Scaling: The surprising mathematics of life and civilization

So what is “scaling”? In its most elemental form, it simply refers to how systems respond when their sizes change. What happens to cities or companies if their sizes are doubled? What happens to buildings, airplanes, economies, or animals if they are halved? Do cities that are twice as large have approximately twice as many roads and produce double the number of patents? Should the profits of a company twice the size of another company double? Does an animal that is half the mass of another animal require half as much food?

Geoffrey West – Scaling: The surprising mathematics of life and civilization

The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking

In the past, intellectual debt has been confined to a few areas amenable to trial-and-error discovery, such as medicine. But that may be changing, as new techniques in artificial intelligence—specifically, machine learning—increase our collective intellectual credit line. Machine-learning systems work by identifying patterns in oceans of data…. And yet, most machine-learning systems don’t uncover causal mechanisms. They are statistical-correlation engines. They can’t explain why they think some patients are more likely to die, because they don’t “think” in any colloquial sense of the word—they only answer. As we begin to integrate their insights into our lives, we will, collectively, begin to rack up more and more intellectual debt.

Jonathan Zittrain – The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking

Worldline is official partner of the EU-funded project HELIOS and contributes to designing a new-generation social network

HELIOS is a 3-year Research and Innovation Action project funded by the European Commission as part of its H2020 Programme, working on the development of a decentralised social media platform that will address the dynamic nature of human communication and interactions, and create a setting that provides the users control of three aspects: privacy, ownership, and sharing of content – all of which are stripped away when using any of the mainstream platforms.

Source: Worldline is official partner of the EU-funded project HELIOS and contributes to designing a new-generation social network

Technology and place

Not long ago I was sitting with my friend Valerie on the porch of a cabin at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, AR after a great day of climbing (is there any other kind?) talking about life, the universe, everything. I had recently heard a talk at a LaunchCode event about their expansion to Miami and other places where they mentioned the importance of being in urban areas, places where there were plenty of tech talent and jobs already, and couldn’t help thinking, “What about everyone else; the people who could really benefit from something like this live in the areas where this doesn’t already exist.” Our conversation eventually made its way around to how could we get programs like that to rural areas, places where there isn’t necessarily great internet connectivity and definitely no ready made tech infrastructure. How do we more evenly distribute the future that is already here? What difference would it make for the people in those communities? The world at large?

Some related thoughts from a couple of different sources. 

From the NPR show On Being: angel Kyodo williams- The World is Our Field of Practice

We are running into the conflict between people that inhabit an inherited identity with the place that they are — coal-mining country, and the work that they do as a result of the place that they are — up against people that have values and ways of perceiving the world that have shifted because they are not identified by their place and the work that they do in the same way that location and a fixed place tells you who you are and how you be in the world.

We are in this amazing moment of evolving, where the values of some of us are evolving at rates that are faster than can be taken in and integrated for peoples that are oriented by place and the work that they’ve inherited as a result of where they are.

At the end of his book will “Scale”, Geoffrey West writes:

The IT revolution… has also led to the possibility that we no longer need to live in an urban environment to participate in and benefit from the fruits of urban social networks and the dynamics of agglomeration, which are the very origin of super-linear scaling and open-ended growth. We can devolve to develop smaller, or even rural, communities that are just as plugged in as living in the heart of a great metropolis.

Does this mean that we can avoid the pitfalls that lead to an ever-accelerating pace of life, finite time singularities, and the prospect of collapse? Have we somehow stumbled upon a way to avoid the ironic quandary that the very system that led to our great socioeconomic expansion of the past two hundred years may be leading to our ultimate demise, and that we can have our cake and eat it to? This is clearly an open question.

Thinking in bits (redux)

A key to any organization’s survival of the ongoing digital reformation will be their ability to break free from the deeply ingrained thinking in terms of atoms and start thinking in bits.

I first came across the idea of thinking in bits in Nicholas Negroponte‘s 1995 book Being digital. In the book, Negroponte talks about the limitations, the cost, of moving information around as atoms – paper books, CDs, DVDs, snail mail, you get the idea – and how information would soon be converted from atoms to bits. The immediately obvious implication is that it now becomes essentially free to move and share information as bits.

