My New Sonos Bricks

See these? These are Sonos speakers, and they used to sit in my kitchen and living room. But I’m done with them now. I’d offer them to you, but they’re worthless. Incapable of functioning. They will never sing again.

I’m replacing these speakers with the latest model from Sonos. But usually when I upgrade, I can pass along my old hardware. I can give you my old television or DVD player or whatever. But when I looked at these old units sitting on the floor of my basement, they had a particularly forlorn look. They’re good for nothing but scrap.

We don’t expect things to last forever. We’re used to the value of things decreasing steadily over time. But my speakers experienced a step function, going from useful to useless as quickly as if they’d been dropped into a blender. Increasingly, hardware is only as good as its software, and increasingly that software is a cloud-only service provided at the whim of a far off firm. 

Here’s what happened.

I bought the speakers ten years ago, and they served me well. But recently Sonos offered me a good deal on new equipment — a 30% discount on brand new speakers if I would just get rid of my old ones. I could see where this was headed. Old hardware is a pain to support, and Sonos wants to be rid of these old boxes. They were offering me a carrot to upgrade now. But I had no doubt that behind their back they also carried a stick. At some point they will unilaterally withdraw support. I took the offer. Once I got my new speakers, Sonos headquarters sent a bullet down the wire that euthanized the old ones. They let me know, in no uncertain terms, that they would never work again for my account or anyone else’s.

I like my new speakers. I’m glad I upgaded. But Sonos, it occurred to me, has a lot more leverage over my inclination to upgrade than, say, the company that made my DVD player.

Soon enough, software will enter and enliven every object under the sun. Door knobs and dishwashers, toothbrushes and table tops, eyeglasses and egg cartons, mirrors and refrigerator magnets. They will all acquire amazing new skills. But if for some reason the software is voided, the objects must die. And it’s difficult to opt out. Software-enabled hardware is truly better. But you need to stay up-to-date, which means you need to be a customer in good standing with a healthy, trustworthy company. Otherwise your device will become a doorstop. You own the object, but you don’t own the soul. It’s an animal that you rent. It can die. It can turn on you. Mostly it will be a good deal, but it can go away at any time. Get used to it!

My wife drives a Ford Fusion hybrid. It’s packed with plenty of software, but she’s never updated it. As far as I can tell, that’s not something that Ford ever planned for. This is a snapshot from a simpler world. I drive a Tesla, and it gives you a sense of where the industry (not to mention the world) is headed. The car receives regular over-the-air updates. It’s great to have the car’s functionality constantly updated. But if the company went out of business, I can imagine the car becoming a large and expensive brick. I don’t mean to pick on Ford or Tesla. It’s just an example, along with Sonos, of the coming world. Live by the wire, die by the wire.

Related reading: My Jibo Is Dying and It’s Breaking My Heart | WIRED

Alexa Can’t See Air Quotes

The following is a true story. Including the part where Alexa rolls her eyes at me.

ME: Hey Alexa, play the Yes Album by Yes.

ALEXA: Playing Yes by Yes.

 yes

ME: Wait, what? No. Alexa, play “The Yes Album” by Yes.

ALEXA: Playing Yes by Yes.

 yes

ME: Dammit, I know there’s a… Oh, I see what’s going on.

ME: Alexa, play “The Yes Album” album by Yes.

ALEXA: Playing the Yes Album by Yes.

 yes_album

ME: Yes. That’s the one. *smug chuckle*

ALEXA: *rolls eyes*

So THAT’S why they call it a Nor’easter

I live in Massachusetts, and big storms here are often referred to as Nor’easters. Why? Because they are associated with northeasterly winds that blow in from the sea ahead of the storm. These winds are so severe that they can blow the letters TH right out of the word NORTHEASTER, leaving behind nothing but a limp apostrophe dangling from the ceiling.

I’ve recently fallen in love with Windy.com, a weather site that vividly animates winds. It’s particularly gripping during hurricane season, and this hurricane season has made for some eye-popping imagery. Hurricane Jose (officially it’s just a tropical storm now, but I’m not saying that to Jose) is currently rumbling off our shores, and the picture from Windy really illustrates the Nor’easter phenomenon. Look.

noreaster.jpg

The air is being sucked down the low-pressure drain of Jose’s eye, dragging over Massachusetts’ soggy sleeves along the way. A lovely painting of a terrifying creature.

Peak Twilight

Happy Crepusculus! Tonight is the earliest sunset of the year: 4:12:02 PM. At least it is for me and everybody else at my latitude. This image, taken last week, shows the exact moment of every sunset for the week preceding and following today’s early sunset.

sunset.png

Almost every sunset falls between 4:12 and 4:13. It’s like the sun is standing still! We should give this season a special name to honor this remarkable observation. We’ll call it Sun-Still. No, how about Sun-No-Go? No. How about something fancy and Latin sounding, something derived from sun (sol) and standing still (sistere): solsistere. Sol-sister? Okay fine, let’s just shorten that to solstice. I’m sure everyone will figure out what it means.

If you already know about the solstice but are surprised that it’s happening as early as December 8th, I should point out that this is merely the earliest sunset. The latest sunrise is in January, leaving the shortest day on December 21st where it belongs. If it seems surprising that the earliest sunset and the latest sunrise don’t coincide, you can blame the earth’s slightly elliptical orbit around the sun.

In the meantime, I’m more than happy to celebrate the slow retreat of sunset. Today may not be the actual solstice, but it’s worth observing for its own merits, so I’ve given it the name Crepusculus (more Latin: twilight = crepusculum).

Happy Crepusculus!

