Here’s another aspect of the ebook reading experience Amazon has a monopoly on, and somehow lacks a vision for. From The New Stateman:

Goodreads today looks and works much as it did when it was launched. The design is like a teenager’s 2005 Myspace page: cluttered, random and unintuitive. Books fail to appear when searched for, messages fail to send, and users are flooded with updates in their timelines that have nothing to do with the books they want to read or have read. Many now use it purely to track their reading, rather than get recommendations or build a community. “It should be my favourite platform,” one user told me, “but it’s completely useless.” […]

With the vast amount of books and user data that Goodreads holds, it has the potential to create an algorithm so exact that it would be unstoppable, and it is hard to imagine anyone objecting to their data being used for such a purpose. Instead, it has stagnated: Amazon holds on to an effective monopoly on the discussion of new books – Goodreads is almost 40 times the size of the next biggest community, LibraryThing, which is also 40 per cent owned by Amazon – and it appears to be doing very little with it.

To improve discovery I would focus on manually curated lists, like bookshop.org and fivebooks.com do, and instead of giving users a meaningless star rating I would aggregate book reviews. bookmarks.review, a sort of Rotten Tomatoes for books, does just that.

A calming little website collecting 10 minute videos of someone’s else window. Displayed randomly, from anywhere in the world.

Andy Matuschak:

Books are static. Prose can frame or stimulate readers’ thoughts, but prose can’t behave or respond to those thoughts as they unfold in each reader’s head. […] How might we design mediums in which “readers” naturally form rich associations between the ideas being presented? How might we design mediums which “readers” naturally engage creatively with the material? How might we design mediums in which “readers” naturally contend with competing interpretations? If we pile together enough of these questions we’re left with: how might we design mediums in which “reading” is the same as “understanding”?

The state of ebooks is truly sad. Nothing has changed in a decade (to be optimistic) and the digital book is still just a scan of the paper book trapped in a screen.

GPT-3 — let’s define it as the autocomplete tool by OpenAI trained on a large amount of uncategorized text from the internet — is quite impressive, comparable to what happened to AI image processing from 2012 onward. We can safely ignore the hype — it’s probably a dead end in terms of reaching artificial general intelligence (see its performance on the Turing Test). And I doubt it’s going to replace developers. But as an autocomplete, at guessing common sense or trivia questions, it’s a leap forward. Here I am asking Alexa for the third time to lower the volume, and this thing can almost handle a conversation.

Anyway because of how it works (you give it some text, a prompt, and it guesses what comes next) in recent weeks the internet got inundated with things they made GPT-3 do. There’s even a course in creative writing taught by GPT-3 (which is probably as valid as most creative writing courses).

Like all good AI GPT-3 never admits of not knowing an answer, it’d rather make up stuff, weird stuff sometimes, nonsense but nicely written nonsense. It might not make sense but at least it’s syntactically correct. It’s an idea machine, and a quite funny one. Here’s one of its replies, when prompted by Arram Sabeti to write an essay on human intelligence:

I propose that intelligence is the ability to do things humans do. [..] The brain is a very bad computer, consciousness is a very bad idea.

Los Angeles Review of Books:

Does a text message conversation take place? It has a beginning, I suppose, though who can remember when it was. Does it have a middle? An end? An ever-expanding middle maybe, half-punctuated by a series of tentative ends — and perhaps one final, devastating one. […]

When you receive a text message you are presented with a choice: you can treat it as you would a phone call and immediately answer and strike up a back and forth, or you can treat it as a letter — letting it linger, inspecting it for possible implications, reading between the lines, trying out various interpretations — then finally crafting a response attuned meticulously to imagined contingencies that you will send at the most opportune moment.

The text message’s built-in ambiguity — its optional absence — generates its own opportunities and anxieties. It opens up whole avenues for expression that alternately try to take advantage of or try to soften the threat of absence. Response time becomes its own form of communication.

Some insights on voice interfaces from Ian Bicking:

Voice interfaces are voice interfaces. They are a way for the user to express their desire, using patterns that might be skeuomorphism of regular voice interactions, or might be specific learned behaviors. It’s not a conversation. You aren’t talking with the computer.

I’ve been speaking with Alexa for quite some time now — we like to talk about the status of the lights in the living room and which is the most suitable time for me to wake up.

Also very true:

I hate how voice interfaces force us to speak without pauses because a pause is treated as the end of the statement. Many systems use a “wakeword” or “keyword spotting” to start the interaction. What if we used keyword spotting to determine the end as well? “Please” might be a good choice. It’s like the Enter key.

Marc Andreessen:

Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.

Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.

Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t *do* in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *build*.

We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds. And we don’t have enough surgical masks, eye shields, and medical gowns. […] Why do we not have these things? Medical equipment and financial conduits involve no rocket science whatsoever. At least therapies and vaccines are hard! Making masks and transferring money are not hard. We could have these things but we chose not to — specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things. We chose not to *build*.

New York Times:

Labor and robotics experts say social-distancing directives, which are likely to continue in some form after the crisis subsides, could prompt more industries to accelerate their use of automation. And long-simmering worries about job losses or a broad unease about having machines control vital aspects of daily life could dissipate as society sees the benefits of restructuring workplaces in ways that minimize close human contact. […]

Recycling is one industry that may be altered permanently by the pandemic.

Another sign of the acceleration.

Good news, Apple and Google are partnering to implement system-level APIs for a privacy friendly contact tracing done via bluetooth (which, as we were discussing the other day, seems the most sensible approach):

Apple and Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms. This is a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities. Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders.

From a draft of the spec (up here):

The Contact Tracing Bluetooth Specification does not require the user’s location; any use of location is completely optional to the schema. In any case, the user must provide their explicit consent in order for their location to be optionally used.

