31 October 2020

The Guardian: “How the US has hidden its empire”

That was how the first draft of FDR’s speech went, too: it presented the event as a “bombing in Hawaii and the Philippines”. Yet Roosevelt toyed with that draft all day, adding things in pencil, crossing other bits out. At some point he deleted the prominent references to the Philippines.

Why did Roosevelt demote the Philippines? We don’t know, but it’s not hard to guess. Roosevelt was trying to tell a clear story: Japan had attacked the US. But he faced a problem. Were Japan’s targets considered “the United States”? Legally, they were indisputably US territory. But would the public see them that way? What if Roosevelt’s audience didn’t care that Japan had attacked the Philippines or Guam? Polls taken slightly before the attack show that few in the continental US supported a military defense of those remote territories.

Roosevelt no doubt noted that the Philippines and Guam, although technically part of the US, seemed foreign to many. Hawaii, by contrast, was more plausibly “American”. Although it was a territory rather than a state, it was closer to North America and significantly whiter than the others.

Daniel Immerwahr

Fascinating piece of history on the Unites States. On some level not much has changed in the eight decades since the start of the Second World War: the average American continues to care very little about events outside US borders – even outside the continental US. A more recent example was the lackluster support for Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017 – Puerto Rico is officially a commonwealth of the United States, the same statute the Philippines had during World War Two. And this attitude reflects in the foreign policy trend of retreating from international affairs, a growing isolationist sentiment that was partially responsible for the election of Donald Trump.

The Guardian: “The empty promises of Marie Kondo and the craze for minimalism”

In the 21st century, across the developed world, most of us do not need as much as we have. The average American household possesses more than 300,000 items. In the UK, one study found that children have on average 238 toys, but only play with 12 of them on a daily basis. We are addicted to accumulation. The minimalist lifestyle seems like a conscientious way of approaching the world now that we have realised that materialism, accelerating since the industrial revolution, is literally destroying the planet.

Yet my gut reaction to Kondo and the Minimalists was that it all seemed a little too convenient: just sort through your house or listen to a podcast, and happiness, satisfaction and peace of mind could all be yours. It was a blanket solution so vague that it could be applied to anyone and anything. You could use the Kondo method for your closet, your Facebook account or your boyfriend. Minimalism also seemed sometimes to be a form of individualism, an excuse to put yourself first by thinking, I shouldn’t have to deal with this person, place or thing because it doesn’t fit within my worldview. On an economic level, it was a commandment to live safely within your means versus pursuing dreamy aspirations or taking a leap of faith – not a particularly inspiring doctrine.

Kyle Chayka

I have never been particularly attracted to this sort of one-size-fits-all life philosophy, and this article makes a good case against it, exposing its shallow and unsatisfying aspects. I liked how it uses the iPhone design as a prime example of minimalism driven to the extreme, of its underlying dependency on society and the systems build over years to support it.

29 October 2020

The Guardian: “Hand dryers v paper towels: the surprisingly dirty fight for the right to dry your hands”

Public bathrooms offer three primary options to dry a pair of wet hands. First, there is the venerable crisp-pleated paper towel. Second, the old-style warm-air dryer: those indestructible metal carapaces that, through their snouts, breathe down upon our hands. And finally, the jet dryer sub-species of the sort Dyson makes, whose gale-force winds promise to shear away every drop of moisture rather than slowly evaporating it. In the quest to dominate the world’s restrooms, Campbell discovered, Dryer v Towel is a pitched contest of business strategy and public relations. Expect to be lied to a lot, Campbell told me. It’s almost like the cola wars. You have Pepsi v Coke, and you have hand dryers v paper towels.

The chief battleground for this duel is public hygiene. Science has tried and failed to come to a consensus about the hygienic superiority of one product over the other. Even so, the paper towel industry has funded or promoted a rash of studies claiming that hand dryers turn bathrooms into mosh pits of pathogens. These results almost always make news. Any sort of health scare is a gift to a journalist – an opportunity to write viral headlines such as “Hand dryers are blowing bacteria all over your hands” or “Hand Dryers are Germ-Flinging Bullshit”.

Samanth Subramanian

Nice overview of a mundane topic. There are numerous arguments for and against the two competing options, and unfortunately increasingly hard to cut through advertising and studies funded by each side to discredit the other to find impartial facts.

28 October 2020

Financial Times: “Apple develops alternative to Google search”

In a little-noticed change to the latest version of the iPhone operating system, iOS 14, Apple has begun to show its own search results and link directly to websites when users type queries from its home screen.

That web search capability marks an important advance in Apple’s in-house development and could form the foundation of a fuller attack on Google, according to several people in the industry.

The Silicon Valley company is notoriously secretive about its internal projects, but the move adds to growing evidence that it is working to build a rival to Google’s search engine.

Two and a half years ago, Apple poached Google’s head of search, John Giannandrea. The hire was ostensibly to boost its artificial intelligence capabilities and its Siri virtual assistant, but also brought eight years of experience running the world’s most popular search engine.