The less obvious, but much more important, implication is that bits change the way you can think about the information. How you can manipulate and repurpose the information. How you can do things that were impossible with the information locked up in atoms. The obvious applications have come to fruition. Email instead of snail mail. Music downloads instead of CDs, and now streaming instead of downloads. The same with video.

And yet…

And yet, the way this digitized information, these bits, is handled is still in many ways tied to the way atoms were handled. The medium has changed, but the process remains the same. Some of this, such as in the music and movie industries, is purely for commercial reasons. They are shipping in bits, but they are not thinking in bits.

Even from a creative perspective, as opposed to the commercial, this thinking in atoms prevents many from seeing new possibilities for providing engaging and individual experiences to their customers. For example, consider how labels distribute music, how they release the same tracks in the same order on both CD and on services like iTunes or Google Play. This is thinking in atoms at its finest (worst?).

Imagine if they were thinking in bits instead. They could offer an “album” that includes songs from the setlist the band played in your town, or edit the songs at the disc-breaks on multi-disc albums so they didn’t fade out / fade in. For individual song downloads from live recordings they could edit the track so you didn’t catch the introduction to the next song at the end of the song you’re listening too.

The same is true, albeit for different reasons, inside many organizations. Yes, nearly everything is in bits, stored on shared drives, in Sharepoint or email, on an enterprise social network or whatever system your organization uses to “manage” content.

And yet….

And yet most of these bits are locked up in mere digital representations of atoms. Again, working in bits but not thinking in bits.

Of course, 20+ years after Being Digital things have changed quite a bit. Many companies have leveraged thinking in bits to their advantage. Tax preparation software companies come to mind: the process of collecting the necessary information is designed to meet the needs of the person entering the information while the output of the information is in the format (atom-based) necessary for submission to the appropriate agencies. (Sadly, my guess is that those agencies still have atom-based processes to actually handle the information.)

And technology has evolved radically. Blockchain comes to mind. But even there, in a highly thinking in bits based process of transactions, most people’s attention is drawn to the most atom-based aspect of the blockchain – it’s use as a currency.

Digital transformation is not, as some people think, something you do. It is, rather, something that is happening, something that is happening to you. Whether you want it to or not. Thinking in bits is your key to not just surviving the transformation, but to leading the way.

Design decisions – Shuffle Play as default on Spotify

I am really enjoying Spotify since signing up a month or so ago, but one thing really* irritates me – the default play mode is “Shuffle Play”. There’s a big button at the top of every list of songs, be it a playlist, radio station, or an album. And when you click on a song to play, it seems to automatically assume that you want to shuffle the songs.

This may be OK for most albums, but it’s a bit jarring when you go from “Speak to Me” to “Any Colour You Like” when what you were expecting was the seamless transition to “Breathe” on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Which really needs to be listened to as an album, not a random mix of songs.

I don’t know how the conversation went when they set this as the default, and put that big-ass button at the top of each list of songs, but I’m going to guess it is just a reflection of how music is produced, distributed, and consumed by a large part of the music consumer base.

Maybe I’m just old school, but coming from an age when you listened to albums, and not just songs, I still prefer to listen to albums straight through, the way they were put together and intended by the artists. Sure, some albums are just collections of songs, but even with those it is comforting to hear them in their proper order. Nostalgia alert 🙂

I also tend to gravitate towards and listen to albums that are meant to be listened to in a specific order, concept albums such as the aforementioned Dark Side of the Moon and concert albums in which an entire performance is captured.

Which isn’t to say I don’t appreciate shuffle play. Over the holidays, for instance, shuffle play got plenty of use with the various Christmas and holiday playlists we had playing as we decorated, cooked, and celebrated. I just wish it wasn’t the default. Or that I could change that default.

tl;dr Is it possible to change the default play setting in Spotify to be not shuffle play?

*A lot of other little things just kind of irritate me

Digital choices, digital decisions

Having seen the Rush Time Machine Tour in El Paso while traveling there in the summer of 2011 (one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended, btw), I was looking forward to getting the concert video to watch and the album to listen to. I’ve always been interested in how concert videos and the accompanying albums are produced, especially in comparative terms of the mixing and editing of the music, effects, audience, etc, and there are plenty of such things with Time Machine 2011. (For example, the removal of some dialog at the end of their instrumental “indulgence” from the album.)

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