless clickbait pieces and tweet threads usually rise up alongside, and then it gets forgotten about one more time. At Foreign Policy, Paul Musgrave finally writes the definitive history of the ad, how it got made, and whether or not it presaged the rise of Putin. Keep this one in your bookmarks for next time.

Here’s one of our city’s finest Christmas traditions—Shawn Micallef’s annual Twitter thread of every corporate Christmas tree in Toronto.


Maybe we’ll do a year-end thing sometime in the next couple weeks? Tell us your one best thing (any thing, an event, a thing you read, a wave you caught) from 2019!

Meantime, Black Friday discounts on Buckslip subscriptions continue.