31 August 2020

CNN: “North Korea’s Kim Jong Un delegates some powers to sister Kim Yo Jong”

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) told the country’s lawmakers that Kim Jong Un’s decision to transfer more power to his younger sister further bolstered the argument that she is now the country’s “de-facto second in command”, but does not take away from the fact that Kim Jong Un is still the ultimate authority and exercises “absolute power”, according to the office of Representative Kim Byung-kee, who attended the NIS briefing.

Speculation about Kim’s health was rampant earlier this year after the North Korean leader, who historically has kept a grueling schedule filled with public appearances, disappeared a handful of times from the public eye, sometimes for weeks on end without an official explanation. Kim also reportedly keeps a very unhealthy lifestyle – he is overweight, supposedly both a heavy smoker and drinker and is often under stress.

Kim Yo Jong for years has been one of her brother’s most important aides and confidants, so questions about Kim Jong Un’s health naturally led experts to focus on her.

Joshua Berlinger & Jake Kwon

After this year’s game of Presidential hide-and-seek in North Korea, I think the key question might be: will North Korea have a woman leader before the United States?

30 August 2020

Rolling Stone: “The Unraveling of America”

Odious as he may be, Trump is less the cause of America’s decline than a product of its descent. As they stare into the mirror and perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Americans remain almost bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country. The republic that defined the free flow of information as the life blood of democracy, today ranks 45th among nations when it comes to press freedom. In a land that once welcomed the huddled masses of the world, more people today favor building a wall along the southern border than supporting health care and protection for the undocumented mothers and children arriving in desperation at its doors. In a complete abandonment of the collective good, U.S. laws define freedom as an individual’s inalienable right to own a personal arsenal of weaponry, a natural entitlement that trumps even the safety of children; in the past decade alone 346 American students and teachers have been shot on school grounds.

Wade Davis

Over the past months I have shared many articles about the declining political and economic situation in the Unites States and it feels I should stop at some point, but I think this one presents the case most clearly. As with other crises, the pandemic is accelerating existing trends, revealing systemic weaknesses and failures that have gone unnoticed or unaddressed for decades.

28 August 2020

Quanta Magazine: “A World without Clouds”

Now, new findings reported today in the journal Nature Geoscience make the case that the effects of cloud loss are dramatic enough to explain ancient warming episodes like the PETM — and to precipitate future disaster. Climate physicists at the California Institute of Technology performed a state-of-the-art simulation of stratocumulus clouds, the low-lying, blankety kind that have by far the largest cooling effect on the planet. The simulation revealed a tipping point: a level of warming at which stratocumulus clouds break up altogether. The disappearance occurs when the concentration of CO2 in the simulated atmosphere reaches 1,200 parts per million — a level that fossil fuel burning could push us past in about a century, under “business-as-usual” emissions scenarios. In the simulation, when the tipping point is breached, Earth’s temperature soars 8 degrees Celsius, in addition to the 4 degrees of warming or more caused by the CO2 directly.

Huber said the stratocumulus tipping point helps explain the volatility that’s evident in the paleoclimate record. He thinks it might be one of many unknown instabilities in Earth’s climate. Schneider and co-authors have cracked open Pandora’s box of potential climate surprises, he said, adding that, as the mechanisms behind vanishing clouds become clear, all of a sudden this enormous sensitivity that is apparent from past climates isn’t something that’s just in the past. It becomes a vision of the future.

Natalie Wolchover

A truly apocalyptic scenario that would completely disrupt the climate and ecosystems over the entire surface of Earth. Fortunately it is still decades away by best current estimates – on the other hand measures against global warming are lagging behind targets and the window for action is getting smaller with each passing year. I personally expect we will need efficient solutions for carbon recapture planet-wide to finally get global warming under control.

27 August 2020

Los Angeles Times: “Apple store workers should be paid for time waiting to be searched, court rules”

Apple, which has 52 retail stores in California, requires its workers to submit to exit searches of their bags, packages, purses, backpacks, brief cases and personal Apple devices, such as iPhones, to deter theft. Failure to comply with the search policy can lead to termination.

Under the circumstances of this case and the realities of ordinary, 21st century life, we find farfetched and untenable Apple’s claim that its bag-search policy can be justified as providing a benefit to its employees, the court said.

The court noted that workers may need a bag to hold ordinary, everyday items, including wallets, keys, cellphones, eye glasses and water bottles.

Apple’s proposed rule conditioning compensability on whether an employee can theoretically avoid bringing a bag, purse, or iPhone to work does not offer a workable standard, and certainly not an employee protective one, Cantil-Sakauye wrote.

Maura Dolan

Not as egregious as putting limits on how long workers can hash their hands, but hostile to employees nonetheless. Requiring bag searches for security and claiming this as a benefit to employees to withhold compensation for extra time spent at work is pretty hypocritical even by Apple standards.

Bloomberg: “Amazon tells Staff Hand-Washing Time won’t be Held Against Them”

Amazon.com Inc. told employees at a New York warehouse, where workers have sued and gone on strike over safety concerns, that they won’t be punished for insufficient productivity or extra time washing their hands.

In a message Amazon sent recently to employees and posted in bathrooms at the Staten Island facility, the e-commerce giant said workers wouldn’t be disciplined for falling short of quotas based on how many tasks they complete each hour. Time spent on safety measures like handwashing also won’t be counted against them under Amazon’s “Time Off Task” policy, which limits the number of unproductive minutes allowed in their day.

