Yearly Archives: 2024

a community building

My head’s a swirl of different ideas right now, but here’s one that keeps coming up: libraries as resilience centers, and whether that’s a problem or a solution.

One of the attractive (to me) features of a resilience center is placing emergency supplies and aid in the same place that people will ordinarily use on a regular basis. Need to charge your phone during an outage? Go to the same community center where you take art classes or play board games. Need a meal when your kitchen isn’t safe to use? Use the kitchen at the community center where we do potlucks and movie nights. That familiarity is useful for a lot of reasons, but one that stands out to me today is that the resources get regularly used, maintained, and verified useful. I don’t know my camp stove and battery backup are in working order, because it’s been years since I used either. I do know my “Mr. Induction” hotplate works because I used it this morning.

Japan has this great infrastructure pattern called “disaster parks“, where coordination and supplies and other resilience infrastructure is built in (and under) city parks, so that when disaster strikes people can go to their nearest park for aid. Very helpful in fires or earthquakes, where buildings themselves are the danger to avoid and distance from them is a benefit. The familiarity is “go to the park”, but are any of the emergency supplies used regularly to test them? Is there a big ol’ cookout every 6 months as they rotate in new dry goods?

I go to the local library on the regular, so I do think of it as a cooling shelter or a warming shelter. (Seattle isn’t awful in either regard, but we do have our days.) Cooling the library in a resilient way makes a lot of sense, and by design it’s got great capacity for a lot of people at once. (Books like to have a big sturdy building around them.)

Are we expecting too much from a library, though? People in crisis need to eat, to marshal their resources, to go to the bathroom. Libraries don’t like this day-to-day; even the most trafficked university library generally wants you to go somewhere else to get refreshed. At most, a library dedicates a portion of the building to the less book-friendly stuff. So when people in crisis start to cross those lines, we hear about “safety concerns” at libraries or a lack of staff. (Because if you’re looking to work at a library, are you really thinking of it as a resilience center?)

So when I say a “community center”, what do we actually have that suits that purpose? Is it the library, expanded? Is it something else? (Don’t say a mall, we already showed that isn’t true.) Where do you go when you need to find community?



AI is going great (dot com)

News stories describing the reality behind AI hype just keep coming, and they’re starting to remind me of Molly White’s excellent Web3 Is Going Just Great site.

Turns out LLMs won’t so much solve the climate crisis, but the energy they use will hasten it. (from The Tyee, which I encourage reading on the regular if you aren’t already)

Turns out AI “copilots” hallucinate software packages that don’t exist, which creates a security hole ready to exploit.

Those are the costs, though. What about the rewards?

Well, turns out government chatbots tell people it’s OK to break the law. So that’s a savings?

And at the absolute forefront of automation in retail, Amazon is giving up on AI-driven checkout in favor of (checks notes) scanning the bar code of the thing you’re going to buy, because the “automation” turned out to be 1000 people in India watching customers as they shop.


Nintendo’s robot

There’s an entertaining Youtube video about the R.O.B. toy robot that Nintendo included with the first NES system. The toy was pivotal in recasting the video game system – which to be sure was a video game system at the start, was a video game system when released, and continues to this day as a video game system – as an “entertainment system” that was a “toy experience” unlike any the then-crashing video game industry had ever seen.

Except it wasn’t. Clearly.

In development, it was an intriguing prototype that wasn’t likely to go anywhere unless it got expensive enough that no one could buy it. On release, Nintendo created only two games that could use it. Those would be the only two games ever released for it, and for good reason. And even today, with folks developing sophisticated games for old systems for the sheer challenge of it, and despite how many of the original systems were sold, there are still just the two games. (Watch the video for details.)

So in short, it never fulfilled its purpose.

As a robot, that is.

It was an excellent marketing ploy. The robot could sit in a shop window and draw people in. The breathless ad copy on the packaging could promise a “toy experience” that got past parents’ objectives to another video game system. And underneath it all was the vague sense that it could be the future. You never know, right?

