Not Doing Too Good

The last few weeks have been pretty rough as it seems there are too many people vying for some of my time, my experience, my presence, or some combination thereof. These things are often freely available in moderation. When there are too many demands for the same resources, though, constraints can drive a person's stress levels through the roof. This is where I find myself this week.

The Sacred Bridge in Nikko

Being angry and frustrated is not a wonderful thing. Creativity cannot thrive under these conditions, yet it seems that whenever a person is under the gun to deliver before a bunch of arbitrary deadlines, creativity is needed in excess. While it's not at all realistic, I'd really like to take all 26 of my banked holidays at work and go for a walk with Nozomi every morning rather than head into the office where it seems artificial problems wait and artificial priorities jostle for artificial expedition which results in a very real lack of time for larger priorities. When asked why the larger priorities are yet to be completed, people are told about the other items that managed to jump the queue ... not that it matters. Apparently, when items are deemed "too important to wait", they are to be resolved alongside the larger projects, as though we all carry with us two or more extra arms that can be deployed in such a scenario.

It's ridiculous.

How many times must a person refocus during the day before they can begin to work on the things they're expected to complete? Given that very little of what any of us does today will be remembered in five years time, why is there always so much of a focus on artificial priorities?

We spend so much time stressed out over the imaginary objectives of people who pretend they own us that we ignore the very real objectives that drive us to get out of bed in the morning. Looking at all the things that are stacking up in front of me, I'm not even sure why I even leave the house in the morning.

I'm not doing too good.

Expectations

Another week, another email from a recruiter. This time, however, I thought it would be prudent to respond in the hopes that this is a person who understands there's more to software development than money or technology. First, this is the message he sent me:

Dear Jason,

This is Steve {Redacted} with {Redacted}. I am a recruitment consultant in Tokyo specialized in the technology industry. Pardon my sudden message. I was given your name as an excellent software engineer.

We recently were asked to hire for a new Senior Software Engineer for one of the world's largest companies headquartered in America. They are scaling out many systems leveraging AI & machine learning sitting on container-based infrastructure supporting a desktop & mobile ecosystem generating billions of actions per day.

This is a company we've helped hire many people for over the past year.

This is a senior position and could be a major career advancing move, for the right person. I am considering your profile for this role and would like to talk.

Even if you're not looking now, we would be happy to meet, exchange business cards, and build a long-term relationship. Would you be open for a casual discussion near in our office in Ebisu?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Have a great day,
Steve

A pretty run of the mill message, and one that is just generic enough that the person sending it doesn't need to try very hard. There are typically three or four of these sent to me in the middle of the night every week, and most are clearly cut and paste messages or ones sent out by machines with the name of the recipient and recruiter dynamically swapped out to try and balance workloads across available agents. Usually I completely ignore these but today I thought it might be nice to respond and basically make the recruiter work for their commission, if they are really interested in matching me with the best possible company.

This is what I wrote back,

Hello Steve,

Thank you for getting in touch with me. I'm always on the lookout for opportunities where I might use my limited skill set to bring smiles to faces around the world. You said that my name was given to you. Could you tell me who might have directed you? It's been a few years since I've worked in Tokyo, and many of my previous colleagues have since moved on to challenges in other countries.

As I'm currently living and working in Aichi Prefecture, a trip to Tokyo is not something I can do without some pretty good incentive. Also, I'm very particular about the sort of company I work at and the goals of any project I work on. It seems only fair that I give you plenty of notice about this ahead of time, as many recruiters in the past seem to believe that money is my primary motivator. If you know where I currently work, you will know without a doubt that a large bank account does not drive me. I would never want to work at a company like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Oracle, Apple, or even Microsoft. These companies do great things, but none align with my core beliefs in the slightest.

In your email you mentioned that a potential employer is "scaling out many systems leveraging AI & machine learning". In plain English, this usually means the company is "employing algorithms to take advantage of people's personal information, turning them into products to be sold without the slightest regard for decency or respect." I love math. I love algorithms. I strongly disagree with how many companies employ these systems, though. If you could tell me a little more about any position that you feel I might be qualified for, perhaps we could see if this company is a good fit for my ideals.