Josh Eidelson

To be filed under ‘shit companies get away with when workers lack adequate protections’. No employee should have to worry about washing their hands or taking a bathroom break – or any kind of break for that matter – during a pandemic or under normal circumstances. It would not be the first time Amazon is accused of poor treatment of their staff – as recently as the start of the pandemic they were ordered to stop selling nonessential items in France because they neglected to take adequate precautions for workers. Meanwhile Jeff Bezos’ net worth increased by a staggering $82 billion (!) since the start of the year, an extreme example of income inequality.

25 August 2020

Vanity Fair: “Donald Trump made Justice Kennedy an Offer He Couldn’t Refuse”

Inside the White House, however, news of Kennedy’s retirement didn’t come as a shock. In fact, as The New York Times reports, the 81-year-old’s announcement was the culmination of a carefully orchestrated 17-month campaign by the Trump administration to remake the Supreme Court before the 2018 midterms, when there is an outside chance that Republicans could lose their majority. For conservatives, Kennedy’s seat was seen as one of the keys to rolling back abortion rights—on the campaign trail, Trump pledged to appoint a justice who would overturn Roe v. Wade. But first, Trump had to demonstrate to Kennedy that he could be trusted to nominate quality jurists to the Supreme Court. The campaign was multifaceted: over the course of several months, Trump systematically nominated three of Kennedy’s former clerks for plum judicial posts. While he criticized other, more conservative members of the court, he lavished praise on Kennedy—despite the fact that the justice has been pilloried by the right for his votes on social issues. And he cultivated a relationship with Justice Kennedy’s son, Justin, who worked closely with the Trump Organization in his role at Deutsche Bank as the global head of real-estate capital markets, according to the Times.

Abigail Tracy

Among the almost continuous scandals surrounding the Trump administration, this one in particular stuck in my mind, not because of Donald Trump – I think he is fully capable of anything so long as it advances his short term interests – but because it implies a staggering level of corruption in the high levels of government and reveals the fragility of US institutions and their theoretical separation of powers.

22 August 2020

Washington Post: “The battle for Notre Dame”

The holidays passed without a Christmas Mass in the beloved national icon or a Christmas tree on the public square outside its richly decorated west façade. When I visited in October, I passed by only once, and it was painful to see the great church off-limits. The writer Hilaire Belloc once described Notre Dame as a matriarch whose authority is familiar, tacit and silent. But she now seems not just reticent, but mute.

Repairing Notre Dame was one of the most urgent projects, and Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, one of two architects put in charge of restoration, began to undertake extensive and controversial changes. Perhaps no one in the history of the cathedral understood it better — its quirks, structural oddities and weak spots — and no one was more passionately hostile to earlier renovations that had altered its gothic design. But Viollet-le-Duc’s definition of restoration was more like that of a contemporary theater director approaching an old script than a preservationist working with scientific and historical rigor: To restore a building, he wrote, is not to maintain, repair, or redo it, but to reestablish it in a finished state that may never have existed at a given time.

Viollet-le-Duc changed the windows, added decorative elements to the base of the flying buttresses, remade statues, and created wholesale many of the grotesques, chimeras and gargoyles that visitors often assume are the essence of the cathedral’s gothic character. He also built a new spire, out of wood and lead, to replace the one that had been removed in the mid-18th century because it was no longer sound.

Philip Kennicott

Interesting overview of the history of Notre Dame and the transformations it underwent over the centuries. It’s all too easy to assume it has always looked this way when in fact much of its visual style was redefined in the 19th century restoration. After the fire in April last year architects proposed radical redesigns of the spire and roof area, from a glass roof to an urban green space and even a swimming pool atop the cathedral. The final decision announced last month was fortunately more conservative, aiming to rebuild the spire according to Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th century design, using original materials like wood for the roof. I for one would prefer it that way – there is more than enough space in Paris for green roofs and glass structures, no need to convert cathedrals into modern styles that may be out of fashion by the time the reconstruction finishes.

21 August 2020

The New York Times: “Apple Shows Facebook Who Has the Power in an App Dispute”

The situation stemmed from a dispute after Facebook violated Apple’s rules by publicly distributing a research app that allowed it to snoop on users’ online activity. When Apple discovered the transgression this week, it revoked Facebook’s special access to apps and updates that run on its iPhone software.

That immediately cut off Facebook’s 35,000 workers from its internal iPhone apps. And the problem snowballed when mobile apps like Workplace and Messenger — two internal communication tools — also stopped working, frustrating employees and resulting in hours of lost productivity.

Late Thursday, Apple relented and restored Facebook’s access. Yet the episode was a stark reminder of where the power really lies in the technology world. While Facebook is the world’s biggest social network, Apple controls the distribution of apps — including Facebook’s — on its phones. That power is a longstanding concern for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, making his company beholden to the rules of others.

Mike Isaac

Since I’m diving back into old articles lately, time to reach even further back, to January 2019, when one morning Apple decided to punish Facebook for their privacy transgressions and breach of Apple’s enterprise program. There is nothing to say to defend Facebook’s practices – in fact Google was caught collecting data in similar fashion and was handed the same temporary punishment – but the incident highlighted once more the enormous power Apple wields over its app ecosystem.

