Book Notes: “The Alignment Problem”

The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values
By Brian Christian
W. W. Norton & Company, 2020

The Alignment Problem covers one of the central technology issues we face today: building smart systems that reflect and respect our values. More specifically, it’s “about systems that learn from data without being explicitly programmed, and about how exactly — and what exactly — we are trying to teach them.”

It’s a central issue because we are in the process of putting important parts of the world “on autopilot.” As such, we ought to ensure that our smart systems don’t inadvertently cause harm. The book evokes the sorcerer’s apprentice, with humanity cast in the role of Mickey Mouse chopping down increasingly powerful and clever brooms:

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Meeting the User

Early in my career, a support incident taught me a lesson about mental models. Here’s what happened: I was contracted to create a small promotional app for executive assistants who used Windows PCs. Many didn’t have CD drives, so the app was designed to fit on a floppy disk.

To install the app, users would slide the disk into their computer and double-click on a file called something like INSTALL.EXE. Then they’d follow the onscreen prompts. The disk included printed instructions that spelled out the process.

Shortly after we released the app, I got a message from the client. A user was having trouble installing the app. Would I mind taking a look? So I drove to the user’s office and asked her to show me what she was doing. What I saw blew me away.

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Working on the iPad

Early in 2021, I asked what you’d like to know about how I get things done. I received many interesting requests, more than fit in a single post. So, I’m covering aspects of my setup in separate entries. In this post, I’ll explain my evolving use of iPads.

I’ve long advocated for using iPads for work. iPads aren’t toys or “consumption” devices — at least any more than early GUI-based computers were. But recently, I’ve started questioning the iPad’s role in my workflows.

iPads do some things better than “real” computers. My work involves a lot of drawing, and the iPad Pro + Apple Pencil combo is the best digital drawing system I’ve used. The Pencil is also great for reviewing and marking up documents.

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The Informed Life with Jim Kalbach

Episode 66 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Jim Kalbach. Jim is the Chief Evangelist at MURAL, and author of Designing Web Navigation (O’Reilly, 2007), Mapping Experiences (O’Reilly, 2016), and his latest, The Jobs to Be Done Playbook (Rosenfeld, 2020). In this conversation, we dive into Jobs to Be Done, how it relates to design, and how jobs can create an “out-of-body experience” for organizations.

As Jim sees it, JTBD is an innovation framework above all:

The first question that I always teach people to answer in defining the jobs that they’re going to be targeting is, “where do you want to innovate?” And once you’re able to answer that question, what Jobs to Be Done brings is a lot of focus and clarity to that.

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Two Types of Work

All services require maintenance, but when you spend more time maintaining than growing, something is wrong.

— Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants

There are two types of work: growth work and maintenance work.

Growth work involves making new things. It can be something big (Living in Information, a new workshop) or small (this blog post.) In either case, growth work often follows a loose process:

  1. Capture a (vague! fleeting!) idea, often emergent while walking
  2. Hash out the idea (as an outline, by doodling on the iPad, working with an editor, etc.)
  3. Research
  4. Revise outline
  5. Draft
  6. Revise draft
  7. Revise draft
  8. Revise draft
  9. Publish
  10. Revise publication
  11. Promote
  12. Etc.
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Crowdfunding as Market Validation

Sam Byford, writing on The Verge:

Amazon is launching the next line of products for its Build It crowdfunding platform. The company has collaborated with fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg on a range of Echo Dot smart speakers that’ll only go on sale if enough people pre-order them within 30 days.

Two thoughts. First, I wasn’t aware that Amazon had launched its own crowdfunding platform. Here’s more about Build It, “a new Amazon program [that] lets you weigh in on which devices we build next”:

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Saying No

Saying “no” doesn’t come naturally to me. Whenever people ask me for favors, meetings, presentations, recommendations, etc., I often accede. I don’t like letting people down. I like being liked. Over time, I’ve realized it’s a pathology.

I feel a weird mix of excitement and dread when I get a request. Excitement to know people want my help and dread because deep down I know that I shouldn’t take on the ask — and I must let them know. So much easier to go along with it!

There’s also FOMO. Perhaps this presentation leads to a breakthrough concept, opens the door to a relationship with a new client, or whatever. It won’t be that much work, will it? I’m already 75% of the way there. Why not do it, just in case?

Like I said, a pathology.

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Book Notes: “Loonshots”

Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries
By Safi Bahcall
St. Martin’s Press, 2019

In a famous TV spot, Apple toasted cultural, social, and technical innovators:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

True, true. But the crazy ones wouldn’t go far if not for others (the sane ones?) who integrate and scale innovations into broader systems. And conversely, the sane ones wouldn’t have much to go on if not for people in their midst who introduce disruptive ideas.

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