Ultimately, any organization that I work for needs to respect a person's right to privacy, which means not selling personal data or otherwise encouraging addictive behaviour through well-timed, well-planned introductions of products or information. Any organization I work for must also be working towards the betterment of humanity in some form. This doesn't mean that they cannot be a public corporation or be driven by financial gains, but there has to be a mission that aims to leave a positive mark on the world. I do not believe this is something we could say about any "of the world's largest companies headquartered in America". In fact, the larger the organization, the less interested I am working there.

My apologies for the long response. Let me wrap up by outlining what I am ultimately looking for from an employer. If you have any clients who match most of these criteria, I'd be happy to meet with you either in person or via Skype to discuss the opportunity or to simply learn more about each other.

Any company that I work for must:

● be working towards improving people or places
● be environmentally responsible
● admit their mistakes / failings
● not offer a product or service that will result in the injury or death of any human or animal
● give every employee with the respect and pay they deserve, regardless of gender, age, religion, or genetic background
● provide every employee the opportunity to grow at their own pace
● treat every person who uses the company's product or service with respect
● understand that family and personal well being must come before arbitrary deadlines and profit motives

I understand this is a tall order, and my wife says there is no company in the world that can offer most of these items, let alone all of them. If you think you know of a company that aligns with some or all of my expectations, please let me know.

Thank you,

Jason F. Irwin

Do you think he'll respond?

The Plug's Been Pulled

Today was the day that App.Net, an application platform that turned out to be best known for its social network, came to an end. Dozens of people who had moved on over the years returned to say goodbye, and just about everyone thanked the two main creators of the platform, Dalton Caldwell and Bryan Berg. Looking at the numbers from NiceRank, the last 48 hours of the service were the busiest for human-powered posts in months, which was certainly a nice thing to see in the waning hours of the service ... but then came the silence.

Requests go nowhere. There is no server on the other end of the line.

The CDN has come down as well.

The last of the email notifications have been sent.

The community has dispersed one last time.

To say that my time on the network fundamentally changed me would be an understatement. Through the network I interacted with hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people and learned so much more about humanity. I learned about the struggles of transgendered people. I learned about cultures from all over the globe. I learned genuine empathy. Close knit communities can be found all over the web, but few were as inclusive and welcoming as the one found on App.Net throughout much of its life.

Now that community has split one last time. Some people have chosen to go offline completely, being socially exhausted. Some long returned to Twitter and Facebook, where the audience sizes are exponentially larger than anything ADN could have offered. Some people have gone to pnut.io. Some people have come to 10Centuries. Most, however, are spread across multiple places and waiting to see what might come next.

I'm conflicted.

On the one hand, I am thankful for the many years of enjoyment ADN provided. The community rallied around a number of my ideas and helped out. The community also railed against ill-considered ideas and helped out. A lot of what I learned about effective RESTful API design came from studying the interfaces for App.Net and being incredibly frustrated by what I found, which encouraged me to go learn how to build a system that would work according to my expectations1. The most popular English podcast I have ever produced continues to be Discover ADN. Heck, 55% of the funding that keeps 10Centuries afloat every year comes from people who I met and interacted with on App.Net. I'm very thankful to the community.

But when I think about all the difficulties in communicating with the people at ADN. When I think about the years of radio silence since the project was sidelined and a complete unwillingness to discuss anything with the community — paying customers — I wonder just what it is that the organization hoped to accomplish by abandoning ship. Sure, people needed jobs to pay bills and lead lives full of meaning, but is it really so difficult to drop in once in a while and chat? Or respond to offers to write features or fix bugs that would add value to the paying customers, many who continued to renew subscriptions for years in the hopes of keeping the service alive. Sure, everybody is busy and has a tough job. That's life. I'm busy as heck with a tough job, an attention-seeking puppy, a new baby, and a wife, too. Yet I can dedicate a fraction of my day to blogging, podcasting, social interactions, and more. I don't ignore the people around me in the real world, and I don't ignore the people interacting with me in the digital world. Am I just an anomaly in this fast-paced century?

Perhaps I am.

Perhaps I expect too much.

Perhaps I'm unfairly criticizing due to assumptions that were made as a result of feeling unappreciated by a for-profit business that took my money in exchange not just for a service, but an idea. An idea that I and a lot of really good people invested a great deal into. An idea that was presented, then abandoned by the very people who sold it to us.