20 August 2020

Sky & Telescope: “The Fall and Rise of Betelgeuse”

After an unprecedented decline to a record-breaking minimum Betelgeuse has finally turned the corner. Astronomer Edward Guinan of Villanova University reports in Astronomer’s Telegram #13512 that the star bottomed out  with a mean minimum magnitude of 1.614 +/- 0.008 from February 7-13. More recent observations acquired Feb. 18-22 at the school’s Wasatonic Observatory show the star brightening from 1.585 to 1.522, a clear sign of a turnaround.

But the story of this supergiant is hardly over. Is the dip in its light caused primarily by its throbbing atmosphere or are other factors at play? In a related Telegram, a team of astronomers at the University of Minnesota report that Betelgeuse has remained “steadfast” in infrared light for a very long time. They performed infrared photometry of the star on Feb. 21, and after examining the star’s spectral energy distribution — a plot of energy output versus the frequency and wavelength of the emitted light  — they saw virtually no change in the star’s total radiation output compared to observations made 50 years ago!

Bob King

One of the more discussed astronomy news of late last year was the sudden dimming of the star Betelgeuse. Changes in brightness are not uncommon as Betelgeuse is a variable star, but this time astronomers registered its faintest value in 50+ years. In ancient times people would have probably interpreted this as a bad omen – I’m sure the chaos of 2020 is just a coincidence…

The RAND Blog: “Did No One Audit the Apple Card Algorithm?”

David Hansson’s verdict that the Apple Card algorithm is sexist lit up Twitter earlier this month. But the existence of biased/sexist/racist algorithms is not a new discovery; dozens of scholars have written about the hazards of letting AI mine data patterns for everything from job applicant screening to data-driven policing. Still, Goldman Sachs weakly argued that the company had no discriminatory intent in its credit limit determination process because it does not have information about applicants’ gender or marital status. This is an example of arguing for “fairness through unawareness”. But research shows that excluding sensitive attributes (gender, marital status, race, etc.) does not automatically render the algorithm unbiased.

The more troubling takeaway from this event was this: David and Jamie Hansson could not get anyone to give them a clear reason for the credit decision outcome. They heard variations of “credit limits are determined by an algorithm”, “we do not know your gender or marital status during the Apple Card process”, “it’s just the algorithm”, etc.

This kind of deep failure of accountability could become increasingly common as opaque algorithms are used for more kinds of decision making (what we have called “automation bias”). The Hanssons’ case highlighted a toxic combination: The companies relied on a “black box” algorithm with no capability to produce an explanation, and then abdicated all responsibility for the decision outcomes.

Osonde A. Osoba

Another older story I was reminded of while reading about TikTok and the glorification of its algorithms. A clear example how algorithms can fail spectacularly when they are deployed without understanding their decision processes, without carefully validating the input data and the results. In this particular case the biased algorithm was uncovered early on, but one has to wonder how many others are running unnoticed in the background, with no one to question their outcomes?

Wired: “Bill Gates on Covid: Most US Tests are ‘Completely Garbage’”

At this point, are you optimistic?

Yes. You have to admit there’s been trillions of dollars of economic damage done and a lot of debts, but the innovation pipeline on scaling up diagnostics, on new therapeutics, on vaccines is actually quite impressive. And that makes me feel like, for the rich world, we should largely be able to end this thing by the end of 2021, and for the world at large by the end of 2022. That is only because of the scale of the innovation that’s taking place. Now whenever we get this done, we will have lost many years in malaria and polio and HIV and the indebtedness of countries of all sizes and instability. It’ll take you years beyond that before you’d even get back to where you were at the start of 2020. It’s not World War I or World War II, but it is in that order of magnitude as a negative shock to the system.

Steven Levy

A couple of weeks ago in a call I half-jokingly challenged my colleagues to guess when this pandemic would be over. My own estimation was ‘sometime in 2022’ – and I’m impressed to see that Bill Gates agrees. He also cautions against rushing to distribute vaccines that have not been sufficiently tested on humans – such as the Russian vaccine that should be available for mass vaccinations as soon as October. This smells of propaganda planned by Putin to further position Russia in opposition to the ‘decadent West’, but it can have real negative consequences for public trust in vaccination if the virus proves ineffective, or worse, has damaging side effects.

18 August 2020

Remains of the Day: “TikTok and the Sorting Hat”

More than any other feed algorithm I can recall, Bytedance’s short video algorithm fulfilled these two requirements. It is a rapid, hyper-efficient matchmaker. Merely by watching some videos, and without having to follow or friend anyone, you can quickly train TikTok on what you like. In the two sided entertainment network that is TikTok, the algorithm acts as a rapid, efficient market maker, connecting videos with the audiences they’re destined to delight. The algorithm allows this to happen without an explicit follower graph.

Just as importantly, by personalizing everyone’s FYP feeds, TikTok helped to keep these distinct subcultures, with their different tastes, separated. One person’s cringe is another person’s pleasure, but figuring out which is which is no small feat.

TikTok doesn’t bump into the negative network effects of using a social graph at scale because it doesn't really have one. It is more of a pure interest graph, one derived from its short video content, and the beauty is its algorithm is so efficient that its interest graph can be assembled without imposing much of a burden on the user at all. It is passive personalization, learning through consumption. Because the videos are so short, the volume of training data a user provides per unit of time is high. Because the videos are entertaining, this training process feels effortless, even enjoyable, for the user.

