21 February 2017

Bloomberg: “Elon Musk is really Boring”

Musk wasn’t joking. At least that’s what he tells me as we sit in the SpaceX offices in Washington. For years he’s been thinking about tunnels—both out of a personal fascination and because they’d be an important component of the Hyperloop, the fanciful high-speed rail system he proposed in 2013. All the while he’s been quietly encouraging anyone who asks him about new business opportunities to consider digging for a living. “I think they were hoping I’d say some sort of iPhone app that they could make,” he says with a smile. “I would just say, ‘Do tunnels.’ It would obviously solve urban congestion—and we wouldn’t be stuck in soul-destroying traffic all the time.”

As Musk tells it, the L.A. traffic jam was a breaking point. Screw it, he thought, I’ll do tunnels myself. Within days of his tweetstorm, he acquired a domain name—BoringCompany.com—and appointed a leader for the project, Steve Davis, a senior SpaceX engineer who designed the guidance systems for the company’s first rocket. The barely sketched plan was to dig lots of tunnels for cars and high-speed trains. Mostly, Musk was going to approach it in his usual way: He’d figure it out as he went along.

Max Chafkin

Congratulations, Elon, you’ve just reinvented the subway!

19 February 2017

Alastair Reynolds – On the Steel Breeze

in Bucharest, Romania
On the Steel Breeze (Poseidons Children) eBook by Alastair Reynolds

În urma descoperirii propulsiei Chibesa de către clanul Akinya, omenirea are în sfârșit o cale relativ accesibilă către stele. Iar telescopul Oculus a oferit destinația perfectă pentru o expediție la scară mare: gigantica și misterioasa structură de pe Crucible, botezată Mandala. Către acel sistem se îndreaptă o flotă de holonave într‑o traversare lungă de două secole. Moștenind setea de aventură caracteristică familiei, fiica lui Sunday Chiku-Verde s‑a alăturat expediției la bordul navei Zanzibar; o soră-clonă, Chiku-Roșie, a pornit în spațiul interstelar pe cont propriu pentru a prinde din urmă Regina de Gheață, nava la bordul căreia se află matriarha clanului, Eunice; o a treia soră, Chiku-Galbenă, a rămas pe Pământ, ca o mostră de control într‑un masiv experiment uman. Cele trei agreaseră să‑și sincronizeze în mod constant amintirile pentru a păstra unitatea din care se despărțiseră în urma unei operații complexe și unice. Dar contactul cu Chiku-Roșie se pierde destul de repede; apoi Chiku-Galbenă se distanțează tot mai mult de sora ei aflată deja la ani‑lumină distanță și de care o despart trăirile lor divergente, până la urmă rupând complet legătura cuantică care le regla amintirile. Ani mai târziu însă o fantomă digitală începe să‑i bântuie spațiul virtual și întâlnirea bruscă cu un Acvatic îi confirmă bănuielile: ceva grav s‑a petrecut în caravana către Crucible și sora ei Chiku-Verde încearcă să ia legătura cu ea.

‘Crucible is a lie. What we think is there… it’s not the truth, or at least not all of it. The data arriving from that world is false. Whatever Zanzibar and the other holoships think they’re going to find when they arrive… it isn’t real.’

Deși a doua carte într‑o trilogie, o poziție ingrată care de obicei rezultă într‑un roman sub medie, mie On the Steel Breeze mi s‑a părut cea mai bună din serie (între timp am terminat și cartea finală, despre care o să scriu în curând, sper). La început e destul de derutant să ții cont din ce perspectivă se relatează fiecare capitol, pentru că ele sar între Chiku-Verde și -Galbenă fără o regulă bine stabilită – despre Chiku-Roșie se descoperă relativ devreme că e în stare de inconștiență în urma călătoriei periculoase. Dar astfel romanul reușește să ne ducă mereu acolo unde se întâmplă important, și cele două povești se completează și alimentează reciproc cu cadența unui meci de tenis – mingea fiind informațiile transmise înainte și înapoi între Pământ și Zanzibar în ritmul prea lent al luminii. În același timp perioadele de acalmie sunt ținute cu succes la distanță de cititor, ceea ce nu e prea ușor având în vedere că întregul roman se întinde pe cel puțin un secol de timp obiectiv.

