Four Short Links

Nat Torkington's eclectic collection of curated links.

Four short links: 9 December 2016

Automating the Middle Class, Voiced Penetration, Drone Fish, and On Assumptions

  1. What Robots Are Doing to the Middle Class (Common Dreams) -- Paul Buchheit lays it out: the bifurcation of jobs, the reinforcement of privilege, and...A final relevant consideration was hinted at by The Economist, in talking about technological revolutions of the past: "It took several decades before economic growth was reflected in significant wage gains for workers—a delay known as Engels' pause." (via Cory Doctorow)
  2. Voice Control Security Holes -- "His neighbor, who was coming by to borrow some flour, was able to let himself in by shouting, 'Hey Siri, unlock the front door.'"
  3. Using a Robotic Dummy Fish to Study Social Behaviours -- Ultimately, the experiments showed that the electric signal played a crucial role as a key stimulus in inducing "following behavior," while there was no significant effect of motion pattern on attractiveness of the dummy. I feel vindicated in my decision to eschew dance classes in favour of an EMP generator.
  4. On Assumptions (Adrian Colyer) -- The safety questions are the ones we’re trained to ask (although we often forget). But it’s the opportunity questions that can unlock some really interesting lines of inquiry and discovery.

Four short links: 8 December 2016

Popular Fields, Fake News, Modem History, and Security for Civil Society Groups

  1. Most Popular Fields of Study Since 1970 (Flowing Data) -- nifty chart with data from National Center for Education Statistics.
  2. How I Detect Fake News (Tim O'Reilly) -- worth sending to any of your friends/family who want to tell genuine news from bogus.
  3. Where Does 9600bps Come From? (SparkFun) -- There are a huge number of systems that rely on asynchronous serial. Why did we end up using 9600 instead of 10,000, or perhaps 8192 (213) bps? It turns out we use 9600 bps because of the reaction time of carbon microphones.
  4. Security for the High-Risk User: Separate and Unequal (John Scott-Railton) -- data-driven breakdown of where and how civil society groups are at risk from digital attack. (via Cory Doctorow)

Four short links: 7 December 2016

Whiplash Book, Haptic Chair, Go Mix, and Out of Copyright Works

  1. Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future -- Joi Ito's new book. (via BoingBoing)
  2. Disney Research Wants to Make VR Haptics as Immersive as Visuals (Kurzweil AI) -- The haptic app, called VR360HD, was developed and tested using a consumer headset and Disney Research’s haptic chair. The chair features a grid of six vibrotactile actuators in its back and two subwoofers, or “shakers,” in the seat and back. The grid produces localized moving sensations in the back, while the subwoofers shake two different regions of the body and can create a sensation of motion. Users were able to select from a library of feel effects, also assembled and tested by Disney Research. These feel effects are identified with common terms such as rain, pulsing, or rumbling, and can be adjusted so that people can distinguish, for instance, between a light sprinkle and a heavy downpour.
  3. GoMix -- IFTTT meets Heroku (thanks to Andy Baio for that characterization).
  4. Class of 2017 -- the fantastic works entering the public domain in countries with life+50 and life+70 years.

Four short links: 6 December 2016

Cute Lambda, Manufacturing Startups, Walled Wonderland, and Future Shopping

  1. AWS Lambda to Call You When Servers are Down -- it's not a replacement for Pingdom, but it's a cute demonstration of the power of lambdas for gluing together services.
  2. How Not to F Up Your Manufacturing Startup -- On the operations front, never leave anything to ambiguity. If a supplier says the item is coming “next week,” ask when exactly next week and get the tracking code.
  3. Facebook's Walled Wonderland is Inherently Incompatible with News Media -- Here is an important question: how does news fit in Facebook’s walled Wonderland? Short answer: it doesn’t. Unfiltered news doesn’t share well, not at all: it can be emotional, but in the worse sense; no one is willing to spread a gruesome account from Mosul among his/her peers. Most likely, unfiltered news will convey a negative aspect of society. Again, another revelation from The Intercept or ProPublica won’t get many clicks. Unfiltered news can upset users’ views, beliefs, or opinions.
  4. Amazon Go -- store where payments happen automatically, and you just walk off with what you like. Will lead to an interesting social dynamic in the store: instead of checkout agents, there'll be security staff to stop non-customers from stealing.

