21 October 2021

The New York Times: “‘What Have We Done with Democracy?’ A Decade On, Arab Spring Gains Wither”

Elsewhere, wars that followed the uprisings have devastated Syria, Libya and Yemen. Autocrats smothered protest in the Gulf. Egyptians elected a president before embracing a military dictatorship.

Still, the revolutions proved that power, traditionally wielded from the top down, could also be driven by a fired-up street.

It was a lesson the Tunisians, who recently flooded the streets again to demonstrate against Parliament and for Mr. Saied, have reaffirmed. This time, however, the people lashed out at democracy, not at an autocrat.

The people pushing for Parliament, democracy, freedoms, we weren’t the biggest part of the revolution, said Yassine Ayari, an independent Tunisian lawmaker recently imprisoned after he denounced Mr. Saied’s power grab. Maybe a lot of Tunisians didn’t want the revolution. Maybe people just want beer and security. That’s a hard question, a question I don’t want to ask myself, he added.

But I don’t blame the people. We had a chance to show them how democracy could change their lives, and we failed.

The revolution equipped Tunisians with some tools to solve problems, but not the solutions they had expected, Mr. Ayari said. With more needs than governing experience, he said, they had little patience for the time-consuming mess of democracy.

Vivian Yee

I consider the latter quote above a pragmatic point of view that is, unfortunately, often ignored when discussing transition to democracy. While many people may protest in the streets for greater representation and personal freedoms, a silent majority are indifferent to these ideals and prioritize jobs, stability, and economic prosperity.

20 October 2021

Engadget: “Android 12 is now rolling out to Pixel phones”

There’s another important thing to note about the Android 12 rollout. The dynamic color experience powered by the Material You design language is only available on Pixel devices for the time being. The color scheme will match the wallpaper you choose across the system and apps, and that look will be mirrored across other Google products, including smart displays, wearables, Chrome OS and the web. Google says other Android devices will get access to the experience later.

Kris Holt

I got a taste of Material You in recent weeks, as some Google apps on Android have started adopting this new design language, from Gmail to Messages to Clock, and I have to say… I really dislike it! The most prominent changes are in the Clock app, where I hate the large font and huge buttons in the ‘Timers’ section, the clashing pastel colors, and the pill-shaped accents on the bottom row. ‘Alarms’ looks somewhat decent, but the huge + button right in the middle of the screen is annoying and covers a lot of the content. The changes in other apps are subtler, from button shapes to more pastel colors, but I don’t like any of them overall. The chosen colors in particular diminish contrast and make apps look washed out and uninspiring.

18 October 2021

The Seattle Times: “Former Boeing pilot indicted on fraud charges related to 737 MAX crashes that killed 346”

Forkner described how he persuaded Lion Air officials who wanted to train their pilots on MAX simulators to drop the idea, telling them this was a difficult and unnecessary training burden for your airline.

Forkner in private messages then mocked the Lion Air representatives for their “stupidity” in asking for such training, and boasted that his efforts to dissuade them had saved Boeing a sick amount of $$$$.

Lion Air Flight JT610 was the first MAX to crash in October 2018, killing 189 people.

In a 2014 email, Forkner wrote that avoiding the need for full flight simulator pilot training, which would cost the airlines a lot of money, was a key imperative from the leadership of the MAX program.

The prosecution agreement, criticized for the way it let Boeing executives off the hook, was filed by the then-U.S. Attorney in the northern district of Texas, Erin Nealy Cox.

Cox left the Department of Justice after the agreement and in June joined Kirkland & Ellis, Boeing’s lead corporate criminal defense law firm. On Kirkland’s website, she was welcomed to the firm as a partner by Mark Filip, who had signed the DPA on behalf of Boeing.

Dominic Gates

Some follow-up news about the Boeing 737 Max crashes and subsequent investigation. While it looks like Mark Forkner has played a major part covering up the flaws, it also seems obvious that his management encouraged this course of action to increase profits. And that the American justice system, just as the political system, is rife with corruption, ineffective against people with money and power – as it was and continues to be against Donald Trump.

17 October 2021

University of Cambridge: “New class of habitable exoplanets ‘a big step forward’ in search for life”

The investigation led the researchers to identify a new class of planets, Hycean planets, with massive planet-wide oceans beneath hydrogen-rich atmospheres. Hycean planets can be up to 2.6 times larger than Earth and have atmospheric temperatures up to nearly 200 degrees Celsius, depending on their host stars, but their oceanic conditions could be similar to those conducive for microbial life in Earth’s oceans. Such planets also include tidally locked ‘dark’ Hycean worlds that may have habitable conditions only on their permanent night sides, and ‘cold’ Hycean worlds that receive little radiation from their stars.

Planets of this size dominate the known exoplanet population, although they have not been studied in nearly as much detail as super-Earths. Hycean worlds are likely quite common, meaning that the most promising places to look for life elsewhere in the Galaxy may have been hiding in plain sight.

The Cambridge team identified a sizeable sample of potential Hycean worlds which are prime candidates for detailed study with next-generation telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is due to be launched later this year. These planets all orbit red dwarf stars between 35-150 light years away: close by astronomical standards. Already planned JWST observations of the most promising candidate, K2-18b, could lead to the detection of one or more biosignature molecules.