18 February 2017

The New York Times: “More Women in their 60s and 70s are having ‘Way Too Much Fun’ to retire”

Kay Abramowitz has been working, with a few breaks, since she was 14. Now 76, she is a partner in a law firm in Portland, Ore. — with no intention of stopping anytime soon. Retirement or death is always on the horizon, but I have no plans, she said. I’m actually having way too much fun.

The arc of women’s working lives is changing — reaching higher levels when they’re younger and stretching out much longer — according to two new analyses of census, earnings and retirement data that provide the most comprehensive look yet at women’s career paths.

Over all, the paths look much more like men’s careers than they used to. Women are more likely than in previous generations to work at almost every point in their lives, including in their 20s and 30s when they often used to be home with children. Now, if mothers take breaks at all, it’s often not until their late 30s or early 40s — and those who leave are likely to return to the labor force.

Claire Cain Miller

Good for them! On the other hand… The more old people (not necessarily women) continue working past their retirement age, the less open positions are available for young people joining the workforce. To tackle youth unemployment, maybe companies and authorities should consider encouraging old people to step out, or at least to work shorter hours to gradually make way for others who might not work for ‘fun’, but out of necessity.

17 February 2017

Facebook Newsroom: “New Ways to watch Facebook Video”

Videos in News Feed have previously played silently — you tap on a video to hear sound. As people watch more video on phones, they’ve come to expect sound when the volume on their device is turned on. After testing sound on in News Feed and hearing positive feedback, we’re slowly bringing it to more people. With this update, sound fades in and out as you scroll through videos in News Feed, bringing those videos to life.

If your phone is set to silent, videos will not play with sound. If you never want videos to play with sound, you can disable this feature by switching off “Videos in News Feed Start With Sound” in Settings. We’ll also be showing in-product messages to tell people about the new sound on experience and controls.

Dana Sittler & Alex Li

Annoying to say the least. But let’s not forget Facebook is first and foremost a company, and as such needs to make money. Sound by default for newsfeed videos will make them look less like glorified GIFs, and enable richer ads, hopefully driving up engagement for users and revenues for Facebook.

16 February 2017

The New York Times: “A Tax Overhaul would be Great in Theory. Here’s why it’s so hard in Practice”

A short list of the plan’s potential benefits looks awesome: It would give companies more incentive to keep jobs in the United States, less to overextend themselves on borrowed money and provide vast savings by reducing what companies spend on tax lawyers, who help them game the current system.

Yet these changes could also set off a cascade of more harmful effects. The plan could shift trillions of dollars of wealth from Americans to foreigners; set off an emerging markets financial crisis; wreak havoc in global oil markets; and cause sustained harm to the American higher education and tourism industries (including, as it happens, luxury hotels with President Trump’s name on them).

Neil Irwin

Long story short: you can’t radically change the tax system of the world’s biggest economy (and home to the largest multinational companies) without huge repercussions everywhere.

15 February 2017

Flickr Blog: “Happy 13th Birthday, Flickr!”

It’s official, Flickr is a teenager! Thirteen years young and just as full of wonder, snark, and creativity as we’ve ever been. Together with our phenomenal community of photographers from around the world, our Flickr Family, we’ve set the tone for what an online photographer’s space could be.

Zee Jenkins

With the trouble their parent company Yahoo is going through, I would be grateful if Flickr just manages to grow old by another year. There are encouraging signs, with Flickr recently integrated more deeply into other Yahoo products, such as mail, but the bigger problem is how Yahoo will survive – or will the company end up being sold for parts.

14 February 2017

The Guardian: “The ruthlessly effective rebranding of Europe’s new far right”

This nostalgia has an unmistakable appeal, but not necessarily for the sort of voters one might expect. Whereas young Britons overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU and the elderly voted to leave, in France it is the opposite. According to Julian Rochedy, the former FN youth leader, appeals to nostalgia work better with the young in France – who dream of an era they never witnessed – than with the old, who lived through the era Marine Le Pen promises to restore. It is older voters, Rochedy argues, who are the greatest obstacle to Le Pen’s victory. They are afraid of leaving the euro, he says. They are afraid of huge changes. Rochedy is convinced that the FN will never win simply by fetishising the past. They just want to go back 30 years, he said of his erstwhile colleagues. It’s a discourse that doesn’t at all take into account the world as it is and what France has become.

