Notable things: How do you give ethics to a robot? Let’s keep political pundits honest with batting averages, ad-banner honesty from The Onion

Self-driving cars. Drones. Robot armies. All of these things are stepping from science fiction into our daily lives, yet we haven’t addressed a fundamental question:

How do we teach our machines to be ethical?

Gary Marcus explores the repercussions of machine ethics in this fascinating essay. Of particular note is the following excerpt, which contrasts machine ethics with humanity’s still-under-construction ethical methods:

The thought that haunts me the most is that that human ethics themselves are only a work-in-progress. We still confront situations for which we don’t have well-developed codes (e.g., in the case of assisted suicide) and need not look far into the past to find cases where our own codes were dubious, or worse (e.g., laws that permitted slavery and segregation). What we really want are machines that can go a step further, endowed not only with the soundest codes of ethics that our best contemporary philosophers can devise, but also with the possibility of machines making their own moral progress, bringing them past our own limited early-twenty-first century idea of morality.

In many ways what we’re searching for is a way to make machine ethics better than our own. How do you even begin to do that?

Proposed: A batting average for political pundits and pollsters.


Every ad-driven website should be required, by law, to include this on their terms of service page:

… we can go through a whole dog-and-pony show here where I pretend that this column exists as a forum for ideas, and that I act as an independent voice who isn’t beholden to advertisers, and the power of the First Amendment, and blah blah, etc. etc. But let’s get real for a second here, okay? This column — nay, this entire website, this entire industry we call journalism — exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to sell ads. Lots of ads. Big, stupid ads. Ads with loud videos that play when you run your mouse cursor over them. Ads with pictures of supermodels and bacon cheeseburgers and beer bottles dripping with condensation. Ads with huge fricking graphics of SUVs that “drive” across your screen as though you were living in some sort of damned nightmare world. In short, ads that will make poor, honest working saps like you — yes, you, reader — click on them so that The Onion can continue stocking the coffers and I can continue to send my kid through four years of Cornell’s hotel management school.

Via The Onion

Notable things: Tumblr’s pride is justified, but misplaced; newspaper ad sales are on a very long slide; indoor navigation has an accuracy problem

Here’s the headline: “Tumblr boasts nearly 170 million monthly visitors

Only that’s not quite right. Those 170 million monthly visitors aren’t going to for the sake of visiting Tumblr. They’re looking at this kind of thing (and rightfully so, because it’s awesome).

That’s an important difference. I have no issue if those numbers are meant to show the rise of Tumblr as a publishing platform. But if the stats are trying to place Tumblr in the same domain as other top sites, we need to take a step back and consider the context.

Here’s Quantcast’s* current list of the top 10 sites “based on the number of people in the United States who visit each site within a month”:

  1. Google; 194,407,568 [monthly people in the U.S.]
  2. YouTube; 174,158,768
  3. Facebook; 140,719,136
  4. MSN; 98,480,592
  5. Twitter; 91,263,448
  6. Yahoo; 79,030,880
  7. Amazon; 76,791,592
  8. Wikipedia; 68,114,712
  9. Microsoft; 63,044,600
  10. Huffingtonpost; 61,289,024

Tumblr is a publishing platform / discovery tool. The only other sites in the top 10 that compare — and this is a reach — are YouTube and Twitter. Both of those sites are also utilities — a significant portion of their engagement and distribution occurs off-site via embeds and external tools. Tumblr doesn’t really work that way.

Tumblr is closer to and Blogger, and that comparison is where things get interesting.

From the same Quantcast stats:

No. 15: Tumblr; 51,947,516 [monthly people in the U.S.]
No. 17: WordPress: 51,182,896
No. 19: Blogger: 48,293,848

Tumblr certainly has something to celebrate, but it isn’t the thing that’s being played up.

*I’m using Quantcast data because that’s the source of the “170 million” figure. The validity of Quantcast’s numbers is beyond the scope of this admittedly feeble examination.

Alan Mutter says newspaper ad sales have fallen 25 quarters in a row:

It is a testimony to the legendarily high operating margins of the [newspaper] industry and the considerable cost-slashing skills of contemporary publishers that nearly all the newspapers in business in mid-2006, when the trouble began, are still plugging along today.