Tim Bradshaw & Patrick McGee

Unsurprising, considering recent antitrust actions by the US government, and a rumor that has been circulated for years. The evidence so far is rather weak in my opinion.

MacRumors: “MagSafe Charger only charges at Full 15W Speeds with Apple’s 20W Power Adapter”

YouTuber Aaron Zollo of Zollotech tested several first and third-party power adapter options with the iPhone 12 Pro and a MagSafe charger using a meter to measure actual power output. Paired with the 20W power adapter that Apple offers, the MagSafe Charger successfully hit 15W, but no other chargers that he tested provided the same speeds.

For maximum charging speeds with the MagSafe Charger and an iPhone 12 or 12 Pro, Apple’s 20W power adapter is required, and older power adapter options won’t work as well. Third-party companies will need to come out with new chargers that use the particular power profile that Apple is using to provide the optimum amount of power before a third-party charger will be able to provide the full 15W with the MagSafe Charger.

Juli Clover

Apple products in 2020: you need a flowchart and expert advice to decide which power adapter to buy.

27 October 2020

The Washington Post: “Gruesome details emerge in beheading of French teacher who showed students Muhammad cartoons”

As further details emerged, the incident reignited some of the most explosive debates in the French national lexicon: the value of free expression in a country that, unlike the United States, does abide by hate-speech laws, and the place of Islam in a nominally secular but post-colonial society in which Muslims are among the largest minority groups.

Paty’s decision to show these drawings to teenage children raised eyebrows, with some Muslim parents complaining to the school’s leadership, French media reported. One of the offended parents took his dispute to social media, which is probably how the suspect — who had no known ties to the school or to that parental dispute — learned of the issue, authorities suggested.

But according to some parents, Paty had also tried to be as sensitive as possible to offensive potential of the images he wanted to discuss.

Nordine Chaouadi, a parent of a 13-year-old in Paty’s class, told Agence France-Presse that he had allowed Muslim students to leave the classroom during the discussion.

At no point did he want to be disrespectful — that’s what my son told me, he said.

James McAuley

Horrendous and shocking murder, recalling the Charlie Hebdo attack five years ago, an attack both on free speech and on secular institutions.

The Guardian: “Why Israel is quietly cosying up to Gulf monarchies”

The original impetus for these developing relationships between Israel and the Gulf states was a mutual distaste for Barack Obama. In the early years of the Arab spring, he infuriated the Saudis and the UAE, and alarmed Israel, by abandoning Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, and then voiced support for the popular uprising in Syria and called for Bashar al-Assad to resign. In 2015, when the US-led nuclear agreement was signed with Iran, it was vehemently opposed by Israel and most Gulf states. That September, Russia’s military intervention in Syria marked the beginning of the end of the crisis for Assad. Tehran’s steadfast support for its ally in Damascus, and its backing of Hezbollah in Lebanon – Iran’s “axis of resistance” – was regarded with identical disgust in Jerusalem, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

One former UAE diplomat told me that the threat from Iran today had a unifying effect comparable to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which led to a previously unacceptable US military presence in Saudi Arabia. If it wasn’t for the Palestinian issue, the ex-diplomat said, this relationship with Israel would be very public, and it would be very welcome, because we need their military equipment and technology.

Jamal al-Suwaidi, the founder of the government-backed Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, put it more bluntly: The Palestinian cause is no longer at the forefront of Arabs’ interests, as it used to be for long decades; it has sharply lost priority in light of the challenges, threats and problems that face countries of the region. Similarly, he added, the question of Israel was not comparable to the threats posed … by Iran, Hezbollah and terrorist groups.

Ian Black

Fascinating changes in the dynamics of Middle East politics. It began covertly during the Obama presidency and continued under Trump, who has encouraged and embraced the authoritarian leaders in the region. With a mutual enemy in Iran, an unreliable ally in the United States, and shared tendencies towards dictatorship and neglecting the interests of the people they rule, a rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf monarchies is not the most surprising development in global politics.

26 October 2020

The New York Times: “Apple, Google and a Deal that Controls the Internet”

Nearly half of Google’s search traffic now comes from Apple devices, according to the Justice Department, and the prospect of losing the Apple deal has been described as a “code red” scenario inside the company. When iPhone users search on Google, they see the search ads that drive Google’s business. They can also find their way to other Google products, like YouTube.

Apple now receives an estimated $8 billion to $12 billion in annual payments — up from $1 billion a year in 2014 — in exchange for building Google’s search engine into its products. It is probably the single biggest payment that Google makes to anyone and accounts for 14 to 21 percent of Apple’s annual profits. That’s not money Apple would be eager to walk away from.

In fact, Mr. Cook and Mr. Pichai met again in 2018 to discuss how they could increase revenue from search. After the meeting, a senior Apple employee wrote to a Google counterpart that our vision is that we work as if we are one company, according to the Justice Department’s complaint.

