Joho the BlogApril 2016 - Joho the Blog

April 28, 2016

Preferred applicants will have four decades of experience

Why do we never see job offerings that specify that applicants should have at least forty years of experience? Thirty years? Twenty years?

I understand that people can be qualified for a job with far less experience than one might think. We’ve all met people like that, damn them. But that’s why we couch some qualifications under the rubric “preferred.” So, do we think that having a lifetime of experience in a field is never preferred? Or even just a lifetime of experience of living and working?

(PS: If you hear of such a job in the Boston area, you know how to reach me.)

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April 22, 2016

Isaac Newton, Number One Ok Smart Guy

Until close to Newton’s time, the stars had been accepted as a fixed background to the motions of the Earth and the rest of the solar system. The idea developed that they might be bodies like our sun, but even through a telescope they still looked like luminous points, revealing nothing of their size. Newton found a way to tackle this problem (System 596). He noted that a prominent (first magnitude) star looked about as bright as Saturn. He knew how far away Saturn is; and also knew that we see Saturn by the sunlight that it scatters back towards us. Given that the intensity of light from a source falls off as the inverse square of the distance, he could calculate how far away a star like our sun would have to be to look as bright by direct radiation as Saturn does by reflected light. His result, expressed in modern terms, was about ten lightyears, which is absolutely of the right order of magnitude.”

A.P. French, “”Isaac Newton, Explorer of the Real World,” pp. 50-77, in Stayer, Marcia Sweet, ed., Newton’s Dream. Montreal, CA: MQUP, 1988.

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April 15, 2016

Revolutions in common sense

…the great world historian Immanuel Wallerstein…argues that for the last quarter millennium or so, revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense.

This is from David Graeber‘s 2013 book The Democracy Project, excerpted that year at The Baffler.

The excerpt argues that the 1960’s political movement did not fail. It changed expectations by changing our sense of what’s possible. One effect of this: it limited the ability of American politicians to blithely engage in foreign wars for a full generation…and then changed the way we engage in those wars, albeit not necessarily for the better.

Obviously we can argue about this. But that’s not my main interest in the excerpt. Rather, I’m interested in the power of changes in common sense, which I’m taking to mean our most basic ideas about how the world is put together, how it could be put together, and how it should be put together.

This is the very core of my fascination with technology for the past thirty years. It’s why I studied the history of philosophy before that.

And btw, this is not technodeterminism. “The link between technology and common sense is indirect, but real”The link between technology and common sense is indirect, but real: new tech opens new possibilities. We seize those opportunities based on non-technological motivations and understandings. When tech is radically different enough that new strategies successfully exploit those opportunities, we can learn a new common sense from those strategies. That is, in my view, what has been happening for the past twenty years.

Anyway, I now I have three books to read: Something by Wallerstein, The Democracy Project, and Graeber’s early work, Debt.


A tip of the haat to Jaap Van Till for pointing me to this. His recent post on the current French protests fills an important gaap in American media coverage. (I tease because I love :)


April 12, 2016

The Ice Caps are Melting – Ho ho!

Tiny Tim would have been 84 today.

He was my mother’s younger cousin…an innocent, gentle, and very genuine soul.

The song is by Bill Dorsey about whom little is known. But what is known, the Internet has unearthed.


April 6, 2016

In defense of personalization

Mills Baker defends personalization on the right grounds. In a brilliant and brilliantly written post, he maintains that the personalization provided by sites does at scale what we do in the real world to enable conversations: through multiple and often subtle signals, we let an interlocutor know where our interests and beliefs are similar enough that we are able to safely express our differences.

Digression: This is at the heart of our cultural fear of echo chambers, in my opinion. Conversation consists of iteration on small differences based on an iceberg of agreement. Every conversation inadvertently reinforces the beliefs that enable it to go forward. Likewise, understanding is contextual, assimilating the novel to the familiar, thus reinforcing that context by making it richer and more coherent. But our tradition has taught us that Reason requires us to be open to all ideas, ready to undo the entire structure of our beliefs. Reason, if applied purely, would thus make conversation, understanding, and knowledge impossible. In fearing echo chambers, we are running from the fact that understanding and conversation share the basic elements of echo chambers. I’ll return to this point in a later post sometime…

I love everything about Mills’ post except his under-valuing of concerns about the power personalization has over us on-line. Yes, personalization is a requirement in a scaled environment. Yes, the right comparison is between our new info flows and our old info trickles. But…

…Miles does not fully confront the main complaint: our interests and the interests of the commercial entities that are doing the personalizing do not fully coincide. Facebook has an economic motivation to get us to click more and to exit Facebook sessions eager to return for more. Facebook thus has an economic interest in showing us personalized clickbait, and to filter our feeds toward happiness rather than hey-my-cat-died-yesterday posts.

In one sense, this is entirely Mills’ point. He wants designers to understand the positive role personalization has always played, so they can reinstate that role in software that works for us. He thinks that getting this right is the responsibility of the software for “Most users do not want the ‘control’ of RSS and Twitter lists and blocking, muting, and unfollowing their fellows.” Thus the software needs to learn from the clues left inadvertently by users. (I’d argue that there’s also room for better designed control systems. I bet Mills agrees, because how could anyone argue against better designed anything?)

But in my view he too casually dismisses the responsibility and culpability of some of the most important sites when he writes:

The idea that personalization is about corporate or political control is an emotionally satisfying but inaccurate one.

If we take “personalization” in the insightful and useful way he has defined it, then sure. But when people rail against personalization they are thinking about the algorithmic function performed by commercial entities. And those entities have a massive incentive—exercised by companies like Facebook—to personalize the flow of information toward users as consumers rather than as persons.

I think.



Thanks to Dave Birk for pointing me to Mills’ post.


April 4, 2016

Dance is America

My wife and I have been going to dance competitions and multi-troupe performances for the past few years because our son and his partner are in various dance companies. This puts us into environments where we do not belong. It’s pretty awesome.

Dance is big in Boston. There are tons of groups, and when they get together they fill large auditoriums; a competition this weekend had about fifteen groups performing in front of a standing-room-only crowd of over 1,500.

And what audiences! They are beyond enthusiastic. They cheer on the teams at an astounding number of whoos per minute.

The teams are remarkable, and not just because of the high level of performance and choreography:

They are diverse in every direction: gender, race, sexual and gender identity, body type.

The dances are often gender indifferent in their choreography, although there are tropes that remain: men lift and catch women more than vice versa. Still, the women hit as hard as the men.

They are dancing to some of America’s cultural gifts: hiphop, jazz, show, and their mashups.

They have worked hard on a shared project with occasional star turns — the guy who can windmill, the woman who excels at pop and locking — but without stars.

You can be the oldest people in the audience, as my wife and I usually are, and be forgiven for thinking that no matter how cynical this generation may be, they are dancing the American dream.

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