The endgame (and AlphaGo)

I recently watched the movie AlphaGo on Netflix, which documents the lead up to and the challenge match between DeepMind’s AlphaGo and Lee Sedol.

Three things jumped out at me watching the movie.

One, we know it’s going to happen. Even if you didn’t previously know the outcome of AlphaGo versus Sedol, you know someday soon, the computer is going to surpass and beat the human. If not this version, then the next. If it’s only able to win a few games now, it will win all games in future. We already know the ending. But you just can’t help but want Sedol to win, because it means that we all win. It means that we put off by another day the inevitable moment when the computer can beat us. Not just beat us by being faster than our brains and bodies, like previous inventions, but by learning by itself and out-thinking us.

Two, the way the documentary protrays the tension between the two sides is when it strikes you that nobody thought it would happen so soon. Neither side, DeepMind or Sedol, thought so even as it was unfolding. It’s a moment that is simultaneously terrifying and heartbreaking and amazing at the same time. The endgame is near, but how amazing that we were able to get a group of people together to program that.

Three, and this is on your mind as you watch and this is why the movie is so good: it asks the question “What happens when it happens?” What’s it do the psychology of humans to know they can’t win and that the computer has surpassed them? What’s the emotional toll? Sedol, even with his incredible winning percentage has lost other games to human players in the past, but this loss is just so much different: knowing he (and, therefore, all us humans) can’t win this one. And what happens after it happens? Will humans just play human games and computers computer games?

In the end, we’re left with only a hope. A hope that the creativity of the machine will unlock a new creativity within us. To allow us to see moves and the world in new ways we hadn’t before envisioned. And like any other tool we’ve invented – the pencil, the bicycle, the car – the computer will continue doing just that.

A thousand true fans

I came across two great remembrance posts this afternoon, from Om and from Kottke, about the loss of their friend Dean Allen.

I never met him but I was always a fan of his work, from textism to Textpattern to favrd. When he first announced TextDrive back in 2004, I put up the $200 (a lot for that time in life) and signed up to support him and get a lifetime account out of it. We talk a lot these days about crowdfunding and bootstrapping your work via your first thousand true fans – TextDrive was the first time I’d ever encountered that concept on the web. It was a refreshing and beautiful thing.

I’m always amazed that one person can leave so much behind on the internet – and to keep trying new things, just for the sake of trying things, and to move the web forward because that’s the only way it ever does.

It seems a thousand others thought so today as well.

Beliefs

Earlier this week, at a team dinner, we got to talking about whether people can and will ever move off of Facebook. The question was posed not necessarily as an exercise into how to start a new social network, but to talk about the company’s influence and network power, and to ask: if something else took its place, wouldn’t that service naturally go through the same evolution? Create a hook, aggregate people and data and attention, and then monetize that attention with advertising. The same question can be posed of all institutions that grow too big and centralize power: aggregate a resource, attract people in, have network effects or other data lock-in to make it hard for them to leave.

When it comes to big companies, you can only believe in one of three things: 1) that if something grew too big, people will always have the freedom to vote with their feet and move on; 2) that government will step in and break it up; 3) that technology will improve to break us out of such lock-ins because technology wants to innovate and improve itself (it could be argued that the default state of technology is to always be in a process of self-improvement like this).

On the first, that we are free to choose whichever service, we know now is increasingly not true: with almost all types of centralization, and especially with network effects businesses, you can’t just move on easily. You’re on it because your friends are on it, and they’re on it because you’re on it. You’re on it, because it lists more products than the other sites and it already has your billing information, and that makes it more convenient. And because more people are shopping on it, more products and vendors get on it. So, the more powerful each network becomes, the harder it is to remove yourself (and your data) from it. The “well, if they increase prices, I’ll just go elsewhere” is just not true these days, because at some point a service gets so big that there aren’t many good alternatives that will have the stuff you need.

You can believe that governments will step in and do what they did in previous eras to fight anti-trust and break up things that get too big. You can believe that policy will change, but it may not always go your way (e.g., the state of the net neutrality debate now). Policy is always reflective of who’s running the government during any span of years. It can go one direction for a while, and then, as we see now, flip into another for a few years. So, you can’t solely believe in and wait for that either. (In fact, even when it does feel like it worked, as with Microsoft in the 90s, it could be argued it wasn’t just government intervention that made them stumble, but rather that they missed multiple technology trends in a row).

So ultimately, it leaves it up to technology to provide solutions for us and that’s why for those that are working in and watching the space, decentralized technologies like cryptocurrencies are so interesting.

In New York Times Magazine this weekend, Steven Johnson has a beautifully written essay on bitcoin, blockchain, the underlying technologies behind networks and why there could be a ‘there’ there. Like a great photo or idea, it’s one of those things you wish you had done, that you had written it this way for others to understand – that was my first reaction! He explains it better than any of hundreds of other posts and articles you’ll read on this stuff. Now when anyone asks me for a starter into networks and cryptocurrencies, I will just send them this essay as the first read.