Four short links: 5 December 2016

Self-Driving Open Source, Self-Programming Software, Genetic Engineering, and The Off-Switch Game

  1.'s Open Pilot -- open source autopilot and hardware to convert cars to auto-pilot. Opened by after regulators challenged them. The 3d-printed-gun strategy of self-driving cars? See Washington Post for context. Hotz says it is an open source alternative to Tesla's autopilot, which is considered semi-autonomous. When a user switches it on, the car goes into autopilot mode, enabling the driver to take their hands off the wheel and the gas pedal. The car can also stay in its lane and brake for the driver. Currently, the software works only with some Hondas and Acuras.
  2. REX: A Development Platform and Online Learning Approach for Runtime Emergent Software Systems -- Using an emergent web server as a case study, we show how software can be autonomously self-assembled from discovered parts, and continually optimized over time (by using alternative parts) as it is subjected to different deployment conditions. Our system begins with no knowledge that it is specifically assembling a web server, nor with knowledge of the deployment conditions that may occur at runtime.
  3. Future of Genetic Engineering (YouTube) -- George Church blows minds.
  4. The Off-Switch Game (PDF) -- Our goal is to study the incentives an agent has to allow itself to be switched off. We analyze a simple game between a human H and a robot R, where H can press R’s off switch but R can disable the off switch. A traditional agent takes its reward function for granted: we show that such agents have an incentive to disable the off switch, except in the special case where H is perfectly rational. Our key insight is that for R to want to preserve its off switch, it needs to be uncertain about the utility associated with the outcome, and to treat H’s actions as important observations about that utility. (R also has no incentive to switch itself off in this setting.) We conclude that giving machines an appropriate level of uncertainty about their objectives leads to safer designs, and we argue that this setting is a useful generalization of the classical AI paradigm of rational agents.

Four short links: 2 December 2016

Engineering Teams, State Machines, Social Media, and Security Feudalism

  1. Building and Motivating Engineering Teams (Camille Fournier) -- My experience has been that most great engineers want to work somewhere that inspires them to achieve. Many of us stop at the idea of hard technical problems when we think about inspiring our engineering teams, but challenging them to partner with people who have different perspectives is another way you can help them grow.
  2. Validating State Machines (Tim Bray) -- I love well-written technical exposition. Tim's a master. Not that many people care about validators and parsers; so, if you think you probably won't be interested in the rest of this piece, you're probably right.
  3. Social Media is Killing Discourse Because It's Too Much Like TV (MIT TR) -- And, Postman argued, when news is constructed as a form of entertainment, it inevitably loses its function for a healthy democracy. "I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?"
  4. Security and Feudalism: Own or be Pwned (YouTube) -- Cory Doctorow's full keynote from O'Reilly Security Conference. Masterful.

Four short links: 1 December 2016

AI Fears, Amazon Bot Framework, Data Web App, and Feature Factories

  1. Genevieve Bell: Humanity's Greatest Fear is About Being Irrelevant (Guardian) -- Mori’s argument was that we project our own anxieties and when we ask: “Will the robots kill us?”, what we are really asking is: “Will we kill us?” Coming from a Japanese man who lived through the 20th century, that might not be an unreasonable question. He wonders what would happen if we were to take as our starting point that technology could be our best angels, not our worst.
  2. Introducing Amazon Lex -- Amazon's bot framework, basically building out from Alexa intents.
  3. CyberChef -- GCHQ's web app for encryption, encoding, compression and data analysis, which you can play with straight from GitHub.
  4. 12 Signs You're in a Feature Factory -- I'm crying, it's so accurate. The signs: No measurement. Rapid shuffling of teams. Success theatre. Infrequent (acknowledged) failures. No connection to core metrics. No PM retrospectives. Obsessing about prioritization. No tweaking. Culture of hand-offs. Large batches. Chasing upfront revenue. Shiny objects.