The full piece is worth a read.

Last week I said I need an app for finding products in stores. Sadly, that’s an itch that will remain itchy for some time:

Analysts caution that the technology is still immature, with high costs and accuracy issues keeping more prospective customers on the sidelines. Adding more Wi-Fi access points and other hardware is expensive. Most indoor positioning systems, even using Wi-Fi, still miss the precise location by several feet. And there aren’t enough high-end smartphones in the market that can handle indoor positioning. [Emphasis added.]

“Several feet” isn’t good enough when you can’t find the damn Tobasco sauce.

Notable things: The WatchESPN app and the multi-screen buffet; you built the app, but will people use it? (probably not); the retirement of Fireman Ed

This was a big weekend for college football. It seemed like every channel — including all the flavors of ESPN — had a game, and many of them were worth watching. It’s the kind of weekend that destroys the “last” button on remotes.

Someone in ESPN’s marketing department came up with a clever solution to this abundance problem. Rather that catch a few plays on one game and flip over to another, you could watch a game on your television and monitor another game through the WatchESPN app on your tablet or phone. It’s picture-in-picture, only you’re holding the small screen in your hands.

ESPN pushed this set-up hard during the prime time Notre Dame vs USC game on Saturday (that game was on ABC, but ESPN and ABC are both owned by Disney so they do a weird “ESPN on ABC” co-branding thing for big games).

I’m not much of a college football fan — I think it’s a lightweight version of real football — but I was tempted to fire up the WatchESPN app on my iPad.

What’s more important is that ESPN planted the seed. I have a Slingbox, so I rely on that for most of my TV streaming. There are times, however, when the Slingbox-connected television is being used for other things (“Curious George” is in heavy rotation). The WatchESPN app never crossed my mind, but now it will.

The marketing worked, dammit.

Moreover, it’s only a matter of time before I take multi-screen viewing to its logical conclusion: one game on the TV, one on the iPad, and a laptop fired up to browse the web. My router better limber up.

(Somewhat related sidenote: I’d love to ditch cable as much as everyone else, but there’s no way that’s going to happen if I can’t watch live sports in high definition on my preferred devices. Until the sports blockade is disrupted, all this cable-cutting hoopla is just gobble, gobble turkey.)

Fred Wilson on why it’s no longer enough to build an app that people download:

you need to master the “download app, use app, keep using app, put it on your home screen” flow and that is a hard one to master. [Emphasis added.]

The home screen is a popular neighborhood and the dock is the best street in town.

Fireman Ed will no longer attend Jets games as Fireman Ed.

What does that transition entail, exactly? Ditch the helmet? Go jersey-free? Sit quietly during J-E-T-S chants?

Related: Deadspin has the final word on the Fireman Ed “retirement”

Notable things: A profile of “Scumbag Steve” and the greatest 60 seconds in NFL history

The Boston Globe talks to this guy:

Scumbag Steve

Real name: Blake Boston

Becoming an accidental Internet celebrity has to be tough under the best conditions. What Boston has endured is far worse — he’s a stand-in for the things everyone hates about everyone else.

Is that fair? Not at all.

The story discusses Boston’s attempt to flip the dynamic and turn the attention into a positive. Good for him.

What’s interesting is that the captions that accompany many of the Scumbag Steve entries aren’t too far off from the real guy:

… just from that one photo, caption writers have been able to guess many things about Boston that are accurate. He smokes menthols. He drinks Mountain Dew. He’s unemployed (he studied to be a chef at a technical college). He lives at home with his parents. He’d like to be a rapper.

I’m not sure what to make of that. At first I thought the accuracy was funny (because it is, let’s be clear). But it’s also disconcerting because it reinforces stereotypes, and that reinforcement creates a slippery slope. Forgive one stereotype and you might forgive another and another.

In a few years, when Tom Brady retires and the Patriots fall into inevitable disrepair, I’ll find solace in this: the greatest 60 seconds in NFL history.

And this is the moment everyone will remember.

Notable things: To me, from me; frozen turkeys and deep fryers = crossing the streams; Anderson Cooper is a Twitter maestro

The United States celebrates Black Friday Eve tomorrow. To commemorate a day that should make people feel downright horrible about their gluttonous ways, the National Retail Federation (NRF) has a whole bunch of holiday shopping factoids!