Daisuke Wakabayashi & Jack Nicas

The first concrete results of the antitrust hearings earlier this year are becoming public, along with interesting revelations about the hidden deals between Silicon Valley companies. Even if the US Department of Justice loses this case against Google, I think raising public awareness about these deals could still have an impact on Apple’s and Google’s future business decisions. It also shines an unfavorable light on Apple’s constant virtue signaling around privacy: while it publicly claims to protect users’ interests, in private Apple allowed Google privileged access to vast amounts of data – for the right price!

24 October 2020

LensWork: “LW1206 – Video invades Photography”

But in terms of using the medium to create a personally expressive art statement I just don’t see much in common between photography and video, either from the producer’s point of view and particularly from the consumers point of view. So, I guess it kind of feels to me like this convergence in the hybrid world between video and photography is something that’s happening in the history of photography because of the drive of manufacturers to do something, not because of the demand of photographers, not because of the demand of consumers, that there could just as easily be something out there that was a video camera that didn’t do stills, which by the way that exists, there’s a whole world of video cameras that don’t do stills, or if they do stills, it’s a secondary feature that hardly anybody uses.

But video has invaded still photography to the point where it’s almost unavoidable.

Try going to Canon and asking them for the newest latest camera they have that does not have video capabilities. There isn’t one. Same can be said with all the manufacturers. Video has invaded photography.

Brooks Jensen

I rarely write about podcasts on my blog, but in this case I listened to this episode from the LensWork podcast and it reminded me on my own frustration around this topic. Just like Brooks, I have next to no interest for shooting video and I use my camera almost exclusively for (still) photography. The reason may well be that, like Brooks, I picked up photography long ago, in the film era, when cameras were dedicated to this single purpose. But aside from that, photography for me is about the fascination of a moment captured for ever, a fixed reflection of a world in constant motion – you might even say that the camera captures something that does not truly exist, because we experience the world as a never-ending flow, not as a series of snapshots. In contrast, video seems just a reproduction of reality, a repetition that does not add anything of interest, and I would rather experience more of the world than repeat my past memories.

Ars Technica: “Definitely not Windows 95: What operating systems keep things running in space?”

We’ve got extremely demanding requirements for this mission, says Maria Hernek, head of flight software systems section at ESA. Typically, rebooting the platform such as this takes roughly 40 seconds. Here, we’ve had 50 seconds total to find the issue, have it isolated, have the system operational again, and take recovery action.

To reiterate: this operating system, located far away in space, needs to remotely reboot and recover in 50 seconds. Otherwise, the Solar Orbiter is getting fried.

To deal with such unforgiving deadlines, spacecraft like Solar Orbiter are almost always run by real-time operating systems that work in an entirely different way than the ones you and I know from the average laptop. The criteria by which we judge Windows or macOS are fairly simple. They perform a computation, and if the result of this computation is correct, then a task is considered to be done correctly. Operating systems used in space add at least one more central criterion: a computation needs to be done correctly within a strictly specified deadline. When a deadline is not met, the task is considered failed and terminated. And in spaceflight, a missed deadline quite often means your spacecraft has already turned into a fireball or strayed into an incorrect orbit. There’s no point in processing such tasks any further; things must adhere to a very precise clock.

Jacek Krywko

Fascinating article about the software managing robotic missions, from their strict requirements to their conception and history – and a few stories where they inadvertently failed. Their development started, maybe not entirely surprising, with US military programs designing guidance systems for missiles. Over time, just as in the desktop and mobile space, the market largely settled on two competing operating systems, the proprietary VxWorks preferred by NASA and open source RTEMS employed by ESA. And their next iteration may involve… Bitcoin?!

22 October 2020

No Mercy / No Malice: “AirbnBaller”

There are good companies that are overvalued (Tesla, Snowflake), good businesses whose emissions are bad for society (Facebook, Twitter), and firms that are just a menace (Uber). There are also firms that are all three (Palantir). However, occasionally there is a firm that is so gangster even I can’t help but see the glass as half empty, vs. empty. The most valuable private firm in America is Airbnb.

I believe this time next year, Airbnb will be the most valuable hospitality firm in the world and one of the world’s 10 strongest brands.

Ride hailing requires local supply (drivers) and demand (hailers). Hotels need local supply (hotel rooms) and regional demand (guests). But a global hotel brand requires both local supply and global demand, as guests are from all over the world. Airbnb has global supply, boasting more than 7 million listings worldwide — more than Marriott International, Hilton Worldwide, InterContinental Hotels Group, Wyndham Hotel Group, and Hyatt Hotels, combined. More impressive, and singular, Airbnb is the only hospitality brand that has the global awareness to generate unrivaled demand.

In 2021, there will be more Airbnb users in the U.S. than people in California.

Scott Galloway

I am highly skeptical about this prediction, and I think it relies on several flawed assumptions and hasty conclusions. Airbnb may have a great global brand, but its supply is just as ‘local’ as the hotels it competes with – it’s not like you can substitute rooms in the city you plan on visiting with accommodation in a different random location. This supply is outside its immediate control to a large extent, as the listed properties are owned by private persons, not the company itself. If the owners decide to rent through other intermediaries, Airbnb has no way to prevent them, to my knowledge. The article conveniently ignores occupancy rates, which could skew the numbers below in favor of hotels. Another threat here are local regulations, which may reduce the available properties substantially, or force higher prices, more in line with hotel listings.

