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Weekend Briefing No. 225
Welcome to the weekend. Thanks to everybody who participated in the Reply All poll last week. See the results of the vote in the Feedback Loop section below.
22 – The 22 best national parks to escape the crowds this summer.
18 – 18 of the Top 20 Tech Companies are in the Western U.S. and Eastern China.
It’s that time of year again, when Mary Meeker unloads her annual highly anticipated internet trends report. As usual it was an epic 294 slides. Here are some interesting takeaways: 1) People are still increasing the amount of time they spend online. U.S. adults spent 5.9 hours per day on digital media in 2017, up from 5.6 hours the year before. Some 3.3 of those hours were spent on mobile, which is responsible for overall growth in digital media consumption. 2) Mobile payments are becoming easier to complete. China continues to lead the rest of the world in mobile payment adoption, with over 500 million active mobile payment users in 2017. 3) China is catching up as a hub to the world’s biggest internet companies. Currently, China is home to nine of the world’s 20 biggest internet companies by market cap while the U.S. has 11. Five years ago, China had two and the U.S. had nine. 4) Immigration remains important for U.S. tech companies. More than half of the most highly valued tech companies in the U.S. are founded by first- or second-generation immigrants. Uber, Tesla, WeWork and Wish all have first-generation founders. Recode (33 minutes)
Time Well Spent
Tristan Harris is the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience. As the co-founder of Time Well Spent, an advocacy group, he is trying to bring moral integrity to software design: essentially, to persuade the tech world to help us disengage more easily from its devices. While some blame our collective tech addiction on personal failings, like weak willpower, Harris points a finger at the software itself. That itch to glance at our phone is a natural reaction to apps and websites engineered to get us scrolling as frequently as possible. The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” Harris is leading a movement to change the fundamentals of software design. He is rallying product designers to adopt a “Hippocratic oath” for software that, he explains, would check the practice of “exposing people’s psychological vulnerabilities” and restore “agency” to users. “There needs to be new ratings, new criteria, new design standards, new certification standards,” he says. “There is a way to design based not on addiction.” The Atlantic (18 minutes)
Google & D.O.D.
Google was hired by the US Defense Department intending to build a “Google-earth-like” surveillance system that would allow Pentagon analysts to click on a building and see everything associated with it and build graphs of objects like vehicles, people, land features, and large crowds for the entire city. Google’s decision to provide artificial intelligence to the Defense Department has prompted backlash from Google employees and academics. Thousands of employees have signed a petition asking Google to cancel its contract for the project, nicknamed Project Maven, and dozens of employees have resigned in protest. Friday morning Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene announced Google will not seek another contract for its controversial work at a meeting with employees. The current contract expires in 2019 and there will not be a follow-up contract, Greene said. The meeting, dubbed Weather Report, is a weekly update on Google Cloud’s business. Gizmodo (6 minutes)
Startup Business Planning
It pays to plan. Entrepreneurs who write business plans are more likely to succeed. However, on average, the most successful entrepreneurs didn’t start with writing a business plan. They wrote their business plan between six and 12 months after deciding to start a business. Writing a plan in this timeframe increased the probability of venture viability success by 8%. But writing one earlier or later proved to have no distinguishable impact on future success. The sweet spot for writing a plan was around the time when the entrepreneur was actually talking to customers, getting their product ready for market, and thinking through their promotional and marketing activities. Committing a plan to paper alongside these activities increases a start-up’s chance of venture viability by 27%. Harvard Business Review (6 minutes)
Racing the Rain
For the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the Monsoon season is approaching and there is a race against the rain. Their shelters are comprised of tarpaulin lashed to bamboo and sit perched on steep dusty hillsides, even a slight rain turns them into mud, the monsoon season will turn them into mudslides. The sewage from the 40,000 latrines will likely flood and contaminate the shallow wells spreading disease. In order to avoid fatalities that will come with the rains, workers are flattening hilltops, digging drainage systems and paving roads. But the efforts will only have a minimal impact and time is running out. This photo / video essay is one of the most stunning pieces of journalism I’ve ever seen. New York Times (14 minutes)
Big Rocks & Small Rocks
Imagine that you have a pile of sand and small rocks, a pile of big rocks, and a jar into which you must put both piles. Let’s say you filled the jar first with the sand/small rocks; you might find that they took up so much space that you ultimately didn’t have room for the big rocks. But, let’s say you instead first filled the jar with big rocks, and then put in the sand and small rocks; the sediment will settle in the cracks of the big rocks, allowing you to fit everything in from both piles. Your life is like the jar. The small rocks are the urgent, but less important things in your life — the endless to-dos and fires to put out. The big rocks are the most important things in your life: activities that don’t have hard deadlines but help you achieve your principle personal, school, and work goals, as well as your overall mission as a man. Big rocks concern spirituality, health, relationships, and professional purpose — the things that ultimately develop the eulogy virtues. YouTube (6 minutes)
Carpenter & Gardener
Apparently, there are two kinds of parents in modern America - the Gardener and the Carpenter. The "carpenter" thinks that his or her child can be molded. "The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you're going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult," she says. The "gardener," on the other hand, is less concerned about controlling who the child will become and instead provides a protected space to explore. The style is all about "creating a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem." NPR (29 minutes)
Last week’s Reply All: Is Rekognition an effective policing tool or an invasion of privacy?
The results: 29.1% effective policing tool, 11.4% invasion of privacy, 59.5% both
I had a very thoughtful response from a reader in the know who has a unique perspective on the question. I’ve included some of it below.
Law enforcement agencies already has a large number of facial photographs in their “mugshot database” – about 300k according to the blog post. These were all lawfully obtained, and nobody’s privacy was violated in the process. They use the service to build machine learning models that would enable the face any new photograph – also lawfully obtained, violating nobody’s privacy – to be matched against existing models. Any human with enough time could do this, and probably could do a better job. The Rekognition service just speeds things up dramatically. So it’s no different from any other application of automation and machine learning to speed up a human task. It just so happens that it touches a chord around building a “surveillance society.” I get it, but then AWS is not involved in collecting any of the data that is used by its customers, yet the news cycle has treated the issue as if “Amazon” is directly involved in surveillance. Not true.
In general, every customer supplies their own images, and then the service learns from those and helps the customer to gain value from their own private image or video collections. There is one exception to that: a public database and associated ML models against which you can compare an image you send in. That is a “celebrity” collection, with four associated APIs: RecognizeCelebrities and GetCelebrityInfo (still images) and StartCelebrityRecognition and GetCelebrityRecognition (videos). These APIs allow customer to send in images and videos (which are not stored, by the way), and ask if they match celebrities in the database. While this is not exactly privacy-enhancing, I think you’ll agree that it isn’t or shouldn’t be very controversial – even if used by a police force. :-)
I can understand the sudden hype around this topic, given that people (including me!) have a growing concern about loss of privacy in a world filled with technology that tracks our every move. Plus, our society and polity have a very hard time having any kind of a nuanced conversation about anything. Since you, however, are such a thoughtful person, perhaps this feedback will help you to recognize (sorry) and better communicate the nuances in the future. As I said at the beginning, I think your survey should have had a forth option: “On the whole, neither.”
Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be One. -Marcus Aurelius
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