This is my favorite:

Six in 10 shoppers (59.0%) plan to spend an average of $139.92 on “self-gifting” this holiday season.

“Self-gifting.” That’s gold! I’m going to use that after the next Apple event.

But there’s more …

… the biggest portion of shoppers’ budget this year will go towards gifts for family members with the average person planning to spend $421.82 on children, parents, aunt, uncles and more. Additionally, people will spend $75.13 on friends, $23.48 on co-workers and $28.13 on others, such as pets and community members. Consumers will also spend on food and candy ($100.76), greeting cards ($28.66) and flowers ($19.55.) When it comes to decorations, the average person will spend $51.99, up from $49.15 last year and the most in the survey’s history. Total spending on holiday décor will reach $6.9 billion.

Let’s repeat that last sentence.

“Total spending on holiday décor will reach $6.9 billion”

We live in bountiful times.

(Via Quartz.)

Here’s why you don’t put a frozen turkey in a deep fryer:

And because I never miss a chance to post this, here’s the first video I ever watched online (although back then it was a tiny buffering thing that took 10 minutes to load):

(The good stuff starts at 2:04: “The humor of the entire situation suddenly gave way to a run for survival as huge chunks of whale blubber fell everywhere.”)

Anderson Cooper, troll hunter.

Notable things: Stop making magazines “interactive,” that mannequin is tracking you, I need an in-store app for hard-to-find products

Esquire wants its print edition to be more interactive. From the Wall Street Journal’s Digits blog:

With the new app [Netpage] … Esquire is offering interactivity without changing the print design, outside of a few text reminders guiding readers to try out the new app. Every bit of the magazine can be recognized by the app and saved on readers’ smartphones as a high-resolution pdf. That means readers of the print magazine will be able to tweet a story easily, rather than having to go and find the web site version, which sometimes isn’t posted until later.

Let’s be clear: Tweeting a print story will never be “easy.” Nor should it be. Print isn’t digital. It doesn’t flow and it cannot be recombined without pushing content through a conversion meat grinder (or grabbing a pair of scissors). But that’s okay. Print is print, and print is just fine.

I understand Esquire’s impulse to try new technologies — it’s got a history of such things — but what if publishers focused on platform refinement instead of bolting electronic gimmicks on to print pages? Tablet editions can improve (boy can they). Online can improve. Print can improve. There’s lots of work to be done.

The magazine world’s fixation on a print-digital mash-up has been a bad idea since the CueCat. Let it go.

And in other physical-digital news …

That’s not a mannequin. That’s a first-gen Terminator.

The EyeSee mannequin has an embedded camera (behind the eye, natch) that “feeds data into facial-recognition software like that used by police. It logs the age, gender, and race of passers-by.”

More info here.

It sounds creepy, but keep in mind that virtually every retail website you visit has its own set of “eyes.”

Besides, the title of World’s Creepiest Mannequin was claimed 25 years ago:

Here’s something I want / need: An app (or apps) that show me where products are located within a store. I’ve wasted precious hours of my life searching for ridiculous things — adapters and crackers and toys and tools … it’s such a long and sad list.

The introduction of organic aisles in supermarkets has been particularly tough on me. How am I supposed to know if a product is organic or not? And sometimes, there’s the organic version and the regular version (Annie’s, I’m looking at you).

So where’s my in-store app? I want to fire up my phone, initiate a search and have it reveal that those damn felt furniture pads are two aisles over, next to the Velcro (because “Velcro” and “felt furniture pads” are so obviously related …).

Notable things: Self-published authors don’t make much money, Jakob Nielsen on Windows 8, venting on Facebook … again

Shocker. The laws of popularity also apply to self-published authors. From The Guardian:

… a survey of 1,007 self-published writers … found that while a small percentage of authors were bringing in sums of $100,000-plus in 2011, average earnings were just $10,000 a year. This amount, however, is significantly skewed by the top earners, with less than 10% of self-publishing authors earning about 75% of the reported revenue and half of writers earning less than $500.

I imagine many of those self-published authors are thrilled to make a single dollar, let alone 500 of them.

