Thursday 20th August 2020

Amazon, toilets, and Ryan Gossling's face

A few years ago, back when we worked in offices, I went to the bathroom at work. That’s not to say I haven’t been to the toilet at work for years, but this was the last time something notable happened during the process. Now is perhaps a good point to warn you that you probably shouldn’t read today’s email while eating your breakfast.

The toilets at the office consist of a long row of cubicles. I went in and pushed open the door to the first one to be met by… well. The worst-case scenario. Put it this way: There had been an incident. I’ll just come out and say it. There was poo on the seat. There was poo on the floor. There was poo on the walls and in the sink there was poo. It was Churchill’s speech about fighting on the beaches and in the fields. Only instead of fighting it was poo. Everywhere.

I backed out of the cubicle. As I did so, a colleague came walking towards me, saw me backing out, pointed at the cubicle, and said with a smile “Oh yes, I did that!” He seemed almost proud. Certainly amused. He looked me dead in the eye with a sense of recognition. I wasn’t sure what to think. He was admitting what should surely have been his deepest, most shameful secret, yet was acting like it was funny. Worse, he was looking at me as if I would understand. As if this was something we had in common.

I wouldn’t say I knew him particularly well, but in that moment I felt like I’d never know someone less well. It was the casual pronouncement. The sense of levity at what was essentially a biological war crime. Given the extent of the mess, I had assumed no human could have been responsible, that it was a freak plumbing incident. Yet here was Gary, claiming credit for it. How had he got it on the ceiling?

He turned away with a spring in his step. And I carried on with my business, mentally reevaluating this middle-aged project manager.

However, something must have been playing on Gary’s mind, because later that day, he came rushing back up me. Maybe it had been my expression (Stunned? Shell-shocked), but something had clearly been bothering him.

“Oh,” he said, “you remember earlier on when I said ‘I did that’,” (how could I forget). He took a deep breath, “I meant, you know, I went in there and then backed out straight away like you did. Not that I, you know, did that!”

The whole thing has a Curb Your Enthusiasm vibe, but there’s a sort of coda to it that really tops it off. I found this incident very funny (as did Gary in the end) and it became one of those anecdotes. In true Chinese whispers fashion eventually, it came back to me from a different route. A woman at work was chatting to a friend and said, “Did you hear that story about Gary?” Her friend shook her head and she continued, “Well, someone went to the toilet at work and it was covered in poop. And then Gary came along and said, ‘yeah I made that mess’!”

Someone, somewhere, repeated this story and thought the point was not a punchline about ambiguous phrasing, but that Gary was a messy toilet user.

Poor Gary.

Beware second-hand stories, I guess.


In more tasteful news, this week on OneZero: I’m thinking about Amazon. Amazon has become my default for online shopping. When there’s something I want to buy online, muscle memory in my fingers starts typing the URL into the address bar before I even realize it. And yet, each time I go there I’m left with a sort of dirty, disappointed feeling. Considering it’s the world’s biggest online shop, Amazon is a surprisingly bad online shop.

(Also of interest, my favourite factoid from researching this: Amazon’s top board has more men on it called Jeff than it does women. Talk about hiring in your own image, there’s a glass ceiling here for men who don’t have the same spelling of first name as the CEO.)


Elsewhere

I’m a real sucker for stories about AI messing up and doing weird things. And this story about an image sharpening AI adding automatically adding Ryan Gosling’s face into a picture is no exception.

While working on an image, he used Topaz Labs’ Gigapixel AI software to upscale it… and found that the software added Ryan Gosling’s face to his photo.

To be clear, this isn’t a knock on the Gigapixel software. Vaarakallio tells PetaPixel that the software is “amazing” and he uses it all the time. But his experience shows you what happens when computer vision gets tripped up by what looks like a blurry face.


Malofiej’s infographic awards showcase the top infographics from magazines around the world. It’s difficult to quote these, so I’d recommend getting a cup of tea and taking a little time to browse through them. They’re really beautiful - although really you need the print copy, or at least a proper high-resolution photo, to enjoy them properly.


Finally a piece actually about software development: Reflections on software performance by Nelson Elhage. This does what all good essays do, I think, which is to give voice to something I’ve been half thinking for a while.

What is perhaps less apparent is that having faster tools changes how users use a tool or perform a task. Users almost always have multiple strategies available to pursue a goal — including deciding to work on something else entirely — and they will choose to use faster tools more and more frequently. Fast tools don’t just allow users to accomplish tasks faster; they allow users to accomplish entirely new types of tasks, in entirely new ways. 


Until next time,

Yours,

Simon