Nikku Madhusudhan, Anjali A. A. Piette & Savvas Constantinou

Exciting to think that scientists could detect potential signs of life on one of these planets over the course of the next decade! Exciting with a touch of sadness, as humans will never (at least not in my lifetime) be able to visit these planets and examine their strange life forms up close. At least I can console myself with science-fiction novels, where such worlds were imagined already – the closest analog that comes to mind is Poseidon in Alastair Reynolds’ Poseidon’s Wake.

16 October 2021

IEEE Spectrum: “Space Station Incident demands Independent Investigation”

By then the warped NASA management culture that soon enabled the Columbia disaster in 2003 was fully in place. Some of the wording in current management proclamations regarding the Nauka docking have an eerie ring of familiarity. Space cooperation continues to be a hallmark of U.S.-Russian relations and I have no doubt that our joint work reinforces the ties that have bound our collaborative efforts over the many years wrote NASA Director Bill Nelson to Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency, on July 31. There was no mention of the ISS’s first declared spacecraft emergency, nor any dissatisfaction with Russian contribution to it.

To reverse the apparent new cultural drift, and thus potentially forestall the same kind of dismal results as before, NASA headquarters or some even higher office is going to have to intervene. The causes of the Nauka-induced “space sumo match” of massive cross-pushing bodies need to be determined and verified. And somebody needs to expose the decision process that allowed NASA to approve the ISS docking of a powerful thruster-equipped module without the on-site real-time capability to quickly disarm that system in an emergency. Because the apparent sloppiness of NASA’s safety oversight on visiting vehicles looks to be directly associated with maintaining good relations with Moscow, the driving factor seems to be White House diplomatic goals—and that’s the level where a corrective impetus must originate. With a long-time U.S. Senate colleague, Nelson, recently named head of NASA, President Biden is well connected to issue such guidance for a thorough investigation by an independent commission, followed by implementation of needed reforms. The buck stops with him.

James Oberg

What astonished me about this incident from earlier this year was also this relative radio silence from official NASA channels, and from the astronauts themselves! I follow one of the ESA astronauts currently on board the ISS, Thomas Pesquet, and I don’t remember him ever mentioning this unprecedented situation on his Twitter feed, which makes me suspect that NASA officials instructed them to stay quiet. Keeping things under wraps is not a great sign that the agency intends to thoroughly investigate and prevent similar incidents in the future. And sure enough, another test firing of thrusters on the Russian Soyuz crew module resulted in a second, albeit less severe, emergency just yesterday!

15 October 2021

Foreign Affairs: “The Singular Chancellor”

Yet outwardly, the most striking thing about the chancellor remains her determined normalcy. Merkel’s clear, light voice carries the unhurried intonation of the pine-forested, sandy-soiled Brandenburg countryside northwest of Berlin, where her father was a Lutheran parson. Her working uniform consists of sensible flats, black pants, and an endless supply of hip-length jackets in every color. The chancellor and her husband, a retired chemistry professor, live in their old Berlin apartment rather than the official residence; the only visible security is a police officer in front of the building. To the approval of Berliners, Merkel is sometimes seen walking in the city center or shopping in a supermarket, trailed by her bodyguards.

Merkel’s interpreters have labored heroically to reconcile these paradoxes. The simple truth is that Merkel the level-headed empiricist has little patience for visions when there are problems to be solved. She has whipsawed on her principles for the sake of power, but she has also been willing to pay a price for standing up for her deepest convictions. Few of her peers have been able to accumulate so much political capital. Yet even her admirers concede that although she has been exquisitely adroit at riding out the currents of politics, she has been far too reluctant to shape them.

Constanze Stelzenmüller

As Angela Merkel prepares to end her final mandate as German Chancellor, an interesting overview of her most consequential decisions during this long tenure. Naturally, a newspaper article, however long, can hardly grasp everything that happened during the past 16 years, nor map out all the repercussions of these decisions – in fact, we may not recognize them in full for years.

14 October 2021

ZDNet: “Hey, Apple and Samsung, stop fixating on cameras! My dream phone gets work done”

Smartphone makers want you to spend a lot of money replacing your current phone with the latest, helping you take slightly better photos. When you then share these photos on social media and the quality is compressed, I’m sure you’ll be very excited that you spent over $1,000 to capture a photo no one really cares about.

As Apple iPhone sales indicate, most people simply want a smartphone camera where they can point, shoot, and share. If you want to get a bit creative, then there are many affordable and capable Android phones with accessible modes to enhance your creativity. Don’t get sucked into the marketing hype and think you will challenge professional reviewers or photographers with your expensive smartphone. Good photos and videos are a result of skills — not just the hardware.

Matthew Miller

I am not precisely a typical consumer in this regard, as I own a semi-professional Canon camera for most of my ‘serious’ photography, but I do agree with this article. The race among smartphone manufacturers in recent years to add multiple focal lengths and lenses to their flagship products feels more like a marketing gimmick to push people to spend more on devices and to upgrade them more frequently. Other features, such as screen quality, battery life and fast charging, are more important for the user experience, but are talked about less, probably because progress is slower and less tangible from year to year.