What I’m Reading

⇗ How American Politics Went Insane

"Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last universally acceptable form of bigotry."

If you're interested in how the American political system got to where it's at today, this is a great catch-me-up. I had never really considered the importance of middlemen, hierarchy, pork barrel spending, and other elements of what people disdainfully refer to as "the machinery of politics" when it comes to actually getting things done in Washington. We want to replace establishment insiders because we aren't happy with their effectiveness, but there is a very good chance inexperienced outsiders will be much, much worse.

Read more ⇗

⇗ A Self-Driving Car Ethical Problem Simulator

Via Jason Kottke comes this thought-provoking exercise challenging you to apply your own morality to difficult "trolley problem" scenarios that self-driving cars will have to deal with the moment they hit the streets. In other words, when a self-driving car must make a decision to kill (either its own passengers or pedestrians), what criteria should it use to make that decision?

Please go through the exercise yourself before reading any more of this post, as I don't want to poison your answers with my own.

Ok, all done?

There are no objectively right answers to this problem, but my strategy was as follows: First, I disregarded all demographic differences between humans. I don't feel comfortable assigning different values to men, women, the elderly, kids, athletes, criminals, obese people, etc. There was one question where I did have to use this as a tie-breaker, but that was it... and it still didn't feel good. Then, I optimized for saving people who were doing nothing wrong at the time. In other words, pedestrians who crossed on a Don't Walk signal were sacrificed pretty consistently. Then I optimized for greatest number of human lives saved (pets were toast... sorry pets). The hardest question came down to a scenario where you had to pick killing four innocent people in the car vs. four innocent pedestrians. For this, I chose to spare the pedestrians, as those who choose to take a vehicle seem like they should bear the risk of that vehicle more than those who made no such decision.

The summary page at the end is interesting, but it can also give false impressions. For instance, even though I explicitly disregarded demographics, it showed me as significantly preferring to save people who were "fit" and people who were "older". Depending on your strategy, some of these conclusions may be enlightening, and some will just be noise from a small data set. Also, don't forget to design some of your own. Here is the hardest one I could create, based on my own decision-making criteria.

Tough stuff, but it's good to get people acclimated to these dilemmas now, because although no technology can eliminate traffic deaths, self-driving cars will probably greatly reduce them. Curious to hear other strategies if you have them. Jason's, for instance, were different than mine. Also, can I just say that I love the idea of pets "flouting the law by crossing on a red signal?"

Read more ⇗

⇗ My Distraction Sickness — and Yours

Andrew Sullivan goes deep on his own experience trying to rid himself of the digital distractions that have taken over our attention spans. Lots of great thinking and food for additional thought here. It seems like there are two camps on the issue of hyper-connectivity: one is that this is the new normal while the other is that it's unsustainable. I tend to be in the second camp, and when I think of the products I really want to build in the future, most of them are squarely aimed at giving people their time and attention back so they can live better lives in the real world.

Read more ⇗

⇗ Why Do We Judge Parents For Putting Kids At Perceived — But Unreal — Risk?

As a card-carrying non-parent, one of my favorite questions to ask parents (for some reason) is at what age they will feel comfortable leaving their kids alone for very short periods of time. The answers often surprise me and are a lot more conservative than when I grew up in the 1980s. This article goes deep on why that is. The bit about the "availability heuristic" is what I had previously suspected, but the additional finding about people conflating their own moral judgement with perceived actual risks is fascinating. I wonder what other issues in society this conflation occurs with.

Read more ⇗

⇗ Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart

The product of 18 months of reporting, Fractured Lands is one of the best explanations you will read about the current state of the Middle East. The storytelling style is unconventional, weaving the personal journeys of several people together into five distinct time periods, but it works and it's definitely worth your time.

The most interesting thing I learned is that the three nations most devastated by the Arab Spring are all nations the West helped create in the early 20th century: Iraq, Libya, and Syria. The power dynamics of those and other regions mentioned in this piece are fascinating and extraordinarily precarious.

The one thing I was surprised made no appearance in Fractured Lands is the role of global warming in the escalating conflict in Syria. For a great look into that angle, make sure to check out Yonatan Zunger's piece on the subject.

Read more ⇗

⇗ Thoughts on the sociology of Brexit

While it may be one thing for an investment banker to understand that they ‘benefit from the EU’ in regulatory terms, it is quite another to encourage poor and culturally marginalised people to feel grateful towards the elites that sustain them through handouts, month by month. Resentment develops not in spite of this generosity, but arguably because of it.

This is the best piece I've read about the root causes of the Brexit movement, and it carries with it extremely important lessons for the United States over the next several months and years. See also this thought-provoking piece on the importance of dignity when it comes to how people vote. If you don't understand the Trump vote, this should clear things up rather quickly. It did for me.

Read more ⇗

⇗ The Artificial Intelligence Revolution

To absorb how big a deal a superintelligent machine would be, imagine one on the dark green step two steps above humans on that staircase. This machine would be only slightly superintelligent, but its increased cognitive ability over us would be as vast as the chimp-human gap we just described. And like the chimp’s incapacity to ever absorb that skyscrapers can be built, we will never be able to even comprehend the things a machine on the dark green step can do, even if the machine tried to explain it to us—let alone do it ourselves. And that’s only two steps above us. A machine on the second-to-highest step on that staircase would be to us as we are to ants—it could try for years to teach us the simplest inkling of what it knows and the endeavor would be hopeless.

A mind-blowing piece on the ramifications of the sort of artificial intelligence we may be headed towards in our lifetime. Like, within a few decades. The most likely outcomes are startlingly binary: extinction or immortality. This was such an entertaining read, and reminds me how smart some of our fellow humans (like Tim Urban) are!

Read more ⇗

⇗ Why Do the Poor Make Such Poor Decisions?

Our efforts to combat poverty are often based on a misconception: that the poor must pull themselves up out of the mire. But a revolutionary new theory looks at the cognitive effects of living in poverty. What does the relentless struggle to make ends meet do to people?

Read more ⇗

⇗ An Old Idea, Revived: Starve Cancer to Death

When Thompson presents his research to high-school students, he shows them a slide of mold spreading across a piece of bread. The slide’s heading — “Everyone’s first cancer experiment” — recalls Warburg’s observation that cancer cells will carry out fermentation at almost the same rate of wildly growing yeasts.

It's amazing how many "diseases of civilization" are all starting to point directly at sugar. Incidentally, if you haven't seen Fed Up yet, it's a great documentary.

Read more ⇗

⇗ How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist

Here’s the unfortunate truth — several billion people have a slot machine their pocket.

An important essay on the responsibility we have as designers to provide experiences which enrich lives as opposed to merely illusions of enrichment. If you work on digital products, this is a great gutcheck. If you use digital products, this is a wake-up call to take control of your precious attention.

Read more ⇗

Subscribe by Email

... or use RSS