This doesn’t map directly, but it still applies: I ran my own sites for years and I didn’t make much money off of them. They brought in enough to cover costs, but that was good enough. The point was to create something from scratch and set it loose, and the fact that it made actual cash dollars was a lovely bonus.

When you’re talking about a do-it-yourself realm — and I consider self-published authors to be in the bullseye of DIY — the definition of “success” must expand beyond financial reward.

Jakob Nielsen on the Windows 8 interface:

… the main UI restricts users to a single window, so the product ought to be renamed “Microsoft Window.”

This same piece also puts a name to a problem I often encounter: “swipe ambiguity.”

I once watched an Apple Store employee work wonders on an iPad. His fingers flicked and swiped and swooped and twirled as though he was conjuring some sort of IT demon. Now, I’m pretty good with an iPad, but I have yet to match that level of competence. I want to get better, but I’m also annoyed that I have to get better at something that’s supposed to be obvious.

This is why Facebook’s Timeline is equally brilliant and horrible.

(Via Reddit)

Notable things: Google Maps will reveal the state of Apple’s stubborn streak, me-too-itis, everyone was confused by Karl Rove

Google is in the late stages of developing a Maps app for iOS, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

I’m looking forward to having Google Maps back on my iOS devices, but I’m also intrigued by what’s to come.

Will Apple follow up its unusual apology with swift approval?

Or, will Apple’s disdain for Google keep the Maps app in approval purgatory?

Put another way: Is Tim Cook as stubborn as Steve Jobs?

I don’t think he is, but what happens next will go a long way toward answering that question.

The Google Maps / iOS story is notable for another reason: It shows the sad state of “me too!” that runs through the tech press. When a story like this hits Techmeme you know an onslaught of duplicate stories from other outlets will soon flood the Internet. Those second-wave pieces rarely offer anything substantial.

“What the? What is this?”

Roger Ailes had the same response as everyone else to Karl Rove’s election-night fit.

Notable things: Firefly reunion, a clever test, and what the heck is going on at the post office?

I watched “Firefly: Browncoats Unite” last night and it summoned the requisite nostalgia and thoughts of what might have been. Why can’t Netflix bring this show back too?

The scenes from the Comi-Con 2012 reunion panel were fun, but I wish Joss Whedon had been part of the back-stage discussion. Also notable was the total absence of Ron Glass (but his IMDB profile picture takes the edge off).

The highlight of the episode was when Nathan Fillion revealed a fantastic idea for a “Firefly” episode that was never produced:

These people are kind to us and it’s kind of a wintry planet, and we catch them trying to steal our ship … They go ‘okay, look, here’s the deal. Our planet is dying, we’re all going to die here unless you get us off.’ But the idea is we’re so far out that if we take them back we’re going to run out of air, we’re going to run out of food and we’re all going to die. Unless we meet up with another ship. There’s that chance. Then we’d all be okay. So I [as Capt. Mal ] said ‘okay, let’s all sleep on it and tomorrow we’ll decide.’ And I lock myself in the bridge and I take off while you all are sleeping. And you wake up and go ‘what have you done?’ … On our way back out we never meet any ships, so we all would have died … Capt. Mal takes the decision away from everybody so it’s no one’s decision to kill those people but his.

This is what happens when test writers feel sassy:

Via Reddit.

The U.S. Postal Service reported an annual loss of $15.9 billion. Holy. Moly.

Notable things: Fiscal cliff terminology, Dole/Kemp ’96 lives, a bizarre panel for Time’s person of the year

The Quartz newsletter (highly recommended, by the way) contained this gem about the “fiscal cliff” and defense spending:

“In yet more cliff-inspired mixed metaphor, a Defense Department official has told the Seattle Times he is preparing for ‘fiscal castration.'”


Also from Quartz: The website for Dole/Kemp ’96 is still online. And it’s glorious. Take a look:

Dole Kemp 96 website

The answer: Matt Lauer, Bryan Cranston, Newt Gingrich, Padma Lakshmi and Michael Nutter.

The question: Who are five people who have never been in my kitchen?

We’d also accept: Who are the five random and bizarre people brought together to “debate” Time’s pick for person of the year?

And yes, I wrote this last bit so I could embed this: