Tab dump

Interesting research, articles and videos in no particular order.


The bots are already upon us

I finally reached a personal milestone this week and launched my own Twitterbot. It’s quite a simple bot, using a couple of Python libraries and guidance from Hannah Shaw to construct random sentences from a copy of A Tale of Two Cities.

But as I looked around at bots, trying to figure out what I might do as a coding challenge, I was stunned by the incredible creativity and use to which they have been put. They really show how powerful even small bits of logic can be.

There are so many examples inane bots tweeting as the hours strike or every line of Shakespeare (on it’s fifth go round apparently). And, of course, cats. You’ve also got the more nefarious kinds spreading disinformation or spam.

But then you’ve got bots digging into the wonderful archives of the National Library of Australia, surfacing newspapers from decades ago. And weird performance art (is it performance art when your code does the performing?) that people interact with.

Looking at the source code, I’ve yet to find one that is more than a couple of hundred lines long, and most seem a lot shorter than that. Bots are often spoken about in catacylsmic ways, but also as an abstract idea that hasn’t really come.

But here we have bots inserting themselves into, and augmenting, many peoples’ daily life. Though simple, they provide joy, distraction, interaction and even community.

Check out this Mary Queen of Scots bot. From an old article:

Besides fellow Catholic history nerds and scholars of the period, Queen Mary has attracted a fairly staggering audience among Scottish separatists, especially given the coming Independence Referendum in September. “Thanks to the astronomical rise of the Scottish National Party, anything against England or English policies usually garners massive support,” she says. “My Scottish Nationalist followers absolutely eat anything anti-English with a spoon. It’s a strange mixture of wonderful and frightening to see history take shape in that way.”

But easily my favourite bot is Every3Minutes. It tweets every three minutes to remind us that a person was sold every three minutes in the American South between 1820 and 1860.

Both a profound and devastating thing to be reminded of in a way that only machines can – regularly and persistently.


How to earn trust

One of my favourite YouTube channels is called Kurzgesagt. They recently released a video explaining why you should trust their short, animated videos on topics as diverse as string theory, ageing and homeopathy.

The interesting part is not the deep dive into their research, writing and fact checking process; but that they spend almost half the video utterly ripping themselves to shreds.

They call out two videos specifically – one on refugees and another on addiction. They explain why they are problematic and that they have been removed.

I trust them so much more because of this self-flagellation. Because they are willing to admit their mistakes and bias. To explain why these were failures and how they were made. To flesh out the context, what has changed and why.

Going through this so comprehensively makes me believe they’ve learnt from their mistakes. And doing so in a prominent space (rather than, for instance, newspaper corrections being buried on page 15) shows they take it seriously.

Being right is a process, is hard, is often undignified, and it doesn’t get easier. Just look at how many public institutions we’ve built around these principles.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said for most of our media. They tend to prefer a model of trust built on prominence and obscurity rather than transparency. They seek to wish away bias rather than own and deal with it.

That doesn’t work anymore.

Some other great videos from the channel:

Private money for public goods

Almost every day for several years I would drag myself off a train at one of Sydney’s biggest train stations on the way to work.

If you’ve travelled, what’s striking about Australian train stations is how empty and tacked-on they feel. Apart from the odd shop and vending machine they are quite austere, functional and removed from the rest of life.

You don’t really get the supermarkets, vast food courts or even accomodation that are often found in Asia or Europe. Public transport hubs are places to pass through, not go to.

Australians are poorer for it.

After reading this paper about Tokyo railways I can’t help but think this is partly because Australian transport is mostly a government activity.

As government entities they are constrained in what they can do (lest they raise the ire of private competitors). This not only reduces their possible services and the resulting community and consumer surplus, it leaves them open to cuts and “efficiency dividends”.

The Tokyo railways on the other hand:

…remarkably for the twenty-first century, the private railways in Tokyo Metropolis operate at a profit…

…Government regulation of fares coupled with limited subsidies for railway operations pushed the private railways to innovate and diversify into a wide variety of related businesses, most notably real estate. Due to their long-term interest in the communities they built along their rail lines, the private railways provide valuable social benefits through public transportation while still pursuing profits.

Unlike Australian railways, the Tokyo railways are private and profit seeking. Coupled with heavy fare regulation, we have the happy accident of their expanding into other services and amenities as a way to maximise profit.

It is arguably one of the reasons for the building density around the railway lines in Tokyo. This increases walkability and helps integrate transport networks, making it far easier to get around without a car.

You now have a virtuous cycle even as the rest of us scramble to get people out of cars.

…private railways were able to survive and thrive by branching out into businesses closely connected with the railway industry, while private operators in Europe and North America slowly began to fail due to increased competition from the automobile…. On the Toyoko line, for example, Tokyu built high rise commercial centers at Shibuya station in Tokyo at one end and Sakuragicho station in Yokohama at the other, and opened its first department store near Shibuya in 1934. The corporation offered land at low rates to universities and schools in order for them to build campuses at intermediate stations along the way.

Tokyu is one of the most profitable railway operators in the country, with net profits of ¥58.72 billion (US$587 million, €441 million) on operating revenues of ¥263.7 billion (US$2.63 billion, €1.98 billion) in 2006 (Tokyu Corporation 2007). Real estate and transportation each bring in an equal share (33.5%) of net profit, with the rest coming from retail (20.2%) and other sources.

Of course, this could easily be an argument for complete government control. But I can’t imagine a purely government entity having the political might to get something like this done. Not without a whole lot else changing in society.

And anyway, without the ability to grow around the railway as Tokyo has done, you’re unlikely to replicate the effect. This isn’t a plan for established cities.

I guess this is more a call to be mindful of the extraordinary consumer benefit that can accrue if entrepreneurs are given the incentive to do so.

As always my emphasis.


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