30 April 2021

Travel insights from Google Maps Timeline

Speaking of personal tracking for the purpose of creating better products, one of my favorite examples is Google Maps’ Timeline feature. I have discovered its true potential only after switching to Android, as I think on iOS the Google Maps app does not have permanent access to the device location. In a sense, the Timeline is a nicer, user-friendly representation of Location History, which Google happily collects in the background from every Android user.

You may of course turn this feature off or selectively delete portions of this history. Personally though, I love to be able to scroll back in time and see where I was months or years ago (well, three years ago at the most, as little was saved while I was using an iPhone): the place, when I arrived and left, if I was walking, in public transportation or in a car. It is a very convenient way to log my travels and recount them later, in case I would like to revisit those places. For a good portion of time, I also used this to fill my timesheet at the office, as my company’s badge did not correctly register the time I arrived and left the building. For photographers, daily tracks can be exported in a standardized format, which you can then use in Lightroom to add location to photos captured on that day. I use a dedicated app for that, but it’s good to have a backup option in case the app fails or gets discontinued at some point in the future.

28 April 2021

Jalopnik: “Tesla loses a Lot of Money selling Cars, but makes it all back on Credits and Bitcoin”

That second point is particularly interesting, as Tesla purchased $1.5 billion worth of BTC, announced that the company would begin accepting BTC as payment for its cars, which drove up the value of BTC, then sold enough BTC to make a hundred million in profit. Strange how that works, eh? Surely nothing untoward going on there. Not at all. DOGE TO THE MOON! #hodlgang

Without the $619 million in credits and BTC sales, Tesla would have actually managed to lose $181 million in Q1. In that time, the company shifted 184,800 3/Y units, and while it didn’t build a single X or S in Q1, it sold 2020 units from previously-built inventory. That means the company lost around $970 per car sold in Q1.

Bradley Brownell

Confirmation on the previous assumptions about Tesla’s reasons for investing in Bitcoin: short-term gains through speculation to offset losses from what should be its main business, electric car manufacturing. A loss of $970 per car sold does not seem very impactful though; compared to Model Y’s price of around $50.000, it represents only a 2% loss, so it should not be hard to overcome with increased efficiency.

The New York Times: “Welcome to the YOLO Economy”

If “languishing” is 2021’s dominant emotion, YOLOing may be the year’s defining work force trend. A recent Microsoft survey found that more than 40 percent of workers globally were considering leaving their jobs this year. Blind, an anonymous social network that is popular with tech workers, recently found that 49 percent of its users planned to get a new job this year.

We’ve all had a year to evaluate if the life we’re living is the one we want to be living, said Christina Wallace, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. Especially for younger people who have been told to work hard, pay off your loans and someday you’ll get to enjoy your life, a lot of them are questioning that equation. What if they want to be happy right now?

Raises and time off may persuade some employees to stay put. But for others, stasis is the problem, and the only solution is radical change.

It feels like we’ve been so locked into careers for the past decade, and this is our opportunity to switch it up, said Nate Moseley, 29, a buyer at a major clothing retailer.

Kevin Roose

I must admit I have felt a similar drive for change these past several months – and have even gone through a couple of jobs that left me more dissatisfied than before. I am unsure how my professional life will evolve, and I do not plan on going freelance or something similar for the time being. On the bright side, the job market seems filled with opportunities, I’ve had more interviews than usual, so at least there are alternatives out there when I inevitably get tired of my current position.

27 April 2021

Baekdal Plus: “What do I mean when I talk about privacy and tracking?”

So regardless of how much people don’t want to be tracked, transaction data is always tracked as a requirement by law. But, again, this isn’t actually a problem. Transaction data doesn’t violate people’s privacy as long as it is kept first-party. It’s only when a shop starts to share or sell that data to others that it becomes a problem.

So privacy absolutism is not actually a thing.

However, this again links back to what I said earlier. We need to change the way we talk about these things. The problem isn’t actually with tracking. Sure, there are bad things with that too, but tracking as a concept is what creates better products.

The real problem is the destinations. Having a health app track how you are doing is great. But having a health app which then shares my health data with 300 outside companies is bad.

Thomas Baekdal

Arguments about online tracking and privacy have been around for years, and the debate has become more heated recently as Apple and Facebook have come to represent these opposing sides: Apple predominantly on the side of privacy absolutism (although their public messages rarely stand up to scrutiny) and Facebook defending the current ad-supported, tracking-rich Internet. As outlined in the article above, a fair compromise is between these extremes: without tracking, online transactions are virtually impossible, but information gathered between customer and website should remain with this company alone, not be shared with hundreds of third parties.

The Atlantic: “How to put out Democracy’s Dumpster Fire”

Among many other experimental projects, Tang has sponsored the use of software called Polis, invented in Seattle. This is a platform that lets people make tweet-like, 140-character statements, and lets others vote on them. There is no “reply” function, and thus no trolling or personal attacks. As statements are made, the system identifies those that generate the most agreement among different groups. Instead of favoring outrageous or shocking views, the Polis algorithm highlights consensus.