Regardless. What's done is done. ADN is gone. The community is dispersing. The ideals that ADN was founded on may not have been enough to make that service as profitable as its creators hoped, but the ideals are worth holding on to.

  1. We should own our own data.
  2. We are not products to be sold.
  3. APIs should be accessible.

10Centuries has long shared these ideals, which is why ADN was so attractive for such a long time after it was left idle. 10Centuries will continue to hold these concepts, too, for as long as is humanly possible.


  1. I would not say that my way of designing a RESTful API is superior or anything like that. It's just different in the ways that I prefer.

Twenty Eight Years

Time flies when you're having fun, but I find it hard to believe that 28 years have passed since the inception of what became known as the World Wide Web. To mark the occasion, the creator of the web wrote an open letter talking about three challenges that face us today.

Today marks 28 years since I submitted my original proposal for the world wide web. I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. In many ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open. But over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity.

-- Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim Berners-Lee -- Creator of the World Wide Web

His three points, we’ve lost control of our personal data, it's too easy for misinformation to spread on the web, and political advertising online needs transparency and understanding, are all valid challenges that we face today with the various commercial sites where people tend to congregate, and I plan on doing something very difficult to address the first one shortly. That said, I had the distinct feeling that there should have been a fourth challenge identified as well: we need to treat others as we wish to be treated.

It seems every time I take a look at a popular social network or forum there are people being compared to some of history's most notorious villains due to differing opinions. People are attacked for not fitting a certain stereotype or other asinine criteria. Good debates quickly devolve into strawman arguments or worse. It's as though we have lost the ability to listen to the other side and present our own arguments in a respectful fashion in order to convince or, at the very least, learn about the other side.

There are people who would condemn me for having a son with someone who does not share a recently similar genealogical history. There are people who would openly mock me for preferring hand-written notes to digitally recorded ones. In both cases I would try to engage these people and, if rational discussion was possible, hear what they have to say in the hopes that I could present my case and be seen as an equal with differing opinions. Chances are the vast majority of people online would enjoy the same.

Billions of people around the world face unjust bias and prejudice every single day of their lives for things that are often beyond their control. At the end of the day, the shouting and name calling gets us nowhere. Does society benefit by comparing someone on Twitter to Hitler? Has anybody in the last 20 years seriously reflected on their life choices after being called Hitler in order to determine if they may have an incomplete or incorrect understanding of a topic? Somehow I doubt it.

At the end of the day what we need as an ever-connected society is the understanding and appreciation that with a billion voices comes a billion personal histories and a billion perspectives. While some will more closely align with others, there is no reason why the greatest communications tool in the history of the human race should find itself a vehicle for excessive hate and rage. There's plenty to be angry about, of course. Humanity's problems cannot be solved in 140 characters, though. And this brings me to my next point ...

Enough With the Arbitrary Character Limits

It's really time social tools dispense with arbitrarily tiny character limits. When Twitter first came out, 140 characters was chosen due to the limitations of SMS, not the Internet. Even the soon-to-be-decommissioned App.Net with it's 256-character limit is unnecessarily restrictive. If people are to have true discourse, heated or otherwise, the barriers to communication need to be reduced as much as possible. Forcing someone to present a cohesive and logical argument on complicated topics with a hard character limit makes nuanced communication all but impossible. More than this, with "threaded responses", individual quotes can more easily be taken out of context and used against a person as a straw man argument, distracting everyone from the ultimate goal of enunciating an idea.

Our lives seem to be moving ever faster as our tools allow us to communicate with more people across greater distances with ease. Being constantly "on" takes its toll on people, fraying nerves and reducing our ability to step back and think before responding. Perhaps with a slower, more natural approach to communication we can begin to understand the people we disagree with. We don't have to always agree, nor should we. But we should at least try to understand the other side. Unfortunately, this is all but impossible unless we can respect one another and supply better written, more considered responses.

Un-Quantifiable

A little over four years ago I started down the path of quantified self, measuring sleep patterns and caloric intake. A year later I was fortunate enough to upgrade to a phone that included the ability to track steps and, with the help of other applications, other measurements such as heart rate were tracked multiple times a day. This stats collection has been a regular component of each and every day up until last night when I decided to bring it all to a stop, delete the data from the phone, and walk away from the practice. This isn't out of laziness or the added complexity of collecting data when a newborn is screaming like a banshee at 3:30am, but a niggling question that has remained unsatisfactorily answered since 2014: What problem am I trying to solve?