You have to believe in one of these three things. Each has people behind the scenes, creating policies and movements and supporting each style of action. But it’s the belief in technology that has consistently moved us forward in the past, and the belief is that it will once more, and that it should.

Cool tools

I’m always on the hunt to find cool apps to add to my collection. Part of it is driven by the need to find faster or more efficient tools. Part of it is the desire to find more beautifully designed experiences and maybe learn about how developers are putting these things together.

Here are a few apps I’ve found recently that have been a great help in productivity on the desktop as well as my iPhone. Bonus: I realized it after I typed these all up, but they are all free!

  • Numi – A beautiful, minimal app for macOS that makes you feel as though this is the way the calculator should have worked all along. It seamlessly blends math with text. It reminds me of those ticker tape calculators from years past, except this one has syntax highlighting, understands units to make conversion easier (forex, crypto, time, data size), variables so you can reuse calculations, percentages and simple math functions (like factorial, round).
  • Spectacle – A fast, simple window manager for organizing windows on your Mac. After having tried a few of these over the years, what I like is that the app is really lightweight and the keybindings are really intuitive and “just work” out of the box. This way, you don’t really have to customize every single view and can install it on every machine you have and have them all behave the same.
  • Chime – I’ve long been looking for a simple watch (or watch app) that simply vibrates every few {five, fifteen, thirty, or sixty} minutes on my wrist. I found this simple app for iOS that does this well, all while doing so with a simple interface and no stray notifications in your drawer. I tend to keep all sounds off on my phone (texts, apps, etc), but I’ve long wanted to have little reminders throughout the day to help let me how quickly time is passing. As my wife often likes to say, “All we have is time.
  • exiftool – A command-line app that reads, writes, creates files and metadata in a huge number of file formats. It support all types of images, RAWs from cameras, PDFs, etc. It’s great when you want to see what metadata is attached to a particular file; even better when you want to strip some of the properties before posting or sending the file along to someone.

You can find all of these on kit too: https://kit.com/naveen/favorite-apps-in-2017

MLK Day and Books Through Bars

“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

We didn’t get a chance to take the day off today, so tonight we took a little time to give back. Team Kit and I volunteered to help NYC Books Through Bars at Freebird Books. Books Through Bars is an all-volunteer-run group that sends free, donated books to incarcerated people. They mail book packages to individuals who write in with different requests rather than send them to prison libraries. They’ve been doing this for twenty-one years and ship to forty states (the other ten don’t allow such packages through the mail, especially I think from people you don’t previously know). Tonight, we mostly mailed individuals in Texas, a state that also comes with its own list of banned books. This list was hundreds of titles long, and you have to cross-check the requests before you pack them up. Wherever I could find one on the shelf, I threw in one or two of my favorite books as well. We chose to work with this group tonight because we love reading so much ourselves, and we believe in their vision that books are a way to improve quality of life, and access to knowledge shouldn’t be restricted to anyone, by anyone.

The Burn

At the end of every year, Diana and her closest friends get together for “The Burn”. The Burn starts by writing down all the things that went right and all the things that went wrong the past year, all the things you said you were going to do, but you didn’t and all the things you said you were going to do, and you did. You also write down the goals you hope to achieve in the year coming up. Then you sit and talk through the lists with one another, preferably on a beautiful beach somewhere, and you light them all on fire, preferably before beach patrol runs over to wave you down.

This year’s Burn was on Santa Monica Beach.

Santa Monica

An ice-cold weekend in New York City walking the pup has got me thinking about a beach walk in Santa Monica a couple of weeks back.

Reconnection

The year’s end is about temporary disconnection: stop our usual routines, stop refreshing our phones a hundred times a day, perhaps attempt to get off of our computers altogether. I read a couple of books, went snowboarding, ran a half-marathon on Christmas morning with Diana and stayed in on New Year’s Eve.

As I think about it, I realize I’ve been slowly moving toward disconnection in full. Two years ago I removed certain forms of media from my phone – Twitter and Facebook in particular. I was always too distracted. I wanted to put an end to my snacking habit, earning little treats throughout the day as I pulled the lever to refresh the feeds. Then two months ago, I logged out of them on the web, too.

I wanted to lead up to the New Year fresh, and to continue the habit well into 2018.

I needed to change my media diet. As Ethan Zuckerman wrote in 2010, “many of us overestimate the amount of diverse, international information we encounter through the internet and other communications networks. We run the danger of being “imaginary cosmopolitans”, convinced we’re encountering information from all corners of the world, while we might be trapped in homogenous echo chambers.” This information diet is an even more important idea nowadays where many of us are getting a big part of our news from two such networks, each flawed in their own ways, and increasingly run by algorithms and the people that write them and game them.

