19 April 2017

The Guardian: “The man who could make Marine Le Pen president of France”

Philippot was 28, studious and shy, the son of teachers from a quiet suburb of the northern city of Lille. A junior civil servant in the interior ministry, he belonged to the establishment detested by the far-right. He had never voted Front National, but he says that from childhood, he had nursed a passion for French national sovereignty. His parents had encouraged an early fascination with politics by taking him to watch electoral counts and to the childhood home of General de Gaulle. Philippot also had a visceral loathing of the European Union. Aged 11, he burst into tears when France voted for the Maastricht Treaty that paved the way for the creation of a single European currency. I was really young, but emotionally I’d understood that our coins, francs, were going to disappear and I found that really sad. It was a little irrational and emotional, it wasn’t very political, but I was interested in it. It was the first campaign I really followed, he told me.

Philippot later said that there were two key moments in his life when he cried – when his mother died in 2009 and his tears of joy when Britain voted to leave the EU.

To see something happening in a major European country, which is exactly what we’re proposing for France, we’re thrilled, he told me the morning after the vote. Brexit was a vindication of his own strategy. To radical right parties across Europe, globalisation was failing and the nation state was back.

Angelique Chrisafis

A little irrational?! Somewhat understandable for an 11-year-old, but you would think he has matured in the 20 years since – evidently not.

This is exactly the kind of perverted passions that fueled Brexit and Trump’s election: irrational emotions combined with little reasoning. It proved a good way to win elections, but unfortunately not a solid base for sustained governing.

18 April 2017

Paul Thurrott: “Edge of 17(03): Microsoft’s Web Browser is Still Lacking”

And yet. As is has always been the case, I (re)evaluate Microsoft Edge. And I find it lacking. In fact, if you go back to last summer, to the eve of the Anniversary Update, you will see that I similarly found the improvements to Edge in that release to be impressive. But still lacking.

Here in the first half of 2017, my complaints remain basically the same. And for all the things I do like about Edge—the text rendering on the high DPI displays that are common today, the built-in Reading View, the pleasant and modern user experience, the battery life advantages, and so on—simply can’t overcome this browser’s very real disadvantages.

To be fair, some of these complaints are very specific and may not be an issue for you. Workflow is what it is, and while I try to change how I do things from time-to-time, I’m as flawed as anyone else and expect things to work the way I prefer.

Paul Thurrott

To be fair, most users won’t care about most of these complaints – and I don’t either. On my laptop and Windows tablet, I have browsed almost exclusively with Microsoft Edge ever since I upgraded, so more than a year and a half by now.

17 April 2017

Upcoming changes in Excel for Office 365

After moving to the subscription model, Microsoft has started to slowly increase the frequency of updates for its Office suite. A set of fairly important new features has been announced last month for the fast level of the Office Insider program: collaboration for editing spreadsheets and AutoSave for Excel. Both can make significant improvements to office work. Excel currently has ‘shared workbooks’ as a sort of collaboration feature, but it’s severely limited in some areas and can be confusing for the people updating them, as you will soon find out if you’re regularly working in Excel. Hopefully the new co-authoring will overcome these complications. The files also need to be saved to a SharePoint or OneDrive location, a good opportunity for Microsoft to promote its other products to companies. As for AutoSave – who hasn’t lost all their work because of a crash or computer freeze at some point? This will certainly minimize the loss of work from such problems.

Another feature I’ve been waiting for a long time was recently added to Insider’s Fast program: changing the default layout for PivotTables. I am using pivot tables relatively often at work and most of the times I change the layout to ‘tabular’ without subtotals – this makes it easier to use the resulting table as a source for other calculations, for example VLOOKUPs. But it’s tedious to repeat these formatting steps each time I create a new pivot table. From the screenshots shared by Microsoft, it looks like the update will solve this issue when it rolls out to the stable Office channel – and when companies finally decide to upgrade to Office 365.