I love numbers and charts and turning data into actionable information. There isn't much that I'm particularly good at in life, but data processing is where I excel. One would think that analysis from all this self-observation would be sufficient reward in and of itself. However, looking at the statistics, this is what a person can surmise about me:

  • I'm getting older
  • I sleep better on a clear day after a bit of alcohol and a shower
  • I don't get very good sleep during the workweek
  • I consume more "unhealthy" calories during the workweek
  • My body weight alternates between 78.2kg and 93.8kg every sixteen months
  • My heart rate is a steady 52bpm at rest
  • I generally walk 7,200 steps on a working day, and half as many on weekends
  • Anxiety keeps me up at night

Just over four years of data shows all of this to be true ... but did I really need to make tens of thousands of personal measurements across 1500+ days for these insights? Aside from the heart rate data, everything else is pretty much observable without fancy hardware or data-collecting software. More than this, half of these numbers are outright inaccurate due to the problems with the very tools I use to collect this data. So, if the data is unreliable, is any of it actionable?

First there's the problem with measuring caloric intake. No two people are alike, and my body likely processes calories different from your body. You and I could eat the very same quantities of a food, but absorb a different amount of energy, too. The calorie count on packaged foods are inaccurate as well, being an average number for a product, rather than what's actually in the package. Then there's the problem of accurately measuring foods that you prepare at home. If I have a banana that was grown on a farm on the western coast of the Philippines, does it have the same caloric value as a "standard banana"? Many people I've spoken to about this generally say "who cares? It's just a tiny percentage different!", but those tiny percentages add up very quickly. Then there's the other argument that calories mean little, and it's nutrition that counts.

So ... calories are a poor measure of one's intake. Time for me to ditch it and not feel guilty for the occasional unhealthy snack that I enjoy for reasons that have nothing to do with fuelling the body.

How about measuring my heart rate? Over the last few years I've seen it get slower by about one beat per year. From what a lot of health sites online say1, this is completely normal as we age. What's more concerning to me isn't the speed of the heart beat, but the rhythm during times of acute stress. It's been really weird for quite some time, and I occasionally need to lean against a wall or sit down for a few minutes until things return to the regular pattern. My cholesterol is very low. My blood pressure is very high. Maybe these are the numbers I should be paying attention to.

So heart rate makes no sense. Okay, let's ditch that. But how about the number of steps taken every day?

Yesterday I managed to power-walk an extra 45 minutes above my regular route every day, and I climbed an extra dozen flights of stairs because the elevator at the office was incredibly busy. What did my phone report? I'd walked 2,000 steps less than the day before and climbed zero flights of stairs despite doing an average of 45 every work day for the last year. When I pace at home with a baby in my arms, that counts as zero steps. When I'm cooking in the kitchen and going back and forth between the stove, counter, and fridge, that's zero steps. When I get up at the office for a cup of coffee, trek to my locker for a coffee pouch, walk to the shared kitchen for the hot water, then walk back to my desk, that's fewer than two dozen steps despite the 50 meters travelled. The numbers reported by the phone2 are wholly inaccurate and untrustworthy, therefore cannot be used in any decision-making process. If I wanted generalizations, I'd measure distances and calculate steps based on the length of my stride.

No point using the pedometer function on the phone, then.

And then there's sleep. This was the very first measurement I started keeping track of because I was sleeping so very poorly in 2013. The reason turned out to be work and home-related stress, yet I continued to measure my sleep because the application3 doubled as an alarm clock and would measure my heart rate first thing in the morning. Simplicity was key, and this was a very simple way to collect data while unconscious. Looking at the stats, though, there is nothing unexpected. I still struggle with stress and anxiety. I still lay awake in bed until 2:30am two weeks every month. Do I need a constant reminder that my dog is infinitely superior at sleeping than I?

Perhaps it's time to ditch measuring the sleep and focus on actually sleeping?

