14 April 2018

‘The Expanse’ (SyFy, season 2)

The Expanse - season 2

The Eros settlement has been engulfed by the runaway protomolecule, claiming the lives of the hundred thousand colonists, with Holden and Miller barely escaping with a handful of locals. As the rest of the Solar System becomes aware of the situation, the crew of the Rocinante, together with Fred Johnson, track down the people behind the horrific experiment, but clash among themselves about how to best handle the situation. As they put in motion their wild plan to destroy the infected asteroid, the protomolecule starts displaying its more exotic powers and moves Eros out of orbit and into a collision course with Earth…

Unlike most of the online universe, I haven’t been exactly enthused with the show’s first season. So, I had no trouble waiting for the full season to be released on Netflix before starting to watch it, even if that was months later than the official launch. The second season was a notable improvement, but it does come with its share of issues, both old and new. The next season is set to start very soon, so I wanted to share some of my impressions, even if they are a bit fuzzy a couple of months later.

I found it odd how the season is composed of two rather distinct parts: the first five episodes wrap up the story of the first season and are in fact continuing the adaptation of Leviathan Wakes, the first novel in the Expanse cycle. The action is fast-paced and gripping, with many factions scrambling to contain the Eros crisis, in stark contrast to the slow-burning first season. I think it makes little sense to split this novel into one-and-a-half seasons; I would have enjoyed the first season a lot more if it included its proper ending. After the first part, we get an interlude showing Solomon Epstein inventing the improved drive that allows fast travel to the outer solar system, as told in the short story Drive – again an odd choice, as this kind of backstory should belong in the first season.

12 April 2018

The Verge: “What happens when Facebook doesn’t tell you a friend has died?”

Yesterday, interface designer Caryn Vainio wrote about the unexpected death of a friend she kept in touch with through Facebook. Before his death, the friend posted a status update about being in the hospital. But Vainio hadn’t seen the message, despite habitually reading every post on her feed in chronological order. Mutual friends didn’t remember seeing the post, either. Not only have I lost a friend, a bunch of us are horrified that we never knew, and we don't know if he KNEW we didn't know, she wrote. In the age of online relationships that social media companies claim to facilitate in a positive way, this feels … unacceptable.

Vainio’s story inverts a common complaint about Facebook accidentally inserting painful memories into people’s feeds. In this case, she’s saying, Facebook didn’t surface a negative post at a time when it was vitally important. The platform guessed what a user wanted to do with some highly personal information, and it chose wrong. But do we really want a Facebook that consistently guesses right?

Adi Robertson

I sympathize with her sad story, but I highly doubt seeing your entire feed of friends’ posts, like she suggests, would solve this kind of problem. This is a common fallacy thrown around every time someone is dissatisfied with some aspect of modern social networks. The truth is, we are sharing so many small bits and pieces throughout the day, and we collect increasing numbers of friends, that it would be impossible to keep up with everything all the time. Suppose you have a couple of friends in another time zone, so they post while you are asleep; by the time you log in later, their posts would be pushed further down the feed by things shared more recently.

10 April 2018

TechCrunch: “Facebook retracted Zuckerberg’s messages from recipients’ inboxes”

You can’t remove Facebook messages from the inboxes of people you sent them to, but Facebook did that for Mark Zuckerberg and other executives. Three sources confirm to TechCrunch that old Facebook messages they received from Zuckerberg have disappeared from their Facebook inboxes, while their own replies to him conspicuously remain. An email receipt of a Facebook message from 2010 reviewed by TechCrunch proves Zuckerberg sent people messages that no longer appear in their Facebook chat logs or in the files available from Facebook’s Download Your Information tool.

When asked by TechCrunch about the situation, Facebook claimed in this statement it was done for corporate security:

“After Sony Pictures’ emails were hacked in 2014 we made a number of changes to protect our executives’ communications. These included limiting the retention period for Mark’s messages in Messenger. We did so in full compliance with our legal obligations to preserve messages.”

Josh Constine

Among all the past and recent scandals involving Facebook, this one feels to me the most damning for their corporate culture. In the context of a criminal investigation, this may well be regarded as tampering with evidence, no matter their clever justifications. I don’t see how anyone could trust any statement coming from Facebook officials if they can decide at any moment to just delete the messages from their system!

