Six Ideas That Made Us Think

1. Why That Spotify Playlist Sucks

Finally, an answer to why all Spotify playlists sound alike. In this definitive investigation, Liz Pelly outlines the evolution of the streaming music scene, and she explains the inevitable regression to muzak:

To understand the danger Spotify poses to the music industry—and to music itself—you first have to dig beneath the “user experience” and examine its algorithmic schemes…Spotify loves “chill” playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect…The goal is to fit music snugly into an emotional regulation capsule optimized for maximum clicks: “chill.out.brain,” “Ambient Chill,” “Chill Covers.” “Piano in the Background” is one of the most aptly titled; “in the background” could be added to the majority of Spotify playlists.

2. 2018 Is All About Quantum Computing

In 2018, articles about quantum computing will appear weekly. The New Statesman’s primer on what-it-all-means is both comprehensible and fascinating:

“Quantum information technology” is often presented as more of the same, but better. We have become so accustomed to advances in computing being reflected in slimmer, faster laptops and bigger memories that quantum computing is often envisaged in the same terms. It shouldn’t be. It represents the first major shift in how computing is done since electronic computing devices were invented in the vacuum-tube-powered, steam-punk 1940s.

3. What the Future Looks Like: Visual Search

“I believe the camera is the next keyboard,” says the CEO of Pinterest, Ben Silbermann. In Fast Company, Marc Wilson makes a compelling case for why he’s right:

For the past two decades, we’ve looked for things online by typing in a search bar. Thanks to advancements in machine-learning technology, computer vision is on the verge of letting us search simply by taking photos…Pinterest, by design, offers somewhat fuzzy results for any search. Queries about denim jackets will elicit results with denim jackets. But if one image in the feed has black denim rather than blue, or perhaps a blue denim purse, it doesn’t look like a mistake. Exact matches are the specialty of Google search, which has been optimized to respond to specific questions–like, “How do you grill fish?”–with the perfect link. Pinterest users tend to pose vaguer queries: They might search for “seafood dinner ideas” several times a week. For them, a non-exact match is not an error. It’s inspiration.

4. The T-Shirt Economy

Arstechinca.com, a site normally focused on gadgets, self-driving cars, and Big Tech, offers a fascinating investigation into the “online nerdy t-shirt economy.” It’s a huge, competitive world, skating closely along the boundaries of intellectual property laws. Some sites, we learn, have over half a billion (!) choices: 

All over the modern Web, a myriad of T-shirt websites pander to every nerd niche and pop-culture populace. Google virtually any interest you can possibly have—from Super Smash Bros. to antique WWII ships, Star Wars to Shih Tzus—and there’s a shirt waiting to be purchased

5. The War Against Hackneyed Language

 “Grammar enthusiasts either love Henry Watson Fowler or they have yet to encounter his work,” writes Hernan Diaz in his encomium to Fowler’s Modern Usage, the author’s highly opinionated masterpiece. Fowler’s 1926 book was never intended to be a grammar textbook, but a survey of how we should write and speak. Among the dozen examples cited by Diaz, the best is Fowler’s contemptuous description of writers who insist on using the phrase, “if and when”:

Any writer who uses this formula lays himself open to entirely reasonable suspicions on the part of his readers. There is the suspicion that he is a mere parrot, who cannot say part of what he has often heard without saying the rest also. There is the suspicion that he likes verbiage for its own sake. There is the suspicion that he is a timid swordsman who thinks he will be safer with a second sword in his left hand. There is the suspicion that he has merely been too lazy to make up his mind between if and when.

This is no simple libertarian screed, but an earnest attempt by a non-specialist journalist to understand why cities are caught between “permanent stagnation or massive redevelopment.”

6. The Santa Ana Winds

The Thomas Fire, still burning north of Los Angeles, is officially the largest fire in California history. Throughout the last month, as the fire destroyed homes and forests, many turned back to Joan Didion’s 1965 essay on Los Angeles:

It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself…Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds show us how close to the edge we are.


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