Category Archives: Technology

Two Ex-Googlers Want to Make A Lot of Viral Tweets

Silicon Valley loves to disrupt industries by inventing things that already exist. Remember when Lyft invented buses? Good times. And just recently, the exec in charge of Apple retail announced that instead of “stores” their… stores… are now referred to as “town squares.”

Well, two tech bros are here with a new disruption to… the bodega industry. (I know, hold on, we’ll come back to this.) It’s so innovative, so fresh, so new, they named it…

Bodega.

They literally named it after the thing they’re aiming to “make obsolete.”

But wait, it gets better.

Per Fast Company:

Bodega sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card.

It’s not even a bodega. It’s a vending machine.

These jabronis even have the audacity to make their logo a cat, a tribute to the omnipresent bodega cats they’re seeking to make homeless.

And of course because 90 percent of Twitter users are journalists and 90 percent of journalists live in New York City (these are not real statistics, don’t @ me), Twitter was not having Bodega™.

(Credit to Kelly Conaboy, a genius, for inspiring the headline for this blog post.)

(Desus is an actual “Bodega Boy,” so he’s basically an expert on this controversial issue.)

Of course, there were people who weren’t on board with what one friend described as “a lot of fairly well-off people virtue-signaling in ways that don’t match up with being virtuous.”

Several people pointed out that not having humans actually took away one of the most valuable things about bodegas.

A friend told me about a bodega that served as an answering service for a local politician. If you wanted to speak to him, you called the bodega, left a message, and he’d call you back within minutes.

As a native New Yorker, I can attest that all of these things are true. Bodegas are part of the fabric of New York. I grew up next to Penn Station, which is an aggressively ungentrifiable handful of blocks where, while walking home from our school bus stop, I would regularly yank my little brother out of the way of men getting literally thrown out of a “bikini bar.” (That bikini bar is now a Taco Bell, for what that’s worth.)

Our local bodega guy, Hassan, still recognizes me when I come by, and asks me when I’m going to buy a condo in Greenpoint. (“I don’t have that bodega money, Hassan!” I regularly shout back, and we both have a laugh at my terrible career choices and life decisions.) He’s had that bodega since my parents moved into the apartment with me as a newborn, and he would bring them all of the change in the register every New Year’s to contribute to a savings account for me. (I have not seen this money, for the record.) He’s walked me to my building door when I’ve been spooked by someone on the street, or followed home from the bus, or otherwise scared or skittish. He’s delivered milk or cereal or whatever else we needed when my dad was away on business and my mom was cooped up with a small child and morning sickness.

But none of that stuff really matters because the important thing is this start-up is an extremely bad idea. Eater editor Helen Rosner has a great thread on Twitter explaining exactly why creating a vending machine business without a heavy emphasis on logistics (in particular, the actual humans who will stock these “pantry boxes”) is a short path to bankruptcy.

Which brings us to an interesting point.

Sure, it’s easy enough to hate these two tone-deaf tech bros, one of whom said he’s “not particularly concerned about” the business name seeming culturally insensitive. But what about the venture capitalists who encouraged this project?

According to Fast Company, they are “Josh Kopelman at First Round Capital, Kirsten Green at Forerunner Ventures, and Hunter Walk at Homebrew.” Walk, in particular, is an interesting backer, since his Twitter persona tends to be “woke VC.” As one friend summed it up for me: “Bodega™ is the symptom, Venture Capital is the disease.”

Anyway, I can’t see this venture posing an actual threat to bodegas in the places where they’re loved and used. Even the photos Bodega™ provided to Fast Company suggest they’re going to be nothing more than vending machines in the lobbies of WeWork branches and ill-placed condo buildings.

Further Reading (or Listening or Watching):

 

Ellen Pao Is Ready to Name Names

Ellen Pao, who sued her Silicon Valley employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for discrimination, was saving the names for her upcoming book Reset: Ajit Nazre, a partner who became hostile after she rejected his advances. Ted Schlein, a managing partner who explained he liked white, Eastern European sex workers — during a private flight in which a tech CEO in attendance bragged about meeting Jenna Jameson. In her six years at Kleiner Perkins, Pao was passed over for promotion, her clients were stolen, her performance maligned, and eventually she was fired after complaining about harassment to an independent investigator, who asked “Well, if they look down on women so much, if they block you from opportunities, they don’t include you at their events, why do they even keep you around in the first place?”

