27 March 2021

The New York Times: “The Land that Failed to Fail”

The world thought it could change China, and in many ways it has. But China’s success has been so spectacular that it has just as often changed the world — and the American understanding of how the world works.

There is no simple explanation for how China’s leaders pulled this off. There was foresight and luck, skill and violent resolve, but perhaps most important was the fear — a sense of crisis among Mao’s successors that they never shook, and that intensified after the Tiananmen Square massacre and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Even as they put the disasters of Mao’s rule behind them, China’s Communists studied and obsessed over the fate of their old ideological allies in Moscow, determined to learn from their mistakes. They drew two lessons: The party needed to embrace “reform” to survive — but “reform” must never include democratization.

Another explanation for the party’s transformation lies in bureaucratic mechanics. Analysts sometimes say that China embraced economic reform while resisting political reform. But in reality, the party made changes after Mao’s death that fell short of free elections or independent courts yet were nevertheless significant.

The party introduced term limits and mandatory retirement ages, for example, making it easier to flush out incompetent officials. And it revamped the internal report cards it used to evaluate local leaders for promotions and bonuses, focusing them almost exclusively on concrete economic targets.

These seemingly minor adjustments had an outsize impact, injecting a dose of accountability — and competition — into the political system, said Yuen Yuen Ang, a political scientist at the University of Michigan. China created a unique hybrid, she said, an autocracy with democratic characteristics.

Philip P. Pan

If these measures of economic reforms and increased accountability have indeed contributed to China’s decades-long success, current trends appear to head in the opposite direction. In 2018, the year this article was published, Xi Jinping pushed a change to remove term limits for the presidency from the Chinese constitution, thus allowing himself to potentially become president for life, a consolidation of political power not seen since Chairman Mao. The business environment has experienced a considerable chilling, with state regulators intervening to restrain a competing accumulation of power. The strained relationship with the United States and Western democracies will probably encourage Xi Jinping to more extreme actions, more authoritarian control, entrenching his conviction in the preeminence of the Chinese model.

The Guardian: “The age of perpetual crisis: how the 2010s disrupted everything but resolved nothing”

Perhaps the human silhouette that most embodies the 2010s is that of the thousands of cyclists working for the food delivery service Deliveroo, which was founded in London in 2013 and now operates in dozens of cities across Europe and beyond. The huge insulated containers the riders carry on their backs, like uglier, unprotective snail shells, seem to say: Work is a burden you must accept, however much of your dignity it takes away.

Another way to cope with the 2010s has been to work obsessively on yourself. From the 1950s to the 1990s, being young in the west was often associated with lounging around, or rebelling, or living for the moment. But in the 2010s being young often means relentlessly working and studying, polishing your public persona, and keeping fit. The massively popular Hunger Games novels and films, about young people being forced to compete to the death with each other by a cruel, middle-aged elite, came out between 2008 and 2015. Intended as dystopian science fiction, they quickly began to seem like more like satire, or even social realism.

The worse things get, writes the American essayist Jia Tolentino, the more a person is compelled to optimise [themselves]. This can be presentational: a carefully maintained Instagram feed (the app was released in 2010). Or it can be physical. Yoga, marathons, triathlons – it’s not hard to see their renewed popularity over the last decade as an effort by people, conscious or otherwise, to hone themselves for a tougher world.

Andy Beckett

Ironically, this article was published around the date when the novel coronavirus was first identified in China, a virus that quickly went on to spread around the world and cause the most significant disruption in decades. I am reasonably sure that, in another decade or two, what we perceived as turmoil and disruption in the 2010s will become a fond memory of simpler and happier times. Despite vaccination efforts, the current pandemic will likely continue for at least a year globally, and there is no shortage of other possible pathogens to emerge if proper prevention measures are not implemented. As for climate change, I sometimes think we have barely started taking measures to minimize the damages, and I am increasingly pessimistic that the world can act together to reduce warming.

24 March 2021

Vox: “The problem is work”

It was also around this time that the 40-hour workweek became part of American labor law. Previously, workweeks in many jobs were much longer — but even though 40 hours was an improvement, it wasn’t based on what actually made sense for people with families or other responsibilities outside work.