04 April 2018

The Lightroom Queen: “Lightroom Raw & Creative Profiles”

Since version 3, Lightroom has offered a number of profiles to emulate different in-camera picture styles, but they’ve been hidden away in the Camera Calibration panel so most people didn’t know they existed. In the April 2018 Lightroom releases, these profiles have become first-class citizens, moving to the top of the Develop panels, and many more profiles have been added.

Profiles are designed to be selected first, before you start editing, just like choosing a specific film stock for it’s unique “look”. You can select a different profile at any time, and your slider values will remain untouched, but the look of the photo may change considerably, so it’s more efficient to select your profile before you start editing.

Victoria Bampton

I heard I don’t know how many photographers complaining about the ‘flat’ colors in Lightroom, using this as pretext to switch to other editing software and promote their supposedly better color rendition. It always baffled me that none of them bothered to do a little research into color profiles, a feature in Lightroom that does exactly this. I meant to write a blog post on this subject for months, but other things always got in the way – I guess this is the best time for it.

01 April 2018

The New York Times: “How Homeownership Became the Engine of American Inequality”

Five months ago, before being confirmed as Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin announced that the new administration hoped to “cap the mortgage interest”. But when Trump released his tax plan last month, the MID was untouched. Trump did propose to double the standard deduction (to $24,000 from $12,600 for married couples, for example) which would make the MID irrelevant for a vast majority of homeowners, whose mortgage interest would be less than the increased exemption, giving them almost no reason to itemize. But wealthy families living in expensive homes would still cash in. If anything, doubling the standard deduction simply exposes the MID for what it really is: a generous public-housing program for the rich. Diane Yentel, the president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, believes that in the long run this will make the MID “untenable to retain”.

Yentel’s coalition supports the idea of lowering the size of deductible mortgage debt to $500,000 and reallocating the savings to housing assistance for low-income families. “The solution is so obvious”, Yentel says. “There are a number of programs that have proven success in ending homelessness and ending housing insecurity.” The problem is not in the policies’ prescriptions but in their dosage: We severely underfund programs that work. By one estimate, capping the MID at $500,000 would save $87 billion over 10 years, even though less than 6 percent of mortgages nationwide exceed half a million dollars. That savings would allow 1.2 million additional families to benefit from housing vouchers.

Matthew Desmond

Another weird provision in the US tax code that fuels income inequality – and another way for the rich to solidify their wealth and power. Reminds me of the research of Thomas Piketty and my own thoughts on the matter; sadly little has changed since, and, under the Trump administration, it’s unlikely to change in the short term.

31 March 2018

The New York Times: “The Nerve Agent Too Deadly to Use, until Someone Did”

For nearly three decades, since a Soviet whistle-blower told the world of its existence, the nerve agent Novichok has scared American weapons experts. The Pentagon sent teams to destroy abandoned laboratories that once produced the chemical, believed to be orders of magnitude more lethal than sarin or VX.

There was no sign of it ever being used. Until last week.

Now, Britons are taking in the disquieting information that a Novichok nerve agent, a weapon invented for use against NATO troops, was released in the quiet town of Salisbury, its target a former Russian spy named Sergei V. Skripal. Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, collapsed onto a bench in a catatonic state on March 4, and remain hospitalized, in critical condition.

Ellen Barry & Ceylan Yeginsu

From a tech scandal to a political scandal – not that they are completely unrelated. Tensions between the West and Russia are on the rise, and this latest attack has prompted a more determined reaction, with Great Britain, and later 20 additional countries, expulsing Russian diplomats from their embassies. It’s probably too early to call this a new Cold War, but international politics will certainly be increasingly volatile in coming months and years.

30 March 2018

Reuters: “Americans less likely to trust Facebook than rivals on personal data”

Some 41 percent of Americans trust Facebook to obey laws that protect their personal information, compared with 66 percent who said they trust Amazon, 62 percent who trust Google, 60 percent for Microsoft and 47 percent for Yahoo.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online in English throughout the United States. It gathered responses from 2,237 people and has a credibility interval, a measure of accuracy, of 2 percentage points.

Chris Kahn, David Ingram

Remarkable how Facebook manages to be the least trusted company when it comes to privacy and still retain so many recurring users. It’s even lower in the public perception than Yahoo!, whose security was constantly breached in recent years. Granted, Facebook’s track record on privacy is very shady and the company is struggling with two recent scandals involving data harvesting by Cambridge Analytica and the collection of personal calls and SMS on Android. Unfortunately, the public has a short memory on these issues and I suspect Facebook will land again on its feet.