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The Opposite of Information

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A 2006 image from Lebanon, taken by AP photographer Ben Curtis. The photo would quickly be accused of being posed.

In 2006, AP photographer Ben Curtis in 2006 took a photo of a Mickey Mouse doll laying on the ground in front an apartment building that had been blown up during Israel’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Curtis was a war reporter and this image was one of nine images he transmitted that day. He’d traveled with a number of other reporters in a press pool as a way of insuring collective safety, and had limited time on the ground. He described the city as mostly empty, and the apartment building that had just been detonated as having been evacuated.

Soon after that, the photo’s success lead other photographers to start seeking out similar images of toys discarded beside exploded apartments. As more of these images started to get published, many began to ask questions as to whether these photos were being staged: had the photographers put these toys into the frames of these images?

Similar images to Curtis’ started to appear in war photos.

Errol Morris talked to Curtis at length about the controversy surrounding that photo. Morris raises the point that the photo Curtis submitted didn’t say anything about victims. Nonetheless, readers could deduce, from the two symbols present in the image, that a child was killed in that building. Curtis notes that the caption describes only the known facts: it doesn’t say who the toy belonged to, doesn’t attempt to document casualties. Curtis didn’t know: the building was empty, many people had already fled the city.

Morris and Curtis walked through the details and documentation of that day, and I am confident Curtis found the doll where it was. But for the larger point of that image, no manipulation was needed. It said exactly what anyone wanted it to say.

It wasn’t the picture, it was the caption. The same image would be paired with commentary condemning Israel and editorials condemning Hezbollah. Some presented it as evidence of Israeli war crimes; others suggested it was evidence of Hezbollah’s use of human shields.

We are in the midst of a disinformation crisis. I didn’t select this example to make any kind of political point, as there are certainly people who could address that situation better than I could. I show it because 2006 marked a turning point in the history of digital manipulation. Because another Photoshopped image, found to be edited in manipulative ways, came to be circulated in major newspapers around the world.

Adnan Hajj’s photos of Beirut. Original to the left, altered version to the right.

Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj used the photoshop clone stamp tool to create and darken additional plumes of smoke. He submitted images where he copied and pasted fighter jets and added missile trails. Hajj has maintained that he was merely cleaning dust from the images. I don’t know Hajj’s motives. I can say that I have cleaned dust from images and it never introduced a fighter jet.

Today, similar imagery is being sold related to Gaza. This image of a teddy bear on the streets of a bombed city is presented when you search Adobe Stock photographs for pictures of Palestinians.

An AI generated image of a teddy bear in a bombed out city.

Adobe’s stock photo website is a marketplace where independent photographers and illustrators sell images. Adobe, which owns a generative AI tool called Firefly, has stated that AI generated images are fine to sell if creators label them correctly. This photo is labeled as “Generated with AI,” keeping in line with Adobe’s policies.

But the same photo has no restrictions on its use. Images of the bear could show up on news sites, blogs, or social media posts without any acknowledgement of its actual origins. This is already happening with many of these images. Adobe might argue that this is a computer-assisted illustration: a kind of hyperrealistic editorial cartoon. Most readers won’t see it that way. And other images would struggle to fit that definition, such as this one, which is labeled as a Palestinian refugee:

This refugee doesn’t exist. She is an amalgamation of a Western, English-language conception of refugees and of Gaza, rendered in a highly cinematic style. The always-brilliant Kelly Pendergrast put it this way on X:

Kelly Pendergrast on X: "“There's no such thing as an anti-war film” goes the famous Truffaut quote.  I would extend this to "there's no such thing as an anti-war AI image". When produced via the regurgitative churn of AI generators, even attempts to envision pain & horror end up spitting out propaganda."

Perhaps the creator of this image wanted to create compelling portraits of refugees in order to humanize the trauma of war. Or maybe they simply thought this image would sell. Perhaps they even thought to generate these images in order to muddy the waters of actual photojournalists and any horrors they might document. All of these have precedents long before AI or digital manipulation. And none of them matter. What matters is what these images do to channels of information.