Four short links: 30 November 2016

Robots and Bio, Art and Money, Augmentation vs. Replacement, and Retro Slack

  1. Robot Revolution in Synthetic Biology (IEEE Spectrum) -- Once the robots have created a thousand yeast variants containing different mashups of genes, it’s time to see if the cells are making their rose oil. Mass spectrometry machines crack open the cells and examine all the molecules inside, checking for the product and also determining whether the yeast is healthy.
  2. Adventure Cartoonist (Lucy Bellwood) -- video of her XOXO talk about money, art, success, and being poor enough and rich enough, among much else. So worth watching.
  3. A Civilian at the World of Watson Conference (Simon Ouderkirk) -- augmentation not replacement, was clearly the party line. IBM Chairwoman Ginny Rometty focused on it in her keynote; Computers as helpers, as assistants, as efficiency aids. [...] [Sebastian] Thrun [of Udacity] took a radically different direction in predicting the future; he used the metaphor of the simple shovel versus a backhoe. When we invent a tool that can do a job better, faster, and more cheaply than using human labor, why not use that tool? Why not free up that labor for other pursuits? We don’t dig foundations by hand, using a backhoe only on the tricky spots. We get in there with the big machine and get it done fast.
  4. Slack Client for C64 -- this is so awesome.

Four short links: 29 November 2016

Data in Type, China Adopts Black Mirror, Thinking Technology, and Wireless Mice

  1. Datalegreya -- a typeface that can interweave data curves with text. (via Waxy)
  2. China's Credit Rating for Everything (WSJ) -- More than three dozen local governments across China are beginning to compile digital records of social and financial behavior to rate creditworthiness. A person can incur black marks for infractions such as fare cheating, jaywalking, and violating family-planning rules. The effort echoes the dang’an, a system of dossiers the Communist party keeps on urban workers’ behavior. Search for that text on Google and click through to the WSJ article if you aren't a subscriber.
  3. Thought as a Technology (Michael Nielsen) -- a thought-provoking essay that mixes two topics I'm interested in: UI and learning new ways of thinking of the world.
  4. Wireless Control of Mice (IEEE) -- Implanted in that mouse’s brain was a device about the size of a peppercorn. When we used our wireless power system to switch it on, the device glowed with a blue light that activated genetically engineered brain cells in the premotor cortex, which sends signals to the muscles. We watched in amazement as the mouse stopped its random motions and began to run in neat circles around the cage.

Four short links: 28 November 2016

Skill Levels, Auto-Provisioning from GitHub, Laptops are Niche, and Vehicular Firehose

  1. Computer Skill Levels -- Across 33 rich countries, only 5% of the population has high computer-related abilities, and only a third of people can complete medium-complexity tasks. (via Greg Linden)
  2. Fodor -- Auto setup and provision GitHub repositories on new DigitalOcean droplets. Genius!
  3. Tablets, PCs, and Office (Ben Evans) -- it was Ben's podcast that really opened my eyes: we laptop users are in a dying market. Mobile won. Jean-Louis Gassée agrees.
  4. Car Wars -- Cory Doctorow short fiction that builds on the trolleybus problem, commissioned by Deakin University in Australia to illustrate the kinds of research they're doing. When you worked for Huawei, you got access to the firehose: every scrap of telemetry ever gleaned by a Huawei vehicle, plus all the licensed data sets from the other big automotive and logistics companies, right down to the driver data collected from people who wore court-ordered monitors: paroled felons, abusive parents under restraining orders, government employees. You got the post-mortem data from the world’s worst crashes, and you got all the simulation data from the botcaves: the vast, virtual killing-field where the machine learning algorithms duked it out to see which one could generate the fewest fatalities per kilometre.