Instead, it was based on the idea that the worker was a man and that the worker had a woman who was doing the reproductive labor in the home full time, Kathi Weeks, a feminist political theorist and the author of the book The Problem with Work, told Vox. This wasn’t true even at the time, of course — not for people of color, and not for most working-class families. But the fiction of a woman at home taking care of kids and other family members was the only way to make the idea of a 40-hour workweek tenable. If every worker was imagined to be doing all of this labor of caring for children and the elderly, Weeks said, policymakers wouldn’t have imagined that 40 hours a week is a reasonable standard of full time.

Untenable as it was, the 40-hour workweek just got longer as time went on. With the advent of technologies like smartphones and email, 9 to 5 became 24/7 — the ideal worker was available “any time, day or night”, Davies said, still with no family obligations or anything to distract from their “single-minded devotion to the employer”. Today, the average American works more hours in a year than the average worker in any other similarly wealthy nation.

And that ideal didn’t change when more women started entering corporate jobs, making families with two working parents more common across the middle class. Workers were still expected to give everything to work and to keep their families largely invisible — which led to high levels of stress, especially among working moms, long before the pandemic began.

Anna North

This issue is possibly not as dire here in Romania or in Europe in general, due to better protections for employees, but it is a widespread issue nonetheless. I have thought about it multiple times since the start of the pandemic, but for me the underlying cause is not ‘work’ per se, but how our society has evolved in recent decades to make us more interconnected and more reliant on support structures around us. Individuals have become increasingly specialized to perform certain tasks, while entrusting the rest to other people and institutions.

23 March 2021

Vertical tabs in Microsoft Edge

Vertical tabs in web browsers have always seemed the kind of user interface idea that sounds good in theory, but never quite works out in practice. As most browser features, it started out years ago in Opera, until Opera abandoned its proprietary rendering engine and switched to Chromium. Firefox had several extensions for vertical tab placement, Chrome at some point experimented with a flag to enable them, but they never became a standard part of browser interfaces. Until, at least, Microsoft Edge started working on the concept, and launched a preview of vertical tabs late last year in the Dev channel. The feature has graduated to the Stable version of the browser earlier this month, so it should be currently available to all Edge users.

I have both the Dev and Stable versions installed, and I switched the Dev version to vertical tabs as soon as this was available, but I still browse predominantly in the stable version. I honestly did not expect to find vertical tabs this convenient and usable. Now that they are available in Stable Edge, I have them on most of the time. Having a visible button to switch back is extremely helpful, both to make the feature discoverable to users, and as a ‘safety net’, allowing people to quickly switch back to the familiar horizontal placement if they feel overwhelmed or annoyed by vertical tabs.

22 March 2021

Wired UK: “Xiaomi is undercutting the whole tech industry. And it’s working”

Out-clucking the Colonel is all well and good, but Xiaomi’s shifting some serious product, having had greater year-on-year growth than any other top-five global smartphone maker between Q4 2019 and 2020. Diving into specific territories, it climbed to the number one spot in Spain in May 2020, overtaking the established leader, Samsung, and hit number two in Russia, with 23 per cent of the market in Q3 2020.

In fact, this minimalism could be the common thread in much of Xiaomi’s non-smartphone portfolio that woos us the most. There’s an almost Muji-like, unbranded quality to some of the best Mi products, which, when matched with reliably competitive prices, is compelling for anyone suffering label-fatigue.

There’s plenty Xiaomi is doing right, clearly. However, the path to world domination isn’t guaranteed for any business, not least of all a Chinese one. US-China tensions play a part in its future, given the fact Xiaomi has been put on a US military blacklist, preventing local US investment in the company. This isn’t the crippling blow dealt to Huawei (the entity list Huawei is on results in tougher sanctions than the military blacklist), but it could still damage confidence in the brand.

Basil Kronfli

There is a vague sneering tone underlying this article, beginning with the byline, where the author labels Xiaomi products ‘half-baked tech’. This feels like the typical smugness of people who only buy Apple-branded gadgets. I own a Mi band and have used it constantly for almost three years, so from my experience the product does its job perfectly fine at a decent price.

21 March 2021

IEEE Spectrum: “How NASA designed a Helicopter that could fly autonomously on Mars”

Tim Canham: Since Ingenuity is classified as a technology demo, JPL is willing to accept more risk. The main unmanned projects like rovers and deep space explorers are what’s called Class B missions, in which there are many people working on ruggedized hardware and software over many years. With a technology demo, JPL is willing to try new ways of doing things. So we essentially went out and used a lot of off-the-shelf consumer hardware.

There are some avionics components that are very tough and radiation resistant, but much of the technology is commercial grade. The processor board that we used, for instance, is a Snapdragon 801, which is manufactured by Qualcomm. It’s essentially a cell phone class processor, and the board is very small. But ironically, because it’s relatively modern technology, it’s vastly more powerful than the processors that are flying on the rover. We actually have a couple of orders of magnitude more computing power than the rover does, because we need it. Our guidance loops are running at 500 Hz in order to maintain control in the atmosphere that we're flying in. And on top of that, we’re capturing images and analyzing features and tracking them from frame to frame at 30 Hz, and so there’s some pretty serious computing power needed for that. And none of the avionics that NASA is currently flying are anywhere near powerful enough. In some cases we literally ordered parts from SparkFun [Electronics]. Our philosophy was, this is commercial hardware, but we’ll test it, and if it works well, we’ll use it.

Evan Ackerman

Interesting background on NASA’s most recent mission to Mars, particularly the large gap in computing power between the processors installed on the Perseverance rover and on the Ingenuity helicopter. It highlights the fast and steady pace of consumer chip technology, with updates coming yearly, in contrast to the long and laborious process of planning and executing a space mission (Perseverance was announced eight years ago). Hopefully NASA and other space agencies can accelerate this process, or at least combine large and complex missions with smaller and more flexible experiments, such as this first Martian drone.

19 March 2021

Telegram Blog: “Voice Chats 2.0: Channels, Millions of Listeners, Recorded Chats, Admin Tools”

Voice Chats first appeared in December, adding a new dimension of live talk to Telegram groups. Starting today, they become available in channels too – and there are no more limits on the number of participants.

This update also brings recordable voice chats, rich lists of participants, raise hand mechanics, invite links for speakers and listeners, voice chat titles, and a way for public figures to join voice chats as their channels.

The Telegram Team

No limits on number of listeners, admins can record audio voice chats and publish them for followers who missed the live event, different invite links for speakers and listeners – Telegram Voice Chats has apparently introduced every feature missing from Clubhouse (and it’s available on Android too)!

The New York Times: “How Facebook Became a Tool of the Far-Right”

Everyone has some type of thing that gave them a spark, he said in an interview last week. Facebook just so happened to be mine.

He’s not alone. Facebook’s algorithms have coaxed many people into sharing more extreme views on the platform — rewarding them with likes and shares for posts on subjects like election fraud conspiracies, Covid-19 denialism and anti-vaccination rhetoric. We reviewed the public post histories for dozens of active Facebook users in these spaces. Many, like Mr. McGee, transformed seemingly overnight. A decade ago, their online personas looked nothing like their presences today.

A journey through their feeds offers a glimpse of how Facebook rewards exaggerations and lies.

Stuart A. Thompson & Charlie Warzel

Much has been written about the role of online platforms, from Facebook and Twitter to YouTube, in radicalization and spreading lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories. It occurs to me though that there may be other social developments at work as well, namely a trend towards loneliness and social isolation. I get the sense that people who are most susceptible to radicalization have few or loose close relationships (friends, partners, family). Having fewer offline social interactions, they tend to compensate with an online presence. On top of that, whatever fringe ideas they pick up in these online interactions are left unchallenged in the real world, because they have fewer people around to question these wild notions. People in (healthy) relationships, or parents with children, should be less susceptible because, for one, they have less time to waste digging through conspiracy theories, and their partner should have the common sense to steer them back towards more sane thinking (I would hope, at least).

17 March 2021

Export Excel charts as SVG files

Speaking of Excel and its numerous use cases, there is a certain missing feature that I have wanted for years: the ability to export charts in SVG format. A vector-based file format, SVG is particularly well suited to render charts and scale them to almost any resolution, because it redraws chart components to match the new size instead of enlarging static pixels, as regular image formats do. There were complicated workarounds involving exporting to PDF first and then extracting charts with third-party software, but I always found them too cumbersome for regular use.

But during the last quarter of 2019, the process became a lot simpler after Office 365 added an option to convert PowerPoint slides to SVG files. To convert an Excel chart instead, all you need to do now is to copy that chart into a blank PowerPoint presentation and save that slide as SVG! I have used this method several times for my blog, both for the articles related to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as for other articles with charts and visualizations.

15 March 2021

BBC News: “Shops return to rural Sweden but are now staff-free”

We haven’t had any shops here during the time we have been here, and getting this now is perfect, says 31-year-old Emma Lundqvist who moved to Hummelsta with her boyfriend three years ago. You don’t need to get into the city to buy this small stuff, she adds, pointing to the packet of bacon she’s popped in for.

There’s a wide assortment of groceries available, from fresh fruit and vegetables to Swedish household staples like frozen meatballs, crisp breads and wafer bars. But there are no staff or checkouts here.

You open the doors using the company’s app, which works in conjunction with BankID, a secure national identification app operated by Sweden’s banks. Then, you can scan barcodes using your smartphone and the bill is automatically charged to a pre-registered bank card.

The store is part of the Lifvs chain, a Stockholm-based start-up that launched in 2018 with the goal of returning stores to remote rural locations where shops had closed down because they’d struggled to stay profitable.

Maddy Savage

Certainly not an original idea – Amazon has experimented with cashier-free stores since late 2016, and has recently expanded its Just Walk Out technology to London – but it’s good to see it applied in a different area, reintroducing local stores to small rural communities. With basically no round-the-clock staff and sparse customers, these types of stores are very safe during a pandemic, allowing people to keep a safe distance while shopping.

14 March 2021

Chinua Achebe – O lume se destramă

in Bucharest, Romania
Chinua Achebe - O lume se destrama

Cândva la finalul lui 2019, pe vremea când încă citeam regulat, am împrumutat romanul O lume se destramă de la Bookster fără să știu prea multe despre carte sau despre autor. Considerat un exemplu de excepție de roman african, unul din primele care a atins renume mondial, ne prezintă viața tribală din Nigeria de sud‑est prin perspectiva războinicului Okonkwo din clanul Umuofia, a familiei lui și sătenilor.

Viața lui Okonkwo cunoaște numeroase întorsături și momente de cumpănă. Urmaș al unui tată leneș, care nu i‑a lăsat moștenire nici rădăcini de igname, nici o glie în care să le planteze pentru a‑și întreține familia, Okonkwo s‑a făcut remarcat de tânăr ca luptător și apoi prin hărnicia lui, aproape o furie încrâncenată de a se ridica deasupra reputației tatălui său. La maturitate devine un membru respectat și de încredere al satului, cu destule igname pentru mai multe soții și copii, dar în același timp sever cu fii săi, în care regăsește defectele și delăsarea părintelui.

Un incident neprevăzut în care omoară fără să vrea un membru al tribului duce la exilarea lui timp de șapte ani. La întoarcere însă viața din sat se schimbase într‑un mod neașteptat și irevocabil: sosirea misionarilor creștini crease o fisură între membrii comunității. Tot mai mulți se alătură misiunii nou-construite, inclusiv fiul lui Okonkwo, pe care acesta îl mustra constant din cauza „lenei”, iar bătrânii satului nu sunt siguri dacă sau cum ar trebui să reziste acestor străini cu obiceiuri atât de stranii pentru ei.

12 March 2021

Not Boring: “Excel Never Dies”

Excel is the most popular programming language on earth, and most people who program in Excel don’t even realize they are, in fact, programming. There are an estimated 1.2 billion people who use Microsoft Office, and while it’s hard to know exactly how many people use Excel regularly, estimates put it at 750 million users. By comparison, as of 2018, there were only 10.7 million JavaScript developers and 7 million Python developers.

By being naturally full stack, a single person can build a complex model in Excel without needing to rely on outside help. And for tasks that don’t lend themselves to easy division of a labor, this is an essential quality. Investment Bankers have long argued the reason that analysts and associates will spend 80 to 100 hours a week on financial models (in Excel, of course) is the lack of divisibility of their work; often only one person has all the needed information to build the model.

Excel combines the power of a programming language, the immediate usability of consumer software, and the skill progression of a video game with the flexibility to adapt to nearly infinite use cases. That’s a combination no other software offers, and it’s why Excel has been able to survive and thrive while millions of other applications have come and gone.

And it’s not going anywhere.

Packy McCormick

Excel may seem like an unlike software to love and praise in an era of smartphone apps and cheap entertainment, but its advantages are broad and hard to match by other, more purpose-built software. I have been using Excel for roughly 20 years and still I find new ways to use it, new shortcuts to speed up my work. Recently, I have been particularly impressed with the new Power Query tools enabling users to import and manipulate external data in ways that are both easier and more powerful than before. In fact, I have used this feature to track coronavirus case numbers since the pandemic began a year ago, comparing countries and graphing the results.

10 March 2021

Protocol: “Jack Dorsey is so money: What Tidal and banking do for Square”

Square could build out credit or other products or tools for artists. Even though Tidal has been declining as a streaming service, they have a strong brand and access to artists, said Laura Chau, partner at Canaan. With Square buying Tidal, they essentially are buying access to those artists and circumventing the creator acquisition challenge that many emerging companies will have.

The flip side is that there are already a plethora of creator services companies out there, helping bands with everything from playlist sharing to merchandise sales. Those companies include Spotify, which has been looking to offer musicians more tools after acquiring artistry services startups SoundBetter and Soundtrap. It’s super crowded right now, Hu said.

The one major differentiator for Square could be its financial services business, freshly strengthened with its own chartered bank. That is one of the growth areas, Mulligan said. The company could offer artists advances, royalty processing and more, effectively taking over some of the roles traditionally held by record labels.

Benjamin Pimentel, Tomio Geron & Janko Roettgers

This is one scenario in which the unlikely business association between Square and Tidal may prove beneficial to both parties: Square’s recently approved banking subsidiary providing funds for emerging artists, similarly to artists advances from music labels. From this perspective, this collaboration makes more sense than Twitter’s Super Follows, because it at least starts with a product people are clearly willing to pay for (music) – although nothing is preventing Jack Dorsey from involving his payments company Square into Twitter’s subscriptions initiatives.

09 March 2021

Electronic Frontier Foundation: “Google’s FLoC is a Terrible Idea”

Google is leading the charge to replace third-party cookies with a new suite of technologies to target ads on the Web. And some of its proposals show that it hasn’t learned the right lessons from the ongoing backlash to the surveillance business model. This post will focus on one of those proposals, Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), which is perhaps the most ambitious—and potentially the most harmful.

FLoC is meant to be a new way to make your browser do the profiling that third-party trackers used to do themselves: in this case, boiling down your recent browsing activity into a behavioral label, and then sharing it with websites and advertisers. The technology will avoid the privacy risks of third-party cookies, but it will create new ones in the process. It may also exacerbate many of the worst non-privacy problems with behavioral ads, including discrimination and predatory targeting.

Google’s pitch to privacy advocates is that a world with FLoC (and other elements of the “privacy sandbox”) will be better than the world we have today, where data brokers and ad-tech giants track and profile with impunity. But that framing is based on a false premise that we have to choose between “old tracking” and “new tracking.” It’s not either-or. Instead of re-inventing the tracking wheel, we should imagine a better world without the myriad problems of targeted ads.

Bennett Cyphers

While Apple is labeling iOS apps based on the amount of tracking, Google is working on new methods of ad targeting to phase out third-party cookies. I am no expert, but some of the criticism in the article seems overblown: FLoC intends to perform profiling locally in the browser, meaning the browsing activity on your laptop and smartphone (or using different browsers on a single device) would create separate targeting profiles (unclear though how this works if you sync browsing history across devices; this may make the profiles identical or at least very similar). This alone sounds like a big improvement over Facebook’s tracking, which collects activity across all devices where you are logged into Facebook – most likely Google does the same with your Google account. Moreover, FLoC targeting profiles are time-limited and should be recalculated weekly based on the previous week’s browsing, another big change compared to the current stand.

The New Yorker: “The Future of America’s Contest with China”

Half a century after Henry Kissinger led the secret negotiations that brought Nixon to China, he still meets with leaders in Beijing and Washington. At the age of ninety-six, he has come to believe that the two sides are falling into a spiral of hostile perceptions. I’m very concerned, he told me, his baritone now almost a growl. The way the relationship has deteriorated in recent months will feed, on both sides, the image that the other one is a permanent adversary. By the end of 2019, the Washington establishment had all but abandoned engagement with China. But there was not yet a strategy to replace it.

But Henry Kissinger considers America’s contest with China to be both less dire and more complex than the Soviet struggle. We were dealing with a bipolar world, he told me. Now we’re dealing with a multipolar world. The components of an international system are so much more varied, and the lineups are much more difficult to control.

For that reason, Kissinger says, the more relevant and disturbing analogy is to the First World War. In that view, the trade war is an ominous signal; economic polarization, of the kind that pitted Britain against Germany before 1914, has often been a prelude to real war. If it freezes into a permanent conflict, and you have two big blocs confronting each other, then the danger of a pre-World War I situation is huge, Kissinger said. Look at history: none of the leaders that started World War I would have done so if they had known what the world would look like at the end. That is the situation we must avoid. Westad agrees. The pre-1914 parallel is, of course, not just the growth in German power, he said. What we, I think, need to focus on is what actually led to war. What led to war was the German fear of being in a position where their power would not strengthen in the future, where they were, as they put it in the summer of 1914, at the maximum moment.

Evan Osnos

Another older article that retained its relevance. It covers a lot of topics, from the coupling of the US and Chinese economies in the context of globalization – an interdependency that will be hard, of not impossible, to fully roll back – to Xi Jinping’s embrace of Communism ideology as a counterpoint to Western ideals. The trends mentioned have continued and amplified over the past year, both the hard crackdown on Hong Kong protestors, and the soft measures designed to embellish the image of China in the eyes of the rest of the world.

08 March 2021

The Washington Post: “I checked Apple’s new privacy ‘nutrition labels’. Many were false”

Apple only lets you access iPhone apps through its own App Store, which it says keeps everything safe. It appeared to bolster that idea when it announced in 2020 that it would ask app makers to fill out what are essentially privacy nutrition labels. Just like packaged food has to disclose how much sugar it contains, apps would have to disclose in clear terms how they gobble your data. The labels appear in boxes toward the bottom of app listings. (Click here for my guide on how to read privacy nutrition labels.)

But after I studied the labels, the App Store is now a product I trust less to protect us. In some ways, Apple uses a narrow definition of privacy that benefits Apple — which has its own profit motivations — more than it benefits us.

Apple’s big privacy product is built on a shaky foundation: the honor system. In tiny print on the detail page of each app label, Apple says, “This information has not been verified by Apple.”

Geoffrey A. Fowler

As several times before, the privacy and safety promises of Apple’s App Store reveal quite a few holes under closer scrutiny. In this case, the information presented by app developers in privacy nutrition labels is apparently not double-checked by Apple in the app review process. Nor does Apple have any way to verify if apps share user data with third parties such as Google and Facebook once that data leaves the device. Apple’s main interest is using ‘privacy’ as bullet-proof marketing against rival tech giants and the ad industry, as a method to position the iPhone ecosystem as ‘exclusive’ and justify its price premium.

06 March 2021

Prospect Magazine: “The mind of God? The problem with deifying Stephen Hawking”

Hawking did not really produce any important scientific work after A Brief History; a decade later he was left behind by a new generation of theoretical physicists. Towards the end of his career, he would float half-baked but attention-grabbing ideas. In 2004, he announced that he’d solved a major problem in theoretical physics—the black hole information paradox. But all he’d done was to finally convince himself of what many others already believed: that he’d been wrong to think information was erased by black holes.

Hawking adopted the habit of very publicly placing financial bets on scientific debates, knowing that this would create a news hook whatever the outcome. When, in 2012, he bet against the discovery of the Higgs particle at the LHC, it wasn’t because of any strong theoretical argument but because it inserted him into a story in which he’d played no part. Sure enough, the Daily Telegraph ran the headline: “Higgs Boson: Prof Stephen Hawking Loses $100 Bet”. Peter Higgs, the media-shy physicist who had (with others) suggested the particle’s existence decades earlier, wasn’t amused. Hawking’s celebrity status, he said, meant he got away with pronouncements in a way that other people would not. Hawking muscled in on the act too when gravitational waves were detected in late 2015, saying that the detections agree with predictions that I and other scientists have made about black holes. Maybe—but it was mostly (as the Nobel citation the following year showed) the other scientists.

Philip Ball

I have always been puzzled by the amount of attention and reverence Stephen Hawking was getting in scientific publications, considering his comparatively small contribution. His one truly original result is the black-body radiation – and no, I would not consider writing popular books an important contribution to science. I would not call him overrated, but he was definitely overhyped, and willingly contributed to his celebrity status with provocative statements in domains where he had little expertise.

05 March 2021

Mother Jones: “Behind the Lines”

Ambassador Ford told me he wishes, in retrospect, that he had advised Obama against calling for Assad to step down. Even though the president had said the United States would not impose regime change on Syria, the nuance in what Obama said…was totally lost. It wasn’t just opposition activists like Ahmed who were banking on US intervention. Many in the budding armed opposition were certain they would soon receive support from the Americans. Ford insisted to them this would never happen, but they just wouldn’t believe it, he recalled. Obama’s statement in the long run didn’t help anything. It probably made it worse.

The CIA and the State Department had wanted to arm the rebels for a while. The idea was first proposed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and CIA Director David Petraeus in the summer of 2012. Obama had refused, but he let the CIA provide logistical support to other countries’ efforts to arm the rebels. It was a clusterfuck, says a CIA field operative who was on the Syria task force at the time. (He asked that I not use his name.) Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar had their own programs to support the rebels. Everyone was providing their own funding, supporting whoever they wanted. In 2012, the CIA operative provided training to Syrian rebels and worked with regional intelligence agencies to organize the flow of arms. I said, Guys, we need a plan. We need to coordinate. Nobody wanted to take any orders from me. Without telling the Americans, the Qataris would just go and drop a ton of guns to a group we didn’t know. You don’t think these guys are stockpiling? I’m thinking about Iraq, where we just blew things up and didn’t think about what was next.

Shane Bauer

Wonderful investigative journalism about the long civil war in Syria and the toxic role played by the United States. President Obama was criticized on several occasions about his lack of decisiveness in Syria, and unfortunately the results speak for themselves. In retrospect, one aspect I think the article completely missed is the role of Iran in this conflict; other sources make it clear that General Suleimani was heavily involved to protect Iran’s strategic interests in Syria.

03 March 2021

Dustin Curtis: “Apple Card disabled my iCloud, App Store, and Apple ID accounts”

The next day, Music.app stopped working.

Now I was genuinely worried. I checked my phone and neither the App Store nor Apple Music would work there, either. A few minutes later, Calendar popped up an error – it had stopped syncing. I immediately tried to call Apple Support from my Mac, but Apple’s Handoff feature had been disabled as well.

The first person I spoke to at Apple spent a while researching the issue and then told me there was nothing she could do but escalate the issue, and that I should expect a call “hopefully” within the next day. I asked what the problem might be, and she seemed as confused as I was. Although some Apple services were still working, like iMessage (thank God) and Photos, I was terrified that more services would suddenly become inaccessible or that I would lose the considerable amount of data I have stored in iCloud.

Dustin Curtis

The dangers of over-reliance on a single ecosystem: when something fails (in this case Apple Card), it may take down multiple other services and leave you scrambling for customer support. In this particular case, Apple’s reaction of blocking an account for a slightly overdue payment seems… excessive, to say the least.

Hunter Walk: “Instagram, YouTube & TikTok are burning out their Creators. Here’s how to fix that.”

Being a modern creator is, for many, exhausting. The falling economic costs of production and distribution have been replaced by a new set of taxes — physical, emotional, psychological — as your community expects new content, accessibility to their heroes and open book authenticity. Paired with the social media platform algorithms, which in themselves reward frequency and engagement, this combination saps joy and agency from the creative process and burns out the creators. Having to perform 24/7 comes with costs, and that’s only dealing with fans let alone the trolls.

PTO — Ok, hear me out. What if each year, creators who cross X-threshold of success (views, dollars, whatever) were given PTO from the platform. You get to take a week off from engaging and (a) are not penalized in the algo and (b) you get paid the average amount of your earnings from the preceding 52 weeks. And when you take it, there’s a special “On PTO” account status visible to your community, which activates some feature like “best of content” or other system-provided interaction mode while the creator is on their break.

Hunter Walk

A great complement to another article with suggestions for improving the ‘creator economy’, to stimulate and support creativity on digital networks. The current relationship with platforms is extremely one-sided, with Instagram, for example, having high and specific requirements for the amount of content that generates sufficient exposure in the feed. As soon as creators interrupt this schedule, they risk being demoted and losing followers and revenue, so there is an inherent pressure to constantly be present and active. From this structural perspective, the creator economy resembles the gig economy, where you only earn money while you’re driving/delivering, without any of the benefits of regular employment like medical insurance or paid time off.

02 March 2021

Los Angeles Times: “Clubhouse users spend hours on the app. What’s the appeal?”

Harfoush, a digital anthropologist and author who lives in Paris, is part of an “anti-grift squad” that helps newcomers to the audio-only interactive streaming platform avoid falling prey to scams.

She and a crew of veteran users dedicate hours each week to running free onboarding sessions for first-time users, and host a weekly room, or session, on the app to document some of the shady practices they see cropping up. Harfoush believes the intimacy of Clubhouse’s format — a cross between a conference panel discussion and a radio call-in show — makes even familiar scams more effective. We’re naturally more persuadable by hearing somebody talk to us than reading something, she said.

Users claiming to be business experts have run pitch rooms, Harfoush said, where they invite hopeful entrepreneurs to outline their dreams for a new business on stage, and then go register related domain names with the intent of selling them back to the hopefuls at a markup. Fake literary agents promise aspiring authors that they’ll edit their manuscripts and connect them with publishers, for an upfront fee.

Other users claiming to be music producers invite aspiring beatmakers to present their tracks live for critique, and then simply steal the tracks as their own. And motivational speakers are using Clubhouse as a new venue to convince anyone that they can learn how to become a millionaire — if only they pay thousands of dollars for an exclusive executive coaching seminar. Audience plants, fake time limits and other hard-sell tactics abound.

Sam Dean

I must be getting old because new social networks launch and… I feel absolutely no interest in joining them. After TikTok, now Clubhouse is booming since December – granted, I could not join Clubhouse even if I wanted too, because it is still exclusive to the iPhone. At first glance, it is quite literally a public conference call where other people can join and listen in – or alternatively unedited live podcasting. I have used Webex for the past couple of months while working from home and it has a feature called ‘Personal Rooms’ – add the public aspect and you get Clubhouse.

Politico: “Commission’s vaccine contract with AstraZeneca ties EU’s hands on lawsuits”

The full publication of the European Union’s contract with AstraZeneca reveals that the Commission and EU countries waived the right to sue the drugmaker over any delays in coronavirus vaccine deliveries — a provision that takes any bite out of threats to file a lawsuit against the company over its failure to deliver to the Continent.

While the contract doesn’t give the Commission much cover on lawsuits, it does confirm that AstraZeneca grossly overpromised how many doses it could supply to the EU.

The company said it could supply between 30 million and 40 million doses to the EU at the end of 2020, 80 million to 100 million doses by the end of the first quarter of 2021, and the total 300 million doses by the end of June.

The order form — which each EU country filled out — offered a month-to-month breakdown of those doses: 30 million by the end of 2020; 40 million in January 2021; 30 million in February; 20 million in March; 80 million in April; 40 million in May; and 60 million in June.

Jillian Deutsch

As expected, the contention around AstraZeneca and their conflicting obligations to the UK and EU continued. The newly uncovered information shed the company in a worse light than before, contradicting earlier statements of their CEO. He blamed their manufacturing issues partly on a Belgian plant that supposedly did not meet its deliveries – but the company operating that plant publicly contradicted him, declaring they have complied with all the contractual requirements with AstraZeneca. He kept insisting that the UK signed their contract much earlier that the EU, but that argument has also been disproven when journalists uncovered the redacted contract signed… a day after the contract with the EU!

01 March 2021

Platformer: “Twitter pulls a Patreon”

In addition to what Fischer describes above, mock-ups of Super Follows showed a creator charging $4.99 a month for features including “deals & discounts” and “community access”.

I’m excited about today’s Twitter news for several reasons. One, as I wrote here Monday, it speaks to the ways in which competition is returning to social networks, reducing the power of individual platforms to set all speech and behavior norms for the global internet. Two, as a longtime Twitter observer who has often been frustrated with its glacial approach to product development, I’m gratified to see the company begin to capitalize on the opportunity that has always lay in front of it.

And three, Super Follows represent a surge of interest in tools to let individuals create real economic value for themselves on social networks, giving creators more opportunity than they’ve ever had before. After a decade in which platforms’ ideas about creator monetization stopped and started with sharing a fraction of advertising revenue with their top stars, the giants are now taking talent seriously.

Casey Newton

More product plans from Twitter involving subscriptions, this time to enable users to pay creators directly for premium content. My first reaction was that this price tag is absurdly high: I am paying $5 a month for Spotify and HBO, giving me access to millions of music tracks and thousands of movies – why would I ever pay the same amount to see premium tweets from a single person?! I’m sure there are people willing to pay for special scoops, but it feels this approach will attract only a tiny niche of Twitter users.