19 August 2019

New display options for Twitter’s site and progressive apps

After implementing their Windows app as a Progressive Web App more than a year ago, Twitter made constant improvements to this shared version that powers their mobile web site as well, for example re-adding multiple account support – although I haven’t managed to make this work yet. Recently, the desktop site was also replaced with this new, fresher experience. Naturally, many people complained vocally, as with any change, regardless how small. One top complaint was the display density, that the font used is too large, and so too few tweets were visible on the screen. Fortunately, with web technologies this can be easily fixed, and just last week Twitter released a new setting to address this, as well as other customization options.

The Baffler: “Big Mood Machine”

In Spotify’s world, listening data has become the oil that fuels a monetizable metrics machine, pumping the numbers that lure advertisers to the platform. In a data-driven listening environment, the commodity is no longer music. The commodity is listening. The commodity is users and their moods. The commodity is listening habits as behavioral data. Indeed, what Spotify calls “streaming intelligence” should be understood as surveillance of its users to fuel its own growth and ability to sell mood-and-moment data to brands.

Liz Pelly

This article goes out of its way to make Spotify’s collection of data about listening habits sound nefarious (notice the heavy use of emphasis to signify her outrage), in the same way that Facebook’s data collection sparked numerous scandals, starting with Cambridge Analytica. There are two major issues with this narrative, and unsurprisingly the author never stops to address any of them.

18 August 2019

Olaf Stapledon – Last and First Men

in Bucharest, Romania
Olaf Stapledon - Last and First Men

De obicei, o recenzie de carte începe cu o secțiune descriind premisele și personajele majore, dar acest roman, antic după standardele genului science-fiction, e greu de încadrat după șabloanele obișnuite. Așa cum autorul ne avertizează din prefață, scopul lui a fost să schițeze o epopee de dimensiuni mitice a dezvoltării viitoare a rasei umane, de la Primii Oameni din prezent (pentru el anii ‘30 ai secolului XX) până la finalul îndepărtat al ultimilor noștri descendenți, miliarde de ani în viitor. Ca urmare, mi‑e destul de greu să vorbesc despre rezultat în comparație cu romane mai convenționale.

We must achieve neither mere history, nor mere fiction, but myth. A true myth is one which, within the universe of a certain culture (living or dead), expresses richly, and often perhaps tragically, the highest admirations possible within that culture. A false myth is one which either violently transgresses the limits of credibility set by its own cultural matrix, or expresses admirations less developed than those of its culture’s best vision. This book can no more claim to be true myth than true prophecy. But it is an essay in myth creation.

Deoarece romanul acoperă o perioadă de timp fără precedent aș zice în întreaga istorie SF, îi este imposibil să se fixeze prea mult pe detalii. Puține scene au personaje individuale și dialog, majoritatea seamănă mai degrabă cu pasaje din tratate istorice sau sociologice. Lectura lasă în mare o impresie seacă și impersonală, deși nu e lipsită de momente grandioase, unele prin sublimul lor, dar cele mai multe tragice. Ceea ce o saga familială ar face cu personajele ei, conducându‑ne de‑a lungul vieților lor de la naștere la moarte, Olaf Stapledon realizează la nivelul întregilor civilizații umane, cartografiind apariția, creșterea și decăderea lor de‑a lungul eonilor, uneori întrerupte de pauze imense, în care puținii supraviețuitori sunt reduși înapoi la stadiul de sălbăticie. În cursul acestor curente tumultoase avem ocazia să întâlnim societăți de‑a dreptul utopice, altele de o cruzime la limita inumanității.

The New York Times: “After SpaceX Starlink Launch, a Fear of Satellites that outnumber All Visible Stars”

Alex Parker, a planetary astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute, noted on Twitter that if nearly 12,000 of these satellites orbit, they could soon outnumber all of the stars visible to the naked eye. And even if just 500 are observable at any given time, Dr. Drimmel warns that it will be difficult to pick out constellations among those moving lights.

It sounds dystopian, Dr. Casey said.

Most of the frustration stems from the fact that discussions about the impact of this project did not take place before launch. And it may only be the beginning.

It truly is the tip of the iceberg, especially as we get into a world where you have multibillionaires with the ability and the desire to do things like this, Dr. Nordgren said.

Shannon Hall

Speaking of irresponsible behavior in space, let’s not forget about Elon Musk, a prime example of arrogance and irresponsibility. Two months ago, SpaceX started launching satellites for the Starlink constellation to build their space-based Internet service and… astronomers were outraged at the implications. And I have to admit, I was as well! No matter the benefits in connecting the poorer and more remote areas of the world, the fact is it’s a unilateral decision by a company (one can even say one man!) that will reap all the profits, while the rest of the world has to deal with the consequences.

17 August 2019

Wired: “SpaceIL’s Crashed Spacecraft spilled Tardigrades on the Moon”

A scanning electron micrograph of a water bear. Like regular bears, tardigrades have claws, which help in locomotion. Image: Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden

Half a world away, Nova Spivack watched a livestream of Beresheet’s mission control from a conference room in Los Angeles. As the founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, a nonprofit whose goal is to create “a backup of planet Earth”, Spivack had a lot at stake in the Beresheet mission. The spacecraft was carrying the foundation’s first lunar library, a DVD-sized archive containing 30 million pages of information, human DNA samples, and thousands of tardigrades, those microscopic “water bears” that can survive pretty much any environment—including space.