They’re noise.

Noisy Channels

AI images are swept up into misinformation and disinformation. Those prefixes suggest the opposite of information, or it least, information that steers us astray. But maybe we should zoom out even further: what is information?

Claude Shannon was working at Bell Labs, the American telephone network where he did much of his work in the 1940s, when he sketched out a diagram of a communication system. It looked like this:

Claude Shannon, Diagram of a Communication System.

Information starts from a source. It moves from that source into a transmitter. Shannon was looking at telephones: you have something you want to say to your friend. You are the information source. You bring up a device — the telephone, an email, a passenger pigeon — and you use that device to transmit that message. Along the way this signal moves into the ether between the transmitter and the sender.

That’s when noise intervenes. Noise is the opposite of information, or the removal of information. In a message, it is the flipping of a symbol of communication in a way that distorts the original intention.

There are two sources of noise in this visualization. The first is noise from outside the system. The second is inside, when information breaks down in the transmission.

This could be a fog obscuring a flashing light meant to guide a pilot. There could be a degradation of signal, such as a glitched image occurring somewhere between the transmission from a digital camera into our hard drives. It started by understanding hiss over the telephone, but this was soon expanded to mean basically anything that interferes with the information source arriving intact to its destination.

Today, one of those things that changes the meaning of symbols is algorithms, ostensibly designed to remove noise from signal by amplifying things the receiver wants to see. In fact, they’re as much a form of interference with communication as a means of facilitating it.

Social media algorithms prioritize the wrong side of communication. They define noise as information that distracts the user from the platform. We tend to think these platforms are there to helps us share. If we don’t share, we think they are there to help us read what is shared.

None of that is the actual structure of the system. The system doesn’t show us what we sign up to see. It doesn’t share what we post to the people we want to see it.

The message in that system is advertising. Most of what we communicate on social media is considered noise which needs to be filtered out in order to facilitate the delivery of that advertising. We are the noise, and ads are the signal.

They de-prioritize content that brings people outside of the site, emphasize content that keeps us on. They amplify content that triggers engagement — be it rage or slamming the yes button — and reduce content that doesn’t excite, titillate, or move us.

It would be a mistake to treat synthetic images in isolation from their distribution channels. The famous AI photo of Donald Trump’s arrest is false information, a false depiction of a false event. The Trump images were shared with full transparency. As it moved through the network, noise was introduced: the caption was removed.

Original post of the Donald Trump arrest photos, which were posted as satire but then decontextualized and recirculated as real.

It isn’t just deepfakes that create noise in the channel. Labeling real images as deepfakes introduces noise, too. An early definition of disinformation — from Joshua Tucker & others in 2018, defined it as “the types of information that one could encounter online that could possibly lead to misperceptions about the actual state of the world.” It’s noise — and every AI generated image fits that category.

AI generated images are the opposite of information: they’re noise. The danger they pose isn’t so much what they depict. It’s that their existence has created a thin layer of noise over everything, because any image could be a fraud. To meet that goal — and it is a goal — they need the social media ecosystem to do their work.

Discourse Hacking

For about two years in San Francisco my research agenda included the rise of disinformation and misinformation: fake news. I came across the phrase “discourse hacking” out in the ether of policy discussions, but I can’t trace it back to a source. So, with apologies, here’s my attempt to define it.

Discourse Hacking is an arsenal of techniques that can be applied to disturb, or render impossible, meaningful political discourse and dialogue essential to the resolution of political disagreements. By undermining even the possibility of dialogue, you see a more alienated population, unable to resolve its conflicts through democratic means. This population is then more likely to withdraw from politics — toward apathy, or toward radicalization.

As an amplifying feedback loop, the more radicals you have, the harder politics becomes. The apathetic withdraw, the radicals drift deeper into entrenched positions, and dialogue becomes increasingly constrained. At its extreme, the feedback loop metastasizes into political violence or democratic collapse.