Looking at the Future

A lot of people have become quite enamoured with the idea of quantifying their daily activities in order to lead a more conscientious lifestyle. I wouldn't go so far as to say the concept of Quantified Self allows people to lead a healthier lifestyle, because I don't believe this is necessarily true. Health is deeply personal, and the cold algorithms we currently use to "gamify" and otherwise motivate ourselves fail to take a great number of important details into consideration. Our psychological well-being intrinsically tied to our physiological well-being, yet so many applications that try to tie these two disparate metrics together do so in an arbitrary and ultimately inconsistent manner, which leads one to ask whether the information collected can actually be used to make better decisions.

Validity of data aside, the other problem that people are bound to face going forward is the matter of privacy. So much of the data we collect about ourselves is stored on 3rd-party servers by organizations who are eager to pay the bills. While we can see visualizations of our data, not every application gives us the ability to export our data in a usable format for analysis somewhere else. To make matters worse, some services will not simply give people their data but instead charge them for the privilege of downloading their own data in an unwieldy CSV format. We are paying companies to get our own data back. Even if this is explained in 100pt font in the Terms of Service when signing up for the service, the practice strikes me as terribly wrong. Then comes the question of whether that company sells your data to other companies — and you know they do — and what measures are in place to protect your privacy. We cannot go a week without hearing of a high-profile hack or data leak. It only makes sense to never share data with a health and fitness company that we wouldn't also share with the CEO of our employer or the attendant at the gas station down the street. This isn't always realistic, though.

Looking just a few years into the future, the entire Quantified Self industry looks set to undergo a huge revolution. One with millions (or billions) of people taking part in an attempt to lead healthier, happier lives. While this is certainly a noble goal, there should be a few pre-requisites beforehand. Any serious Quantified Self project should:

  • operate in complete isolation, free of corporate interference or surveillance
  • make use of incredibly accurate, dependable measurement tools
  • be personalized to take into account our lifestyle, genetic makeup, and heredity
  • take into account that people are not machines, and that we all like to do "less ideal" things from time to time

So while the last four years of data collection has not been a waste of time or energy, it has revealed that there is still a long way to go in our understanding of what needs to be measured as well as the appreciation of what makes us all different. In time these problems will likely be overcome as very smart people make very smart systems but, until such a time, we are ultimately unquantifiable.


  1. Yes, we should never read health sites online for all the incorrect and inaccurate information, but it's hard to justify making a doctor's appointment just to ask asinine questions
  2. an iPhone 6S for those who are interested
  3. I used SleepCycle exclusively for the entire time I measured my sleep

Believe It Or Not, We're Getting Better

Like many people around the world, Star Trek played a huge role in how I perceive the world and my role in it. While it's a work of fiction, the truths explored in many of the better stories show us both how far we've come as a species and how far we have yet to travel. We are capable of incredibly generous acts of kindness in one moment, and incredibly heinous acts the next. What's fascinating about this is that a person can directly contradict themselves without even realizing it.

Patrick Stewart — Better

The world has undergone an incredible amount of change over the last forty years. More people are educated today than ever before. More people are fed than ever before. More people are connected across cities, borders, and continents than ever before. More people are financially secure than ever before.

And yet ...

And yet people are angry. There are good reasons to be angry, too. A lot of what we see in the news is not what we want to see. But there's a lot of good, too. We just need to know where to find it or — if we're proactive — know how to create it. We can all be a little bit better. Looking at how far we've come in just my lifetime, I'd say we're generally making some positive progress.

Ownership vs. Ownership

There is a growing movement online that has the wonderfully optimistic slogan "Own Your Content". This is a concept that I fully agree with, though I will admit to being incredibly confused for quite some time by the meaning of the first word in the sentence. What does it mean to "own" your content, and can the people who encourage others to take back control honestly say that they own the digital information they share online?

To the best of my understanding, "Own Your Content" is a movement by people who do not wish to keep their data in silos around the Internet. People have recorded well over a decade of events into Facebook, yet that data is not portable enough to be extracted for your own archives. Same with Twitter, Medium, and the vast majority of places where people congregate online to share words, pictures, and audio. If any of these services were to disappear, like App.Net or PicPlz, then vast swaths of a person's online history could disappear. More than this, a number of the big services that encourage us to share information through their networks earn money through our participation. We are essentially using our free time to create content for other people to profit on, while (arguably) seeing very little in return. We are not the customer, but the product to be sold.

