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.

26 March 2018

Exporting saved passwords from Google Chrome

I haven’t written any articles about Google Chrome in a looong time, because after upgrading to Windows 10 I’ve been using primarily Microsoft Edge, and frankly there hasn’t been any major update to Chrome I felt the need to talk about. But earlier this month I came across something that might be interesting and useful to many users: according to Google engineer François Beaufort, Chrome will soon add the ability to export saved passwords in a text file. These can be then imported into a password manager. The feature is already available in the Dev channel, so it should roll out to the regular channel in a couple of weeks, as Chrome updates to the next version.

24 March 2018

Instagram Press: “Changes to improve Your Instagram Feed”

Based on your feedback, we’re also making changes to ensure that newer posts are more likely to appear first in feed. With these changes, your feed will feel more fresh, and you won’t miss the moments you care about. So if your best friend shares a selfie from her vacation in Australia, it will be waiting for you when you wake up.

Instagram Press

This seems like an good change at first, but in my case I think it has seriously messed up my feed. In the past two days, all I can see in the iOS app are posts from hashtags I follow and ads! – roughly one ad every four or five posts. The feed on the web and in the Windows app are unaffected, probably still running the old ranking algorithm. (in the mean time, I discovered a workaround for iOS: view a Story, close it, then pull down to refresh, and now finally the feed returns to normal)

With this update, it does make some sense to show more photos from hashtags: if they are particularly popular, there’s a lot more of them and so they appear ‘fresher’ than most of the photos posted by people you follow, but it completely breaks the experience of following individual accounts. I think Instagram needs more work to properly balance this new algorithm for dealing with hashtags.

21 March 2018

The Verge: “Samsung Galaxy S9 review: predictably great, predictably flawed”

Without a new design or other new obvious advancements in technology to distract from Samsung’s usual problems, the software issues on the S9 become more obvious than they were with the S8. The upshot of most of this is that you can ignore Samsung’s marketing-focused gimmicks and really enjoy the Galaxy S9 (and none of them fall to the level of other Android manufacturers’ software problems). You can turn off Bixby, never bother to use AR Emoji or super slow motion, and disable most of Samsung’s apps. That leaves Samsung’s poor software update history as the big sticking point for a lot of people.

The rest of the S9 and S9 Plus is as great as we’ve come to expect. It has a head-turning design, fast performance, a great screen, and a very good camera. Outside of the display, the S9 isn’t a class leader in any category, but it’s good enough in all of them that the whole package makes for a great phone.

Dan Seifert

Ironically, this advice largely applies to recent iPhones as well: “You can turn off Siri, never bother to use Animoji or super slow motion, and disable most of Apple’s apps” – especially outside of the US, where support for voice assistants and Apple services is not great.

The Atlantic: “Uber Health lets Doctors call Cars for their Patients”

The new Uber Health dashboard, which has been tested by a beta group of about 100 hospitals and doctors’ offices since July, will allow medical and administrative staff to either call an Uber to the office to drive a specific patient home, or to dispatch an Uber to the patient’s house, with the option to schedule it up to 30 days in advance. The patient need not have the Uber app or even a working smartphone: The dashboard comes with a printable sheet allowing a doctor to circle the incoming Uber’s car color and write down the license plate.

With the dashboard, the drivers would see the patient’s name and phone number. The patient would get a text when their car arrived; if they have the regular Uber app, it would not be billed.

Olga Khazan

I have generally been critical of Uber and their business practices, but this is one of their better initiatives. As some critics pointed out, the patient won’t get specialized care during the ride. On the other hand, the physician is responsible for scheduling the ride, so you would think he or she would recommend an ambulance when the situation calls for it. As a side-note, even if this service is currently US-only, I’ve been using Uber as an ambulance service for a couple of months, driving my mother to the hospital for exams and chemotherapy, so there’s definitely potential for something similar in the rest of the world.

18 March 2018

The Guardian: “My two messed-up countries: an immigrant’s dilemma”

Immigration is never a simple equation. You do not subtract the most intimate part of yourself and replace it with another. It is a long, painful journey to make oneself a home in a strange land where the established norm is different to what you are and what you know. The act of placing your palm upon your chest and swearing allegiance to the flag is not what makes you American, but the fact that, by the time you have that opportunity, you have given the toughest and most tender parts of yourself to this country. My father has spent half of his life in America while dreaming of his Korea. I have often wondered if his life was happy. If America had been worth all that for him.

Tracking back to the past is what we immigrants do. We always circle back to make sense of the present. Part of us is always left behind in the place we came from. On that cold January day, I rode the subway all the way to JFK, and by the time I arrived, I was weeping.

America seems to be slipping away from me at dizzying speed, and becoming something I do not recognise. On the subway, I felt like that 13-year-old girl again, arriving in a strange, scary place where I knew no one – except that now I speak the language, and I have the best weapon for the fight ahead: my tortured, devastating love for America. So I soldiered on to the airport that had opened up a whole new world for me decades before, the place where it all began.

Suki Kim

Going through articles I’ve read in the past months and haven’t had the time to share here yet, here is an emotional account of an Korean immigrant, travelling back and forth between her native and her adopted country at a time when both are going through a lot of turmoil. On the US side the protests against Trump and his proposed travel ban; and in South Korea the scandal and public uproar that led to the impeachment of president Park Geun-hye. It was interesting to follow the rumors and revelations developing around that scandal as depicted here, bits of truths mixed with sexist clichés – ‘fake news’ is definitely not a phenomenon restricted to Western countries.