An office noise generator

A moment of silence for Yahoo! Pipes 🙏

Surveilling encounters

Here’s Carol Yin detailing how her movements have been tracked across China since the lockdown came into place. Upon entering a train station, she has been having to share her location data of recent weeks. When booking a taxi, she needs to scan a QR code generated by WeChat or Alipay to “check-in”. The same applies to taking public transport or accessing any building. The tracking is done via a combination of QR codes and location data from the phone providers.

The code China is assigning to each citizen — red, yellow or green — reflects someone’s contagion risk.

Israel is tapping into cellphone data, nothing fancy.

Taiwan set up an ‘electronic fence’: your phone determines whether you are respecting the boundaries of the quarantine or not. Authorities are alerted if you switch it off or as soon as you leave the designated space.

In reality China’s system is way more confusing and less centralised than you might have read. There are at least four competing health codes generated by different entities (city, province, community, and app codes). Each of them obliges to different rules. You might never find out why you were assigned that one.

South Korea is throwing in the mix a little bit of everything: CCTV surveillance, bank transaction logs, mobile phone usage. Big data! Hurray!

Here’s a website with data released by the Ministry of Health of Singapore. You can see every known infection case, down to every movement and every connection a case had. It’s alright because it’s anonymised. Sure.

Hong Kong is slapping wristbands upon arrival at its airports. The wristband connects to a smartphone app, StayAtHomeSafe. It generates a unique fingerprint of your house by looking into the signals emitted by the devices surrounding you — nearby WiFi, your WiFi, Bluetooth and cellular. “As you walk around the home, the algorithm on the app will sample the signals of the home.”

Palantir is doing well. “The software company is in discussions with authorities in France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.”

Singapore solution to contact tracing is an app called TraceTogether. The app creates a temporary ID by encrypting a user ID to a Ministry of Health owned public key and then broadcasts the temporary ID over Bluetooth. The Ministry of Health acts as a trusted third party (that can decrypt those IDs) and promises it will only use the information for COVID-19 related purposes.

You’d have noticed how (some) of these solutions are trying to do two things at once:

  • Help citizens with contact tracing
  • Help authorities surveilling whether the population is complying with the lockdown

Let’s neglect the latter (I hope we wouldn’t need or want to surveil). Here in the west we’ve got plenty of tools to self-diagnose our risk, yet we’re missing a widely adopted system to do contact tracing. If we want to go back to normality (where normality here simply stands for: going outside the house) it sounds likely that we’ll need a form of digital surveillance. Emphasis on likely: I am not in a position to weigh in on the efficacy of contact tracing — I know nothing — all I can say is that it seems to be a valuable tool if paired with other non-technical solutions.

That said, I worry that we’re going to do what we usually do when in panic mode: introduce purportedly temporary surveillance that ends up staying. We might adopt despotic tech, willingly, because it makes us feel safe without having evidence of any actual benefit. As before, we need to balance our need for security with some level of freedom.

It seems that we need:

  • A privacy-preserving system to track encounters. Using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to detect nearby devices (= humans) seems to make the most sense to me. There are doubts whether location tracking — done via GPS or phone carriers — can offer a meaningful contribution in defeating the virus. We’re talking about maintaining a 2-meter distance here: GPS accuracy is around 5 meters. We don’t need to know the coordinates, but rather the proximity with other devices. Proximity tracking seems to matter more.
  • If location is important (e.g. we want to notify everyone who has recently been in a listed hotspot, being it the tube, a public park, or else) guess what: retailers have been surveilling you for a while. You could use beacons in public spaces and WiFi signals to let each smartphone log access locally. The smartphone could then check its recorded path against a hotspot database. No information needs to leave the device (this is MIT’s PrivateKit)
  • We probably don’t want to share our location data with third parties unless we become infected. We want to collect it locally until it makes sense to share (part of) it. Existing health apps (in the UK: the NHS app, or third parties that work with them such as Babylon) could gain access to this data in a similar fashion as they request access to the health database
  • A system to alert every user that came into close range with a case for an extended period

Governments and health authorities should explain in details what data they’re using and for what reason. Most governments’ apps are asking for name, sex, birth year, residence, travel history and a plethora of other unnecessary information. If this system ends up determining one’s ability to roam freely, you’ll want to know why you can’t leave the house.

Ideally, we wouldn’t get an app. This should be something baked into the OS. Google and Apple should provide privacy settings for contact tracing: that would give us a universal system to collect this kind of data locally and securely. Besides, the utility of such system is null without everyone using it. A pandemic is global: there needs to be a global way of dealing with it.

It is possible to build a system for contact tracing that is also privacy-preserving. Apple does something similar, albeit for other purposes. And there’s already a proposed protocol, the PEPP-PT:

  • Assign a unique and anonymous ID to every device
  • When two devices come in close contact for an extended period of time, exchange and log the IDs
  • When someone is diagnosed with the virus, alert all the logged IDs
  • Then and only then: ask the affected IDs, via an app, to self-diagnose themselves continuously, and if they report symptoms get them tested (ideally even if not)

You’ll notice that there is no leak of data to the government under this scenario. All the government knows is that an ID needs to be tested.

Especially if the problem is here to stay for a while, we need a solution that doesn’t permanently compromise our freedom. We also need something that all of us can use and trust, independently of the country we inhabit.

A lot of the tools above — like tracking GPS movements — seem unnecessary. Let’s not scramble up a solution by throwing random data into the mix. An app is not going to save us. All of this is going to be pointless if the more essential pieces of the puzzle (like testing) are not there.

Alas, don’t demand surveillance, because no one is going to turn it off when this is over.

A view on how we’re moving these days, based on aggregated data from Google Maps.