The Objective Function of the Good Life

I read an interview with baseball stats guru Bill James in which he said something like this: we know a lot about how to optimize the play for a single team. But we don’t know how to optimize a league. For one team, the goal is simple: win the championship. Anyone good with stats, optimization, and machine learning, if given enough data, can help you solve that problem. But what about an entire sport? Suppose you want to optimize Major League Baseball? What do you optimize? Do you want every single game to be a 50/50 toss-up? Probably not. Do you want one or two teams to dominate season after season? Probably not. Should you try to maximize revenue? Happy owners? Happy fans? Happy wealthy fans? Happy advertisers? It’s easy to see how any of these might have nasty consequences if sufficiently amplified.

In general it’s easier to describe specific undesirable outcomes than universal desirable ones.

In an age of machine intelligence, this becomes increasingly important. Machines and data can help you achieve marvelous things, but only if you have a clearly defined goal, a test to tell you if any given outcome is better than another. This puzzle is the idea behind Nick Bostrom’s Paperclip Syndrome. If you give a sufficiently powerful artificial intelligence the goal of making paperclips, it will chew through the galaxy grinding matter into paperclips, humanity be damned. Bostrom’s scenario sounds silly, but the idea behind it is serious. If you have the power to optimize the human condition, what are you optimizing for? Okay, so we’re not going to make paperclips. But we’re going to make something. What?

paperclip

I recently listened to a Long Now talk by Brian Christian. The topic was Algorithms to Live By. It’s really good. It does a good job addressing the increasingly fraught intersection (or collision) of computer science and the real world. One gets the sense that computer science isn’t ready for it and neither is the real world. Christian takes on several topics, but the most profound one was related to Bill James’s question about baseball: At the highest levels in life, what is the objective function of the Good? It’s clear the answer isn’t to maximize quarterly profits for big corporations. But that’s the world we’re busy building, because we know how.

We’re amazingly good at answering questions. But we’re not so good at coming up with good questions.

Alan’s Color Project on the Move

Here’s a picture of a famous handshake from May of 2008.

alan-color-project

Okay, I’ll confess right away that it’s not really a very famous handshake, but it does signify and commemorate the moment when I told my friend Alan Kennedy (that’s him on the right) that I would host his nascent color project on my website. As beers were involved, I may have said something irresponsible like “You’ll be famous!”

But in that Andy Warhol/internet sense, Alan’s Color Project has become well known. I don’t know of anything like it. Launched it in October of 2008, it displays color-related idioms in many languages. Over the years its has come to contain more than 1500 idioms in 44 different languages. Está tudo azul! De toekomst ziet er rooskleurig uit!

One of the keys to its success is the fact that everyone who reads it is encouraged to contribute to it, whether by adding a new item or fixing an existing one. Add one yourself!

Now I am (ahem) tickled pink to announce that Alan has a new home for the project. He’s taking over the administration of the site on a WordPress blog here: Alan S. Kennedy’s Color/Language Project. You can reaquaint yourself with his Linguistic Facts About Color or jump straight to the great list itself.

colors

Over to you Alan. It’s been an honor.

 

The Perils of (Brain) Porn

I learned a valuable lesson in college. Don’t trust scientific papers. Not overmuch, anyway. As they say in the Royal Society: Nullius in verba, which I will loosely translate as “Don’t take my word for it.”

As an undergrad, I took a psychology class with Julian Jaynes. He was the author of the book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It is an idiosyncratic theory about how consciousness first arose in the human species. But since nobody really has any clue how consciousness got started or even what it is, there’s plenty of room for quirky ideas. Incredibly, despite being 40 years old, the book has never gone out of print.

The short version of his theory is that consciousness as we know it arose only a few thousand years ago. Before that, humans were “bicameral,” meaning one half of the human brain was giving orders to the other. As Jaynes says, “[For bicameral humans], volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey.” In other words, all humans used to behave like schizophrenics listening to hallucinated voices which compelled them to act.

For my class with Jaynes, I wrote a paper about schizophrenic hallucinations. This was the idea: if we could see that, during the auditory hallucinations of a schizophrenic, it actually did look like one side of the brain was “talking” and the other “listening,” that might provide some indirect evidence that Jaynes was onto something. But how could you observe such a thing? The answer, it seemed was to use a new (at the time) brain-imaging technology called PET, or Positron Emission Tomography. PET makes beautiful color images of the brain at work. Like this.

brain-scan

Journals are suckers for beautiful color images of brains. It sure looks important, doesn’t it? Some people call this brain porn.

So anyway, I was able to dig up a paper that imaged the brains of schizophrenics as they were hearing voices. At first I found the reference, but I didn’t have the full paper, so I called the author. Actually, I called his office. The author had already departed for another position. But his former officemate picked up the phone and kindly agreed to forward the paper to me. Then he said these words: “I wouldn’t trust the results of that paper if I were you.” Oh? Please go on. “I think his software is no good. The results you see could have more to do with bad programming than brain activity.” Although I suppose one might say the paper was demonstrating brain pathology, only in the investigator rather than the patient. But I took the point.

I was always grateful for the candor of that anonymous officemate, and I always remembered the lesson. These memories came back to me recently because a similar situation has come up with a brain imaging technique called fMRI. Here’s a headline for you: Bug in fMRI software calls 15 years of research into question. If their concerns prove true, as many as 40,000 papers could be invalidated. Exclamation point! And here’s some good background on the same topic from the New Yorker: Neuroscience Fiction.

The march of science is, as they say in the business, nonmonotonic. Beware of pretty pictures and obfuscated code.