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HLG Notebook | August 2015

1. Gadgets We Could Do Without 

Fusion offers a brilliant overview of 11 “smart” devices that were much better when they were dumb. Some are still raising funds on Kickstarter. This example should persuade you not to contribute:

Humans held their pants up just fine with leather belts for thousands of years. But now, there’s a better way. According to its maker, the Belty smart belt automatically loosens when you’ve had too much to eat, using “an actuator that ensures your preferred level of comfort throughout the day.” In case algorithmic accommodation of your food baby isn’t enough, the Belty also comes with “inactivity monitoring, waistline trend analysis, a built-in pedometer, bluetooth capabilities, and sister phone app.”


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 2. Deep Thinking About the Future of Cars

If the future that awaits us is one of self-driving cars or fleets of “on-demand” cars that no one owns, what will life be like? Benedict Evans has some provocative reflections on the second- and third-order effects. To begin with, cars may get ugly:

“It may make more sense for the cars themselves to be owned by someone with a big balance sheet – a GE Capital, if you like – that owns hundreds or thousands of cars with an optimised financial structure, rather than individual drivers getting their own leases. That in turn means that the cars get bought the way Hertz buys cars, or – critically – the way corporate PCs get bought. In this world what matters is ROI and a check-list of features, not flair, design, innovation or fit and finish. The US car-rental companies account for around 15% of the US industry’s output, and some models are specifically designed with this market in mind. They’re not the cool ones. That poses a challenge for Apple, and indeed Tesla. If the users are not the buyers, the retracting door handles or diamond-cut chamfers don’t matter.


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 3. Was Ebola More Dangerous Than We Thought?

This astonishing article, published in the spring, just came to our attention. Ari Schulman, writing in The New Atlantis, argues that the CDC and the WHO didn’t share evidence showing how high the risks were of contracting the Ebola virus. A devastating indictment:

The agencies became averse not to risk but to acknowledging risk; how they did not “err on the side of caution” but guarded only against dangers for which the evidence was firmly conclusive; how they became as concerned with reassuring the public as with actually protecting it.


Schulman points out that, contrary to public assurances, credible scientific studies suggested that Ebola could indeed be transmitted through the air and that surgical masks without full respirators weren’t sufficient protection.


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4. Are Google’s Algorithms the New Ballot Box Stuffing?

Politico has published the first blockbuster scandal of the election season – and its target is neither the Republicans nor the Democrats. Instead, the authors point their finger at Google and the potential of search rankings to boost a candidate’s popularity. This “Google effect,” they argue, can boost a candidate’s popularity by more than 20 percent – more than 60 percent in some demographic groups:

What we call in our research the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) turns out to be one of the largest behavioral effects ever discovered. Our comprehensive new study…includes the results of five experiments we conducted with more than 4,500 participants in two countries. Because SEME is virtually invisible as a form of social influence, because the effect is so large and because there are currently no specific regulations anywhere in the world that would prevent Google from using and abusing this technique, we believe SEME is a serious threat to the democratic system of government.


Did someone say “a conspiracy so immense…”? Ominously, the authors warn that “Google’s search algorithm, propelled by user activity, has been determining the outcomes of close elections worldwide for years.”


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5. Why Computers Can’t Understand Twitter

Advanced computing is preparing to take on the world’s toughest challenges:  detecting sarcasm on line. The Washington Post:

Sentiment-analysis is already a booming industry: Dozens of firms peddle software that claims to gauge how much social media users like your special interest, or your candidate, or your new line of discount hairspray. But given that snark’s basically the lingua franca of the Web, there’s plenty they could miss. Presidential campaigns are already finding, for instance, that sarcasm can singlehandedly wreck their best estimates of voter sentiment. And what should Netflix make of a one-star review that reads “Give Nicholas Cage an Oscar for this”?


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6. The Hackneyed Language of Email

Fast Company gives us this much-needed reminder: the email cluttering our inboxes is brimming with cluttered language:

When you say, “please be advised,” “enclosed please find,” “for your consideration,” or “sincerely yours,” you are not only unnecessarily formal, you border on archaic. We are all for being polite and professional, but let’s face it: No one actually writes a business letter or memorandum on paper anymore. Using such phrases harkens back to an era of secretaries “taking a letter,” which was long before email unbuttoned written communication.


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The post August 2015 appeared first on High Lantern Group.