Four short links: 25 November 2016

Malware Phylogenetics, Bipartite News, Human-Like AI, and Structuring Work

  1. Cosa Nostra -- a graph-based malware clustering toolkit. Creates phylogenetic trees of malware showing relationships between variants.
  2. Fake News is Not The Only Problem -- neither side of the graph’s frame was false, per se. Rather, each carefully crafted story on either side omitted important detail and context. When this happens constantly, on a daily basis, it systematically and deeply affects people’s perception of what is real. (via BoingBoing)
  3. Building Machines that Think and Learn Like People (Paper a Day) -- summary of a paper that covers why deep learning alone isn't likely to get us human-like AI, and hints at what's needed.
  4. How We Set Up Our Work and Teams at Basecamp (Jason Fried) -- six week cycles, with a few weeks in-between for independent clean-up, pet projects, etc. These are not sprints. I despise the word sprints. Sprints and work don’t go together. This isn’t about running all out as fast as you can; it’s about working calmly, at a nice pace, and making smart calls along the way. No brute force here, no catching our collective breath at the end.

Four short links: 24 November 2016

Smart Reply, Serverless, Identifying Criminals, and Programmer Ethics

  1. Smart Reply for Email (A Paper a Day) -- The Smart Reply system generates around 12.9K unique suggestions each day, that collectively belong to about 380 semantic clusters. 31.9% of the suggestions actually get used, from 83.2% of the clusters. “These statistics demonstrate the need to go well beyond a simple system with five or 10 canned responses.” Furthermore, out of all used suggestions, 45% were from the 1st position, 35% from the 2nd position, and 20% from the third position.
  2. Why All The Fuss About Serverless (Simon Wardley) -- Billing by the function not only enables me to see what is being used but also to quickly identify costly areas of my program. [...] Everyone talks about “algorithmic management” these days (well, everyone in certain circles I walk in) but if you don’t know the cost of something, its impact on revenue, and how it is changing, then no algorithm is going to help you magic up the answer to the investment decisions you need to make
  3. Neural Network Identifies Criminals By Their Faces -- Xiaolin and Xi say there are three facial features that the neural network uses to make its classification. These are: the curvature of upper lip which is on average 23% larger for criminals than for noncriminals; the distance between two inner corners of the eyes, which is 6% shorter; and the angle between two lines drawn from the tip of the nose to the corners of the mouth, which is 20% smaller. You have to read the paper to learn it has a 6% false-positive rate.
  4. The Future of Programming (Bob Martin) -- we, programmers, are going to have to grow up and define our profession, and that includes ethics, because everything is controlled by software. Democracy, news, jobs, health care, government, police...these jobs have moral dimensions and programmers are being asked to code unethical things. Martin says, “Let’s decide what it means to be a programmer. Civilization depends on us. Civilization doesn’t understand this yet.”

Four short links: 23 November 2016

Facebook Censorship, Regulating Security, A/B Testing, and Spying Headphones

  1. Facebook Said to Create Censorship Tool to Re-Enter China (NYT) -- Unveiling a new censorship tool in China could lead to more demands to suppress content from other countries. The fake news problem, which has hit countries across the globe, has already led some governments to use the issue as an excuse to target sites of political rivals, or shut down social media sites altogether.
  2. Internet Era of Fun and Games is Over -- It was OK when it was fun and games. But already there’s stuff on this device that monitors my medical condition, controls my thermostat, talks to my car: I just crossed four regulatory agencies, and it’s not even 11 o’clock. This is something that we’re going to need to do something new about. And like many new agencies in the 20th century, many new agencies were created: trains, cars, airplanes, radio, nuclear power. My guess is that [the internet] is going to be one of them. And that’s because this is different. This is all coming. Whether we like that the technology is coming, it’s coming faster than we think. I think government involvement is coming, and I’d like to get ahead of it. I’d like to start thinking about what this would look like. Bruce Schneier testifies.
  3. Bayesian A/B Testing Not Immune to Peeking -- dang it's hard to do science!
  4. Your Headphones Can Spy On You (Wired) -- Their malware uses a little-known feature of RealTek audio codec chips to silently “retask” the computer’s output channel as an input channel, allowing the malware to record audio even when the headphones remain connected into an output-only jack and don’t even have a microphone channel on their plug. The researchers say the RealTek chips are so common that the attack works on practically any desktop computer, whether it runs Windows or MacOS, and most laptops, too.

