Six Ideas That Made Us Think

1. How Awful Is Greta Van Fleet?

Inexplicably, the debut album of pseudo-classic rock band Greta Van Fleet has won rave reviews. Until it landed on Jeremy Larson’s desk at Pitchfork:

Just look at this photo: Brothers Jake and Sam Kiszka, on guitar and bass, are both wearing hippie costumes they 3D-printed off the internet. The singer, the wretched and caterwauling third brother, Josh, is in dangly feather earrings and vinyl pants, like he was dressed by a problematic Santa Fe palm-reader with a gift certificate to Chico’s. It’s a costume—Greta Van Fleet is all costume. And if things that look like another thing is your thing, get ready to throw your lighters up for a band whose guiding principle seems to be reading the worst Grand Funk Railroad songs as if they were a religious text.

Larson’s tirade is aimed not only at this horrible, synthetic Zeppelin noise, but at the entire movement of data- and algorithm-created rock. Hurrah.

2. You Are Boring and Long-Winded

Are boring speakers also the ones who speak longest?  A researcher at Imperial College London looked into the question and published the results in Nature:

I investigated this idea at a meeting where speakers were given 12-minute slots. I sat in on 50 talks for which I recorded the start and end time. I decided whether the talk was boring after 4 minutes, long before it became apparent whether the speaker would run overtime. The 34 interesting talks lasted, on average, a punctual 11 minutes and 42 seconds. The 16 boring ones dragged on for 13 minutes and 12 seconds….For every 70 seconds that a speaker droned on, the odds that their talk had been boring doubled.

3. You Got Mail

Sophie Haigney argues that the new “smart-reply” built into Gmail makes email even blander, dumber, and less human:

These algorithms will gently manipulate—perhaps nudge—our lexicon. Even those who don’t use Smart Reply will see them at the bottom of their emails. Empty phrases like “Got it, thanks!” will “occur” to us more often, which means we’re more likely to select from Gmail’s three shades of bleakly positive and corporate-readymade replies. “I think it’s perfect!” we might find ourselves saying, in response to a memo draft…The function of these replies is to eliminate complexity, to pare communication down to dumbness, to “acknowledge” or “affirm” without saying much of anything.

She concludes: "How do we feel about the degeneration of language at the hands of monopolies? Looks good!"

4. When to Be Skeptical About Technology

Robot entrepreneur Rodney Brooks offers a set of rules for assessing whether a promising technology can actually take off. He believes that electric cars represent “easy technology.” He is less sure about a Hyperloop system of public transportation that would whisk passengers through a high-pressure tube at 10x the speed of cars:

Figuring out how to develop the tube itself—an ultrastable, airtight cylinder that goes on for hundreds of kilometers in a very straight line—is one problem. You also need to engineer the capsules, which will travel at nearly the speed of sound while carrying people. The sealed capsules will require an entirely self-contained life support system…The entire system will need to be protected against earthquakes, as well as the subtler displacement of the tube as the tectonic plates underneath it shift by a centimeter or two. And don’t forget getting rights to the land for the routes, insurance (including figuring out how the Hyperloop’s own insurance interacts with the policies of individual passengers), business models, and on and on.

5. Writing the PC

Paul Allen's death has inspired an outpouring of eulogies. But better than any obituary is Allen in his own words. Here's the Microsoft founder and philanthropist on how writing laid the bedrock for the programming language that he and Bill Gates used to create a functioning PC:

Monte Davidoff, who helped me and Bill write BASIC for the Altair, once said programming was like writing a novel. That’s how we approached BASIC. We started with a plot of sorts to know the general approach we were taking. We broke the big ideas into sections, or chapters, and then we’d edit and re-edit and keep editing until we had preserved the big picture and fixed all the bugs. It was the hardest but most enjoyable work I’ve ever done.

Also worth reading: Allen’s diversity of interests were featured in this issue of Boat International (he owned 5 superyachts) and this tribute in Guitar Player (and hundreds of guitars).

6. Don’t Stop Typing

Rachel Metz at MIT Technology Review looks at the many effortsto replace the conventional keyboard – tapping, headsets, styluses, voice, etc., – and concludes that the QWERTY keyboard, (based on typewriter designs from 150 years ago) has nothing to worry about: 

Our children may not be as dependent on QWERTY keyboards as we are. But they will use them, because for all the alternatives, the conventional keyboard is actually pretty good at what it does. And in a world where technology often feels less tangible, it can be nice — even meditative — to have a physical object to touch and type. It’s certainly more pleasant than waiting patiently for a few words to dribble out of a mind-reading headset, or trying to translate the thoughts in your head to the screen in front of you with a rubbery pair of brass knuckles.

Websites Worth Reading

Time Traveler When words first entered usage

Fold 'N Fly Superb paper airplane guide

Georgetown's Baker Center Data from American Confidence in Institutions Survey

Feeds We Follow

@JessicaHuseman Don’t miss her thread on inane PR pitches

@LouisHyman Superb social history of what the Sears catalogue meant to African Americans

@BlogsofWar National Security, defense, global conflict