Fake news isn’t just lies, it’s lies in true contexts. It was real news clustered together alongside stories produced by propaganda outlets. Eventually, all reporting could be dismissed as fake news and cast it immediately into doubt. Another — (and this is perhaps where the term comes from) — was seeding fake documents into leaked archives of stolen documents, as happened with the Clinton campaign.

The intent of misinformation campaigns that were studied in 2016 was often misunderstood as a concentrated effort to move one side or another. But money flowed to right and left wing groups, and the goal was to create conflict between those groups, perhaps even violent conflict.

It was discourse hacking. Russian money and bot networks didn’t help, but it wasn’t necessary. The infrastructure of social media — “social mediation” — is oriented toward the amplification of conflict. We do it to ourselves. The algorithm is the noise, amplifying controversial and engaging content and minimizing nuance.

Expanding the Chasm

Anti-semitism and anti-Islamic online hate is framed as if there are two sides. However:

The impossibility of dialogue between Gaza and Israel is not a result of technology companies. But the impossibility of dialogue between many of my friends absolutely is. Emotions are human, not technological. Our communication channels can only do so much, in the best of times, to address cycles of trauma and the politics they provoke.

Whenever we have the sensation that “there’s just no reasoning with these people,” we dehumanize them. We may find ourselves tempted to withdraw from dialogue. That withdrawal can lead to disempowerment or radicalization: either way, it’s a victory for the accelerationist politics of radical groups. Because even if they radicalize you against them, they’ve sped up the collapse. Diplomacy ends and wars begin when we convince ourselves that reasoning-with is impossible.

To be very clear, sometimes reasoning-with is impossible, and oftentimes that comes along with guns and fists or bombs. Violence comes when reason has been extinguished. For some, that’s the point — that’s the goal.

Meanwhile, clumping the goals and beliefs of everyday Israelis with Netanyahu and setting them together on “one” side, then lumping everyday Palestinians with Hamas on another, is one such radicalizing conflation. It expands the chasm in which reason and empathy for one another may still make a difference. The same kluge can be used to normalize anti-Semitism and shut down concerns for Palestinian civilians.

The goal of these efforts is not to spread lies. It’s to amplify noise. Social media is a very narrow channel: the bandwidth available to us is far too small for the burden of information we task it with carrying. Too often, we act as though the entire world should move through their wires. But the world cannot fit into these fiber optic networks. The systems reduce and compress that signal to manage. In reduction, information is lost. The world is compressed into symbols of yes or no: the possibly-maybe gets filtered, the hoping-for gets lost.

Social media is uniquely suited to produce this collapse of politics and to shave down our capacity for empathy. In minimizing the “boring” and mundane realities of our lives that bind us, in favor of the heated and exclamatory, the absurd and the frustrating, the orientations of these systems is closely aligned with the goals of discourse hacking. It’s baked in through technical means. It hardly matters if this is intentional or not — The Purpose of a System is What it Does.

Deep fakes are powerful not only because they can represent things that did not occur, but because they complicate events which almost certainly did. We don’t need to believe that a video is fake. If we decide that it is beyond the scope of determination, it can be dismissed as a shared point of reference for understanding the world and working toward a better one. It means one less thing we can agree on.

But people use images to tell the stories they want to tell, and they always have. Images — fake or real — don’t have to be believed as true in order to be believed. They simply have to suggest a truth, help us deny a truth, or allow a truth to be simplified.

Pictures do not have to be true to do this work. They only have to be useful.

(This is an extended version of a lecture on misinformation given to the Responsible AI program at ELISAVA Barcelona School of Design and Engineering on November 15, 2023.)

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104 days ago
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104 days ago
"Deep fakes are powerful not only because they can represent things that did not occur, but because they complicate events which almost certainly did. We don’t need to believe that a video is fake. If we decide that it is beyond the scope of determination, it can be dismissed as a shared point of reference for understanding the world and working toward a better one."