I like to say that when you gaze into TikTok, TikTok gazes into you.

Eugene Wei

I have read this long article before ‘The TikTok War’, so I appreciated the context about how TikTok evolved over the years from Musical.ly to current owner Bytedance. I also appreciated the distinction of categorizing TikTok as an ‘entertainment network’ as opposed to regular ‘social networks’ because its main use case is not to connect to other people but rather to consume content.

Stratechery: “The TikTok War”

The point, though, is not just censorship, but its inverse: propaganda. TikTok’s algorithm, unmoored from the constraints of your social network or professional content creators, is free to promote whatever videos it likes, without anyone knowing the difference. TikTok could promote a particular candidate or a particular issue in a particular geography, without anyone — except perhaps the candidate, now indebted to a Chinese company — knowing. You may be skeptical this might happen, but again, China has already demonstrated a willingness to censor speech on a platform banned in China; how much of a leap is it to think that a Party committed to ideological dominance will forever leave a route directly into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans untouched?

Again, this is where it is worth taking China seriously: the Party has shown through its actions, particularly building and maintaining the Great Firewall at tremendous expense, that it believes in the power of information and ideas. Countless speeches, from Chairman Xi and others, have stated that the Party believes it is in an ideological war with liberalism generally and the U.S. specifically. If we are to give China’s leaders the respect of believing what they say, instead of projecting our own beliefs for no reason other than our own solipsism, how can we take that chance?

Ben Thompson

Formidable article about one of the more important stories in tech and politics right now, the debate around banning TikTok in the U.S. It is certainly a complicated matter with multiple repercussions on other fronts, and you can consider it from several points of view.

17 August 2020

Digiday: “Apple News+ Safari change automatically redirecting traffic to itself infuriates publishers”

The most recent versions of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, and MacOS Big Sur — its desktop operating system — force Apple News+ customers to use the service more. Under the changes, Apple News+ subscribers who are browsing the web using Safari will be redirected into the Apple News+ app, rather than the participating Apple New+ publisher’s website.

But on principle, publishers are furious that Apple is flexing its muscles in a way that limits their ability to convert readers into subscribers, and did so without telling publishers. Sources at five different publications participating in Apple News+ said Apple did not inform them that these changes were coming. One called it “totally unethical, if not actually illegal”. A second, who noted that Apple is typically more communicative, described it as “a bit shady”.

Max Willens & Lucinda Southern

For perspective, Apple is taking an even larger cut out of publishers’ revenues in News+, 50%, compared to the 30% collected on other subscriptions through the App Store.

The New York Times: “Their Businesses Went Virtual. Then Apple Wanted a Cut.”

With gyms shut down, ClassPass dropped its typical commission on virtual classes, passing along 100 percent of sales to gyms, the person close to the company said. That meant Apple would have taken its cut from hundreds of struggling independent fitness centers, yoga studios and boxing gyms.

Apple said that with Airbnb and ClassPass, it was not trying to generate revenue — though that is a side effect — but instead was trying to enforce a rule that has been in place since it first published its app guidelines in 2010.

ClassPass was told it must comply with the rule this month, according to the person close to the company. Instead, it stopped offering virtual classes in its iPhone app, since those classes were subject to Apple’s commission, according to Apple. As a result, fewer potential customers now see the classes advertised by its gym partners.

Jack Nicas & David McCabe

I linked to this article in my previous entry about the US antitrust hearing, but I still felt it deserved a separate post to highlight the sheer greed of Apple and the chilling effect of monopoly power on economic activity and innovation. Meanwhile, the Apple Music App on Android is requesting its own payment details to avoid paying Google Play’s 30% cut.

The New York Times: “Fortnite Creator sues Apple and Google after Ban from App Stores”

In Epic, Apple has met arguably its toughest adversary in years. The game maker has calculated exactly how to hit Apple where it hurts: by making iPhones less attractive and Apple less cool.

For Apple, the world’s most valuable company, there are few easy options. Apple has largely staked its future on its services business, which has become its second-largest source of revenue after sales of the iPhone, at $51.7 billion over the past year. But that business is mostly built on its cut of other apps’ sales, so enforcing its 30 percent commission is crucial to keeping its business growing.

As a result, backing down to Epic would set a dangerous precedent for Apple, while standing up to the gaming company would prolong a fight that risks shrinking its iPhone sales and damaging its carefully crafted image.

Suing Apple, in particular, serves two goals for Epic: winning in legal court and winning in the court of public opinion, said Rebecca Haw Allensworth, a professor of antitrust at Vanderbilt Law School. Epic is more likely to succeed in the latter, she said. There is growing business pressure against Apple, she said, noting an antitrust case would be more complicated and difficult to win.

Jack Nicas, Kellen Browning & Erin Griffith

Note to Slack: this is how you start an antitrust fight! The move was clearly carefully planned, from offering direct payments on iOS and Android to the response to the inevitable ban: a lawsuit coupled with a media campaign against Apple. As someone will little stakes in either side, it will be entertaining to watch this fight between Apple and the gaming industry – and to see who reaches a conclusion first: the US Congress or the judicial system.