The New York Times: “The Problem of Free Speech in an Age of Disinformation”

But the Supreme Court has strongly protected hate speech. In 1992, the Supreme Court unanimously said that the City of St. Paul could not specially punish, as a hate crime, the public burning of a cross or the display of a swastika. In 2011, in an 8-to-1 vote, the court said the government could not stop members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas from picketing military funerals across the nation to protest what they perceived to be the government’s tolerance of homosexuality by holding signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”. Speech can inflict great pain, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.

In 2012, by a 6-to-3 vote in United States v. Alvarez, the court provided some constitutional protection for an individual’s intentional lies, at least as long as they don’t cause serious harm. The majority said that the mere potential for government censorship casts a chill the First Amendment cannot permit if free speech, thought and discourse are to remain a foundation of our freedom.

By requiring the state to treat alike categories of speakers — corporations and individuals — the Supreme Court began to go far beyond preventing discrimination based on viewpoint or the identity of an individual speaker. Once a defense of the powerless, the First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful, MacKinnon, now a law professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in “The Free Speech Century”, a 2018 essay collection. Instead of radicals, artists and activists, socialists and pacifists, the excluded and the dispossessed, she wrote, the First Amendment now serves authoritarians, racists and misogynists, Nazis and Klansmen, pornographers and corporations buying elections. In the same year, Justice Elena Kagan warned that the court’s conservative majority was weaponizing the First Amendment in the service of corporate interests, in a dissent to a ruling against labor unions.

Emily Bazelon

Earlier this year I set out to stay away from topics regarding American politics and society, at least for a while, but I found this article pretty interesting and going to the heart of the problem. I agree with many of the conclusions presented here, as I already wrote in my article about the TikTok potential ban. As things stands, I seems to me that lying has more protections in the US than telling the truth! When people spread lies they can easily find others to agree with them and spread the message; when someone tells the truth it can be met with harassment and online attacks – which are also protected speech, so you can do very little about it (legally).

21 October 2020

AAAS Science: “Critics of Sweden’s lax pandemic policies face fierce backlash”

The Swedish approach has its fans. Protesters against coronavirus-related restrictions in Berlin in late August waved Swedish flags. In the United States, a prominent member of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, neuroradiologist Scott Atlas, has cited Sweden as a model to follow. The policies also have widespread public support in Sweden, where consensus is prized and criticism of the government is rare.

But within Sweden’s scientific and medical community, a debate about the strategy has simmered and frequently boiled over—in the opinion pages of newspapers, within university departments, and among hospital staff. A group of scientists known as “the 22” has called for tougher measures since April, when it published a blistering critique of the country’s public health authority, the Folkhälsomyndigheten (FoHM). The group, which has grown to include 50 scientists and another 150 supporting members, now calls itself the Vetenskapsforum COVID-19 (Science Forum COVID-19).

The group’s criticism has not been welcomed—indeed, some of the critics say they have been pilloried or reprimanded. It has been so, so surreal, says Nele Brusselaers, a member of the Vetenskapsforum and a clinical epidemiologist at the prestigious Karolinska Institute (KI). It is strange, she says, to face backlash even though we are saying just what researchers internationally are saying. It’s like it’s a different universe.

Gretchen Vogel

For people loudly defending Sweden’s distinctive approach to the pandemic – even though it resulted in high casualties, especially among the old – this article should make it clear that it is not without opposition inside the country. Weirdly enough, the policy and its main proponent, Dr. Anders Tegnell, remain popular with the Swedish public, despite several changes and backtracking along the way. As the article notes, Sweden’s consensus culture could partially explain this situation, where citizens refrain from criticizing the government and view those who publicly speak against it in a negative light.

20 October 2020

Financial Times: “Covid-19: The global crisis — in data”

Yet for all the patterns that appear in the data, the resurgence also demonstrates the outsized role seemingly played by random chance in the story of Covid-19. When Italy avoided a second wave in the late summer, many pointed to its high levels of mask-wearing as a contributory factor. And indeed, only one country has higher levels of mask-wearing than Italy. That country’s identity? Spain, home to the worst second wave of the continent.

But there is room for hope as the world attempts to stave off a bitter Covid-19 winter. Mortality rates from the virus have fallen over the course of the year as healthcare expertise and technology have improved. In March, somebody aged 70 or above had a 50:50 chance of survival if admitted to hospital with the virus. By August their chances had climbed to 74 per cent.

Leaders have vacillated between reopening to protect the economy and locking back down to protect citizens. Yet recent analysis suggests that this may well be a false trade-off.

FT Visual & Data Journalism team

Interesting and extensive series of visualizations about the coronavirus pandemic from the Financial Times. I found the graph below especially revealing: while the correlation is not particularly strong, it is clear that overall countries with larger death counts have also experienced heavier economic recessions. This indicates that protecting citizens from this disease and economic recovery are not mutually exclusive and should be treated as a common goal.