How a mysterious ghost ship brought cosmic disco to Cape Verde | Music | The Guardian


In a calm morning in March 1968, a shipment carrying the latest Korgs, Moogs and Hammond organs set off from Baltimore harbour, heading for an exhibition in Rio de Janeiro. The sea was steady, the containers safely attached. And yet later that same day, the ship would inexplicably vanish.

A few months later, it finally reappeared. Somehow, the ship had been marooned on the São Nicolau island of Cabo Verde (now Cape Verde, but then a Portuguese territory 350 miles off the west coast of Africa). The crew were nowhere to be seen and the cargo was commandeered by local police. But when it was found to contain hundreds upon hundreds of keyboards and synths, an anti-colonial leader called Amílcar Cabral declared the instruments should be distributed equally among the archipelago’s schools.

Overnight, a whole generation of young Cabo Verdeans gained free access to cutting-edge music gear. According to Frankfurt-based rarities label Analog Africa, this bizarre turn of fate can be directly credited with inspiring the island’s explosion of newly electrified sounds following independence in 1975, and has now been documented on its on its latest compilation, Space Echo – The Mystery Behind The Cosmic Sound Of Cabo Verde.

The synths, it is claimed, helped modernise the indigenous folk dances morna and coladeira, as well as funaná – an African style previously outlawed by the Portuguese – by figures such as star arranger Paulino Vieira, one of the schoolkids who benefited from the haul. In Vieira’s music, makeshift percussive contraptions such as the ferrinho (an iron bar scraped with a knife) were layered with Nile Rodgers disco guitars, frisky synth solos and the whirling rhythms of Latin American bolero and salsa. All of it is dazingly repetitive and trippy, coming across like the soundtrack to some sort of lost sci-fi B-movie.

Forward-looking vintage sounds from Africa are enjoying a moment across Europe right now, but Analog Africa founder Samy Ben Redjeb says he set up his label to highlight the hidden scenes on a continent whose music has too often been blurred into one.

“Before it was all just ‘world music’, but people are starting to see that this is just a bullshit word,” he explains. “People are starting to understand that every African region has different sounds and styles of music. We’re starting to break that all down.”

Now, enthusiasts may become familiar with the futuristic, trippy sounds of 1970s and 80s Cape Verde. But what if that cargo had never lost its way? Cabo Verde’s cosmic sound wouldn’t just be steeped in mystery, it wouldn’t even exist. They say most music scenes are born by accident, but it’s rarely as literal as this.

Space Echo is out on Friday 27 May via Analog Africa

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109 days ago
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Before you try to do something, make sure you can do nothing


When building a new thing, a good first step is to build a thing that does nothing. That way, you at least know you are starting from a good place. If I’m building a component that performs an action, I’ll probably do it in these steps:

  • Step zero is to write a standalone program to perform the action. This ensures that the action is even possible.
  • Once I have working code to perform the action, I write a component that doesn’t perform an action. That at least makes sure I know how to build a component.
  • Next, I register the component for the action, but have the Invoke method merely print the message “Yay!” to the debugger without doing anything else. This makes sure I know how to get the component to run at the proper time.
  • Next, I fill in the Invoke method with enough code to identify what action to perform and which object to perform it on, print that information to the debugger, and return without actually performing the action. This makes sure I can identify which action is supposed to be done.
  • Finally, I fill in the rest of the Invoke method to perform the action on the desired object. For this, I can copy/paste the already-debugged code from step zero.

Too often, I see relatively inexperienced developers dive in and start writing a big complex thing: Then they can’t even get it to compile because it’s so big and complex. They ask for help, saying, “I’m having trouble with this one line of code,” but as you study what they have written, you realize that this one line of code is hardly the problem. The program hasn’t even gotten to the point where it can comprehend the possibility of executing that line of code. I mutter to myself, “How did you let it get this bad?”