The competitive world of venture capital was familiar to Pao, and she played the game as best she could. But the game was stacked against her, she explains in an excerpt from her book featured at The Cut.

Predicting who will succeed is an imperfect art, but also, sometimes, a self-fulfilling prophecy. When venture capitalists say — and they do say — “We think it’s young white men, ideally Ivy League dropouts, who are the safest bets,” then invest only in young white men with Ivy League backgrounds, of course young white men with Ivy League backgrounds are the only ones who make money for them. They’re also the only ones who lose money for them.

Sometimes the whole world felt like a nerdy frat house. People in the venture world spoke fondly about the early shenanigans at big companies. A friend told me how he sublet office space to Facebook, only to find people having sex there on the floor of the main public area. They wanted to see if the Reactrix — an interactive floor display hooked up to light sensors — would enhance their experience. At VC meetings, male partners frequently spoke over female colleagues or repeated what the women said and took the credit. Women were admonished when they “raised their voices” yet chastised when they couldn’t “own the room.” When I was still relatively new, a male partner made a big show of passing a plate of cookies around the table — but curiously ignored me and the woman next to him. Part of me thought, They’re just cookies. But after everyone left, my co-worker turned to me and shrugged. “It’s like we don’t exist,” she said.

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Can Apple End Smartphone Addiction?

According to Tristan Harris, it’s going to take more than infinite willpower for billions of people to resist the infinite scroll of the attention economy. It’s going to take regulation, reform, and Apple becoming something of an acting government.

Harris — a former Google design ethicist and the founder of Time Well Spent, a nonprofit that encourages tech companies to put users’ best interests before limitless profit models — insists that our minds have been hijacked in an arms race for our attention. He also insists that, with the help of a Hippocratic Oath for software designers, we can win.

“YouTube has a hundred engineers who are trying to get the perfect next video to play automatically,” Harris says in a new interview with WIRED‘s editor in chief Nicholas Thompson. “Their techniques are only going to get more and more perfect over time, and we will have to resist the perfect.”

See? This is me resisting:

In an interview with WIRED, Thompson and Harris discuss why now is the moment to invest in reforming the attention economy.

THOMPSON: At what point do I stop making the choice [to use Facebook or Google or Instagram]? At what point am I being manipulated? At what point is it Nick and at what point is it the machine?

HARRIS: Well I think that’s the million-dollar question. First of all, let’s also say that it’s not necessarily bad to be hijacked, we might be glad if it was time well spent for us. I’m not against technology. And we’re persuaded to do things all the time. It’s just that the premise in the war for attention is that it’s going to get better and better at steering us toward its goals, not ours. We might enjoy the thing it persuades us to do, which makes us feel like we made the choice ourselves. For example, we forget if the next video loaded and we were happy about the video we watched. But, in fact, we were hijacked in that moment. All those people who are working to give you the next perfect thing on YouTube don’t know that it’s 2 am and you might also want to sleep. They’re not on your team. They’re only on the team of what gets you to spend more time on that service.

Again, the energy analogy is useful. Energy companies used to have the same perverse dynamic: I want you to use as much energy as possible. Please just let the water run until you drain the reservoir. Please keep the lights on until there’s no energy left. We, the energy companies, make more money the more energy you use. And that was a perverse relationship. And in many US states, we changed the model to decouple how much money energy companies make from how much energy you use. We need to do something like that for the attention economy, because we can’t afford a world in which this arms race is to get as much attention from you as possible.

The opportunity here, is for Apple. Apple is the one company that could actually do it. Because their business model does not rely on attention, and they actually define the playing field on which everyone seeking our attention plays. They define the rules. If you want to say it, they’re like a government. They get to set the rules for everybody else. They set the currency of competition, which is currently attention and engagement. App stores rank things based on their success in number of downloads or how much they get used. Imagine if instead they said, “We’re going to change the currency.” They could move it from the current race to the bottom to creating a race to the top for what most helps people with different parts of their lives. I think they’re in an incredible position to do that.