Four short links: 22 November 2016

Connections App, Voice UIs, Pentagon's Dystopia, and Robot Armies

  1. James Burke's Connections App -- being Kickstarted as we speak. I backed it like a boss.
  2. Designing Voice User Interfaces -- don’t ask a question if you won’t be able to understand the answer.
  3. Pentagon's Dystopic Sci-Fi Future (The Intercept) -- video made to illustrate a possible future: economic have-nots, megacities, and rogues who enable a proliferation of “digital domains” that facilitate “sophisticated illicit economies and decentralized syndicates of crime to give adversaries global reach at an unprecedented level.” (via Ars Technica)
  4. Who Will Command the Robot Armies? (Maciej Ceglowski) -- We, on the other hand, didn't plan a thing. We just built ourselves a powerful apparatus for social control with no sense of purpose or consensus about shared values. Do we want to be safe? Do we want to be free? Do we want to hear valuable news and offers?

Four short links: 21 Nov 2016

Master Strategy, Writing a MMORPG, Human-Level AI, and Network of Sorrows

  1. How to Master Strategy (Simon Wardley) -- Most companies aren't playing chess when it comes to strategy (despite what you read). At best, most are simply meme copying others or running on gut feel and highest paid person's opinion.
  2. Yegge's Back! -- he's been writing a game in his spare time, and launched it. It runs on the Google Cloud Platform.
  3. Kurzweil Interviews Minsky on Human-Level AI -- resourceful versatile machines. Adjectives you don't normally hear applied to software.
  4. A Network of Sorrows: Small Adversaries and Small Allies (Quinn Norton) -- One media report in the U.S. esti­mat­ed 8,500 schools in America have been hit with ran­somware this year. Now, the rea­son why I think it’s real­ly inter­est­ing to point out the American fig­ures here is this is also a nation­al sys­tem where as of last year, half of all stu­dents in U.S. pub­lic schools qual­i­fy for pover­ty assis­tance. Those are the peo­ple pay­ing the­se ran­somwares. Full of gold. And every­thing in our fields is dual-use. Everything that we can use to help some­body can lat­er be repur­posed to hurt them. Our sor­rows come in bat­tal­ions the­se days.

Four short links: 18 November 2017

Bare Metal, Serverless, Deep Learning, and Junkbot Winners

  1. Why Choose Bare Metal? (GitLab) -- There is a threshold of performance on the cloud, and if you need more, you will have to pay a lot more, be punished with latencies, or leave the cloud.
  2. Going Serverless: Compelling Science Fiction -- (CSF is the name of the site, not implying that the idea of serverlessness is itself compell... never mind.) Simple workflow broken into the AWS services and functionality.
  3. Deep Learning Papers -- Papers about deep learning ordered by task, date. Current state-of-the-art papers are labeled.
  4. Junkbot Competition Winners -- wonderful creativity!

Four short links: 17 November 2016

Hacking Locked Machines, Rules Engine, Trello Tips, and Autonomous Driving Soon

  1. PoisonTap -- siphons cookies, exposes internal router & installs web backdoor on locked computers. Open source, runs on a Raspberry Pi. (via Ars Technica)
  2. Trigger Happy -- open source IFTTT-styled rule engine for remixing ingredients.
  3. 18F Guide to Trello -- I've used Trello for several years, and these tips were still useful.
  4. Tesla and NVIDIA -- Huang continued by saying that autonomous driving is not a “detection problem” but an “AI problem,” and he insists that it’s going to be solved in 2017. Also, yow, every Tesla comes with a supercomputer.