Start with something that does nothing. Make sure you can do nothing successfully. Only then should you start making changes so it starts doing something. That way, you know that any problems you have are related to your attempts to do something.

The post Before you try to do something, make sure you can do nothing appeared first on The Old New Thing.

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222 days ago
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The 30-Year Mortgage Is an Intrinsically Toxic Product (2018)

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225 days ago
At no point in this extremely wonky essay does he discuss homelessness, nor its mirror image, housing security. I think he's probably right that 30-year fixed-rate mortgages are a bad policy, but in order to develop a better idea we *must* think about the policy goals we actually want *outside of* the real estate market.
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The Great Rivalry?

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Every argument that the US is in danger of losing out to China, that the US needs more weapons to deter China, that the US can’t afford to help arm Ukraine, and many others, should be required to begin with these two graphs.

Data for the first graph is from the International Monetary Fund, for the second from the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The graphs appear in this article.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

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273 days ago
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Software Bugs That Cause Real-World Harm


Years ago, when I was an undergraduate student at McGill, I took a software engineering class, and as part of that class, I heard the infamous story of the Therac-25 computer-controlled radiotherapy machine. Long story short: a software bug caused the machine to occasionally give radiation doses that were sometimes hundreds of times greater than normal, which could result in grave injury or death. This story gets told in class to make an important point: don’t be a cowboy, if you’re a software engineer and you’re working on safety-critical systems, you absolutely must do due diligence and implement proper validation and testing, otherwise you could be putting human lives at risk. Unfortunately, I think the real point kind of gets lost on many people. You might hear that story and think that the lesson is that you should never ever work on safety-critical systems where such due diligence is required, and that you’re really lucky to be pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year working on web apps, where the outcome of your work, and all the bugs that may still remain dormant somewhere in your code, will never harm anyone. Some people work on safety-critical code, and these people bear the weight of tremendous responsibility, but not you, you’re using blockchain technology to build AirBnB for dogs, which couldn’t possibly harm anyone even if it tried. I’d like to share three stories with you. I’ve saved the best story for last.

Back in 2016, I completed my PhD, and took my first “real” job, working at Apple in California. I was joining a team that was working on the GPU compiler for the iPhone and other iDevices. While getting set up in California prior to starting the job, it occurred to me that showing up to work with an Android phone, while being part of a team that was working on the iPhone, might not look so great, and so I decided to make a stop at the Apple store and bought the best iPhone that was available at the time, an iPhone 6S Plus with 128GB of storage. Overall, I was very pleased with the phone: it was lightweight, snappy and beautiful, with great battery life, and the fingerprint sensor meant I didn’t have to constantly type my pin code like on my previous Android phone, a clear upgrade.

Fast forward a few months and I had to catch an early morning flight for a work-related conference. I set an early alarm on my phone and went to sleep. The next day, I woke up and instantly felt like something was wrong, because I could see that it was really sunny outside. I went to check the time on my iPhone. I flipped the phone over and was instantly filled with an awful sinking sense of dread: it was already past my flight’s takeoff time! The screen on my phone showed that the alarm I had set was in the process of ringing, but for some reason, the phone wasn’t vibrating or making any sound. It was “ringing” completely silently, but the animation associated with a ringing alarm was active.

I did manage to get another flight, but I needed my manager’s approval, and so I had to call him and explain the situation, feeling ashamed the whole time (I swear it’s not my fault, I swear I’m not just lazy this bug is real, I swear). Thankfully, he was a very understanding man, and I did make it to the conference, but I missed most of the first day and opening activities. It wasn’t the first or the last time that I experienced this bug, it happened sporadically, seemingly randomly, over the span of several months. I couldn’t help but feel angry. Someone’s incompetence had caused me to experience anxiety and shame, but it had also caused several people to waste time, and the company to waste money on a missed flight. Why hadn’t this bug been fixed after several months? How many other people were impacted? I had a cushy tech job where if I show up to work late, people ask if I’m doing alright, but some people have jobs where being late can cause them to be fired on the spot, and some of these people might have a family to support, and be living paycheque to paycheque. A malfunctioning alarm clock probably isn’t going to directly cause a person’s death, but it definitely has the potential to cause real-world harm.