15 August 2020

The New Yorker: “Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India”

During the dispute over Babri Masjid, Ashis Nandy, a prominent Indian intellectual, began a series of interviews with R.S.S. members. A trained psychologist, he wanted to study the mentality of the rising Hindu nationalists. One of those he met was Narendra Modi, who was then a little-known B.J.P. functionary. Nandy interviewed Modi for several hours, and came away shaken. His subject, Nandy told me, exhibited all the traits of an authoritarian personality: puritanical rigidity, a constricted emotional life, fear of his own passions, and an enormous ego that protected a gnawing insecurity. During the interview, Modi elaborated a fantastical theory of how India was the target of a global conspiracy, in which every Muslim in the country was likely complicit. “Modi was a fascist in every sense”, Nandy said. “I don’t mean this as a term of abuse. It’s a diagnostic category.”

As a young pracharak, he had taken a vow of celibacy, and he gave no public sign of breaking it. Unburdened by family commitments, he worked constantly. People who saw him said he exuded a vitality that seemed to compensate for his otherwise solitary existence. “When you have that kind of power, that kind of adoration, you don’t need romance”, the Indian political commentator told me.

Dexter Filkins

A lot to unpack in this long feature about the state of India’s government and his leader, Narendra Modi. There is the close connection between the current ruling party BJP and RSS, the Hindu nationalist movement who may have been involved in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The same organization is training groups of Hindu men for paramilitary operations against Muslims, driving the country towards religious segregation. As a reminder, Nazi Germany’s SS started in the same manner, as a small paramilitary group. With BJP in power, these policies have support from the central government, and have received renewed support with the reelection of Modi for a second term last year.

14 August 2020

The New York Times: “The Day the Music Burned”

The scope of this calamity is laid out in litigation and company documents, thousands of pages of depositions and internal UMG files that I obtained while researching this article. UMG’s accounting of its losses, detailed in a March 2009 document marked “CONFIDENTIAL”, put the number of “assets destroyed” at 118,230. Randy Aronson considers that estimate low: The real number, he surmises, was “in the 175,000 range”. If you extrapolate from either figure, tallying songs on album and singles masters, the number of destroyed recordings stretches into the hundreds of thousands. In another confidential report, issued later in 2009, UMG asserted that “an estimated 500K song titles” were lost.

Among the incinerated Decca masters were recordings by titanic figures in American music: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland. The tape masters for Billie Holiday’s Decca catalog were most likely lost in total. The Decca masters also included recordings by such greats as Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five and Patsy Cline.

Jody Rosen

Fascinating story, both for the insights into the inner workings of the music industry, and for the sense of immeasurable cultural loss caused by a random fire – and the negligence of the former management at UMG. This reporting prompted a lawsuit by a group of artists seeking damages for the destructions of the masters, but that lawsuit was dismissed earlier this year on the grounds that the label owned the rights to artists’ original recordings, so their heirs are not entitled to damages – goes to show how little leverage artists have in their dealings with music labels.

13 August 2020

Music Ally: “Spotify CEO talks Covid-19, artist incomes and podcasting”

One of the lines that jumped out of Spotify’s Q2 earnings announcement was Gone are the days of Top 40, it’s now the Top 43,000 – referring to the fact that the streaming service’s ‘top tier’ of artists – those accounting for the top 10% of its streams – now number more than 43,000, compared to 30,000 a year ago.

What does that mean in the big scheme of things? The real thing is that there are more relationships being formed to more artists, said Ek.

This is something that’s been near and dear to us for some time: it’s in our company mission to enable more artists to live off their art, and it’s really coming through in the numbers. More and more artists are breaking through in a big way, being impactful and creating new fan relationships.

He suggested that compared to 10-15 years ago the average consumer has way more diverse tastes: through the various genres, and they know of a lot more artists.

Stuart Dredge

This interview had a lot of negative reactions on Twitter, mostly people complaining loudly about the minuscule payouts from Spotify to artists and proposing ridiculous ideas such as a $1 payment per stream. I can only assume that they know absolutely nothing about how the music industry actually works; Spotify does not pay anything directly to artists, instead their relationship is mediated by the big music labels who set the payment rates to artists. In fact this is precisely the reason why Spotify is pursuing other revenue sources, especially original content from podcasts, because in that case the company can have better profit margins by acting as a direct distributor. As for paying $1 per stream… a relatively old source estimated that Spotify users listen to more than 1,300 tracks per month – who would be willing to pay $1,300 each month for Spotify?!

12 August 2020

The New York Times: “I Have Cancer. Now My Facebook Feed is Full of ‘Alternative Care’ Ads”

Last week, I posted about my breast cancer diagnosis on Facebook. Since then, my Facebook feed has featured ads for “alternative cancer care”. The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics — or even “nontoxic cancer therapies” on a beach in Mexico.

There’s a reason I’ll never fall for these ads: I’m an advocate against pseudoscience. As a consultant for the watchdog group Bad Science Watch and the founder of the Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures, I’ve learned to recognize the hallmarks of pseudoscience marketing: unproven and sometimes dangerous treatments, promising simplistic solutions and support. Things like “bleach cures” that promise to treat everything from Covid-19 to autism.

When I looked at my body after my recent surgery, I wished there was another choice. I would have given just about anything to be on a beach in Mexico. But I’ve witnessed the false promises of these companies. I’ve spoken to someone who flew to that beach clinic, only to return home and discover that her tumor was inoperable. The evidence is clear: Death rates are much higher for people with cancer who choose alternative therapies instead of standard care.

Anne Borden King

Absolutely horrifying! With every new article like this it becomes clearer what a complete disgrace Facebook is, making money while contributing to the suffering and early death of the ill.

