Quarterly review: FY14Q1

in books film review

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more indepth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

As for books, so far I have had an amazing first quarter and am 6 books ahead on my 2014 Goodreads reading challenge with the pleasure of reading FOUR 5-star books!

★★★★☆ Homeland

★★☆☆☆ Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World

★★★☆☆ Journey to the Center of the Earth

★★★★★ Among Others

★★★☆☆ A Wizard of Earthsea

★★★★★ The Hard Thing About Hard Things

★★☆☆☆ Doomsday Book

I would like to give a special mention to The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama. I rated this book 5-stars but have held off on a review, since it is the first of a two-volume set. I would like to say that it has been a very influential book on me, and I mentioned it in my review of Morozov’s To Save Everything.

Film

Although I saw 7 films this quarter, not even one garnered a review. You can see all of them on my Letterboxd film diary.

Ignite SF

in travel

During our month in San Francisco last year we were lucky to catch Ignite San Francisco 8. We had a great time that night. IgniteSF just put up the videos this month, so I thought I would share some of my faves from that evening. Each talk is just 5 mins long. There were about 15 talks that night in total.

Julia Grace - Money, Cryptography and Scandal: A modern tale of mathematics.

Serena Wales - How to Win at Bar Trivia

Emily Wright - The Journey of the Urban Flush

Jennifer Kuczenski - Engineering Lessons from Folding

Rick Prelinger - Lost Landscapes of San Francisco D

This final talk from Rick Prelinger made me pick up tickets to go see a full “performance” of the Lost Landscapes of San Francisco show at The Internet Archive, which I detailed in this post.

Turning humans into robots

in big data

John Foreman, himself a data-scientist, writes a (somewhat rambling but) funny and self-aware essay on machine learning:

Data Privacy, Machine Learning, and the Destruction of Mysterious Humanity

I highly recommend you read it. Keep an eye for two coinages: “data-driven probabilistic determinism” and “data-laundered discrimination”. Machine learning is one side of the argument here. For the other side I also recommend the book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think

Here are a few juicy quotes from Foreman’s essay:

Our past data betrays our future actions, and rather than put us in a police state, corporations have realized that if they say just the right thing, we’ll put the chains on ourselves.

The promise of better machine learning is not to bring machines up to the level of humans but to bring humans down to the level of machines.

“A human being is a deciding being,” but if our decisions can be hacked by corporations then we have to admit that perhaps we cease to be human as we’ve known it.

A little bit of Huxley there, and reminiscent of Tim Wu who called us humans “comfort-seeking missiles”:

… for most of us, our technological identities are determined by what companies decide to sell based on what they believe we, as consumers, will pay for. … Comfort-seeking missiles, we spend the most to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. When it comes to technologies, we mainly want to make things easy. Not to be bored. Oh, and maybe to look a bit younger.

The imagery of the WALL-E at the end of Foreman’s essay is an appropriate warning.

Tech and social control — an OKDG After Action

in philosophy tech

@sundaysociology and @chadkoh deep in discussion. @sundaysociology and @chadkoh deep in discussion. Photo by @scdaustin

How does technology influence the social and political lives of humans? That was the central topic of discussion during the second half of last night’s OKDG event. I sat down with UBCO Professor of Sociology Christopher Schneider to talk about technology and social control.

My purpose in inviting Dr Schneider was to introduce our community of developers and designers to some of the literature and concepts used in the formal inquiry into technology and society. We talked about the use of technology in formal social control (eg. police using Facebook to identify rioters during the 2011 Vancouver Riots), in informal social control (eg. expectations about timing of social interactions due to “instantaneous” communications channels), and about unlimited tech freedom (cf. Inverse Amish link below).

We as early adopters and practitioners seldom ask ourselves about the impact of what we make on society at large. How do you determine if a new piece of tech actually contributes to “progress”? Many of us are self taught and are never exposed to “ethics” classes (nevermind the ACM’s Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice) like other more established professions. That is why I like having these types of discussions in our community. It is a blind spot that we need to address.

NOTE: If you are looking for a quick and easy primer, I highly recommend Shannon Vallor’s module An Introduction to Software Engineering Ethics.

Anyways, Dr Schneider spoke at length and regaled us with anecdotes and dilemmas to think about. I think everyone had a good time. If you want to continue this discussion, or explore it further together, just let me know. Maybe we can do another event.

Below is a list of resources, concepts and events that was talked about that you can explore. (Thanks to @pondernook for writing all this down in realtime! I have corrected all the drunken spelling mistakes.)

The death of the internet — A review of To Save Everything, Click Here

in books review

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov

Truthfully, I stayed away from this book. The overwhelming opinion of the popular tech press is that Evgeny Morozov writes like an asshole with an axe to grind. I found his first book The Net Delusion frustrating (but certainly worth it) and thus was unduly influenced by the digerati. If you feel the same way, ignore the pressure: read this book. Morozov’s writing can be “strong”, but imagine it being written with a playful smirk. I thought it rather funny actually.

The fact is that this book is an excellent first attempt (he did say he would return in a tank) at a critical assessment of “The Internet” as a cultural phenomenon. Without using the actual term, Morozov attacks the trend of using the internet as a “machine metaphor” — as a lens for understanding and revolutionizing human society. This is a phenomenon common throughout history: as a new technology begins adoption, it is often used as a metaphor to describe other parts of human understanding. For example, Galen thought of the body as a hydraulic system, reflective of the new technology of the time: plumbing; the brain has been known as a pneumatic device, a calculator, and more recently a computer; companies are vast machines with human cogs as workers, et cetera. With new technologies, come new metaphors, but the thinking is strikingly similar.

Okanagan Bitcoin

in bitcoin community kelowna

#LeanCoffeeKL 96 - Cryptocurrencies Photo by @scdaustin

Yesterday at #LeanCoffeeKL 96 we gathered to discuss cryptocurrencies. The meetup was really successful with a lot of new people coming out early in the morning to discuss and learn about bitcoin and other related topics. The spread of experience was pretty vast with long-time miners and evangelists to people who had only heard of bitcoin “5 days ago”. We also had some (non-tech) finance people around which lended an excellent balance. There were far too many topics to discuss in just an hour, and the discussion spilled out into the lounge area for about another hour. There will be a follow-up, and there is definitely enough interest to spin this off into its own group.

I look forward to seeing a monthly Okanagan bitcoin group. There are so many angles to learn and discuss centered on this topic, for example:

I hope to see the group tackle each of these topics and more. If you are interested, please come out to #LeanCoffeeKL 97 - Cryptocurrencies Part 2 to register your interest and help shape the group that will grow out of this meeting.

Amateur academia

in ideas

Despite the end of the “golden age of academia”, I yearn for an even earlier time: the time of 18th century coffee houses, or as they were known: penny universities. I have been out of academia for a few years (BA from UBC in ‘02, MA from RMC in ‘08) but I have maintained an interest in academic research. On my own I try to read, think and write with academic rigour. I would like to engage more with academia, and judging by number of meetups and plethora of platforms like Coursera, I think there are many “lifelong learners” that would love to continue to participate in expanding human knowledge in a part-time fashion. Thus, my proposal:

Universities and colleges should develop a bridge between their “professional” academics and “amateur” academics in the community. Astronomy has been able to benefit by organizing networks of amateur astronomers and citizen scientists, but those of us in the humanities and social sciences are locked out of participating and contributing to the academy.

Alumni events and public talks are great, but since they are aimed at the public, they are typically too general to be of interest to the engaged “amateur” academic. At his talk last week I asked Ron Deibert about how I can participate in Citizen Lab research. He didn’t have an answer for me. At the alumni event last night UBC was promoting their Aspire initiative, trying to crowdsource ways the university could interact with the community. I wrote my idea down and later saw that a few people +1’d it (talk about the blurred lines between online and offline!). I hope my alma mater UBC can explore this idea, and maybe develop a model to be used worldwide. It could be a small way to return academia to an earlier golden age of engagement, rather than merely the “diploma mill” it has become over the past generation.

Politics over politech

in internet politics

Evgeny Morozov’s intellectual assaults on “cyber utopianism” and “internet centrism” are well known — if often dismissed by the tech elite. I have been reading his new book To Save Everything, Click Here which so far is a pretty good exercise in skepticism and contrarianism. Yet it is in his most recent New Yorker essay on the maker movement that you see his core position. Some pertinent quotes:

Seeking salvation through tools alone is no more viable as a political strategy than addressing the ills of capitalism by cultivating a public appreciation of arts and crafts. Society is always in flux, and the designer can’t predict how various political, social, and economic systems will come to blunt, augment, or redirect the power of the tool that is being designed. Instead of deinstitutionalizing society, the radicals would have done better to advocate reinstitutionalizing it: pushing for political and legal reforms to secure the transparency and decentralization of power they associated with their favorite technology.

Our tech imagination, to judge from catalogues like “Cool Tools,” is at its zenith. (Never before have so many had access to thermostatically warmed toilet seats.) But our institutional imagination has stalled, and with it the democratizing potential of radical technologies. We carry personal computers in our pockets—nothing could be more decentralized than this!—but have surrendered control of our data, which is stored on centralized servers, far away from our pockets. The hackers won their fight against I.B.M.—only to lose it to Facebook and Google. And the spooks at the National Security Agency must be surprised to learn that gadgets were supposed to usher in the “de-institutionalization of society.”

Our 21st century civilation is “standing on the shoulders of giants” in terms of the foundational layers of both institutions (eg. centralized government, rule of law, transparency) and infrastructure (eg. electrical and shipping grids, lines of communication, engineering standards etc.). Politics is based on institutions while “the Internet” (to use EM’s scare quotes) is infrastructure — yet many of the internet-centrists treat it like an institution. I think this disconnect lies at the core of Morozov’s criticism, and thus he argues that we look past the technology when advocating for political change.

The issue then becomes when technological advances impact political institutions. For example: centralized “Web 2.0” services enable bulk surveillance and threaten personal privacy. Is the solution technical or political? I think EM’s approach would be to ignore the technology and focus on the underlying problem. For example: strengthening privacy protections to account for the case of “bulk”, without tying it to any specific technology. This “politics first” approach frames social problems in a manner that technologists are unused to. We tend towards technological solutions to every problem.

(NOTE: Personally I think we should not solely depend on political solutions and should complement them with technological protections, with the goal of maximizing liberty. But I am not a libertarian.)

おめでとうございます — Happy New Year!

in Japan travel

(See all pictures and videos at Flickr)

Happy 2014! This year the grandparents watched the kids so the wife and I could go out for 初詣 (hatsumode), the traditional first trip of the year to the shrine. We left our downtown Kyoto apartment at about 11PM and had a full course of shrine-visiting, including:

Our first stop was Denden-gu, a small shrine near Arashiyama. This is a famous shrine for people in the IT business. You will see sponsor placards here for Softbank, NTT, Tepco and tons of other companies. At the entrance there are two signs for Thomas Edison and Heinrich Hertz! Here we were able to ring the New Year’s bell. In fact, we rang it a few times since this is just a local shrine and there weren’t a ton of people. I picked up a good luck charm for our office here.

Next stop was Matsuo Taisha where the wife made a wish to have lots of delicious alcohol this year. Then on to Kasuga Jinja to wish for the health of our parents. The final stop was Mikane Jinja where you basically just wish for money. All in all it was pretty productive(?) and we got home at about 3:30AM.

This afternoon we went up to 龍安寺 (Ryouanji), a Zen temple where we admired their famous rock garden. This garden was designed with an ocean of gravel and 5 island groups for a total of 15 stones. The cool part is that for any viewing angle, one can only see 14 stones at a time. Tricky!

The rock garden at Ryoanji (full size)

The best of 2013

in books review

See last year’s roundup.

Besides work and family, I get enjoyment out of books and film. In terms of books, this year was a pretty serious one for me.

Goodreads Challenge 2013

I was able to acheive my Goodreads goal (again). It says 50, but if you minus off the graphic novels, coursework and essays it is more like 44. Considering my family was in Japan for a total of 13 weeks, I probably should have read more. I did spend quite a bit of time reading D&D and Shadowrun rulebooks… so… there’s that.

Looking back, my overall reading theme was “internet theory” — including cypherpunks, hackers, anonymous and the like. This trend started before the Snowden revelations, but picked up halfway through the year. Since reading Future Perfect last year, and thinking about information politics I have been diving deep into the internet and politics. I suspect that trend to continue in 2014.

The best book of 2013 I read was This Machine Kills Secrets. I highly recommend it. Furthermore I would recommend Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking if you want to learn more about the ethics of computing. From those two books you can go many directions. I listen to the Suprisingly Free podcast to get ideas.

Audio vs Text

Last year I set the goal of reading more books rather than listening to them. I wanted to push down the ratio of audiobooks from 75% to half. I almost achieved that:

With Amazon’s new Whispersync technology and strategy of bundling of Audible and Kindle books, I have been getting both versions for books that I want to get through quickly but still need to take lots of annotations. I still would like to read more, but audio fits into my daily life better.

Next year’s goal

I set the goal of getting into “deeper” books last year. Althought I was able read some classics. like Crime and Punishment, I strayed quite a bit. I feel that grasping the “classics” properly requires me to read them, yet I read fiction mainly for relaxationa and entertainment, and thus tend to use the audio medium. In order to read more classics, I need to change my reading habits, and I am not sure if I am ready to do that. Interesting to think that the medium determines the “quality” of books I am reading.

Next year I will probably continue reading non-fic about internet politics. I would like to try to go back and re-read some books from the past, both non-fic and fic. That and I have a few series that I started this year that I can continue reading (Vorkosigan Saga, Oxford Time Travelers, Small Change, etc.) Plus I am looking forward to more Hawkeye and Saga! In all, I do not plan to be buying a ton of books in 2014.

A note about film

Last year I dedicated a whole post to film. This time I just thought I would note the highlights of the 47 films I saw. The following garnered 5 and 4.5 stars:

As you can see, I was catching up on some films from the past. As for new films, although I enjoyed the spectacle of The Desolation of Smaug, Gravity was probably the best film of the year from a critical perspective.