The point of this blog post isn’t to throw Apple under the bus, and so I’ll share another story (or maybe more of a rant) about poor software design in Android OS and how it’s impacted my life. About 3 years after working at Apple, when the replacement battery in my iPhone 6S Plus started to wear out, I decided to try Android again, and so I got myself a Google Pixel 3A XL. This phone also had a nice fingerprint scanner, but the best differentiating feature was of course the headphone jack. Unfortunately, Android suffers from poor user interface design in a few areas, and one of the most annoying flaws in its user interface is simply that the stock Android OS doesn’t have flexible enough options when it comes to controlling when the phone rings, which is one of the most important aspects of a phone.

Being a millenial, I don’t particularly like phone calls. I would much prefer to be able to make appointments and file support tickets using an online system. However, my deep dislike for phone calls probably stems from a more personal issue, which is that my mother is an unmedicated schizophrenic. She doesn’t respect my boundaries. She has done things such as randomly call me in the middle of the night because her irrational paranoia causes her to be worried that shadowy evil figures are coming after me. Thankfully, Android now has “bedtime mode” feature, which allows me to make it so that phone calls won’t cause my phone to ring between 10PM and 8:30AM. If my mom happens to die in a hospital in the middle of the night, I’ll just have to find out and be sad the next day. My sleep is sacred, and bedtime mode allows me to enforce some basic boundaries using software.

Bedtime mode is quite useful, but I still have the other problem that my mom could decide to randomly call me in the daytime as well, and unfortunately I rarely want to take her phone calls. However, I also don’t want her to end up homeless or in jail (which has happened before, but that’s a story for another time), and so I don’t want to block her and completely lose the ability to receive her calls. This results in me having to almost always have my phone set to “do not disturb”, so that I don’t have to be disturbed at random times by unwanted phone calls. I wish that Android had an option to set a specific person to never cause the phone to ring, and it seems like that should be an easy feature to implement that would have a real positive impact on the quality of lives of many people, but I digress.

The real problem is that, although I hate phone calls, our society is still structured in such a way that sometimes, I have to receive “important” phone calls. For instance, my doctor recently placed a referral for me to see a specialist. I’ve been told that the hospital is going to call me some time in the next few weeks. I don’t want to miss that phone call, and so I have to disable “do not disturb”. However, because the stock Android OS has only one slider for “Ring & notification volume”, disabling do not disturb means that my phone will constantly “ding” and produce annoying sounds every time I get a text message or any app produces a notification, which is very disruptive. The fact is, while I occasionally do want my phone to ring so I can receive important phone calls, I basically never want app notifications to produce sound. I’ve been told that I should go and individually disable notifications for every single app on my phone, but you tell me, why in the fuck can’t there simply be two separate fucking sliders for “Ring volume” and “Notification volume”? In my opinion, the fact that there isn’t simply highlights continued gross incompetence and disregard for user experience. Surely, this design flaw has caused millions of people to experience unnecessary anxiety, and should have been fixed years ago.

This is turning out to be a long-ish blog post, but as I said, I’ve kept the best story for last. I’m in the process of buying a new place, and I’ll be moving in two weeks from now. As part of this, I’ve decided to do some renovations, and so I needed to get some construction materials, including sheets of drywall. This is a bit awkward, because I’m a woman living in the city. I don’t have a car or a driver’s license. Sheets of drywall are also quite heavy, and too big to fit in the building’s elevator, meaning they have to be carried in the stairs up to the third floor. Yikes.