19 October 2020

Adobe Blog: “Adobe unveils ambitious multi-year vision for PDF: Introduces Liquid Mode”

Building on this continued momentum, today we’re excited to unveil Liquid Mode — the first step in a multi-year vision to fundamentally change the way people consume digital documents, and how organizations extract document intelligence to gain a competitive advantage. Leveraging the power of Adobe Sensei — our cutting-edge AI framework — to understand the structure of PDFs, we have begun to reimagine how people read and interact with digital documents, starting with reinventing mobile productivity beyond the 8.5x11 page.

With the push of a button, Liquid Mode automatically reformats text, images, and tables for quick navigation and consumption on small screens. Powered by Adobe Sensei, Liquid Mode uses AI and machine learning in the background to understand and identify parts of a PDF, like headings, paragraphs, images, lists, tables, and more. It also attempts to understand the hierarchy and ordering of those parts to reformat a static PDF into a more dynamic and customizable experience.

Ashley Still

I mean… sure, making PDF files more responsive and accessible on mobile screens is a good initiative, but why do you need AI and machine learning to read the structure of a document?! Websites built on standard HTML have been doing that basically from inception. While PDF is a proprietary format, it is owned and built be Adobe, so… they cannot understand their own document format without building an AI for the task?! This announcement reads like it was written to promote Adobe Sensei and buzzwords like AI and machine learning, not to launch an interesting new feature for customers.

18 October 2020

Wired: “Netflix’s ‘Challenger’ is a Gripping Look at NASA in Crisis”

Challenger: The Final Flight Netflix docuseries
Challenger: The Final Flight a new, four-part documentary series, is executive produced by J.J. Abrams and Glen Zipper and directed by Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge. (Image credit: Netflix)

The emotional rollercoaster of getting to know McAullife and the other astronauts who you know are doomed is a critical foil to the comparatively dry engineering drama that was simmering in the background. The cause of the Challenger disaster was ultimately determined to be a failed O-ring, a giant elastic band that was used to seal sections of the space shuttle’s two solid rocket boosters. Engineers at Morton-Thiokol, the contractor that manufactured the boosters for NASA, had noticed a disturbing tendency for the O-ring seals to fail during tests if temperatures were below about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. And when a cold snap hit Florida a few days before the Challenger mission, the weather was forecast to be in the low- to mid-30s during the launch.

Our engineers were concerned that the O-rings were going to be colder than any we’d ever launched and that it might be worse this time than we’d ever seen, Joseph Kilminster, the vice president of Morton-Thiokol’s solid rocket booster program, says in the film. Brian Russell, an engineer at the company, concurs. We believed the risk was higher, but we didn’t know how much higher, he says in the doc. We didn’t know the point of failure. But despite these concerns, managers at Morton-Thiokol and NASA decided to forge ahead anyway.

Daniel Oberhaus

I rarely watch documentaries these days, but Netflix usually has a good supply and in this particular case I was interested in the subject. I obviously heard about the Challenger disaster, but when it happened I was too young to care and living on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, where the major event of the year was the Chernobyl nuclear accident. And later I never took the time to read about the events and causes surrounding it.

It was fascinating to discover how the launch was postponed not once, but twice, and to think how things might have turned out differently if they had launched on Sunday as originally planned, or decided to postpone again or even scrap the launch altogether to fix the faulty booster design first. It was sad to feel the loss and shock of the family members and public as they realized the crew had no chance of escaping the explosion – and again as their bodies were later recovered from the wreck. I particularly enjoyed the forth and final episode detailing the investigation that followed the disaster, featuring Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman – and David Sanger, a New York Times journalist whose voice I recognized from a podcast I regularly listen to, Deep State Radio.

16 October 2020

Motherboard: “AirPods are a Tragedy”

Even if you only own AirPods for a few years, the earth owns them forever. When you die, your bones will decompose in less than a century, but the plastic shell of AirPods won’t decompose for at least a millennium. Thousands of years in the future, if human life or sentient beings exist on earth, maybe archaeologists will find AirPods in the forgotten corners of homes. They’ll probably wonder why they were ever made, and why so many people bought them. But we can also ask ourselves those same questions right now.

Why did we make technology that will live for 18 months, die, and never rot?

AirPods were destined to become e-waste from the moment they were manufactured. And AirPods become e-waste after just eighteen months, when the irreplaceable lithium ion battery dies.

I would put this in the planned obsolescence category of products, but it’s not really planned obsolescence, it’s planned failure, Wiens told Motherboard. When they made these products, they knew they were only gonna last for 18 months. They didn’t put that on the outside of the box, knowing that the battery is not replaceable, and here we are.

Caroline Haskins

This article may feel a little over-dramatic, but the underlying issue is real: many electronic products are not designed to be refurbished or recycled and end up contributing to our growing plastic pollution problem. Apple likes to parade sustainability, to draw attention to their recycling programs, to claim they are removing wall chargers and EarPods from the packaging to reduce the phone’s environmental impact, but the fact of the matter is it was Apple’s decision to replace a perfectly functional universal connector with their proprietary solution, thereby pushing consumers towards a new product with a shorter lifespan, in order to make more profits selling accessories and drive up their stock price.

15 October 2020

The Washington Post: “New ‘Off-Facebook Activity’ tool shows exactly how much the social network tracks your life”

Facebook is giving us a new way to glimpse just how much it knows about us: On Tuesday, the social network made a long-delayed “Off-Facebook Activity” tracker available to its 2 billion members. It shows Facebook and sister apps Instagram and Messenger don’t need a microphone to target you with those eerily specific ads and posts — they’re all up in your business countless other ways.

Now I have to share a bummer: Changing these settings doesn’t actually stop Facebook from collecting data about you from other businesses. Facebook will just “disconnect” it from your profile, to use the social network’s carefully chosen word. Mostly they’re just promising they’ll no longer use it to target you with ads on Facebook and Instagram — which means you’ll be less likely to be manipulated based on your data. (Facebook has separately said that starting this summer we will be able to adjust a setting to see fewer political and social issue ads on Facebook and Instagram.)

Geoffrey A. Fowler

This new privacy option was launched at the end of January (another thing I have been meaning to write about for some time) and I tested it shortly after. Here is the direct link to avoid going through Facebook’s convoluted menus. As with most Facebook privacy initiatives, this one comes with a catch: if you disconnect future off-Facebook activity, you will no longer be able to use Facebook login on other apps and websites, while Facebook continues to collect your activity data for itself. This can be an inconvenience – I previously used Facebook on a number of sites to speed up account creation and to quickly connect with my friends network – and possibly in breach of GDPR. But without tough regulation and enforcement against the social network, this pattern of releasing cosmetic changes to privacy settings while retaining effective ownership of data will not be broken.

MacRumors: “The EU wants All Phones to Work with Interoperable Chargers, Here’s what that means for Apple’s Lightning Port”

According to a 2019 impact assessment study on common chargers of portable devices conducted by the EU, almost a fifth of people surveyed reported having faced “significant issues” because of non-standard chargers. Such issues included incompatible chargers between devices, variable charging speeds between different chargers, and having to have several chargers available to cover all needs.

In addition, the EU claims that by agreeing on a common charger standard, it will put an end to charger clutter and 51,000 tons of electronic waste annually.

The recent 582-40 parliamentary vote in favor of a common charging standard came about because the European Commission’s previous approach of merely “encouraging” tech companies to develop a standardized solution “fell short of the co-legislators’ objectives”, according to a briefing on the European Parliament website.

We do not believe there is a case for regulation given the industry is already moving to the use of USB Type-C through a connector or cable assembly, said Apple following the recent parliamentary vote. This includes Apple’s USB-C power adapter which is compatible with all iPhone and iPad devices. This approach is more affordable and convenient for consumers, enables charging for a wide range of portable electronic products, encourages people to re-use their charger and allows for innovation.

Tim Hardwick

Fast-forward ten months, Apple just launched a new iPhone lineup with the same proprietary Lightning charging port. The only apparent concession – if you can call it that – to this European Union regulation is that Apple straight up removed wall chargers from the packaging, providing only a USB-C to Lightning cable. Technically, Apple is complying with Option 2 outlined in the article above (any manufacturers that wish to use a proprietary port on their device must include an adapter from USB-C to the proprietary connector), but without providing an USB-C AC power plug.

14 October 2020

The Wall Street Journal: “Pandemic pushes Museums Deeper into Digital Age”

When museums were forced to shut their physical doors this spring, they simultaneously enhanced their online offerings, creating new ways for the public to experience their collections and spaces virtually. In fact, say insiders and consultants, museums increasingly are behaving almost like media-production companies, seeking to tell the stories behind their collections and exhibits in ways that entertain, as well as educate. Their goal is to continue to connect with traditional audiences—those who regularly visit museums and often become members and donors—while reaching out to new audiences via podcasts, virtual tours, YouTube videos and social-media posts.

While many museums report that their online traffic has slowed since the early weeks of the shutdowns, it remains higher than pre-Covid, according to Mr. Cherry, the museum consultant. As cultural institutions welcome the public back, the challenge will be to keep those online visitors interested over the long haul and to sort out the relationship between the physical and virtual museum.

That is a work in progress, says the Modern’s Mr. Lowry. But “we won’t go backward”, he says. “We won’t revert to what we were before.”

Daniel Grant

Speaking of businesses forced to reinvent themselves as online-first, museums have also been directly impacted by the pandemic because of lockdowns and the drastic reduction of tourism – and have managed to adapt reasonably well, according to this article at least. As with streaming, having direct online access to many museums can be an opportunity for many people, who otherwise could not have afforded the transportation and accommodation costs, or the time to travel there. It is equally an occasion for teachers to augument the dreaded online learning experience with visits to virtual, interactive museums, something that would have been a rarity before.