13 March 2018

Communities Dominate Brands: “Smartphone Stats: Full Year 2017 Top 10, OS Installed Base and everything else you ever wanted”

By the way, for those who ‘hate Apple’ (and please don’t count me into that group…). If you want to see the glass really really less than half full… Apple sales were flat in a year that was flat. Out of the Top 5, all other 4 manufacturers GREW their sales – Samsung by 3%, BBK by 29%, Huawei by 10% and Xiaomi by 70%. Don’t fall into the silly trap to think, that Apple is somehow ‘doing fine’. It is LOSING the battle. Market share down AGAIN and now the reality is starting to come home to various developers, especially in the Emerging World, that actually, all you need is Android. This is EXACTLY the same disaster that hit the Mac world back way before Apple went close to bankruptcy. The believers were finally forced to face reality, that even as the Mac was far superior - as a user interface – to the early Windows – the Windows personal computers were ‘good enough’ and most users wanted the major platform. And then the developers stopped supporting the tiny platform. The Mac OS never had 10% market share. iOS touched twice that, but is headed towards similar levels to ten percent. Currently at 14% and still declining. Now, if Apple ‘wanted to’ – it COULD reverse this decline. But will they do that, or will they just continue to milk the rich users, until the users get fed up with paying the iTax? Who knows. Currently Apple is the richest company in the world. It won’t remain that if it continues to abuse its customers. But still today, iPhone loyalty and customer satisfaction is incredibly strong. Apple has a long time to figure out what it wants. Yet, as I’ve said for years, the mistake of abandoning the future will come back to haunt Apple. Now most sane people see that iOS is a niche market, and only Android is a mass market. I told you so ten years ago…

Tomi Ahonen

A good reminder for people living in Apple’s alternate reality that there’s a whole other world outside their pristine walled garden – a world where Apple is all but irrelevant. Measuring yearly sales is a better way to compare the performance of different manufacturers, considering how the companies release their flagship phones in different quarters.

12 March 2018

All this: “Timers, reminders, alarms—oh, my!”

The number of alerts that can be set was the starting point for the last post. People want multiple timers in their HomePods. That’s great, but Apple’s never had multiple timers in any iOS device, which is why I’ve always used reminders instead. Reminders aren’t a substitute for timers! I’ve been told by several people. I admire your steadfast adherence to your principles, but I need a solution, not a manifesto. (We’ll get to the deficiencies of using reminders as a substitute for timers later in the post.)

Since there’s only one timer, there’s no need for it to have a name or description. So when the timer on your phone/watch/table/speaker goes off, you might have to think a bit before you remember what it’s for. Alarms and reminders don’t have this problem.

Dr. Drang

Well, that’s one way to explain why you can’t set more than one timer on the HomePod: no other Apple device can! I noticed this myself a couple of months ago, when I saw that Windows 10’s Alarm app lets you set multiple, named timers – surprisingly useful for washing clothes. Crazy that this is still a limitation in the Apple ecosystem!

09 March 2018

More on the Apple HomePod

You could say I’m spending too much of my time reading about a product I’m never going to buy, but in the last weeks the HomePod has been constantly present in my Twitter feed. Since I’m planning on switching to Android next time I upgrade my smartphone, I might want to consider unfollowing some Apple people and diversifying my feed. Still, some of the remarks confirm my own conclusions about Apple, the state of their software and AI efforts.

08 March 2018

The Verge: “Canon made a flash that automatically figures out the best direction to point”

The 470EX-AI looks just like every other Canon Speedlite, but it has motors inside at the base and hinge, and a sensor in the corner of the face of the flash. When you double tap the shutter button on your camera, the flash points out at the subject, calculates the distance, then points itself at the ceiling and does the same. Right after that, the flash reorients itself one last time into what it “thinks” is the best direction to achieve the perfect bounce light for your subject.

The new flash is a delightful idea, the kind we’re actually starting to see slightly more of from Canon lately. But there are some limitations. For one thing, if you let the flash pick a spot, and then you move to recompose your photo, you have to do the whole process over again or else the light will bounce in the wrong direction. The flash can also only work its magic on ceilings — turn the camera sideways and it will still point up after it measures. There’s a 23-foot limit to the sensor, and if a ceiling is black it will just point straight up.

Sean O'Kane

Very interesting innovation, something that I wasn’t expecting and could improve indoors flash photography considerably – assuming it works consistently.

01 March 2018

The Lightroom Queen: “What’s New in Lightroom Classic CC 7.1 (December 2017)?”

New Intelligent Auto Settings, powered by Adobe’s Sensei!

Lightroom’s old Auto adjustments were… hit and miss, to put it kindly. No more! Adobe has used its machine learning technology to analyze how skilled professional photographers edited tens of thousands of photos, and then applied this information to build a brand new Auto.

The new Auto applies auto adjustments to Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks, Saturation and Vibrance, to get the best automated result possible. Furthermore, it’s now smart enough to take your existing Crop, White Balance or Camera Profile into account when doing its calculations. It’s much better at retaining highlight and shadow detail, and doesn’t often overexpose, so it’s a much better starting point. Give it a try!

Victoria Bampton

Good to see that Adobe is continuing to introduce new features to Lightroom Classic CC, despite fears from some photographers that it will soon be deprecated.