Except it wasn’t. R.O.B. was a flop as a robot, as an experience, and as a technology.

But it was successful as a distraction.

x-ray glasses

I loved popular science magazines as a kid in the 80s. Omni, Popular Mechanics, the eponymous Popular Science. I also read the occasional comic book, though they never seemed to give the same bang for the buck; most comic books at the time felt like watching the middle 5 minutes of a soap opera episode.

Whenever I could get access to one, I read it cover-to-cover. Well, I probably skipped over the front bits with their opinions and letters, but I definitely spent time on everything in the back, including the ads. The science-magazine ads had a delightful mix of very-specific technical tools I wanted but didn’t understand or couldn’t afford – oscilloscopes, glassware, the occasional computer – but also bizarre ads for dubious contraptions like electric-shock pads to build muscle mass. (That one had a photo of arm wrestling with the huge caption “RUSSIA WINS?” because 80s cold-war movies.) The comic books dispensed with anything scientific or practical and focused on the dubious contraptions, with full-page spreads of “novelty” catalogs. Joy buzzers. Switch blades. Chattering teeth. Mini binoculars and spy cameras. And most intriguing of all: x-ray glasses.

The blurb under “x-ray glasses” always contained the keyword “illusion” to take the sting off, but it was surrounded by enticing phrases like “see bones through skin” and “see through clothes”. As an adult, I can look at that ad and easily spot the real message: this thing provides the illusion of seeing the bones in your hand, if you squint and aren’t familiar with what the bones of your hand should actually look like. If you look at someone from a bit of a distance, their clothes seem to take on a ghostly edge as though you could see through them to what’s behind the person. It’s a bit of a laugh for 5 minutes, and then you put it away.

Oh, but the implications to a kid! Especially a kid who just read through 5 minutes of a GI Joe or X-Men soap opera episode where either technology or “science” gives people powers. What if it really means you can see the bones in your hand, even if it’s using an “illusion” to show them to you? What if the “illusion” of seeing through clothes is of the person underneath, which is as good as the real thing? After all, the joy buzzer does something, and the switch blade is an actual knife, and even the chattering teeth do what they say in the big print.

What if it really works?

And if there was any barrier put up by skepticism or critical thinking, that one question was enough for my childhood optimism to swarm right over. And even if someone else tells me “it says it’s just an illusion”, then I have the perfect counter. I know it’s an illusion, but what if it really works? Bam, if I hold onto that cognitive dissonance, then it’s worth the purchase.

Which works in reverse, too. If I buy the glasses and try them on only to find that it’s an illusion that doesn’t show me bones or bodies or the insides of anything, really… “it didn’t work”. “It said it was just an illusion.” “Oh.” But does that stop the next person? Of course not. Because to them, what if it works? And that’s enough to keep people buying.

All that said, even though I understand the draw, I’d still be shocked if a doctor pulled out a pair of x-ray glasses to diagnose a pain in my arm. “Let’s see if there are any broken bones.” It wouldn’t just be a reason to doubt their diagnosis, it would be enough to doubt their competence.

This isn’t about generative AI specifically, but that’s what brought it to mind. I get sincerely baffled when someone leaps from “it’s just a language generator, but the ad said it could do this” to “I saw a demo that looked kinda like this if you squint” to “I’m going to base a critical decision on this.” “But it doesn’t actually do that,” I say, but they have the perfect cognitive-dissonance counter. “I know it’s an illusion, but what if it works?” And I have no recourse but to wait for the glasses to arrive, to watch them put the glasses on, and then watch them take the glasses off 5 minutes later. I want to be kind. “OK, how would you like to handle that critical decision now?”

It seems like there’s an endless supply of x-ray glasses out there. Crypto. Ride sharing.  ”Full Self-Driving”. Or a political candidate. Or a stainless-steel truck. Or a VR headset. Or “we’re going to Mars.” I can point straight at the part of the ad that calls out the illusion. And do it over again. And again.

But what if it works this time?