13 October 2020

CNBC: “Disney reorganizes to focus on streaming, direct to consumer”

On Monday, the company revealed that in order to further accelerate its direct-to-consumer strategy, it would be centralizing its media businesses into a single organization that will be responsible for content distribution, ad sales and Disney+.

Shares of the company jumped more than 5% during after-hours trading following the announcement.

The move by Disney comes as the global coronavirus pandemic has crippled its theatrical business and ushered more customers toward its streaming options. As of August, Disney has 100 million paid subscribers across its streaming offerings, more than half of whom are subscribers to Disney+.

I would not characterize it as a response to Covid, CEO Bob Chapek told CNBC’s Julia Boorstin on “Closing Bell” on Monday. I would say Covid accelerated the rate at which we made this transition, but this transition was going to happen anyway.

Sarah Whitten

As in other areas, the pandemic is accelerating an important trend in entertainment, the restructuring around streaming and online experiences. Faced with high uncertainty about the near future, movie studios have tried different short term approaches. Some movie releases have been delayed for up to a year, from Black Widow to No Time to Die and Dune, in the hopes that things will largely return to normal until then. Other studios took their chances with the old model of releasing in theaters, with relatively poor box office results. Disney itself tried a mixed tactic by releasing the live-action adaptation of Mulan online on Disney+, but charging subscribers $30 to watch it.

12 October 2020

No Mercy / No Malice: “Tulips to Tesla”

Financial crises have many causes, but generally they boil down to a few key elements:

  • easy money
  • poor regulation
  • consensual hallucination that the market always goes up

Story stocks and Robinhood have more in common than you’d think. If you want to know what Tesla’s stock will do tomorrow, just look at how many Robinhood accounts were opened today.

Scott Galloway

Interesting correlation between new users on Robinhood (a startup offering people without prior experience the means to invest in stocks – or, as they put it, on a mission to democratize finance for all) and Tesla’s skyrocketing stock price. The implication here being that this influx of new users are buying Tesla stock not because of its intrinsic value or future prospects, but because of the catching story sold by Elon Musk, thus fueling an artificially inflated valuation – and that small individual investors will get burned when the market inevitably self-corrects. In an extreme example, a 20-year-old trader on Robinhood committed suicide this summer after losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the app. The stock market has always reacted irrationally to external events, and in this volatile context we should expect even wilder swings than normally.

11 October 2020

The Guardian: “Call My Agent: the French comedy gem A-listers are desperate to star in”

If the show’s premise is somewhat predictable, its handling of fame is altogether less so. Each episode features a titular guest star – BéatriceDalle, Cécile de France, Guy Marchand – but rather than being written as the focal point, the big name is instead that day’s worry to assuage, the problem to be fixed. Call My Agent does that rare thing that interviews often fail to achieve, and makes these people, who live decidedly abnormal lives, very normal.

There are administratively challenged actors who need help answering emails and vetting nannies, and matrimonially challenged stars who want help finding a date. There’s the actor who can’t drive, the actor who can’t swim and the actor who suddenly can’t act. There’s one who, as Andrea puts it, is “doing a Day Lewis”, and can’t stop acting, unable to come out of a very intense Revenant-style survival role. He ends up being dropped from his subsequent gig as a clean-shaven banker when he literally attacks the producer’s dog, with his teeth.

The material for all of it comes from co-creator Dominique Besnehard, an actor and director who spent two decades as the most well-known agent in France. The man’s CV reads like a history of contemporary French cinema. From Jacques Doillon onwards, he’s worked with everyone. Which is to say that not only are the guests in Call My Agent mostly names in Besnehard’s own address book, the storylines are rooted in his lived experience. It all happened, he repeatedly tells the press.

Dale Berning Sawa

I recently finished watching this series on Netflix – binged from start to finish in a little over a week, since each season only has 6 episodes – and I have to say it was phenomenally fun to watch! I know few French actors, so I have not picked up on the premise that real actors are playing themselves until the forth episode – I remember Audrey Fleurot from another French series I watched on Netflix, Le Bazar de la Charité. This innovation aside, the real interest for me were the four agent, their daily trials and tribulations dealing with their clients’ fickleness, but also with each other’s chicanery and intrigue. Some situations felt a little over the top, especially in the lives of the main characters, but at the same time this made the watching experience that more exciting. I was glad to find out there is another season coming, even if it will be the last.

10 October 2020

The New York Times: “Can CBD Really Do All That?”

Mechoulam concluded that our bodies must produce their own cannabinoids — endogenous molecules that, like the native opioids and nicotinelike molecules our bodies also make, engage the cannabinoid receptors throughout the human body. In 1992, he identified the first one. Mechoulam, who is often called the godfather of cannabis research — he was a senior scientist on the Brazilian CBD epilepsy trial that inspired Jacobson — and his colleagues christened it “anandamide”, after the Sanskrit word for “supreme joy”. They suspected that the molecule played a role in the formation of emotions.

The native network of cannabinoid receptors and transmitters described by Howlett and Mechoulam is now known as the endocannabinoid system. It’s central to homeostatic regulation, that is, how the body maintains, and returns to, its baseline state after being disturbed. If a person is injured, for example, native cannabinoids increase, presumably in order to resolve the inflammation and other damage signals associated with injury. They also increase after strenuous exercise, another stressor, and some scientists have argued that they, not the better-known endorphins, are really responsible for the pleasant postexercise feeling known as runner’s high.

Moises Velasquez-Manoff

Fascinating article about a research area that many would probably consider controversial. I don’t think I knew before reading this about the two different active molecules contained in marijuana, CBD and THC, and their opposite effects on the human body, nor about its history in the United States, where it was heavily restricted in the Prohibition era in the 1930’s. It will be interesting to follow future research into medicinal use of CBD, particularly as cancer treatments or at least alleviating the side effects of chemotherapy.

09 October 2020

Organize Collections in Microsoft Edge with Copy-Paste

As I have mentioned previously on my blog, the Collections feature in Microsoft Edge has become my preferred tool to gather and organize information and prepare my articles. Because I have been using it more frequently, I have started to discover its less known tricks. The following has surprised me and turned out to be very useful: you can move items between collections via simple copy and paste!

08 October 2020

The New York Times: “Boeing built Deadly Assumptions into 737 Max, Blind to a Late Design Change”

The fatal flaws with Boeing’s 737 Max can be traced to a breakdown late in the plane’s development, when test pilots, engineers and regulators were left in the dark about a fundamental overhaul to an automated system that would ultimately play a role in two crashes.

A year before the plane was finished, Boeing made the system more aggressive and riskier. While the original version relied on data from at least two types of sensors, the final version used just one, leaving the system without a critical safeguard. In both doomed flights, pilots struggled as a single damaged sensor sent the planes into irrecoverable nose-dives within minutes, killing 346 people and prompting regulators around the world to ground the Max.

While prosecutors and lawmakers try to piece together what went wrong, the current and former employees point to the single, fateful decision to change the system, which led to a series of design mistakes and regulatory oversights. As Boeing rushed to get the plane done, many of the employees say, they didn’t recognize the importance of the decision. They described a compartmentalized approach, each of them focusing on a small part of the plane. The process left them without a complete view of a critical and ultimately dangerous system.

Jack Nicas, Natalie Kitroeff, David Gelles & James Glanz

Move fast and break things’ – Facebook’s original motto – does not translate well to the real world, where rushing a hardware change patched with a quick software fix caused two plane crashes and hundreds of deaths. To be fair, that motto has not served Facebook well either, as their careless attitude lead to numerous toxic side-effects over the years. In Boeing’s case, they had to stop producing the 737 Max model, and international regulators are still reluctant to allow the plane to fly again. Boeing’s faulty internal processes may have also impacted their CST-100 Starliner, a new crew capsule designed to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

07 October 2020

Scientific American: “Astronomers Tiptoe Closer to Confirming First Exomoon”

Have astronomers just found the first-ever exomoon, a lunar companion of a planet orbiting another star? Definitely maybe.

Using data from NASA’s Kepler and Hubble space telescopes, Columbia University astronomers Alex Teachey and David Kipping report the potential signal of a Neptune-size moon around a planet three times heavier than Jupiter, all orbiting a nearly 10-billion-year-old sun-like star called Kepler 1625 b about 8,000 light-years from Earth. Such a large moon defies easy explanation based on prevailing theories. The findings appear in a study published October 3 in Science Advances, and follow from the duo’s earlier work reported last year that first offered more tentative evidence of the moon.

Lee Billings

I have been following the authors of this study for some time on Twitter – and YouTube – but unfortunately no significant confirmation of this hypothetical double planet has happened in the past two years. The setup is extraordinary by the standards of our own solar system, with a satellite larger than most of our planets, but massive objects are mush easier to detect, so it is natural for the first discovered exomoons to be huge.

06 October 2020

Coronavirus in Romania: summer plateau, autumn records

Almost three months have passed since I wrote my previous update about the coronavirus in Romania, and the situation has not improved since. It did not take long for the number of daily cases to surpass 1000 – two weeks instead of one as I was expecting. Since then, the weekly average has never gone below 1000, with occasional daily dips only during weekends, when fewer tests are processed. As in late spring, we were stuck on a new plateau; the number of infections has remained relatively stable in the 1150 to 1250 range for almost two months, into the first weeks of September.

The beginning of September has brought a series of relaxation measures that were reflected in new increases later in the month. On September 1st indoor restaurants were allowed to reopen for the first time since the initial declaration of an emergency situation in March – two weeks later, the weekly average number of cases surpassed 1300 for the first time.

Then on September 14th the new school year started with mostly in-person classes – again two weeks later, on September 30th, Romania reported over 2000 new daily cases for the first time. There are already numerous reports of clusters linked to schools – these were promptly closed, and students returned to online learning. While I can understand that many parents and children prefer to attend classes in person, I cannot help but think it was a very unwise decision for containing the pandemic. It would have made more sense to suspend the entire school year in the hopes of getting the disease under better control by this time next year.