10 April 2017

Google Research Blog: “Federated Learning: Collaborative Machine Learning without Centralized Training Data”

It works like this: your device downloads the current model, improves it by learning from data on your phone, and then summarizes the changes as a small focused update. Only this update to the model is sent to the cloud, using encrypted communication, where it is immediately averaged with other user updates to improve the shared model. All the training data remains on your device, and no individual updates are stored in the cloud.

Federated Learning allows for smarter models, lower latency, and less power consumption, all while ensuring privacy. And this approach has another immediate benefit: in addition to providing an update to the shared model, the improved model on your phone can also be used immediately, powering experiences personalized by the way you use your phone.

Brendan McMahan & Daniel Ramage

I’m no expert, but it sounds like Google negated any privacy advantage Apple might have had by using ‘differential privacy’ on its devices. Looking forward to seeing federated learning integrated into Gboard for iOS as well.

09 April 2017

The Wertzone: “How Judge Dredd predicted the future”

The “classic” Judge Dredd background is that presented between the 1982 storyline The Apocalypse War (which reduced the city from its even larger and more implausible beginnings) and the 2011-12 epic Day of Chaos (which all but destroyed the city altogether). The primary setting for Dredd stories in this time period is Mega-City One, a massive super-metropolis extending down the Eastern Seaboard of the former United States, stretching from Boston, Massachusetts to Charlotte, South Carolina and extending inland to the Great Lakes and the Appalachians. Over 400 million people live in this vast area, many of them crammed into huge tower blocks containing up to 50,000 people apiece.

By the early 22nd Century, AI, automation and robots have replaced all menial jobs in the city and many others related to customer service and even medicine and science. The unemployment rate swings from around 92% to 97%. The overwhelming majority of the population survives on a basic, state-provided income. Some people use their free time productively and energetically, creating works of art or music or literature. Others do not, spending all day in front of the television and eating unhealthily. Mega-City One is prone to fads or crazes, where a new idea sweeps the city and people take it up in droves before getting bored and moving on. Crazes can be relatively harmless to downright unhealthy (competitive mass-eating, reducing people to immobile blobs trapped in their apartments) to extremely dangerous (such as “Boinging”, or bouncing around the city in indestructible plastic bubbles, causing immense property damage along the way). Bored citizens sometimes get involved in crime or tribalism. In the worst cases, this tribalism can boil over into Block Wars: the people from one block blame the neighbouring one for having better food or services, or stealing their water, or being too noisy, and they end up fighting. Mega-City One is a seething cauldron of boredom, tensions and grievances, constantly on the verge of boiling over.

Adam Whitehead

While aspects of this fictional world are exaggerated, many of the trends predicted here are already taking shape in reality – some much faster than any sci-fi author could have imagined.

07 April 2017

The Verge: “No one is using Facebook stories, so it turned your friends into ghosts”

Facebook launched a new story feature in its main app last week, adding a Snapchat-esque feed of ephemeral pictures and videos to the top of the News Feed. But people are apparently less than enthusiastic about using it, which is why Facebook seems to be testing a bit of encouragement for the new feature.

Now, instead of showing a sad, empty feed devoid of stories from any of your friends, Facebook is turning your friends into ghosts who aren’t hip enough to use stories. So, instead of the blank space that used to be there, Facebook will show grayed-out icons of some of your more frequently contacted friends, regardless of whether they’ve ever posted to their Facebook story before.

Chaim Gartenberg

I noticed this too a couple of days ago. It’s quite sad for Facebook to seem so desperate, given how completely it dominates online social activities.

Facebook Stories for iOS turns friends into ghost-like profiles

The killer feature would be if tapping these ghost-friend icons would launch SnapChat instead! 😂

06 April 2017

500ish Words: “The Great Laptop Stagnation”

Anyway, all of that aside, if I’m being honest, I still just don’t love this machine. And that has never been the case for me with previous Macs. Again, it’s fine. It’s thinner and lighter than my old MacBook Pro — but not more so than the MacBook. It’s faster than the MacBook, but not noticeably more than the old MacBook Pro. The big, new selling point of this device was supposed to be the Touch Bar.