But when the Israelis confirmed Beresheet had been destroyed, Spivack was faced with a distressing question: Did he just smear the toughest animal in the known universe across the surface of the moon?

Daniel Oberhaus

Fascinating story – especially the little known detail about the Apollo astronauts below. It’s unlikely that tardigrades would interfere with the Moon’s environment – considering they could have arrived there without human intervention – but I still think the protocols for bringing Earth life into space should be more restrictive. As we are gradually returning to space with private initiatives alongside the existing large national programs, the risk of contaminating pristine worlds increases, if not deliberately, then by negligence and accident.

Fortunately for Spivack and the Arch Mission Foundation, spewing DNA and water bears across the moon is totally legal. NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection classifies missions based on the likelihood that their targets are of interest to our understanding of life. As such, missions destined for places like Mars are subject to more stringent sterilization processes than missions to the Moon, which has few of the necessary conditions for life and isn’t at risk of contamination. In fact, Spivack isn’t even the first to leave DNA on the moon. This honor belongs to the Apollo astronauts, who left nearly 100 bags of human feces on the lunar surface before they returned to Earth.

16 August 2019

Ars Technica: “FaceTime feature in iOS 13 feigns eye contact during video calls”

It’s a slick application of Apple’s augmented reality tools, which are admittedly impressive and powerful. But how many people are clamoring for this feature? Is there any real benefit to making it seem like we’re staring into each other’s windows to the soul when we FaceTime?

There’s an argument in favor of making the experience of video chatting feel more natural, but there’s an equal argument against forcing an appearance of intimacy or attention. Eye contact is one of those subtle cues that varies from person to person. If someone who rarely meets my gaze seems to suddenly be doing so all the time on a video call, that’s going to make our interaction more surreal, not less.

Anna Washenko

In a world where manipulated videos are becoming commonplace – and potentially extremely toxic for public life, it seems irresponsible to introduce this sort of feature as default for a wide number of iPhone users. This paves the way for people casually accepting altered real-time video feeds as ‘genuine’ without any critical thinking, which poses greater problems than the text-based ‘fake news’ from previous years.

11 August 2019

Greg Egan – Dichronauts

in Bucharest, Romania
Greg Egan - Dichronauts

De nenumărate generații, poporul lui Seth și Theo migrează constant spre sud, urmărind mișcarea Soarelui pe cer, rămânând astfel în zona temperată dintre câmpurile arse de soare din nord și cele înghețate de la sud. Dar un obstacol neașteptat și aparent insurmontabil le apare în cale: o expediție de recunoaștere, din care făcuseră parte Seth și Theo, descoperă spre sud o vastă falie, căreia nimeni nu‑i poate vedea celălalt mal, și nici marginile în lateral. Confruntați cu perspectiva dispariției, comunitățile de regulă rivale se văd obligate să colaboreze pentru a discuta posibile soluții, oricât de fantastice, și pentru a organiza o expediție fără precedent, în interiorul faliei, care ar trebui să le ofere o imagine mai clară despre gravitatea situației.

Dacă sunteți fascinați de idei și lumi radical diferite de experiența noastră de zi cu zi, în mod sigur veți descoperi în romanele lui Greg Egan ceva ce vă va depăși limitele imaginației. Pe mine Carantina m‑a impresionat astfel, iar romanul de față o depășește cu mult la capitolul stranietate. N‑o să încep să explic toate detaliile universului în care se desfășoară acțiunea, pentru că autorul o face mult mai bine pe propriul site, de la teoria revizuită a relativității care stă la baza topologiei la consecințele mundane care guvernează ființele și societatea din roman. În acest univers suprafața lumii nu este sferică, ci hiperbolică, practic infinită; dar cum asta se aplică și stelelor, rezultă că suprafața Soarelui se intersectează cu cea a planetei undeva spre poli, iar zona ecuatorială e cea mai rece.

Samira sketched four hyperbolas on the drawing board, symmetrically arranged around a central point. Imagine that these curves go on forever. Take the area between them and spin it around the north-south axis to make a solid. The one-sheeted hyperboloid that wraps around the axis is the ground on which we stand. The two dish-shaped surfaces at the north and south are unreachable to us, but if anyone lived in those sunless places they would feel the same kind of gravity holding them to the ground as we do.

01 August 2019

MacStories: “Apple Maps in iOS 13: Sights Set on Google”

That said, due to the massive amount of work required to accurately map the entire world, the Apple Maps of iOS 13 is fragmented for different geographical areas. While the new Apple-designed maps and Look Around have been promised for the entire US before 2019’s over, it’s unclear what availability will be this fall when iOS 13 first launches. And if you’re outside the US, it could be a long, slow road before you’ll enjoy these developments. Strip away Look Around and the new maps and what you’re left with in iOS 13 is an app that’s still markedly improved, but likely not enough to tempt you away from Google.

If building a map was as quick and relatively simple a process as adding features to Notes, Safari, or Files, Apple would no doubt have a better story to tell for iOS 13 users outside the US. Alas, some things take more time.

Ryan Christoffel

I still can’t quite understand how Apple expects to compete with Google in this area by offering what is largely an US-only product, and an inferior one on top of that, after years of development. Well, there’s always the option of using anticompetitive tactics, something that Apple has become great at.