I wasn’t gaining anything meaningful from Facebook: no improvement in well-being, no new learnings, no sense of staying in touch with friends. And Twitter just kept making me angry. Their slow responses to fixing things like abuse and their lack of feature improvement on the platform made the service hard to use and less valuable over time. And as we all know, the course of politics this past year turned it into a platform where everyone seems to be outraged all the time, somewhere between one-hundred-and-forty and two-eighty characters at a time. (I even muted some political terms early in the year but that didn’t seem to make much difference). The crowd that was on “early Twitter” back in the day are now on other “small” networks: Telegram, Signal, Slack. I’ve joined them in those places instead.

In his post last week, Om framed the idea of disconnection-by-algorithm most poetically: The algorithmic world we live in puts convenience and speed ahead of these abstract concepts of human consciousness and connections. Facebook has blunted the idea of friendship, and relationships, LinkedIn has turned business relations into a spectator sport of likes, follows and recommendations. Algorithm writers forget that we all need narratives, stories we need to tell each other to have a real connection.

I would add it isn’t just the rise of algorithms that’s broken things, but also that people on the platforms end up having to act like algorithms themselves: both are playing a game that only the algorithm (and the underlying platforms’ bottom lines) can possibly win.

The reasons for disconnection were many.

My hope was to put an end to those little snacks throughout the day. It was to stop my distracted nature, jumping between different tabs that might be interesting but instead make you feel like you are in a corner store glancing at all the gossip magazines and fake headlines you’d rather wish you hadn’t seen.

When I come out the other side of it all, I hope it will mean an end to my own short-term thinking. It will open up time for reading more books and writing more. It will force thinking for the long-term and lead to a connection I’ve been seeking: one with real meaning, with new learnings and challenges and the opening of all parts of my mind.

A reconnection for 2018.

Reads in 2017

I went back to find articles I read this year that stood out for me. I am sure there are a lot of other great reads that I missed, but these were a subset of ones I shared in Pocket or on Twitter, so they were easier to track.

People

Diana in the WaPo speaking about her strokes and becoming the CEO of her health, Jim Simons, the Collison brothers, Steve Kerr and his dad, Ray Dalio and algorithmic management, The dying art of disagreement, Donald Judd and Yayoi Kusama

Technology

Mark Weiser’s The Computer for the 21st Century, The story behind AOL’s running man icon, Steve Jobs’ legacy & the iPhone X (another great one by Om on how Apple’s lessons from the past on hardware shapes its future), Ownership and entitlement (discovered Facebook’s Boz blog this year), The Disappearing Computer (Mossberg’s last column), “A personal wireless communicator in every pocket” (old but great), How Aristotle created the computer, Plant trees you’ll never see

Art

Notes on $450,312,500 (later reading about who bought the da Vinci, came across one about a big Modigliani sale a couple of years back; some hilarious quotes), The history of photography is a history of shattered glass (Teju Cole), The last great moment of the last great rock band

Places

A tale of two cafes (Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots), A lonely death (Japan), dying Italian towns, Stewart Brand on why cities live forever, Google Maps’ moat (so well written and designed!), NYC’s subway failures, Blue Ribbon turns 25, stories from NYMag’s 50th anniversary (loved the photos of the late 70s/early 80s by a cab driver, David Dinkins, Odeon reunion, Diller and DvF, Robert Caro)

Great long(er) reads

Steele, Trump, and Putin, The Medicaid debate affects you, What on Earth is wrong with Connecticut?, X marks the spot where inequality took root, Is surfing more sport or religion?, A very old man for a wolf, Spectacular relief from the world at the Australian Open, Citizen Khan, Bret Easton Ellis on reputation culture, Are we all born with a talent for synaesthesia?

Books in 2017

I find it interesting how books end up on someone’s reading list. No doubt, most of them are recommendations from friends and colleagues: books by friends of ours, books to teach us about our new dog, a book about the town (San Clemente) where we had one of our two summer weddings. However, this year, I think many more than ever landed in front of me because I learned about them through Kit itself – after three years of working on the site, the data is now strong enough now to consistently deliver great recommendations. A particularly interesting example was Ellen Pao’s Reset: the site not only highlighted this for me based on many others’ lists, but it’s one that came up in conversation numerous times on our team, because she is an investor in Kit too!

Overall, I had a pretty good run in 2017; I edged out the previous year’s list not only in number, but I think in variety too.

The books we read no doubt shape the thoughts we have, but perhaps it works just as well the other way too: the things weighing on our mind can determine which books we pick up. If 2016 was focused more on health, this past year had more biographies and even some fiction. Maybe I just craved an escape from a wild year in news and just wanted to go back to reading about people, their struggles, their successes, their mental models, how they inspire and how they show great things are still ahead of us.

Here’s my full 2017 book list on Kit: