31 December 2020

Bloomberg: “Your Old Radiator is a Pandemic-Fighting Weapon”

The Spanish Influenza, which caused just over 20,000 deaths in New York City alone, changed heating once and for all. That’s according to Dan Holohan, a retired writer, consultant, and researcher with extensive knowledge of heating systems and steam heating. (Among his many tomes on the topic: The Lost Art of Steam Heating, from 1992.) Most radiator systems appeared in major American cities like New York City in the first third of the 20th century. This golden age of steam heat didn’t merely coincide with that pandemic: Beliefs about how to fight airborne illness influenced the design of heating systems, and created a persistent pain point for those who’ve cohabitated with a cranky old radiator.

Health officials thought (correctly) that fresh air would ward off airborne diseases; then as now, cities rushed to move activities outdoors, from schools to courtrooms. When winter came, the need for fresh air didn’t abate. According to Holohan’s research, the Board of Health in New York City ordered that windows should remain open to provide ventilation, even in cold weather. In response, engineers began devising heating systems with this extreme use case in mind. Steam heating and radiators were designed to heat buildings on the coldest day of the year with all the windows open. Anybody who’s thrown their windows open in January, when their apartment is stifling, is, in an odd way, replicating what engineers hoped would happen a century ago.

Patrick Sisson

Fascinating piece of history! I would have never guessed that radiators – very common in Romania as well to this day – were invented as a pandemic countermeasure. It makes you wonder which innovations will have a similar impact on society a century from now, while their original purpose is long forgotten.

30 December 2020

CNBC: “AT&T dismantles Time Warner to battle Netflix: The inside story”

Although Stankey was new to media, he suffered the same disease as every other media executive: Netflix envy.

He thought Plepler was aiming too low. Plepler’s plan to generate $7.5 billion in annual revenue was 12% more than HBO’s eventual 2019 revenue. But it was a far cry from the $20 billion Netflix generated.

Stankey told Plepler he wanted a direct-to-consumer solution that could get to at least 60 million subscribers in five years, according to people familiar with the matter. HBO subscriptions had fallen from about 37.5 million in 2017 to 34.5 million in 2019. Over the same time, Netflix global subscriptions jumped 50%, from 111 million to 167 million.

If Stankey could convince investors that HBO Max would mirror Netflix’s growth trajectory, he might be able to capture a higher trading multiple for AT&T. This is the holy grail for media companies this decade — convincing Wall Street that streaming growth will make up for the decline of legacy businesses like cable TV and movie theater viewing. It’s also a strategy supported by AT&T’s most notable investor, activist hedge fund Elliott Management, which last year bet $3.2 billion that divesting non-core assets and focusing on streaming could lead to a surge in AT&T shares.

Alex Sherman

As expected following Disney’s decision, another major film studio is beginning to prioritize streaming as key to their long-term strategy. Last month, Warner Bros. announced that Wonder Woman 1984 will be released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, for no extra cost; later the company extended this policy to all their upcoming 2021 movie releases.

29 December 2020

Microsoft Tech Community: “Introducing Microsoft Editor – Bring out your best writer wherever you write”

Editor in the browser extension

With the release of Microsoft Editor’s standalone browser extension, Editor now moves with you across the web so you can easily write clear, accurate content anywhere you want. Whether you are posting casually on Facebook or LinkedIn or writing in depth for a site like Medium, you can create with confidence knowing Editor will flag misspelled words and grammatical errors. As with the other places Editor is available, your Microsoft 365 subscription will give you access to advanced recommendations on style, clarity, inclusive language, and much more in 20+ languages. The Microsoft Editor browser extension will release in both the Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge web stores in the next few weeks. When available, install and get started!

Lauren Nicholson & Megan Dohnal

I’ve missed this part about the browser extension in the initial launch of Microsoft Editor, but fortunately I found out about it later on Twitter, via JenMsft. I installed it in Edge some time ago and I have to say I find it very useful. I have always relied on Microsoft’s spell checker for corrections while writing long articles, both in English and in other languages, and it is good to have the same recommendations now available on the web – the suggestions built-in to browsers are not always the best. Misspelling is a common complaint on Twitter, and one of the main reasons people keep asking for an ‘edit’ button – I will probably sound pretentious, but if people are so concerned with this, they should take a moment and reread what they are about to tweet.

28 December 2020

The Wall Street Journal: “Google, Facebook Agreed to Team Up against Possible Antitrust Action, draft lawsuit says”

The redacted lawsuit filed last week makes no mention of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. According to the draft version, Ms. Sandberg signed the deal with Google. The draft version also cites an email where she told CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other executives: “This is a big deal strategically.”

The final version of the lawsuit didn’t make public details about the deal’s value. The draft states that starting in the deal’s fourth year, Facebook is locked into spending a minimum of $500 million annually in Google-run ad auctions. “Facebook is to win a fixed percent of those auctions”, the draft version says. The lawsuit says “Facebook is to [REDACTED].”

According to the draft version, an internal Facebook document described the deal as “relatively cheap” when compared with direct competition, while a Google presentation said if the company couldn’t “avoid competing with” Facebook, it would collaborate to “build a moat”. The redacted lawsuit filed last week doesn’t include those quotes.

Ryan Tracy & John D. McKinnon

A classic case of collusion – and a big vulnerability for Google in this lawsuit, because agreements to fix prices can be easier to prove than the states’ other accusations, as the article notes further down the line. At the end of a difficult year, US regulators finally taking action against the market concentration in Big Tech can surely be counted as one of the positive developments of 2020.

rainylune: “Why your Instagram Engagement Kinda Sucks Right Now”

For privacy reasons, I’ll refer to the person I spoke to as Mr. Ig. I got a ton of really useful information out of this call, and I will probably have to write multiple articles to cover it all. The most important thing I learned was that Instagram’s algorithm will either reward or punish you based on your usage of the app as a whole. There are over 500 different factors, but it takes much more into account than just the likes, views, comments, etc of a specific post. The algorithm ranks your specific post by taking into account your use of Instagram as a whole.

Think of it like the algorithm is grading you in a class. One test alone doesn’t determine your whole grade - there’s still participation points, homework, classwork, projects, and more. You’ve gotta participate throughout the class as a whole, not just show up for one test and get an A on it.

Instagram currently has a team that is dedicated entirely to just finding good reels for them to promote. If your reel is chosen to be featured, they’ll choose to show it to more people for around a month, leading to a ton of views. But keep in mind that the promo team is Specifically looking at the back end for reels that were made using Instagram’s in app editor. which means no recycling tik toks. You can still have recycled videos do really well, but this basically disqualifies you from being chosen by the team.

Rachel Reichenbach

Interesting piece of information about Instagram’s current ranking algorithm. Since the source is an anonymous media expert from the Instagram Partnerships team, I would not take every statement at face value, but they sound plausible at the very least. The ‘ideal’ amount of content (3 feed posts, 8-10 stories, 4-7 reels and 1-3 IGTV weekly) makes an Instagram Creator feel like a full-time job – without proper pay on top of that – rather than a fun thing to do in your spare time, and is highly unrealistic for most people.

27 December 2020

STAT: “Beware the danger of ‘vaccine euphoria’”

We get so kind of blinded by vaccine euphoria — the light at the end of the tunnel — that we underestimate how long that tunnel is, and how dangerous that tunnel is, said Peter Sands, executive director of the Swiss-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which has expanded its mission to combat Covid.

For most of the countries the fund invests in, Sands added at a recent health summit hosted by the Milken Institute, vaccines are not going to be available at scale until late ‘21 at the earliest, and a lot of lives are going to be lost in that time in between.

So hand-washing, mask-wearing, social distancing — and, experts warn, a healthy new dose of cognitive dissonance — will continue to be the daily reality for most of us for months to come.

Todd S. Purdum

An important point that I don’t think gets enough attention from the public. There are many factors contributing to this, many scenarios how societies may fail to control the pandemic despite vaccines becoming available. The one presented in this article questions how long people will continue to follow basic prevention measures if they assume vaccinations will instantly ‘solve’ the pandemic. This is especially problematic as the currently approved vaccines require two doses four weeks apart, and the optimum virus protection only sets in around two weeks after the second dose. Even so, vaccinated people should continue to weak masks, as it is uncertain for now if vaccinations stop transmission, or just protect people from becoming sick.

26 December 2020

National Geographic: “One in six Americans could go hungry in 2020 as pandemic persists”

By the end of this year, more than 50 million people could experience food insecurity, according to Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief organization. That’s one in six Americans and one in four children—nearly a 50 percent increase from 2019. A Northwestern University study in June found that food needs had doubled nationally, and tripled for households with children. The pandemic has laid bare how many people are one paycheck or medical bill away from hunger.

In October, Feeding America’s network of food banks and pantries distributed some 548 million meals, up 52 percent from an average month before the pandemic. In November, with the holidays approaching, it may be more. When the fairgrounds gates opened in Dallas, volunteers waved cars through rows of orange cones to receive a 15-pound box of produce, dry goods, a frozen turkey, and a loaf of bread. In a typical year, the North Texas Food Bank holiday distribution serves around 500 people. This year, when the gates closed, they’d sent 8,500 people home with more than half a million pounds of food. Before the pandemic, the food bank’s clientele were largely employed people who needed extra help to make ends meet. Now, many of them told Cunningham they’d lost their jobs. And a third of those being served, she estimates, had never needed assistance before.

People are seeing hunger like they’ve never seen it before, she says.

Nina Strochlic

The recurring images of millions of Americans lining up at food banks are, to me at least, oddly reminiscent of the long queues in front of stores I experienced as a child during Romania’s Communist regime. Another symptom of how broken American society is for the poor, and how it has forgotten the lessons of its own history, specifically of The Great Depression.

23 December 2020

Coronavirus in Romania: evaluating excess mortality

Since the early days of the pandemic, tracking excess mortality became a valuable tool to evaluate and compare the situation across countries. It should better reflect the overall death toll of the crisis, as strains on the health care system led to a larger number of deaths during this period from unrelated causes, people that would have otherwise received medical care and survived.

Finding the necessary data for Romania proved a bit challenging though. After some searching on the internet, I discovered the site of our National Statistics Institute, which publishes demographic data regularly. Unfortunately for my purposes, the available summary does not offer weekly data, as in many other countries, only monthly. The time series only goes back to 2015, meaning there is less historical data to compare 2020 with. There are delays in publication as well, data is made available around 5 to 6 weeks after the end of the month in question, for example now in December INS released preliminary demographic numbers for October.

17 December 2020

Scientific American: “Global CO2 Emissions saw Record Drop during Pandemic Lockdown”

On that day, almost 90% of global CO2 was released in areas under lockdown to avoid spreading the virus. A study published yesterday in Nature Climate Change estimates emissions on April 7 fell by 17%, more than any other day during the first four months of 2020.

At first glance, a reduction of that magnitude appears massive. In comparison, global emissions dropped 1.5% during the Great Recession in 2009.

But a deeper look shows that individual changes in behavior produce limited emission reductions. Much of the world stopped traveling, eating in restaurants and buying merchandise. It was an unmatched experiment and yet 80% of emissions were untouched.

Scientists have sought to reject claims that emissions reductions associated with the coronavirus are a silver lining. Carbon dioxide is a long-lived gas capable of staying in the atmosphere for up to a century, meaning a temporary drop in emissions is unlikely to change the world’s climate trajectory.

The magnitude of reductions has to be similar, but it has to persist over time, and it can’t be as disruptive as this has been, said Steven Davis, an earth scientist at the University of California, Irvine, who did not participate in the study.

Benjamin Storrow

Back in spring when the pandemic started, my personal conspiracy theory about the emergence of the virus was the following: dismayed by the lack of action against global warming, a couple of climate scientists decided to take the matter into their own hands. Together with a group of virologists, they designed a virus (infectious enough to spread widely, with a long incubation period to escape quick detection, and relatively low mortality to minimize casualties) to scare the population into consuming and traveling less, forcing them to adopt a less carbon-intensive lifestyle.

Texas Monthly: “Texas Wedding Photographers Have Seen Some $#!+”

The wedding photographer had already spent an hour or two inside with the unmasked wedding party when one of the bridesmaids approached her. The woman thanked her for still showing up, considering everything that’s going on with the groom.

When the photographer asked what she meant by that, the bridesmaid said the groom had tested positive for the coronavirus the day before. She was looking for me to be like, Oh, that’s crazy, like I was going to agree with her that it was fine, the photographer recalls. So I was like, What are you talking about? And she was like, Oh no no no, don’t freak out. He doesn’t have symptoms. He’s fine.

The photographer who got sick after shooting the COVID-positive groom said her experiences throughout the pandemic have left her a little depressed. She recalled one conversation from that wedding, before she left the reception. I have children, she told a bridesmaid, What if my children die? The bridesmaid responded, I understand, but this is her wedding day.

Emily McCullar

Simply beyond words. The cult of selfishness indeed!

16 December 2020

Sky & Telescope: “(Very) Small Chance of Apophis Asteroid Impact in 2068”

Working from the current uncertainty in the asteroid’s orbit and using just gravity, astronomers calculated that encounters later this century would also be harmless. However, in 2015, David Vokrouhlický (Charles University in Prague) and his colleagues predicted that Apophis should experience a tiny orbital change due to the Yarkovsky effect, leading to a possible impact in 2068.

The Yarkovsky effect is a subtle, net force on a small, rotating body caused by asymmetric heating. Tholen and his colleagues have now measured the strength of this effect on Apophis by making extremely precise positional observations using the Japanese 8.3-meter Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawai‘i. Their results indicate that the semi-major axis of the asteroid’s orbit is decreasing by 170 meters per year – in very good agreement with Vokrouhlický’s prediction.

The upshot: there’s indeed a small chance (currently about 1 in 150,000) of an actual impact in April 2068, a little more than 47 years from now.

Govert Schilling

Speaking of possible impacts by near-Earth asteroids, Apophis is one of the most talked about because of its size and several close approaches to Earth over the next century. It has recently returned in the news following refinements of its orbit that slightly increase the chances of collision with our planet. They remain minuscule fortunately, because considering our poor results in dealing with a pandemic and global warming, I would not give humanity very good odds of averting an asteroid impact, even one discovered decades in advance such as this one.

15 December 2020

Scientific American: “Arecibo’s Collapse sends Dire Warning to Other Aging Observatories”

Across the decades, researchers used Arecibo’s superlative capabilities to perform one stunning feat of space-science strength after another. These included providing the first piece of evidence for the presence of gravitational waves, as well as detecting the first repeating fast radio burst. The facility played a key role in confirming one of the very first known exoplanets. And it was the source of the Arecibo message, a cosmic communiqué beamed into intergalactic space in 1974 that, at its specific wavelength, briefly outshone the sun.

But as time passed, technology progressed, and the need for new observatories with breakthrough capabilities became clear, Arecibo’s chief funder and steward, the National Science Foundation (NSF), began to perceive the observatory as being past its prime. A 2006 senior review report recommended that unless another entity stepped in to fund it, Arecibo should be decommissioned after 2011. Pressure from the scientific community, as well as from politicians and locals, saved the observatory from this fate, but the NSF has been draining it of annual operational funds and threatening it with decommissioning ever since.

Robin George Andrews

It may sound odd to feel sadness when a inanimate object such as a telescope breaks down, but… I felt sad reading this news as well. After Hubble, I think Arecibo was one of the most iconic telescopes, at least for me. This article explains it very clearly how much it contributed to our understanding of the universe and how its unique capabilities are hard to replace by other existing radio telescopes. I am mostly worried about the gap left in planetary defense, where precise Arecibo measurements helped narrow down the orbits of near-Earth asteroids in order to more accurately predict the probabilities of a future Earth impact. And with rapidly increasing numbers of artificial satellites in orbit, I expect that tracking potentially hazardous asteroids will become more difficult from the ground.

14 December 2020

Twitter blog: “Fleets: a new way to join the conversation”

Twitter’s purpose is to serve the public conversation – it’s where you go to see what’s happening and talk about it. But some of you tell us that Tweeting is uncomfortable because it feels so public, so permanent, and like there’s so much pressure to rack up Retweets and Likes. That’s why, unfortunately, there are so many 🔥 Tweets left in drafts! To help people feel more comfortable, we’ve been working on a lower pressure way for people to talk about what’s happening. Today, we're launching Fleets so everyone can easily join the conversation in a new way – with their fleeting thoughts.

Joshua Harris & Sam Haveson

Basically Twitter’s version of Stories, fleets disappear after 24h and are separate from the main timeline, showing up in a horizontal row at the top – in the smartphone apps for now, there are no fleets in the web app for the moment. They do not fit particularly well with the everyday Twitter experience, without likes or retweets, and I suspect their introduction may have been a condition imposed on Twitter by Elliott Management back in early March, when it tried to gain control over Twitter and replace its CEO, Jack Dorsey. (I do not remember jack ever posting a fleet, which may support this assumption.)

13 December 2020

The Guardian: “‘People think the deer are lovely. Then they learn more about it’: the deer cull dilemma”

No one owns Britain’s red deer. But if you own the land they live on – or graze from, shelter in, pass through – then you assume responsibility for their management. In Scotland, where their numbers have doubled in the past 50 years, such stewardship has come to mean one thing: the annual cull.

And it is in the Highlands where the country’s deer problem can be seen clearly: they gorge themselves upon gardens and crops and vegetable patches, they run blindly into the road as speeding cars approach. The true scale of the problem is hard to gauge, but our best guess is that there might now be as many as 1.5m deer in the UK, at least half of them in Scotland; more than at any time since the last ice age. They roam bare hills in vast herds – in the Cairngorms they have been seen in herds a thousand animals strong, steam rising from their massed ranks. They swarm over the fells like a plague, covering the land like a cloak, picking it clean, moving off as fast as they arrived.

And with the deer comes plague of another sort: cases of Lyme disease, spread by ticks that use the deer as hosts, have rocketed – in some areas reaching epidemic proportions. But perhaps the most pressing concerns are environmental ones. The red deer eat and eat, overwhelming a delicate moorland ecosystem, trampling the ground, shearing the hillside of vegetation and stripping the bark from the trees.

Cal Flyn

While on the subject of Lyme Disease, the environmental imbalance caused by the eradication of larger predators such as wolves has enabled the deer population in several counties to reproduce uncontrollably, which in turn lead to an increase in the number of ticks spreading this disease to humans. A good example how our interventions in complex ecosystems can create side effects that are hard to estimate. It will be interesting to follow the initiatives to reintroduce wolves to their natural habitats, particularly how well locals can coexists with wolves. But it might prove easier in the southern Rockies, where there is plenty of space for them to hunt and spread, than in the crowded regions of UK and Europe.

Time: “George R. R. Martin on the One Game of Thrones Change He argued Against”

Did Lady Stoneheart come about because it was hard to say a permanent goodbye to Catelyn?

Yeah, maybe. That may have been part of it. Part of it was also, it’s the dialogue that I was talking about. And here I’ve got to get back to Tolkien again. And I’m going to seem like I’m criticizing him, which I guess I am. It’s always bothered me that Gandalf comes back from the dead. The Red Wedding for me in Lord of the Rings is the mines of Moria, and when Gandalf falls — it’s a devastating moment! I didn’t see it coming at 13 years old, it just totally took me by surprise. Gandalf can’t die! He’s the guy that knows all of the things that are happening! He’s one of the main heroes here! Oh god, what are they going to do without Gandalf? Now it’s just the hobbits?! And Boromir, and Aragorn? Well, maybe Aragorn will do, but it’s just a huge moment. A huge emotional investment.

And then in the next book, he shows up again, and it was six months between the American publications of those books, which seemed like a million years to me. So all that time I thought Gandalf was dead, and now he’s back and now he’s Gandalf the White. And, ehh, he’s more or less the same as always, except he’s more powerful. It always felt a little bit like a cheat to me. And as I got older and considered it more, it also seemed to me that death doesn’t make you more powerful. That’s, in some ways, me talking to Tolkien in the dialogue, saying, Yeah, if someone comes back from being dead, especially if they suffer a violent, traumatic death, they’re not going to come back as nice as ever. That’s what I was trying to do, and am still trying to do, with the Lady Stoneheart character.

Daniel D'Addario

This interview is obviously not super relevant now that the Game of Thrones TV series ended on a massive disappointment and the remaining books will likely never be finished, but I found Martin’s inconsistencies here telling. He’s criticizing Tolkien for bringing back a beloved character, while doing the same in his novels – and twice no less, if we count the resurrection of Jon Snow, which as far as I can tell from the vitriolic criticism on reddit has not yet happened in the books, but was spoiled by the TV show. He may not have liked the removal of Lady Stoneheart from the adaptation, but I think it was a good decision to remove a plot point and character that did not meaningfully impact the rest of the story.

12 December 2020

MIT Technology Review: “Gene editing has made pigs immune to a deadly epidemic”

Now Christianson’s company, which is a division of the British animal genetics firm Genus, is trying something different. Instead of trying to seal animals off from the environment, it’s changing the pigs themselves. At an experimental facility in the central US (the location kept secret for security reasons), the company has a swine IVF center and a lab where pig eggs are being genetically edited using CRISPR, the revolutionary gene scissors.

In experiments on pig cells, the Genus researchers have tried many possible edits to the CD163 gene, looking for those that occur most predictably. Even with such efforts, the pigs being born have the right edit only about 20 to 30% of the time. Those piglets whose genomes have errors end up in a compost heap. I want to convey that this technology is not simple. You can be good at this technology or bad at it, says Mark Cigan, a molecular biologist with a senior role in the program. We need to be rigorous, because we want a predictable change in all the pigs. It has to be the same change every time.

Antonio Regalado

Reading past the misleading title – the resulting hundreds of gene-edited pigs are kept in experimental stations and regulatory approval for commercial use is unlikely to arrive before 2025 – the approach seems slow and wasteful to me. While CRISPR shows a lot of promise in many areas, an error rate of 70–80% in mammals is quite high, producing many animals with unwanted mutations that have to be sacrificed. And because you need the pigs with the correct mutation to breed in order to establish a viable population, this slows down trials and results quite a lot.

The Atlantic: “Lyme Disease is Baffling, even to Experts”

Lyme disease came into public view when an epidemic of what appeared to be rheumatoid arthritis began afflicting children in Lyme, Connecticut. A young rheumatologist at Yale named Allen Steere, who now conducts research at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, studied the children. In 1976 he named the mysterious illness after its locale and described its main symptoms more fully: a bull’s-eye rash; fevers and aches; Bell’s palsy, or partial paralysis of the face, and other neurological issues; and rheumatological manifestations such as swelling of the knees. After much study, Steere realized that the black-legged ticks that live on mice and deer (among other mammals) might be harboring a pathogen responsible for the outbreak. In 1981, the medical entomologist Willy Burgdorfer finally identified the bacterium that causes Lyme, and it was named after him: Borrelia burgdorferi.

B. burgdorferi is a corkscrew-shaped bacterium known as a spirochete that can burrow deep into its host’s tissue, causing damage as it goes and, in laboratory conditions at least, morphing as needed from corkscrew to cystlike blob to, potentially, slimy “biofilm” forms. Because of this ability, researchers describe it as an “immune evader.” Once it hits the human bloodstream, it changes its outer surface to elude an immune response, and then quickly moves from the blood into tissue, which poses problems for early detection. (Hard to find in the bloodstream and other body fluids, the B. burgdorferi spirochete is hard to culture, which is how bacterial infections are definitively diagnosed.) If it goes untreated, B. burgdorferi can make its way into fluid in the joints, into the spinal cord, and even into the brain and the heart, where it can cause the sometimes deadly Lyme carditis.

Meghan O'Rourke

I had a friend who was diagnosed with Lyme a couple of years ago, but she made a full recovery after the antibiotics treatment. Apparently others are not so fortunate, and develop a range of symptoms after the initial phase of the disease. It goes to show how much there is still to discover about our bodies and the complex interactions between pathogens and the human immune system – something that plays an important role in the evolution of COVID-19 patients as well.

10 December 2020

New York Magazine: “Big Tech’s Big Divorce from Democrats”

Big Tech Divorce from Democrats

Again and again, Washington Democrats were shocked that the company could be so blind to its own faults and so uninterested in doing penance. Weeks after the Pelosi-video debacle, Facebook representatives trekked back up Capitol Hill to explain the company’s new cryptocurrency plan, apparently unprepared, in Democrats’ eyes, for the skepticism they’d encounter. Facebook is dangerous, said Ohio senator Sherrod Brown to the Facebook official overseeing the project. Now, Facebook might not intend to be dangerous, but surely they don’t respect the power of the technologies they’re playing with. Like a toddler who has gotten his hands on a book of matches, Facebook has burned down the house over and over and called every arson a learning experience… Facebook has demonstrated through scandal after scandal that it doesn’t deserve our trust. It should be treated like the profit-seeking corporation it is, just like any other company.

Gabriel Debenedetti

Another piece from my long archive of articles I have read and never wrote about on my blog. This quote feels particularly appropriate now, as yesterday the US Federal Trade Commission, along with 40 state attorneys general, sued Facebook, alleging that the company is illegally maintaining a personal social networking monopoly through a years-long course of anticompetitive conduct. The prosecutors are asking, among other things, that Facebook should break off Instagram and WhatsApp, and that new restrictions should apply to the company on future acquisitions. While the case will be hard to prove, it will certainly be an interesting fight to watch – and maybe make enough of a dent in Facebook’s power for other companies to emerge and diversify on the market.

09 December 2020

Bloomberg: “Apple Shifts Leadership of Self-Driving Car Unit to AI Chief”

Apple Inc. has moved its self-driving car unit under the leadership of top artificial intelligence executive John Giannandrea, who will oversee the company’s continued work on an autonomous system that could eventually be used in its own car.

The project, known as Titan, is run day-to-day by Doug Field. His team of hundreds of engineers have moved to Giannandrea’s artificial intelligence and machine-learning group, according to people familiar with the change. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.

Giannandrea joined Apple in 2018 as its vice president of AI Strategy and Machine Learning before being promoted to Apple’s executive team as a senior vice president later that year. He ran Google’s machine-learning and search teams before that. At Apple, in addition to the car project, he is in charge of Siri and machine-learning technologies across Apple’s products.

Mark Gurman

In other news around self-diving cars… In contrast to Uber, Apple should have both the engineering resources to design custom chips and sensors for autonomous vehicles, and the finances to support long term development. Where Apple struggles is the AI component – subordinating this project to the same leadership in charge of Siri does not exactly inspire confidence in future breakthroughs, considering how poorly Siri performs compared to other digital assistants. Project Titan underwent several reorganizations and scale-backs over the years, and according to recent reports it performed significantly less public road testing in 2019; I would not be surprised if it is completely abandoned in coming years.

08 December 2020

The Washington Post: “Uber offloads troubled self-driving unit to startup Aurora”

The company is selling its self-driving division to start-up Aurora in a deal that values the ride-hailing giant’s autonomous vehicle unit at about $4 billion, according to the companies and people familiar with the matter. Uber executives have long pointed toward a future in which the company could automate its fleet, removing a huge portion of the costs that help prevent it from attaining profitability.

The sale represents the final chapter for an ambitious but troubled division that was left reeling after one of its vehicles was investigated in the first known pedestrian death involving a self-driving vehicle.

Uber has been the dominant player in the ride-hailing industry over the past decade, but the pandemic has strained its business and forced it to rely more on food delivery while cutting back on longer-term investments and experimental projects.

Faiz Siddiqui

Hardly surprising, considering how little progress Uber was making in the area and the broader context of the pandemic and economic recession. After cost cuts and several rounds of layoffs, and the realization that the home delivery business may be more lucrative for the near future, a speculative line of business with little prospect of success over the next five years at least was bound to be the next to go. In case anyone remembers, in early 2017 Uber also started a flying car initiative, Uber Elevate, which Uber is now selling to Joby Aviation.

06 December 2020

‘Annihilation’ (Netflix)

in Bucharest, Romania
Annihilation - Poster Concept by Kyle V. James
Annihilation – Poster Concept by Kyle V. James

After mentioning Peter Watts earlier this week, I went back through his blog posts and found his review of the Annihilation movie adaptation. Because it was immediately available on Netflix, I watched it shortly after release and have been meaning to write a couple of thoughts about it. I have not read any of novels in this trilogy, so I cannot compare the result with the written original, as Peter Watts did.

The overall idea behind Annihilation sounds similar to Roadside Picnic, maybe even Greg Egan’s Teranesia, though I have not read either book yet. The movie does a nice job of setting up a mysterious, tense, even threatening atmosphere once the characters reach the alien zone where many disappeared before them. There is a constant sense that the group is being watched, that something is moving and closing in just off screen, out of their field of view.

Despite this, and various complaints from critics, I felt that the movie was not weird enough. The oddly shaped animals and strange plants are mostly recognizable, having added relatively minor random parts from other species. There is some emphasis on the human element – we get a bear with eerie human voice, in a scene that veers towards horror rather than sci-fi, and bushes that grow in the shapes of people – which could have been interpreted as an attempt by the unseen entity to communicate with the explorers, but the movie does not follow up on this idea in any meaningful way.

04 December 2020

The Atlantic: “Your Individually Rational Choice is Collectively Disastrous”

Most people are capable of learning difficult skills like swimming, riding a bike, or cooking a decent meal because these activities provide a lot of instant feedback on what you’re doing right, or wrong. If you put far too much salt in the sauce, your pasta will taste memorably bad. The next time, you’ll know what mistakes to avoid.

But some activities, including dangerous ones, provide negative feedback only rarely. When I am in a rush, I often cross the street at a red light. I understand intellectually that this is stupid, but I’ve never once seen evidence of my stupidity. In fact, every time I cross on red, the world sends me a signal that it’s safe: After all, I’ve never (yet) been hit by a car! So I keep crossing on red.

Exposure to COVID-19 works the same way. Every time you engage in a risky activity—like meeting up with your friends indoors—the world is likely to send you a signal that you made the right choice. I saw my pal and didn’t get sick. Clearly, I shouldn’t have worried so much about socializing! But that is just as wrong as thinking that jaywalking is safe because you haven’t yet been hit by a car.

Yascha Mounk

Excellent observations about how everyday human choices and routines can become harmful during a pandemic. I was getting at a similar point in my latest article about the coronavirus when I was writing about the need for flexibility, to adapt our habits to this exceptional situation, at least temporarily. I would add that, in the case of infectious diseases, dangerous situations do provide negative feedback – when we or people around us get sick – but unfortunately that feedback arrives much later, and in our minds becomes disconnected from the actual behavior causing the infection. A similar problem arises with pollution and global warming, both issues that affect the whole planet, but whose ultimate consequences are hard to grasp on short timescales.

The Guardian: “Collision course: why are cars killing more and more pedestrians?”

Here is what the frustrated safety experts will tell you: Americans are driving more than ever, more than residents of any other country. More of them than ever are living in cities and out in urban sprawl; a growing number of pedestrian fatalities occur on the fringes of cities, where high-volume, high-speed roads exist in close proximity to the places where people live, work, and shop. Speed limits have increased across the country over the past 20 years, despite robust evidence that even slight increases in speed dramatically increase the likelihood of killing pedestrians (car passengers, too – but the increase is not as steep, thanks to improvements in the design of car frames, airbags and seatbelts). American road engineers tend to assume people will speed, and so design roads to accommodate speeding; this, in turn, facilitates more speeding, which soon enough makes higher speed limits feel reasonable. And more Americans than ever are zipping around in SUVs and pickup trucks, which, thanks to their height, weight and shape are between two and three times more likely to kill people they hit.

There is simply a very good business reason for car companies to sell people a future where everything is better, especially when the way to get there is by purchasing a lot of cars, says Peter Norton, perhaps the most prominent historian of how Americans think about traffic safety. As Norton pointed out, car manufacturers have long made a practice of stoking consumer dissatisfaction, and yoking it to utopian visions of the future in which cars of the future solve problems created by cars of the present. I don’t think there’s any chance that autonomous vehicles will deliver us a safe future, and I don’t necessarily think the companies think so either. I think they think we’ll buy a lot of stuff. The safe future will recede before our eyes like a desert mirage.

Peter C Baker

I have linked to this article before, after Tesla launched the Cybertruck, the ultimate symbol of car-centric culture to the detriment of pedestrians – and on some level of the American ‘Cult of Selfishness’ that has damaged the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

03 December 2020

The Washington Post: “Apple will pay $113 million for batterygate slowing of iPhones”

The company’s much maligned throttling efforts drew nationwide scorn when they came to light in 2017, stunning consumers who at the time saw it as an attempt to nudge them into buying newer, more expensive devices. States led by Arizona, Arkansas and Indiana soon opened a probe of the matter, and on Wednesday, they secured a financial penalty and legal commitment from Apple to be more transparent in the future.

Apple’s approach ultimately left many users feeling as if the only way to get improved performance was to purchase a newer-model iPhone from Apple, the Arizona complaint contends. As a result, the company relied on unfair and deceptive acts and practices to boost its sales potentially by millions of devices per year, according to Arizona’s attorney general.

Tony Romm

The list of lawsuits and fines for Apple’s ‘battery-gate’ does not stop here: the latest was filed just yesterday in Belgium and Spain by consumer advocacy group Euroconsumer; Apple agreed to another settlement earlier this year in the US, and was fined in Italy and France over the same issue. This is a situation where I wish fines and enforcement would be handled by the EU instead of individual countries – after all, there are iPhone buyers in every state, not just Italy, France and Spain, and Apple should be held accountable in front of all their customers. In a more general sense, it is another example of global companies exploiting the lack of global tax policy and legal framework to avoid scrutiny and maximize their profits.

02 December 2020

TechCrunch: “Salesforce buys Slack in a $27.7B megadeal”

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield was no less effusive than his future boss. As software plays a more and more critical role in the performance of every organization, we share a vision of reduced complexity, increased power and flexibility, and ultimately a greater degree of alignment and organizational agility. Personally, I believe this is the most strategic combination in the history of software, and I can’t wait to get going, Butterfield said in a statement.

Ultimately, Slack was ripe for the taking. Entering 2020 it had lost around 40% of its value since it went public. Consider that after its most recent earnings report, the company lost 16% of its value, and before the Salesforce deal leaked, the company was worth only a few dollars per share more than its direct listing reference price. Toss in net losses of $147.6 million during the two quarters ending July 31, 2020, Slack’s uninspiring public valuation and its winding path to profitability and it was a sitting target for a takeover like this one. The only surprise here is the price.

Ron Miller & Alex Wilhelm

Fun fact, Stewart Butterfield was also the founder of Flickr, before selling the photo sharing site to Yahoo! for some $35 million. I don’t know enough about Salesforce to have an opinion about how this acquisition will turn out in a couple of years, but at least its founder continues to manage Slack from within its new owner. So maybe it has a better chance long term to not end up like Flickr

The Guardian: “How our home delivery habit reshaped the world”

The great trick of online retail has been to get us to do more shopping while thinking less about it – thinking less, in particular, about how our purchases reach our homes. This divorce of a product from its voyage to us is perhaps the thing that Amazon has sold us most successfully. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, never wanted his customers to worry about shipping – about how much it cost, or about how long it would take – and he relentlessly shredded delivery times to make shipping incidental to the purchasing experience.

Amazon’s emphasis on speed compelled other retailers to hurry, too, and encouraged us to believe that if something cannot be had quickly, it is barely worth having at all. It is as if we have forgotten that a product is an object moving through space, fighting gravity, air resistance and other forces of nature. Companies, though, are only too aware of it. While we choose and buy our purchases with mere inch-wide movements of our thumbs, they are busy rearranging the physical world so that our deliveries pelt towards us in ever-quicker time.

But as our urban lives have grown more pressed for time, we have diced our opportunity costs finer and finer; from budgeting days or slabs of hours, we have come to rationing minutes. Delivery schedules have shrunk in parallel. You might now reason that even a 12-minute walk to the store to buy a can of beans is too great an expenditure of time, and that the fee paid for one-hour delivery is a fair price to snatch those minutes back into your life. Of course, the principle of opportunity cost assumes that we will earn the value of that fee back in some way in those 12 minutes – whereas the truth is that we are most likely to squander them on Instagram. The internet promises us time, then takes it right back.

Samanth Subramanian

Wonderful overview of the complicated field of logistics, where companies aggressively optimize transportation and packaging to deliver an increasing variety of goods to our doorsteps as fast as possible. Another article from pre-corona times, but the information here is just as relevant as before, if not more. The improved logistic developed over the past decade has allowed a large number of people to comfortably and safely work from home, and the disruption of the pandemic has in turn benefitted e-commerce companies, a sector which this year has seen growth equivalent to several years under normal circumstances.