By framing its anti-migrant politics as a battle against imperious elites and political correctness, the PVV has been able to capitalise on a panoply of grievances, from anger over asylum seekers to Euroscepticism. Meanwhile, many causes of the radical left – including anti-racism and anti-colonialism – have now become establishment thinking in the Netherlands. Idealism has been bureaucratised, argues the journalist Bas Heijne, who writes a column in the liberal daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad. And when the establishment enforces universalism, you react against it. That’s why there is such a strong anti-PC tone to the Dutch right: do not tell us what to say, what to celebrate and who we must live next to.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky

Remarkably similar to Trump’s tactics in the US – and just as dangerous. If I remember my German history lessons correctly, Hitler also played this ‘normalization’ card until he seized power, and we all know how well that turned out for Europe and the world.

13 February 2017

The Guardian: “Political correctness: how the right invented a phantom enemy”

Trump’s incessant repetition of the phrase has led many writers since the election to argue that the secret to his victory was a backlash against excessive “political correctness”. Some have argued that Hillary Clinton failed because she was too invested in that close relative of political correctness, “identity politics”. But upon closer examination, “political correctness” becomes an impossibly slippery concept. The term is what Ancient Greek rhetoricians would have called an “exonym”: a term for another group, which signals that the speaker does not belong to it. Nobody ever describes themselves as “politically correct”. The phrase is only ever an accusation.

If you say that something is technically correct, you are suggesting that it is wrong – the adverb before “correct” implies a “but”. However, to say that a statement is politically correct hints at something more insidious. Namely, that the speaker is acting in bad faith. He or she has ulterior motives, and is hiding the truth in order to advance an agenda or to signal moral superiority. To say that someone is being “politically correct” discredits them twice. First, they are wrong. Second, and more damningly, they know it.

Moira Weigel

One might say Donald Trump is ‘politically correct’ only to himself – i.e. proclaiming he’s a good leader for America and calling everybody disagreeing wrong and ‘sad’. Although on second thought I’m not sure it applies, because he sure seems to believe all the crazy, untrue things he constantly spouts.

11 February 2017

Lawfare: “It’s Not Foreigners who are plotting here: What the Data really show”

Since January 2015, the FBI has also arrested more anti-immigrant American citizens plotting violent attacks on Muslims within the U.S. than it has refugees, or former refugees, from any banned country. As we wrote about here, here and here, in October 2016, three white men from Kansas were charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction. According to the graphic complaint, the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant men planned to attack a mosque in the area. The men progressed quickly with their plot, amassing firearms and explosives. The targets were people from Somalia, who ironically, would now be covered by Trump’s order.

And finally during the two years of arrests I studied, the FBI arrested six U.S. citizens en route to Istanbul, who planned to travel on to Syria to join ISIL. In other words, there are more U.S. citizens arrested while leaving the United States to commit mayhem abroad, transiting through Istanbul alone, than there are refugees trying to sneak into the country to perpetrate violence here.

Nora Ellingsen

It’s almost like Trump’s Executive Order on visas and refugees is trying to protect Muslims from coming to the US, where they could be targeted by aggressive local extremists.

10 February 2017

The New York Times: “‘A Conservative Climate Solution’: Republican Group calls for Carbon Tax”

In an interview, Mr. Baker said that the plan followed classic conservative principles of free-market solutions and small government. He suggested that even former President Ronald Reagan would have blessed the plan: I’m not at all sure the Gipper wouldn’t have been very happy with this. He said he had no idea how the proposal would be received by the current White House or Congress.

A carbon tax, which depends on rising prices of fossil fuels to reduce consumption, is supported in general by many Democrats, including Al Gore. Major oil companies, including Exxon Mobil, have come out in favor of the concept as well.

John Schwartz

Meanwhile, Trump’s proposed energy plan focuses on fossil fuels, especially coal mining, completely ignoring renewable energy, so my guess is there’s zero chance for this proposal to be implemented during his administration.

09 February 2017

AVC: “The Future of Labor”

I don’t think all the work opportunities will be gone in fifty years. But I do think the nature of work is changing quite dramatically in front of our very eyes. Some jobs will clearly be automated out of existence. We are already seeing that. And other jobs will go from being full time employment to on demand employment and that will require big adjustments from everyone, including policymakers.

I thought it was interesting in Henry Blodget’s talk at DLD, which I blogged this past weekend, that we have gained 30 hours a month in productivity over the past fifty years and that 28 hours of those gains have gone towards watching TV. We are going to gain even more hours in productivity over the next fifty years. And what we do with those hours will say a lot about who we are as people, what we value, and where we are headed as a society. It is very possible that jobs and work will matter less and other things will matter more, a concept my partner Albert has been considering in his book World After Capital.