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Instagram Wants to Make the Internet a Nicer Place to Be

Is it possible to make the internet a kinder place? Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom thinks so. In Wired, Nick Thompson reports on how Instagram has been working to clean up its photo sharing platform, creating tools for users to close comments on certain posts and ban offensive words—or, in one notable case, offensive emojis:

In mid July 2016, just after VidCon, Systrom was faced with just such an ophiological scourge. Somehow, in the course of one week, Taylor Swift had lost internet fights with Calvin Harris, Katy Perry, and Kim Kardashian. Swift was accused of treacherous perfidy, and her feed quickly began to look like the Reptile Discovery Center at the National Zoo. Her posts were followed almost entirely by snake emoji: snakes piled on snakes, snakes arranged numerically, snakes alternating with pigs. And then, suddenly, the snakes started to vanish. Soon Swift’s feed was back to the way she preferred it: filled with images of her and her beautiful friends in beautiful swimsuits, with commenters telling her how beautiful they all looked.

But Instagram can’t build that world with simple technical fixes like automated snake emoji deletion.

This was no accident. Over the previous weeks, Systrom and his team at Instagram had quietly built a filter that would automatically delete specific words and emoji from users’ feeds. Swift’s snakes became the first live test case. In September, Systrom announced the feature to the world. Users could click a button to “hide inappropriate comments,” which would block a list of words the company had selected, including racial slurs and words like whore. They could also add custom keywords or even custom emoji, like, say, snakes.

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The Beauty (and Predictability) of a Slot Machine’s Algorithm

A Russian mathematician from St. Petersburg named Alex has quite the talent: he reverse engineers the pseudorandom number generators (PRNGs) that govern how slot machines behave. His team of field agents roams casinos around the world and “milk” the machines whose algorithms they’ve cracked.

Here’s how it works: an agent records a video of a targeted slot machine, sends the footage back to St. Petersburg, and Alex analyzes the slot’s behavior to determine the moment it will pay out. “By using these cues to beat slots in multiple casinos,” writes Brendan Koerner in Wired, “a four-person team can earn more than $250,000 a week.”

After interviewing Alex on the record, Koerner tells the story of this programmer-turned-hacker and what he views as his Robin Hood-like crusade against the global gambling industry.

In the course of reverse engineering Novomatic’s software, Alex encountered his first PRNG. He was instantly fascinated by the elegance of this sort of algorithm, which is designed to spew forth an endless series of results that appear impossible to forecast. It does this by taking an initial number, known as a seed, and then mashing it together with various hidden and shifting inputs—the time from a machine’s internal clock, for example. Writing such algorithms requires tremendous mathematical skill, since they’re supposed to produce an output that defies human comprehension; ideally, a PRNG should approximate the utter unpredictability of radioactive decay.

After wrapping up the casino gig, Alex spent six months teaching himself everything he could about PRNGs—in part because he admired their beauty but also because he knew that such expertise could prove profitable. “I mastered it to the point where I can develop such algorithms myself, on a level I am yet to see in a gambling machine,” says Alex, who will never be accused of lacking confidence. “It’s in my bloodstream now. I feel the numbers; I know how they move.”

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A Son’s Ambitious Plans to Give His Father Everlasting, Artificial Life

When James Vlahos learned that his father, John, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, he set out to save his dad’s memories by programming them into a chatbot that he could pull up from his phone. The chatbot, nicknamed “Dadbot,” could emulate John in text conversations, bringing up various stories from John’s life. Vlahos wrote about his experience in Wired, and recounts the first time his mother interacted with “Dadbot”:

The Dadbot gives my mom a few other pointers, then writes, “Finally, it is critical that you remember one final thing. Can you guess what it is?”

“Not a clue.”

“I will tell you then. The verb ‘to be’ takes the predicate nominative.”

My mom laughs as she reads this stock grammar lecture of my father’s. “Oh, I’ve heard that a million times,” she writes.

“That’s the spirit.” The Dadbot then asks my mom what she would like to talk about.

“How about your parents’ lives in Greece?” she writes.

I hold my breath, then exhale when the Dadbot successfully transitions. “My mother was born Eleni, or Helen, Katsulakis. She was born in 1904 and orphaned at three years old.”

“Oh, the poor child. Who took care of her?”

“She did have other relatives in the area besides her parents.”

I watch the unfolding conversation with a mixture of nervousness and pride. After a few minutes, the discussion ­segues to my grandfather’s life in Greece. The Dadbot, knowing that it is talking to my mom and not to someone else, reminds her of a trip that she and my dad took to see my grandfather’s village. “Remember that big barbecue dinner they hosted for us at the taverna?” the Dadbot says.