11 August 2020

The Ed Bott Report: “Slack vs. Microsoft Teams: Sorry, Slack, your complaint is a joke”

The notion that Teams is a “copycat product” deliberately aping Slack is, well, interesting. It sounds true on its surface. After all, Slack launched in 2013, and Microsoft didn’t announce Teams until 2016. But there’s a catch. Teams didn’t spring into existence from thin air. It was, rather, a replacement for Skype for Business (announced in 2014), which was a renaming of Lync (2010), which had succeeded Office Communicator, the client for the Office Communication Server product that went all the way back to 2005.

That’s a continuous line of enterprise communication products, all in the Office family, that offered voice calls, text chat, and live meetings, with links to OneNote, Outlook, and other Office apps. Teams took those same features and put them in a more modern, cross-platform interface. It also melded in features from SharePoint, OneDrive, and Outlook and, crucially, moved everything from on-premises servers to the cloud.

Ed Bott

I know next to nothing about Slack – nor do I have any desire to learn another chat tool – but I can attest to the gradual evolution of Microsoft’s office communication tools, as my current company also transitioned over the years from Lync to Skype for Business and now to Teams. Slack’s formal complaint filed with the European Commission looks dubious especially given how their CEO stated only months ago that Teams isn’t a competitor after all. I guess some Slack executive felt left out among the recent antitrust activity and decided his company needed to make headlines.

10 August 2020

The New York Times: “What Years of Emails and Texts Reveal about Your Friendly Tech Companies”

The Big Tech companies insist that their rise to power has been the first story, a saga of ingenuity and courage, and that their market dominance is a byproduct of continued excellence. They may be giants, the story goes, but they are friendly giants. Their immense size and power is simply what is necessary to offer users the best possible services.

The subpoenaed documents destroy that narrative. No one can deny that these are well-run companies, loaded with talent, and that each at some point offered something great. But it appears that without illegal maneuvers — without, above all, the anticompetitive buying of potential rivals — there might be no Big Tech, but rather a much wider array of smaller, better, more specialized tech companies.

Tim Wu

While it is still unclear if and how the US government will act against Big Tech, the investigation so far has brought many damning revelations to light. Facebook bought Instagram to neutralize emergent competition – I guess they were actually afraid of what was back then a small startup. The same thing happened when Amazon acquired Diapers.com. Another set of emails from Apple reveal the decisions around the subscription policies on the App Store back in 2011, which led to Amazon removing the option to purchase e-books directly from iOS apps and many other complaints from the developer community over the years.

The Guardian: “Twitter aims to limit people sharing articles they have not read”

The problem of users sharing links without reading them is not new. A 2016 study from computer scientists at Columbia University and Microsoft found that 59% of links posted on Twitter are never clicked.

Less academically sound, but more telling, was another article posted that same year with the headline “Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting” – the fake news website the Science Post has racked up a healthy 127,000 shares for the article which is almost entirely lorem ipsum filler text.

Twitter’s solution is not to ban such retweets, but to inject “friction” into the process, in order to try to nudge some users into rethinking their actions on the social network. It is an approach the company has been taking more frequently recently, in an attempt to improve “platform health” without facing accusations of censorship.

Alex Hern

I must admit I am guilty of frequently doing this myself, but I at least try to retweet links only from sources I deem trustworthy.

Show Excel AutoComplete list with a keyboard shortcut

Microsoft Excel is an immensely complex piece of software with so many features that sometimes even basic actions can confuse people. Despite working in Excel for almost two decades, I still manage to uncover new tricks that I never imagined were possible before. In this case it is a keyboard shortcut I picked up from a colleague, but I find it very useful and easy to use.

When entering data in cells, Excel can suggest values from the same column in the form of AutoComplete: start typing and after the first few letters Excel will show a matching suggestion which you can fill in the cell by typing Enter. Sounds great in theory, but in practice you will find many situations where suggestions fail to show up, especially in large sheets with multiple similar entries or blank rows. What I discovered from my colleague was that the keyboard shortcut Alt + ⬇ (down arrow) opens a drop-down list below the cell containing unique values from the table, and you can simply pick a value either with the mouse or the keyboard.

08 August 2020

The New York Times: “Your Ancestors Knew Death in Ways You Never Will”

This past March, before coronavirus cases began to mount, the annual death rate in New York City was about six per 1,000 New Yorkers. The virus’s first wave added about 2.5 more deaths per 1,000 to that baseline. By contrast, from 1800 into the 1850s, deaths in the city rose in a relentless series of epidemic spikes, year after year, with only brief respites in between.

The annual baseline back then was about 25 deaths per 1,000 New Yorkers, and in some years the toll reached 50 per 1,000. In other words, in bad years, New Yorkers saw twice as many people around them die as usual. And they were used to seeing about four times as much death as we now do.

The sharpest peaks were the cholera epidemics of 1832, 1849 and 1854. But plagues came in waves, sometimes more than one simultaneously: yellow fever, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhus and meningitis.

Other than cholera and typhus, most of those were childhood diseases that adults were immune to because they had survived them, so the chart is a parabola of parental grief, each spike another nail in a hundred small coffins.

Donald G. McNeil Jr.

A good way to put things into perspective for people who fear the disruption caused by the pandemic and that the world will never return to normal: throughout history and across the globe, humanity experienced plagues many times before, with much larger death tolls. With resilience, patience and cooperation we can get through this crisis, however schoking and menacing it may seem.