Fred Wilson

This is what I’m actually the most worried about in relation to the increasing automation of jobs: not that society will not find a way to redistribute wealth to the unemployed masses, but how will these masses fill their newly found free time. I don’t think it likely that the majority will reorient towards ‘creative’ occupations; first of all because I don’t think most people have particular talents in that area, and secondly because to be an artist you also need an audience – if everyone becomes an artist, who will ‘appreciate’ their art? It’s far more likely these people will become massive entertainment consumers: on TV, but even more on the Internet, on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and any new social media platform that will emerge in the mean time. This past year we have seen how indiscriminate consumption of social media can wreak havoc on democratic societies; are we prepared for a storm tens, maybe hundreds of times bigger?

08 February 2017

The Independent: “Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’”

We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union. I think it was the most important division that the agency had, and I think that it played an enormous role in the Cold War.

If this meant playing pope to this century’s Michelangelos, well, all the better: It takes a pope or somebody with a lot of money to recognise art and to support it, Mr Braden said. And after many centuries people say, Oh look! the Sistine Chapel, the most beautiful creation on Earth! It’s a problem that civilisation has faced ever since the first artist and the first millionaire or pope who supported him. And yet if it hadn’t been for the multi-millionaires or the popes, we wouldn’t have had the art.

Frances Stonor Saunders

Fascinating piece of Cold War history – and indeed art history. It doesn’t surprise me at all that an espionage agency would use any tool at its disposal to destabilize an opponent and ultimately win a war. A strong cultural identity is essential when fighting a long, drawn-out conflict; it’s what we need today to counter the rise of extremism; it’s what Europe needs to shape itself into a real, living entity; it’s what China is trying to rebuild to sustain its economic and political rise on the world stage.

07 February 2017

Bloomberg: “Uber hires Veteran NASA Engineer to develop Flying Cars”

Moore’s research (PDF) into so-called VTOL—short for vertical takeoff and landing, or more colloquially, flying cars—inspired at least one billionaire technologist. After reading the white paper, Google co-founder Larry Page secretly started and financed two Silicon Valley startups, Zee Aero and Kitty Hawk, to develop the technology, Bloomberg Businessweek reported last summer.

Now Moore is leaving the confines of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where he has spent the last 30 years, to join one of Google’s rivals: Uber Technologies Inc. Moore is taking on a new role as director of engineering for aviation at the ride-hailing company, working on a flying car initiative known as Uber Elevate. I can’t think of another company in a stronger position to be the leader for this new ecosystem and make the urban electric VTOL market real, he says.

Brad Stone

Another (potential) area where Uber and Google are set to be in harsh competition. Although, as I wrote before, I have serious doubts whether these concepts will ever reach mass adoption the way cars have.

06 February 2017

The New York Times: “How Stable are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs are flashing Red’”

Political scientists have a theory called “democratic consolidation”, which holds that once countries develop democratic institutions, a robust civil society and a certain level of wealth, their democracy is secure.

For decades, global events seemed to support that idea. Data from Freedom House, a watchdog organization that measures democracy and freedom around the world, shows that the number of countries classified as “free” rose steadily from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s. Many Latin American countries transitioned from military rule to democracy; after the end of the Cold War, much of Eastern Europe followed suit. And longstanding liberal democracies in North America, Western Europe and Australia seemed more secure than ever.

But since 2005, Freedom House’s index has shown a decline in global freedom each year. Is that a statistical anomaly, a result of a few random events in a relatively short period of time? Or does it indicate a meaningful pattern?

Amanda Taub

This article had a fascinating trajectory online: widely shared at first, then disputed as people started digging through the data behind the ‘horror graph’, and finally defended by the author on Twitter with more graphs supporting his conclusions. While I haven’t looked at the data, the examples named in the article (Venezuela, Poland, the US) seem to support the theory in question. The truth is democracy is just as unstable as other systems of government, undermined from within by false propaganda and fearmongering used to manipulate voters. The majority of the current generation in Western democracies don’t know any other form of government; it’s easy to see the flaws in the democratic process and to push for change when you haven’t experienced any of the alternatives.

