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Human failings

Three news stories have played on my mind recently:

All three of these stories are similar: they are presented as though the problem is with computers when it is actually with management. In all three cases, managers knew about concerns with the computer systems, yet the organisations involved did not take timely corrective action.

I don’t know the inside story behind any of these incidents, but I’m willing to bet that all involved managers saying something like ‘I’m not good with computers’—and failing to engage as a result. In some organisations, it’s a daily occurrence to hear senior leaders say things like, ‘Ooh, I’m not sure how to share my slides; is it working?’ That discomfort writ large means that they subject IT processes to less scrutiny.1

The irony is that the consequences of all three failings were in the real world, not inside a computer. In all three cases, it seems likely that a reasonable and non-technical workaround would have been to stop using the computer system until it was fixed. The real-life resolution required no knowledge of how the systems worked.

One can’t imagine the same managerial non-response to a problem if, say, the underlying issue was secretaries who weren’t bothering to type letters or an accountancy team consistently failing to produce reports.

And therein lies the issue. Even in the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is still acceptable in many organisations for senior leaders to freeze up over any problem involving computers. Nobody expects them to be IT experts, but they ought to be experts in leadership and management and not simply give up when the situation involves a computer.

The greater development of artificial intelligence means that ever more processes will be completed in an automated fashion in the coming years. This will result in progressively less oversight of day-to-day work within organisations whose senior staff seize up over this stuff. For them, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

  1. Unfamiliarity with the tools required for daily work is, in itself, deeply problematic. It ought to be no more acceptable to playfully boast about one’s lack of ability to use basic computer functions than to boast about being unable to chair a meeting or manage people. It’s your job!

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, Technology.

Professional prospects and social media

On Search Engine recently, Ezra Klein told PJ Vogt:

This is an argument I’m always having inside my own industry. I’m someone who’s done a lot of hiring in my industry, so I think I have some credibility on it. People’s social media accounts are typically a reason why they don’t get hired, not a reason they do, in my experience.

The reason is that if they’re doing really well on social media, it’s for that exact reason they’re not doing as much of the actual work people are looking for.

I’ve been involved in many hiring decisions in my line of work, and I’ve never checked candidates’ social media profiles… but my job is in the Civil Service rather than the real world.

However, Klein’s observation chimed with my perspective on the experiences of a couple of colleagues during the pandemic. They both used different forms of social media to ‘subvert’ the usual routes of communication processes of their organisation. They both became ‘known’ (at least within the public health world) as ‘personalities’ who communicated clearly—that is, they were both successful at social media.

Both inevitably ended up in hot water for giving messages which did not align with the organisational view. The problem was that they had become ‘big name’ representatives of their organisation but were operating entirely outside the normal processes. Crucially, they both also mistook their success in the game of social media as expertise in public communications.

In other words, they did well on social media by demonstrating a dismissiveness towards due process and the expertise of others. The errors that undid them would not have been made by people with expertise (but may have been made by—say—me, in other circumstances). They became popular, but possibly undermined their professional reputations more than they bolstered them.

In contrast, while I know many people who have fostered professional connections via social media, I can’t think of anyone I know in my field for whom success on social media has led to genuine professional progression.

But, in fairness, this is only my personal experience: while it aligns with Klein’s view, others think differently. According to Alex Heath in Command Line,

Musk thinks X can build a viable LinkedIn competitor. “Historically, I’ve done a lot of recruiting on Twitter,” he said, adding that he sees someone’s posts on the platform as the “single biggest indicator for whether they are excellent or someone you would want to hire.”

Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , , , , .

Google in the real world

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, will publish its financial results for the third quarter today.

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a course for work about something utterly unrelated to technology.1 During one presentation, one of the tutors said something along the lines of:

The report of that public inquiry is really easy to find on G—

I mean, it’s easy to find if you search online. I was going to say ‘on Google’, but that feels a bit creepy nowadays, doesn’t it?

It’s the first time I’ve heard someone express that idea in real life, which felt like a significant moment to me. I’m not suggesting that a perception of creepiness is about to make a huge dent in Alphabet’s profits, but it feels like a far cry from the social cachet that a brand like Google once held. It doesn’t feel like that’s a positive place for a consumer-facing brand to find itself, and certainly not for the long term.

  1. It was about commanding the response to major incidents, which is the sort of course which is both incredibly useful and a bit frightening.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , .

The death of smaller phones

There’s been a lot written about the death of the small smartphone, including two Verge articles that resonated with me: this from Allison Johnson back in April and this from Sean Hollister yesterday.

A lot of the coverage of small phones is imbued with an underlying assumption that it is people with small hands or pockets that particularly lament them: it’s often presented as an example of how the views of women are under-considered in the tech world.