07 August 2020

HuffPost: “Jack Dorsey Has No Clue What He Wants”

Now I remember why I unfollowed you! Because that’s all you DM me, “delete the site”.

Well, that’s… Maybe half the time.

But how is that going to help?

That’s the question, though. Is there a situation where you would just decide that it’s better to be free of this?

Should we just delete all the negative things in the world?

Are you saying Twitter is a negative thing?

Well, that’s what you’re assuming when you say that.

Not necessarily.

What would you use if we deleted it?

I don’t know, I’d have a lot more time on my hands.

What would you do with that time?

I really can’t even begin to imagine.

Ashley Feinberg

Super-old interview with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (his remarks are in regular text, while the journalist’s are bolded). I remember at the time (beginning of 2019) everyone on Twitter was passing it around as another example of Twitter’s failure to act, of Dorsey’s lack on interest in running the company, based on the opening statement in the article. I wonder if they bothered to read it until the end, where Dorsey turns the interview around. The discussion is a perfect example of bad journalism, where the interviewer starts with her own predefined notions and stays on the same track, no matter what the interlocutor replies – not that I expected any better from the Huffington Post… From the exchange above it seems to me that Ashley is the one who has no clue what she really wants.

The Verge: “Scientists rename human genes to stop Microsoft Excel from misreading them as dates”

The problem isn’t as unexpected as it first sounds. Excel is a behemoth in the spreadsheet world and is regularly used by scientists to track their work and even conduct clinical trials. But its default settings were designed with more mundane applications in mind, so when a user inputs a gene’s alphanumeric symbol into a spreadsheet, like MARCH1 — short for “Membrane Associated Ring-CH-Type Finger 1” — Excel converts that into a date: 1-Mar.

Help has arrived, though, in the form of the scientific body in charge of standardizing the names of genes, the HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee, or HGNC. This week, the HGNC published new guidelines for gene naming, including for “symbols that affect data handling and retrieval”. From now on, they say, human genes and the proteins they expressed will be named with one eye on Excel’s auto-formatting. That means the symbol MARCH1 has now become MARCHF1, while SEPT1 has become SEPTIN1, and so on. A record of old symbols and names will be stored by HGNC to avoid confusion in the future.

James Vincent

From the news department ‘Scientists are people, just like the rest of us’: a common problem with an extremely simple solution. Literally the first result when you google ‘excel turn off automatic date’ is a link to Microsoft’s support site explaining how to avoid this default behavior in several ways. And no, once you change cells to ‘text’ type, Excel does not change that setting when someone else opens the file, as the article wrongly states.

06 August 2020

The New York Times: “What the Mystery of the Tick-Borne Meat Allergy could Reveal”

Mammalian-meat allergy differs from most other food allergies in several important ways. One is the delayed reaction; it’s not uncommon for sufferers to wake up in the middle of the night, hours after a steak dinner, covered with hives and struggling to breathe. By contrast, those with food allergies to peanuts usually develop symptoms within minutes after ingesting the offending food. And whereas in most cases of allergy, the immune system pursues a protein, meat allergy is set off by a sugar.

Another unusual aspect of meat allergy is that it can emerge after a lifetime spent eating meat without problems. In other food allergies, scientists think that children’s immune systems may never learn to tolerate the food in the first place. But in meat allergy, the tick seems to break an already established tolerance, causing the immune system to attack what it previously ignored. One way to understand how the parasite pulls this off is to consider its bite as a kind of inadvertent vaccine.

As it happens, an immune response to alpha-gal is also what drives, in part, the rejection of tissue transplanted from animals to people. Scientists have developed genetically modified pigs meant to supply parts that can be grafted onto human bodies without eliciting an anti-alpha-gal immune reaction. Now, as awareness of the meat allergy spreads, there has been talk of using such alpha-gal-free pigs for food — pork chops your doctor can prescribe if you find yourself allergic to meat.

Moises Velasquez-Manoff

Fascinating article about a condition I had never heard of before: meat allergy (specifically red meat, as bird and fish meat do not contain the specific sugar molecule triggering this allergic response). As with many current issues, a closer investigation uncovers links to other areas, from our changing life styles and ecological imbalances that lead to higher numbers of ticks, to our evolutionary past. SF author Peter Watts also wrote about this strange reaction on his blog, lamenting that he missed the opportunity to mention it in Blindsight as the reason for his vampires turning to cannibalism.

The New Yorker: “Hiroshima”

When Mr. Tanimoto, with his basin still in his hand, reached the park, it was very crowded, and to distinguish the living from the dead was not easy, for most of the people lay still, with their eyes open. To Father Kleinsorge, an Occidental, the silence in the grove by the river, where hundreds of gruesomely wounded suffered together, was one of the most dreadful and awesome phenomena of his whole experience. The hurt ones were quiet; no one wept, much less screamed in pain; no one complained; none of the many who died did so noisily; not even the children cried; very few people even spoke. And when Father Kleinsorge gave water to some whose faces had been almost blotted out by flash burns, they took their share and then raised themselves a little and bowed to him, in thanks.