It's easy to see why some people are opposed to this and combating the commoditization of their time, creativity, and identity with software and systems that they have more control over. Rather than blog with Medium, one can set up a site of their own on Amazon, Digital Ocean, or other vendors. Rather than rely solely on Twitter or Facebook, people can use that same site to distribute their messages. Often times this means "cross-posting" the information stored on their virtual server to the silos they've worked so hard to escape. For many people, this is content ownership.

I disagree. While this is a step in the right direction, having our words on a hosted WordPress installation is content management and little more.

If a person truly wants to own their content, they cannot rely on Amazon, RackSpace, Linode, or any other corporate provider to host their information. Otherwise they are just trusting another party to not take advantage of them or interfere with the distribution of the data. To own content, one must own the hardware and have it on-premisis1. This way, if a vendor decides they no longer wish to host your content or if a government entity decides to swoop in and take the out of the data centre, you still have the content.

But how many people can actually do this? How many people would even want to try to have a server at home as well as one that's openly accessible to the public and broadcasting content to Facebook, Twitter, and other services? Despite the marked improvements in server management and software installation, there is still a rather large learning curve people need to overcome. We need something simpler ...

Which brings me to something I've been thinking about for roughly two years.

Ubuntu@Home

Over the last few years I've become quite acquainted with the ins and outs of Ubuntu, and I've seen a lot of what it can do when given the right hardware. This is where the idea of owning one's content becomes real, because there's no reason why a person could not have a tiny, pre-built computer at home running Ubuntu which then synchronizes with a machine that is open on the web. Ubuntu, despite all its strengths, is still very much Linux. This means that the software that the home computer ships with would need to be pre-installed and painfully simple to use and update. The standard LAMP2 stack cannot apply. Instead, something new would need to be used: Snaps.

A Snap is a universal Linux package that works on (just about) any distribution or device. Snaps are faster to install, easier to create, safer to run, and they update automatically and transactionally so the software is always fresh and never broken. What this means for a normal person is that a tiny computer the size of a Starbucks coffee could be shipped to them and run on their home network. This would then interface with another server they have running in "the cloud". Rather than SSH into a Linux machine and install a bunch of disparate software packages, fiddle with configuration settings, and rage at Apache misconfigurations, a person would instead type something like the following into the public web server:

sudo snap install 10centuries

From there the package would be downloaded from a trusted source and started. People would see a message like 10Centuries Node started. Visit http://{server_ip_address} to configure the server. and then be off to the races. The public node would synchronize with the private node in their home and, should a person decide they want to change VPS providers for whatever reason, they could do so and simply reinstall a snap then re-sync the node. More than this, people could connect their nodes to those run by friends and family in order to share encrypted backups so that, if a server did disappear from the web, the data would not be lost. The nodes would also be configured to communicate with each other when social interactions are taking place. This would, for all intents and purposes, create a mesh network where no single point of failure could take a person offline indefinitely.

This has been the long-term vision for 10Centuries, but the software just hasn't been there for the average person. The open projects I've worked on or lead in the past have all suffered from a staggeringly high learning curve, and it's resulted in many people giving up in frustration. We've got to do better, and Snaps appear to be the way forward. I've been doing a bunch of testing with packages, deployments, and node synchronization over the last few months. A shippable product is still quite a ways away, but it's not at all an impossible project. More than this, there's a possible revenue stream available in mini-server sales that would make the project financially tenable for a small group of people.

Imagine buying a small home server for $50 and having it synchronize automatically with a web server running the blogging and social services that you operate. Apps would be written that would interact with your servers rather than commercially-backed systems. If you're at home, you'd interact with the local machine reducing latency. If you're at the coffee shop or in a plane, the apps would use the public server. In every case, your data is synchronized and distributed just the way you want, all through a mesh network that can be configured to be more resilient to failure.

I've long considered the idea of content ownership implausible until the tools became simple enough for everyone to have their data safely stored in their own house. This idea makes it just a little more realistic.


  1. or be very, very strict with regards to data backups and automated collection and storage of that information
  2. Linux + Apache + MySQL + PHP

It's Not a Software Problem

Is the difference between information and misinformation something we want to leave in the hands of yet another algorithm?