Meh. One very big MEH.

M.G. Siegler

I’m reasonably certain the correct title here is “The Great MacBook Stagnation”.

Also, if ‘fine’ is the best thing a major fanboy can say about a new product (repeated four times in this review as if the author was gritting his teeth in disappointment), Apple has some big problems on its hands.

Lustig’s Letter: “Hypocrites, liars and cowards – our shrunken politicians”

What makes me even angrier than the prospect of the gratuitously self-inflicted pain we are about to suffer is the way in which the Brexit disaster will crowd out any consideration of all the other major crises on which the government should be focusing.

Critical cash shortages in the NHS, schools, social care, the police and prisons? Sorry, you’ll have to ask someone else.

President Trump tearing up climate change legislation? Sorry, no time to respond.

Famine sweeping across parts of Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, threatening the lives of twenty million people? Sorry, we’re busy.

Civilian casualties as US-led coalition forces bomb Mosul? Sorry, call back.

North Korea? Turkey? China? Sorry, get someone else to deal with them.

We have become a shrinking nation led by shrunken politicians. We deserve better.

Robin Lustig

I worry the same thing will happen on the other side of this breakup, with the European Union: so tangled up in long negotiations with the UK that is misses the chance to improve and move on from this setback, to develop a unified voice and take on a more active role on the world stage at a time when the leadership of the United States seems devoted to chaos. If the EU misses this opportunity, you can be sure others will not – China first and foremost.

02 April 2017

Miloș Dumbraci – Lamă albă, tăiș negru

in Bucharest, Romania

Surprins de o ambuscadă într‑o junglă anonimă și izolat de restul plutonului, soldatul Charlie se refugiază într‑o peșteră întunecată. Atunci când iese de la adăpost însă, se găsește spre uimirea lui într‑o lume complet diferită: o stepă aparent fără sfârșit pe care se înfruntă ființe nu-chiar-oameni, nici-chiar-animale. Fără să cunoască regulile complexe ale bătăliilor rituale între cele trei rase, paonii, borii și vaurii, Charlie omoară un zburător vaur, casta cea mai sus‑pusă, și trebuie să înfrunte consecințele, ca și pedeapsa aplicată paonilor care‑l găzduiseră.

Lamă albă, tăiș negru de Miloș Dumbraci

01 April 2017

The Guardian: “Why time management is ruining our lives”

Time management Sisyphus
Illustration by Pete Gamlen

The allure of the doctrine of time management is that, one day, everything might finally be under control. Yet work in the modern economy is notable for its limitlessness. And if the stream of incoming emails is endless, Inbox Zero can never bring liberation: you’re still Sisyphus, rolling his boulder up that hill for all eternity – you’re just rolling it slightly faster.

Then there’s the matter of self-consciousness: virtually every time management expert’s first piece of advice is to keep a detailed log of your time use, but doing so just heightens your awareness of the minutes ticking by, then lost for ever. As for focusing on your long-term goals: the more you do that, the more of your daily life you spend feeling vaguely despondent that you have not yet achieved them. Should you manage to achieve one, the satisfaction is strikingly brief – then it’s time to set a new long-term goal. The supposed cure just makes the problem worse.

A similar problem afflicts any corporate cost-cutting exercise that focuses on maximising employees’ efficiency: the more of their hours that are put to productive use, the less available they will be to respond, on the spur of the moment, to critical new demands. For that kind of responsiveness, idle time must be built into the system.

Oliver Burkeman

Interesting article, alternating between describing the current obsession with efficiency and time management and philosophical musings about human life that may well explain the former. In the last paragraph above there’s also a neat justification for Google’s old practice of allowing employees to work on personal projects for 20% of their office time; it was a nice way to balance out corporate and personal goals and encourage innovation and independent thought. Personally, I have never been an adept of strict goals and timelines; I would rather spend my free time traveling, reading and photographing than worrying about attaining some far-fetched goals.