At the time of the Post-War, the marvelous thing in our history happened. Our Emperor broadcasted his own voice through radio directly to us, common people of Japan. Aug. 15th we were told that some news of great importance could he heard & all of us should hear it. So I went to Hiroshima railway station. There set a loud-speaker in the ruins of the station. Many civilians, all of them were in boundage, some being helped by shoulder of their daughters, some sustaining their injured feet by sticks, they listened to the broadcast and when they came to realize the fact that it was the Emperor, they cried with full tears in their eyes, What a wonderful blessing it is that Tenno himself call on us and we can hear his own voice in person. We are thoroughly satisfied in such a great sacrifice. When they came to know the war was ended—that is, Japan was defeated, they, of course, were deeply disappointed, but followed after their Emperor’s commandment in calm spirit, making whole-hearted sacrifice for the everlasting peace of the world—and Japan started her new way.

John Hersey

Wonderful reconstruction of the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb, viewed through the memories and experiences of a handful of survivors. I started it several times before I could finish reading because it is very moving. I think what impressed me most about the story was the stoicism of the people, how they accepted the catastrophe without knowing its true cause and helped each other until outside assistance arrived.

05 August 2020

The Atlantic: “The Pandemic’s Geopolitical Aftershocks are Coming”

The decade that followed the 2008 financial crisis saw the euro zone teeter on the brink of collapse, Britain vote to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump elected president. Today, the global economy has suffered another sudden seizure, shifting geopolitics as U.S.-China tensions have risen, trade has slowed markedly, and structural divisions between northern and southern Europe have widened. The question, then, is what might happen in the decade after this crisis?

Historians love chapter breaks, said Robert Kaplan, an American foreign-policy expert and former member of the U.S. Defense Policy Board, who this month briefed officials at 10 Downing Street on the potential second-order effects of the coronavirus crisis. COVID-19 will come to be seen as a chapter break.

Tom McTague

As the article states further down, I too had a nagging concern that Vladimir Putin could seize the unique opportunity caused by coronavirus chaos across Europe and the US – after all, Romania has always been too close for comfort with Russia. Considering Trump’s cozy relationship with Putin and the American President’s combined distractions of domestic epidemic and upcoming elections, what better time for Putin to intervene in Ukraine and Eastern Europe?! Alas, the virus knows no borders, and Russia was itself hard hit, with well above 5000 daily cases. Along with continued protests across the country, I think Putin has his hands full of problems to consider military invasions for the time being (or maybe he is waiting for the planned withdrawal of US troops from Germany…).

04 August 2020

The New Yorker: “The Age of Instagram Face”

Ideals of female beauty that can only be met through painful processes of physical manipulation have always been with us, from tiny feet in imperial China to wasp waists in nineteenth-century Europe. But contemporary systems of continual visual self-broadcasting—reality TV, social media—have created new disciplines of continual visual self-improvement. Social media has supercharged the propensity to regard one’s personal identity as a potential source of profit—and, especially for young women, to regard one’s body this way, too. In October, Instagram announced that it would be removing “all effects associated with plastic surgery” from its filter arsenal, but this appears to mean all effects explicitly associated with plastic surgery, such as the ones called “Plastica” and “Fix Me”. Filters that give you Instagram Face will remain. For those born with assets—natural assets, capital assets, or both—it can seem sensible, even automatic, to think of your body the way that a McKinsey consultant would think about a corporation: identify underperforming sectors and remake them, discard whatever doesn’t increase profits and reorient the business toward whatever does.

In a world where women are rewarded for youth and beauty in a way that they are rewarded for nothing else—and where a strain of mainstream feminism teaches women that self-objectification is progressive, because it’s profitable—cosmetic work might seem like one of the few guaranteed high-yield projects that a woman could undertake.

Jia Tolentino

One of the insidious consequences of capitalism and consumerism, coupled with the pressure to perform on social media: an explosive rise of esthetic surgery designed to shape individual faces into an idealized version preferred by Instagram algorithms. A dystopic societal trend that reminds me of Brave New World with its always-happy people – happy not because they found some deeper meaning in life, but on the contrary because they renounced any higher meaning in favor of absolute shallowness (and mood-altering drugs).

01 August 2020

The New York Times: “The Cult of Selfishness is Killing America”

So what was going on? Were our leaders just stupid? Well, maybe. But there’s a deeper explanation of the profoundly self-destructive behavior of Trump and his allies: They were all members of America’s cult of selfishness.

You see, the modern U.S. right is committed to the proposition that greed is good, that we’re all better off when individuals engage in the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest. In their vision, unrestricted profit maximization by businesses and unregulated consumer choice is the recipe for a good society.

This rage is sometimes portrayed as love of freedom. But people who insist on the right to pollute are notably unbothered by, say, federal agents tear-gassing peaceful protesters. What they call “freedom” is actually absence of responsibility.

Rational policy in a pandemic, however, is all about taking responsibility. The main reason you shouldn’t go to a bar and should wear a mask isn’t self-protection, although that’s part of it; the point is that congregating in noisy, crowded spaces or exhaling droplets into shared air puts others at risk. And that’s the kind of thing America’s right just hates, hates to hear.

Paul Krugman

This is precisely the kind of behavior I was referring to in one of my updates about coronavirus developments in Romania: the misguided conception that freedom means ignoring the consequences of our individual actions and simply doing whatever we feel like. Unfortunately, we can clearly see the effects in the US, and here in Romania as well: as soon as the lockdown ended and people were free to move around, the disease started spreading again and last month the number of daily cases surpassed 1000, as I expected.