Four short links: 16 November 2016

CRISPR in Humans, VR Sadness, Reasoning, and Robot Dancing

  1. CRISPR Gene Editing Tested in a Person for First Time (Nature) -- On 28 October, a team led by oncologist Lu You at Sichuan University in Chengdu delivered the modified cells into a patient with aggressive lung cancer as part of a clinical trial at the West China Hospital. Milestone.
  2. The Post-VR Sadness -- In the first couple minutes after any VR experience, you feel strange, almost like you’re detached from reality. You will interact with physical objects with special care because, for some reason, you think that you can simply fly through them. Interacting with your smartphone touch screen becomes almost comical because the interface seems so dull and disappointing to you. It’s like your fingers are passing through the touch screen when touching it. This specific feeling usually fades within the first 1–2 hours and gets better over time. It’s almost like a little hangover, depending on the intensity of your VR experience.
  3. Reasoning about Truthfulness of Agents Using Answer Set Programming (PDF) -- The paper illustrates how, starting from observations, knowledge about the actions of the agents, and the normal behavior of agents, one can evaluate the statements made by agents against a set of observations over time. NB Facebook newsfeed software creators.
  4. RHex Dances -- we have now advanced robot technology to the point where they can dance as well as I can. Brace for impact, humanity—the dance floor is being disrupted!

Four short links: 15 November 2016

Fraud Busting, Voting Help, Economic Mobility, and Spinal Implant

  1. statcheck -- R package “statcheck”: Extract statistics from articles and recompute p values. Useful for finding p-hacking and a pile of statistical errors in peer-reviewed papers. (via BoingBoing)
  2. RoboVote -- a free service that helps users combine their preferences or opinions into optimal decisions using state-of-the-art voting methods developed in artificial intelligence research.
  3. Stacked Deck -- This paper offers an overview of the interplay between declining upward mobility and growing political inequality, which we show is a self-reinforcing phenomenon. It reports on a growing body of new research on this nexus. Feedback loops are important in society as well as software. (via Hamish MacEwan)
  4. Brain Implant Allows Paralyzed Monkey to Walk Again -- The neuroprosthetic device implanted in the monkey’s brain correctly interprets activity generated by the motor cortex, and relays this information to a system of electrodes placed over the surface of the spinal cord, just below the injury. A burst of just a few volts, delivered at the right location, triggers specific muscles in the legs. Monkeys implanted with the device were able to walk within six days of the spinal cord injury. Paralyzed monkey version of "I Know Kung-Fu!".

Four short links: 14 November 2016

Unmediated Feedback Loops, Glimpses of the Future, Fake Tastes, and The Illusion of Truth

  1. Bruce Sterling on the U.S. Election -- [P]eople really enjoy social media. They much prefer to get their news from grapevines of relatives, friends, and neighbors who think like they do. They even enjoy organizing to go troll the enemy’s commentary. But it destabilizes the stately process of democratic power struggle, in much the way that, say, digital finance disrupts heavy industry. Bursts of popular viral fever appear, but very little statecraft gets accomplished. Old institutions are corroded or abandoned, yet no new ones are built.
  2. 61 Glimpses of the Future (Jan Chipchase) -- full of fact-nuggets like: An iPhone box full of fungus caterpillar in Kham Tibet sold wholesale is worth more than a fully specced iPhone. It’s worth 10x at retail in 1st/2nd Tier China. It is a better aphrodisiac, too.
  3. Face Electrodes Let You Taste and Chew in VR (New Scientist) -- uses changes in temperature to mimic the sensation of sweetness on the tongue. The user places the tip of their tongue on a square of thermoelectric elements that are rapidly heated or cooled, hijacking thermally sensitive neurons that normally contribute to the sensory code for taste. In an initial trial, it worked for about half of participants. Some also reported a sensation of spiciness when the device was warmer (around 35°C) and a minty taste when it was cooler (18°C).
  4. How Liars Create the Illusion of Truth (Tom Stafford) -- I don't know why, but I feel like that might be relevant soon.