04 February 2017

BBC Capital: “Native English speakers are the world’s worst communicators”

The non-native speakers, it turns out, speak more purposefully and carefully, typical of someone speaking a second or third language. Anglophones, on the other hand, often talk too fast for others to follow, and use jokes, slang and references specific to their own culture, says Chong. In emails, they use baffling abbreviations such as ‘OOO’, instead of simply saying that they will be out of the office.

The native English speaker… is the only one who might not feel the need to accommodate or adapt to the others, she adds.

Non-native speakers generally use more limited vocabulary and simpler expressions, without flowery language or slang. Because of that, they understand one another at face value. Jenkins found, for instance, that international students at a British university understood each other well in English and swiftly adapted to helping the least fluent members in any group.

Lennox Morrison

Working in a multinational, I am very familiar with the overuse of abbreviations, more often than not with obscure meaning. On top of that, each multinational develops its own set of abbreviations for similar concepts, further clouding communication. Another practice that annoys me is how Americans like to quote movie dialog as if anyone would automatically know the context.

SFist: “Wildly Inaccurate Muni Wait Time Predictions will continue for weeks in Major Glitch”

Muni officials wrote to the SFMTA blog to explain the problem: NextMuni, which is a customized name for the third-party vehicle tracking system NextBus, relies on infrastructure installed in 2002 that only has 2G wireless network capacity. That outdated technology is being replaced nationwide by AT&T, Muni’s provider. The issue, according to Muni, is that The deactivation work that affects our vehicles started sooner than expected and outpaced our ongoing upgrade of all Muni vehicles to a new communications and monitoring system.

Put another way, Muni vehicles that aren’t yet upgraded aren’t transmitting data to NextMuni to predict their arrival. As SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose tells SFBay, as many as 40 percent of Muni’s fleet of vehicles, trains included, don’t have the new, 3G communications systems in place.

Caleb Pershan

Such a ‘first world problem’! I was starting to feel bad because something like this is years – if not decades – from being installed in Bucharest, where I live, but it turns out only a couple of cities around the world have similar real-time systems for predicting bus arrival times, and most are installed on trains and subways.

03 February 2017

Nieman Journalism Lab: “Another survey finds users aren’t that engaged with online video”

News organizations have been producing loads of video content to fill social media feeds and attract higher ad rates, but a new report from the social analytics firm Parse.ly finds that users engage with video much less than other content types.

Parse.ly examined the performance of four types of posts within its network of 700 sites: long-form, short-form, video, and slideshows. Video posts received 30 percent less engaged time than the average post, the study found. (Parse.ly defines engaged time as being actively engaged with content — when [users] not only have a page open, but they have also recently interacted with it [via scrolling or clicking, for example]. Visitors are also considered actively engaged if they are watching a video.)

Joseph Lichterman

I’ve always found it inconvenient to consume information through video compared to text. I tend to read faster than average and with text you can always scan ahead for the important sections and skip less crucial information or stuff you already know. That’s next to impossible with video: you can fast-forward, but there’s no way to tell where you’ll land, so you’ll likely end up wasting more time tracking down the relevant sections. Video does have it’s uses, but it leans more towards entertainment, with anything from short funny clips to computer game let’s plays, and training and sharing knowledge, where the combination of sound, image and human voice can create a better environment for transmitting information than a written course.

01 February 2017

Triggertrap Playbook: “Triggertrap Going out of Business FAQ”

Triggertrap, like any startup, had some big highs and lows. At one point, we employed 15 staff; a team of photographers, coders, support, marketing, logistics, and operations. Ever since we announced that our Triggertrap Ada Kickstarter project failed, we’ve been in a downward spiral. For the past 18 months, we’ve been operating with just a few team members, who have been working their asses off to keep the lights on. But ultimately, we weren’t able to claw our way out of the hole, and the company now owes the company’s founders around $60k. With no realistic hope of ever paying that money back, and after ten months in a row of struggling to make payroll for our remaining staff members, we decided it was time to give up.

Haje Jan Kamps

I was close to buying one of their products a couple of years ago, but in the end I decided to go with a more traditional trigger. For people not familiar with DSLR accessories, Triggertrap offered mobile apps and physical cables to connect smartphones with cameras so that people could use the smartphone app to trigger the camera in a variety of ways (timelapse, facial recognition, vibration and sound triggers to name a few). Despite innovative ideas, their failure looks like an example of how difficult it is to build a successful hardware startup these days.