I’m neither a woman nor a person with especially small hands1 or pockets, but I am the owner of an iPhone 12 Mini. I mourn the passing of the iPhone Mini series. If there were an iPhone 14 or 15 Mini, there’s a good chance that I’d have bought one. Instead, all I’ve done is replaced the 12 Mini’s battery: far better for the environment, but less positive for Apple’s profits.

I prefer a phone with a smaller screen because it feels ‘handier’ than a larger phone and because it feels less immersive. It feels like using a tool, not like being sucked into a portal to a world of internet nonsense.

  1. While writing this, I realise that I’ve finally forgotten my glove size. In surgery, sterile gloves are sized by number, much like shoes, and knowing which size gloves to pull off the shelf was an everyday essential. I reckon it’s fifteen years since I was last in an operating theatre, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I can remember that detail any more.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , , .

Someone else’s thoughts on artificial intelligence

Last week, I reflected that I’d underestimated the potential of large language models by basing my opinion on the early versions of ChatGPT. Interestingly, Casey Newton has talked in the latest edition of Platformer about making the same mistake.

I had recently subscribed to ChatGPT Plus at the encouragement of a friend who had found it to be an excellent tutor in biology. A few days later, I found myself embarrassed: what I thought I knew about the state of the art had essentially been frozen a year ago when ChatGPT was first released. Only by using the updated model did I see how much better it performed at tasks involving reasoning and explanation.

I told the researcher I was surprised by how quickly my knowledge had gone out of date. Now that I had the more powerful model, the disruptive potential of large language models seemed much more tangible to me. 

The researcher nodded. “You can fast forward through time by spending money,” she said.

Naturally, Casey’s thoughts are more extensive and more fully formed than my own, and the whole piece is well worth reading.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , , .


David Pierce recently wrote about how Apple’s EarPods are perfect for phone calls and video calls. I ended up spending £19 on USB-C EarPods based on that recommendation, and I was really impressed.

Previously, I’ve used work-supplied expensive wireless headsets when sitting on endless Microsoft Teams calls, but the sound and microphone quality of these cheap wired buds is markedly better. The reliability of a wired connection provides greater assurance. I also like that I can hear the world around me while I use them. I don’t miss the fact that they’re not wireless at all.

I liked them so much, that I ended up buying a second pair to leave at work.

Sometimes, the cheap option is surprisingly good.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , .

We need to chat about ChatGPT

When I worked as a hospital doctor, I often had to dictate letters. I was terrible at this: it was far faster for me to type them myself than to dictate, but this wasn’t always possible.

Like most people, the way I express myself when I speak is quite distinct from the way I express myself when I write. Seemingly unlike most people, I found it impossibly challenging to adapt to composing written text through the medium of speech. The two feel like completely unconnected systems: it’s like trying to rub my tummy and pat my head.

Back in February, I felt a little sceptical about how useful people believed ChatGPT to be.:

Much of the overhyped discussion about ChatGPT seems to be confusing this language model for something approaching artificial general intelligence.

This week, I’ve changed my mind: I think I’ve underestimated it. The difference has been the addition of voice chat to the model. The voices are impressively lifelike: they have intonation, they use filler words, they sometimes vocally trip, and all of that adds to the effect.

But more importantly: talking is different from seeing writing on a page. I don’t have the same basic expectation of factual accuracy in speech as in writing: I expect a bit of extemporisation, reference to half-remembered facts, a bit of loose interpretation here and there. In conversation, it’s natural to say “that doesn’t sound quite right” and to dig a little deeper into the background; in writing, it’s normal to expect the black-and-white content to be checked and accurate. In other words, the flaws in ChatGPT’s abilities seem to me to fit more naturally with speech than with writing.

I can well imagine phoning a version of ChatGPT to book a restaurant table and being entirely satisfied with the experience—and perhaps even uncertain as to whether I was talking to a person. Similarly for ordering takeaway. I may be writing this on an empty stomach, but there are all manner of customer service interactions that I could imagine using the voice version of ChatGPT for where the text version may seem a little—well—robotic.

I can also imagine it being useful for things like supported professional reflection. For example, only today, I’ve written a reflection about what I’d learned from a course I’d recently attended and how I’ve applied it in practice, as required by the medical regulator. I actually think that having a somewhat more probing voice chat on the same topic with a version of ChatGPT could stimulate deeper reflection and greater thought than simply writing down my own thoughts.

Essentially: I think I considerably underestimated the tool in February. ChatGPT is still a million miles away from artificial general intelligence, but I can now see much more clearly that large language models may have many more far-reaching applications than I’d been able to see back then. Chatting with ChatGPT has broadened my perspective.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology, .