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A Sociology of the Smartphone

Adam Greenfield | Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life | Verso | June 2017 | 27 minutes (7,433 words) 

 

Below is an excerpt from Radical Technologies, by Adam Greenfield. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

They are the last thing we look at before sleep each night, and the first thing we reach for upon waking.

The smartphone is the signature artifact of our age. Less than a decade old, this protean object has become the universal, all-but-indispensable mediator of everyday life. Very few manufactured objects have ever been as ubiquitous as these glowing slabs of polycarbonate.

For many of us, they are the last thing we look at before sleep each night, and the first thing we reach for upon waking. We use them to meet people, to communicate, to entertain ourselves, and to find our way around. We buy and sell things with them. We rely on them to document the places we go, the things we do and the company we keep; we count on them to fill the dead spaces, the still moments and silences that used to occupy so much of our lives.

They have altered the texture of everyday life just about everywhere, digesting many longstanding spaces and rituals in their entirety, and transforming others beyond recognition. At this juncture in history, it simply isn’t possible to understand the ways in which we know and use the world around us without having some sense for the way the smartphone works, and the various infrastructures it depends on.

For all its ubiquity, though, the smartphone is not a simple thing. We use it so often that we don’t see it clearly; it appeared in our lives so suddenly and totally that the scale and force of the changes it has occasioned have largely receded from conscious awareness. In order to truly take the measure of these changes, we need to take a step or two back, to the very last historical moment in which we negotiated the world without smartphone in hand. Read more…

We Need to Talk About Uber: A Timeline of the Company’s Growing List of Problems

In a piece for the Financial Times titled “Fire Travis Kalanick,” Kadhim Shubber wrote of the founder of Uber: “One day we will look back at what will hopefully be the smouldering wreckage of Kalanick’s career and ask how a person so lacking in basic human and corporate ethics was allowed to run a company for so long.”

Founded in 2009, Uber was able to portray itself as an underdog “disruptor” into 2012, galvanizing support to beat back city lawmakers in Boston and Washington, D.C. who sought to impose regulations.

But then their practice of surge pricing during crises came under fire when ride prices doubled in New York City after Hurricane Sandy devastated the metropolis in 2012. When surge pricing reached nearly eight times the fare during a snowstorm in 2013, riders got angry.

At first, few reporters took to criticizing the company. When they did, Uber’s public relations machine responded by trashing those reporters in other outlets. When reports of assaults and misconduct by Uber drivers started to roll in, the company responded by claiming they were not responsible for the incidents because the drivers are “independent contractors.”

And since 2013, the missteps and scandals have only continued to pile up. Here is a not comprehensive timeline of all of the trouble Uber has gotten into to date:

January 2014: Pando reported that an Uber driver suspended after assaulting a passenger in San Francisco had a criminal record, including a felony conviction involving prison time. Uber has no explanation for why the driver cleared the background checks that California mandated they run. That same month, outlets nationwide report on the company getting hit with its first wrongful death suit stemming from a driver killing a 6-year-old girl in a San Francisco crash on New Year’s Eve. That driver also had a criminal record that included a conviction for reckless driving. Read more…

Another Tech Casualty: Dating

Cane Toad

“I want to punch them and make them take off their damn sunglasses,” the bartender said. I’d said something uncharitable about the guys at the far end of the room, but the bartender heard me — and shared my disdain. He went on a tirade about how “those tech bros are rude, entitled, and synonymous with everything I hate about the neighborhood.”

Tech bros might be the cane toads of cities like Seattle and San Francisco. Cane toads were imported to Australia in the ’30s to keep the bugs down; brogrammers are meant to do the same, but the crop isn’t sugar, it’s code. Cane toads were wildly successful at reproducing, but if you ask the women trying to navigate the brogrammer-riddled dating pool, reproduction is not in the cards.

My judge-y conversation with the bartender was last spring, but it’s not a new discussion.  Back in 2014 for Dame, Tricia Romano shared her own dating trials and those of women who want to spend time with guys who are — go figure — interested in them. In spite of a sea of more recent apps, this is an issue tech bros haven’t been able to disrupt.

The exact same scenario has been playing out in San Francisco for the last few years. One woman, Violet, a 33-year-old who has lived in the Bay Area for eight years, with one of those in the “belly of the beast,” Palo Alto, experienced many of the same things I and other women did. They had money, but they were boring. They had a lot to say about their job, but their development as a complete human being seemed to be stunted. And they exhibited little to no interest in the other person at the table.

One woman, Bridget Arlene, spent three years in Seattle for graduate school, and said that she actually moved out of the city, in part because of the type of available men—most of whom had computer science or engineering degrees and worked for Google, Microsoft, or Amazon. “The type of person who is attracted to these jobs and thus to the Seattle area seems to be a socially awkward, emotionally stunted, sheltered, strangely entitled, and/or a misogynistic individual,” she wrote in an email. Arlene said that she was once contacted by a Microsoft programmer on OKCupid who required that she read Neuromancer before “he would consider taking me out on a date. He was not joking.”

It’s not just the dating pool that’s been affected. Spaces that have traditionally been held for — and by — subcultures have lost their character as new residents seek out places that aren’t dominated by sunglasses-indoors-throwing-their-money-around dudes.

This wasn’t what I’d signed up for. I’d moved back to Seattle, in particular to Capitol Hill, because when I’d lived here during the ’90s it was a beacon of diversity for weirdos. (I stress “weirdos”—there are few people of color in Seattle.) The weirdos were: young gay boys, old hippies of varying sexuality, straight artists and musicians, softball lesbians, punk-rock dykes who played house music, metal musicians, ravers, or people into the fetish scene. They were not straight, white guys from flyover country or California imported by a software company. They spent their time doing things other than making Jeff Bezos more money.

The problem has become pervasive enough in Seattle that when I went with a few girlfriends to Pony, one of the last true gay bars on Capitol Hill, I was shocked when I found out that the adorable pair of 25-year-old boys talking to us were heterosexual. They were there because—as one of them told us—”It was the only place on the Hill on the weekends where there are no bros.”

Cross-reference this experience with skyrocketing housing prices and the erasure of retail jobs; the homogeneous dating pool is unlikely to diversify without diverse jobs and housing options.

You can’t date the guy at the record store if there’s no record store.

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The Internet Won’t Prioritize Quality Without an Intervention

In an interview with The New York Times, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams admits to David Streitfeld that he thinks the internet is broken — and apologizes for the role Twitter played in the ascendency of Donald Trump.

President Trump has said he believes Twitter put him in the White House. Recently, Mr. Williams heard the claim for the first time. He mulled it over for a bit, sitting in his Medium office, which is noteworthy only for not having a desk.

“It’s a very bad thing, Twitter’s role in that,” he said finally. “If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry.”

Trump’s campaign slogan may as well have been Extremity First, a strategy his supporters considered the conscious technique of a mastermind playing 4D chess with the media. What the internet is missing, Williams argues, is an ethical framework, a new business model that will introduce a market correction to what the internet perceives as user demand for extremism:

The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.

His goal is to break this pattern. “If I learn that every time I drive down this road I’m going to see more and more car crashes,” he says, “I’m going to take a different road.”

But a new road may have other problems. It may, for instance, be a dead end.

Mr. Williams isn’t the only one trying to fix this mess, of course. If he and others can’t find a path forward, if they can’t solve what he calls “the architecture of content creation, distribution and monetization on the internet,” there are unsettling implications for the future of news and ideas. Maybe it will be all car crashes, all the time. Twitter already feels like that.

Williams has been attempting to course-correct with Medium, a publishing platform conceived to intervene on this vicious cycle of misinterpreted rubbernecking with an ad-free, subscription-based business model. Medium’s successes have been tempered and debatable, while its missteps, like so many of the internet’s favorite car wrecks, have been more memorable. (Williams announced layoffs in a blog post before all the sunsetting employees were informed, shocking investors and publishing partners alike; when Williams introduced the $5 subscription model, Bryan Clark published an op-ed titled Ev Williams has lost his goddamn mind.)

While the need for an intervention is readily apparent, the question of how to make publishing sustainable — in spite of, or by somehow newly leveraging, the internet’s existing mosaic of incentives — continues to pose considerable challenges to the viability of new approaches to funding. As fellow Twitter cofounder Biz Stone has said in response to Williams’ statement that he wants to make publishing profitable: “Yeah, so does everyone else.”

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