In Montreal, where I live, there are 3 main companies selling renovation supplies: Home Depot, Rona and Reno-Depot. Home Depot is the only one that had all the things I needed to order, so I went to their website and added all the items to my cart. It took me about 45 minutes to select everything and fill the order form, but when I got to the point where I could place the order, the website gave me a message saying “An unknown error has occurred”. That’s it, no more details than that, no description of the cause of the error, just, sorry lol, nope, you can’t place this order, and you don’t get an explanation. I was really frustrated that I had wasted almost an hour trying to place that order. A friend of mine suggested that maybe she could try placing the order and it would work. I printed the page with the contents of my cart to a PDF document and sent them over. It worked for her, she was able to place the order, and so I sent her an electronic payment to cover the costs.

Since my new place is on the third floor, we had some time pressure to get things done, and heavy items would have to be carried up the stairs, we paid extra specifically to have the items delivered inside the condo unit and within a fixed time period between noon and 3PM. The total cost for delivery was 90 Canadian dollars, which seems fairly outrageous, but sometimes, you just have no choice. I was expecting my delivery before 3PM, and the Home Depot website had said that I would get a text 30 minutes before delivery. At 2:59PM, I received two text messages at the same time. The first said “Your order has just been picked up”. The second said “Your order has just been delivered, click here to rate your delivery experience”. Again, I was filled with a sense of dread. Had they tried to reach me and failed? Had they just dumped the construction materials outside? I rushed downstairs. There was no sign of a delivery truck or any of the materials. I figured there must be another software bug, despite what the second text message said, the delivery clearly hadn’t happened yet.

Sure enough, at 3:27PM, 27 minutes after the end of my delivery window, I received a phone call from a delivery driver. He was downstairs, and he was about to dump the construction materials on the sidewalk. NO! I explained that I had paid extra to have the materials delivered inside the unit. I could show him the email that proved that I had paid specifically for this service. He argued back, according to his system, he was supposed to dump the materials at the curb. Furthermore, they had only sent one guy. There was no way he alone could carry 8 foot long, 56-pound sheets of drywall up to the third floor. I raised my voice, he raised his. After a few minutes, he said he would call his manager. He called back. The delivery company would send a second truck with another guy to help him carry the materials upstairs. I felt angry, but also glad that I had stood my ground in that argument.

The first guy waited, sitting on the side of the curb in the heat, looking angry, doing nothing, for about 30 minutes until the second guy showed up to help. When the second delivery guy showed up, he asked to see the email. I showed him proof that I had paid to have things delivered upstairs. He also stated that their system said they only had to drop things in front of the building, but that he believed me. The delivery company was a subcontractor, and this was a software bug they had encountered before. This bug had caused multiple other customers to be extremely upset. So upset, in fact, that one customer, he said, had literally taken him hostage once, and another one had assaulted him. Gross, almost criminal incompetence on the part of one or more developers somewhere had again caused many people to waste time and to experience stress, anger, and even violence. The most infuriating part of this though, of course, is that bugs like this are known to exist, but they often go unfixed for months, sometimes even years. The people responsible have to know that their incompetence, and their inaction is causing continued real-world harm.

The point of this blog post is that, although most of us don’t work on software that would directly be considered safety-critical, we live in a world that’s becoming increasingly automated and computerized, and sometimes, bugs in seemingly mundane pieces of code, even web apps, can cause real-world suffering and harm, particularly when they go unfixed for weeks, months or even years. Part of the problem may be that many industry players lack respect for software engineering as a craft. Programmers are seen as replaceable cogs and as “code monkeys”, and not always given enough time to do due diligence. Some industry players also love the idea that you can take a random person, put them through a 3-month bootcamp, and get a useful, replaceable code monkey at the other end of that process. I want to tell you that no matter how you got to where you are today, if you do your job seriously, and you care about user experience, you could be making a real difference in the quality of life of many people. Skilled software engineers don’t wear masks or capes, but they can still have cool aliases, and they truly have the power to make the world better or worse.

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275 days ago
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