The first web server

Yesterday, I had the entirely unexpected pleasure of seeing the world’s first web server at CERN in Meyrin, Switzerland.

Over the years, I’ve read a lot about the early development of the world wide web, and I’ve also read about the storied history of Apple, including Steve Jobs’s period at NeXT computers.

Yet somehow, it had spectacularly failed to lodge in my mind that the first web server was a NeXTCube. Before I peered into the display case, my assumption was that I’d see a beige tower, probably with an IBM badge on it. It’s strange to contemplate how assumptions like that take hold, even though I must have read many times over the years that it wasn’t the case.

I also loved the sticker for its real-world mundanity. Not shown in the picture above is the handwritten comment on the top of Berners-Lee’s paper describing his system: “vague but exciting…”

It’s also fascinating to ponder the problem he was trying to solve—managing information about complex, evolving systems—and how we really haven’t applied it in healthcare more than three decades on. Even at the very simplest level, we really haven’t embraced the idea of hypertext, and of live-updating bits of guidance as new evidence emerges—or even just as new policies emerge. Most healthcare guidance remains static, with whole documents being refreshed in cycles.

For example, even the boilerplate description of many organisations at the front of documents is baked in, and only refreshed when the document is updated. If only we had learned from Berners-Lee, that could be a ‘do-once’ update that would be linked into all relevant documents.

Or, more relevantly, look at COVID guidance: each time the isolation period changed, hundreds of pages of guidance documents, including even all of those hosted on gov.uk, needed manual revision. If they’d been more thoughtfully constructed, that too could have been a ‘do-once’ update.

The counter argument, of course, is that changing ‘bits’ can substantially change the meaning of the whole, and a standing document needs approval and sign-off at regular intervals. But really, nothing in medical guidance is more complex than particle physics, for goodness’ sake, and there’s no reason that approvals to updates couldn’t be sought with an eye to where they propogate.

Perhaps we’ll get there one day.

This post was filed under: Health, Post-a-day 2023, Technology, Travel, , , , .

Banning politicians from social media

Over recent months, I’ve become more certain in my position that the BBC shouldn’t be creating and sharing material on closed social networks. I’m defining ‘closed’ as anything that isn’t available to the public without a login. For example, BBC journalists shouldn’t—as part of their job—be posting threads on ‘X’.

Universal access is a core part of what the BBC stands for. Indeed, they’ve always aimed (with variable success) to give equal access to their television services regardless of the platform rather than giving preferential treatment to, say, Sky subscribers. I shouldn’t have to give my data to a third party to receive BBC content.

I used to think the same of government bodies, but then I changed my mind: it’s the responsibility of the government to reach people where they are, no matter how unpalatable that location.

A couple of weeks ago, Ryan Broderick gave me a whole new suggestion to ponder when he suggested that all politicians should be banned from private social networks. It is coming up to a month since he wrote that, and it’s been swimming around my mind ever since.

On one hand: clearly, there’s a risk of politicians being duplicitous by posting different things on different closed social media networks.

But on the other: ‘twas ever thus. I’m sure politicians have always said things in closed fora that they might not say elsewhere. The bit they write for a church newsletter is probably quite different in tone and content to the speech they give at the local social club. That’s clearly not wrong nor necessarily bad. If they end up saying contradictory things to different audiences, then they risk exposure.

It’s fair to say that the internet is not a church newsletter: for one thing, social media content has the potential to travel further faster than anything handed out in hard copy. But that’s actually protective of the underlying principle: the further content spreads, the greater the probability of inconsistencies coming to light.

So, despite my misgivings about social media, I don’t think I’m with Broderick on this one.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Media, Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , .

Am I an Apple outlier?

When flicking through Apple’s iOS App Store on my iPhone this morning, I noticed that of the ‘top ten’ free apps, I have only two installed. Of the ‘top twenty’, I have only six installed. And of the ‘top twenty’ paid apps, I have none installed.

Digging deeper into the lists, I have 22 of the ‘top fifty’ free apps installed, and one of the ‘top fifty’ paid apps.

In the early days of the App Store, I would typically have a high proportion of the most popular apps installed.

I’ve been pondering what this might mean. Perhaps I am an outlier who doesn’t use the things most people use? Or perhaps the explosion of apps over the years now means that the variety people install tends to be broader, and the most popular apps are installed on a much smaller proportion of devices.

A lot of the apps on the ‘paid’ list strike me as fairly niche: three of the ‘top ten’ are apps for those learning to drive, which surely makes up only a small proportion of iPhone users. This supports the hypothesis that installations have become more varied, and that the ‘top ten’ has less pull. But that observation doesn’t carry over to the ‘free’ list, with the most popular apps seemingly having broad appeal.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s not a good idea to try to draw conclusions based on a sample size of one.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology.

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