This is the question I asked after reading this Guardian article where Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, laments that fake news is "killing people's minds". He goes on to say that technology companies should be doing more to tackle this problem and stemming the spread of falsehoods without affecting people's rights to free speech. While I am just as frustrated as anybody else over the excessive quantity of misinformation online, a technological solution to the problem would be the ultimate precursor to a form of censorship the likes of which authoritarian governments salivate for.

I appreciate what technology can and has done for us, but I must question why this particular human flaw needs to be addressed by software and social engineers. Humans have been lying to one another for as long as we've had language, and probably longer still. Children tell us they didn't eat the last cookie in the jar despite the crumbs around their mouth. Companies tell us they appreciate our business on receipts but never through actions. Politicians tell us they can be trusted. Would an algorithm catch these fibs? If so, how would any algorithm know what is accurate versus inaccurate? Somebody would need to be the gatekeeper of "The Truth", while the definition of that very concept varies so wildly from person to person that any form of censorship of an article that is aligned with a person's current beliefs would instantly render the entire system suspect and untrustworthy.

The issues surrounding "fake news", "alternate facts", and outright lies are not recent creations that have caught a populace by surprise. Growing up before the Internet, I remember my father and I laughing at tabloid headlines at the grocery store. Stories so over-the-top that it's a wonder anybody took them seriously. Some of the headlines that stand out the most in memory include:

  • Horse born with human head. Farmer ashamed.
  • Woman abducted by aliens from Saturn
  • City of Atlantis discovered under Brooklyn

If any of these were even remotely accurate, there would be a lot more press coverage and a whole lot of academic papers1. What my father tried to teach me by reading these at the grocer was that you cannot trust everything you read. Some of the best teachers I had while growing up would say the same: it's okay to read, but verify.

This is what people need to do if they are to separate spin from fact. It's not easy, but critical thinking is the only way we can overcome the mountain of misinformation that exists both online and off.


  1. any one of these would result in a lot of follow-up studies

Remembering to Breathe

Like many people around the world, I tend to work a little too hard when sitting in front of the computer. I'm very fortunate to be working on not one, not two, but four different projects for different groups of people to solve different objectives with ultimately the same goal. Very few people can say this. And while I might shout and holler when managers get in the way and make decisions I strongly disagree with, things could genuinely be worse. So why get worked up about things?

A few weeks ago I changed my desktop background to this one showing Calvin & Hobbes enjoying an idyllic day in a tree. The colours are gorgeous and these two friends are enjoying so much of what makes life great. When I start to feel the buildup of stress and anxiety, I make it a habit to minimize all of the applications currently open on the various computers I use to essentially stop and breathe.

Calvin & Hobbes — Chilling in a Tree

When the rage and frustration that comes from being too invested in a thing starts to get a little out of hand, it's important to step back for a few moments to ask ourselves if what we're feeling is really worth it. In my case, I need to remember to read emails twice, wait fifteen minutes before responding, and above all, breathe.

Keeping a Dry Nose

Dameon has recently announced that he's going to take a break from releasing episodes of his PhoneBoy Speaks podcast, and I don't blame him. A lot of the English-speaking web (that I generally stick to) has lots its mind over the last 12 months, with the most recent two weeks being particularly difficult to parse. A lot of people are expressing an abundance of emotions and, given that both Dameon and I have difficulty parsing people's actions at the best of times, the last few weeks have been nothing short of exhausting. This isn't to say that everybody should ignore what's going on in the world, but we should make a little bit of space in order to rationally think about what's happening, how it affects us and the people we know, and then focus on what we can do to improve the situation for everybody.

More than this, though, I've been wondering what I can do to help the people who wish to actively campaign for their causes. Lots of people are using services like Medium and WordPress.com to share their message with the world, but could 10Centuries be used in the same way? It's nowhere near as popular as the big names, but the tools are there for people to use. There's also the podcast distribution element with iTunes and Google Play support that people have at their disposal, which — while not as popular or visually compelling as YouTube — is an effective way to communicate ideas.

As a Canadian living in Japan, there's very little that I can do that can directly bring about positive change in the numerous countries around the world. What I can do, however, is make sure that tools exist to allow others to effectively bring about that change.

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