Polis is often used to produce recommendations for government action. For example, when the Taiwanese government designed a Polis debate around the subject of Uber, participants included people from the company itself, as well as from the Taiwanese taxi associations, which were angered by some of Uber’s behavior—and yet a consensus was reached. Uber agreed to train its drivers and pay transport taxes; Taiwan Taxi, one of the country’s largest fleets, promised to offer better services. It’s possible to imagine a world in which local governments hold such online consultations regularly, thereby increasing participation in politics and giving people some influence over their society and environment.

Anne Applebaum & Peter Pomerantsev

Interesting proposals, but this particular one sounds a bit too idealistic to me, bordering on impractical. In principle it is a good idea to seek input from citizens, but the issues lie in participation and proper representation. Nowadays people barely bother to vote every four years in many democracies, so expecting a sizeable portion of the population to come up with proposals for governing and to vote on them seems unlikely. A digital-only system raises problems with barriers of entry, as it favors people with a certain degree of digital literacy needed to interact with the system, something that has slowed vaccination programs as well. Popular proposals could prove wildly impractical – I’m sure that most people would blindly vote to raise their salaries and cut taxes, but that would collapse social services – but if authorities decline to implement some of them on grounds of practicality, people could draw the conclusion that their suggestions are not heard anyway, and abandon the system altogether.

26 April 2021

ExtremeTech: “Apple’s M1 Positioning mocks the Entire x86 Business Model”

If that doesn’t seem like a fusillade across x86’s metaphorical bow, consider the issue from a different perspective: According to Apple, the M1 is the right CPU for a $699 computer, and a $999 computer, and a $1,699 computer. It’s the right chip if you want maximum battery life and the right CPU for optimal performance. Want the amazing performance of an M1 iMac, but can’t afford (or have no need) for the expensive display? Buy a $699 Mac mini, with exactly the same CPU. Apple’s M1 positioning, evaluated in its totality, claims the CPU is cheap and unremarkable enough to be sold at $699, powerful and capable enough to sell at $1699, and power-efficient enough to power both a tablet and a pair of laptops priced in-between.

Apple’s willingness to position the M1 across so many markets challenges the narrative that such a vast array of x86 products is helpful or necessary. It puts Intel and AMD in the position of justifying why, exactly, x86 customers are required to make so many tradeoffs between high performance and low power consumption. Selling the M1 in both $699 and $1,699 machines challenges the idea that a computer’s price ought to principally reflect the CPU inside of it.

Joel Hruska

Always amusing to see die-hard Apple fans inventing elaborate narratives supporting Apple’s design decisions, spinning those as some revolutionary step forward in computing. When more plausible reasons would be:

24 April 2021

Vanity Fair: “Why the U.S. still can’t donate COVID-19 Vaccines to Countries in Need”

At the heart of the debate was a battle over an essential question: how to define the point at which the U.S. could donate its excess vaccine. Was it when the U.S. reached herd immunity? When enough vaccines for every eligible American were under contract to be produced? Or when 70% of the population was vaccinated? We kicked around a lot of indicators, said a former senior administration official who worked on the document. The one that became the most cut and dry was the quantity produced and the population vaccinated.

That effort led to the creation of The Framework for International Access, which affirms that the U.S. intends to share its doses and will do so multilaterally. The document had two versions: one that came to roughly four pages, and a longer one, as well as a spreadsheet that assessed the needs of each country that might receive vaccines. Several countries were pointedly excluded from the list of prospective recipients, said the former senior administration official, due to their instability or human rights records.

Katherine Eban

I have linked to this article in my latest update about the pandemic in Romania, and I have read it in full since. My initial reaction has remained largely unchanged: a bunch of weak excuses for saying that American lives and ‘freedoms’ are more important than helping the rest of the world. The story of this framework, developed during the Trump administration, but left unsigned by the Biden administration for various questionable reasons, sounds like the most bureaucratic excuse possible.

22 April 2021

Slate: “Do we really still need to wear masks outside?”

In other words, as the pandemic has progressed, so has our understanding of what safety measures are truly most useful, and which aren’t worth the alcohol wipes. And I would like to calmly suggest that now is the time we should consider no longer wearing masks when we walk around outside.

I am not suggesting this simply because I am very sick of wearing a mask at all times outside my home. When it comes to coronavirus spread, evidence shows that being outdoors is very, very safe.

Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician with McMaster University, recently wrote an op-ed in the Toronto Star noting that last summer’s outdoor gatherings coincided with an all-time low of cases in the city. While it’s important to mask in outdoor crowds or if you’re hanging out close to someone in a park, Chagla explains, the main message should be that the outdoors is a safe place to be. He gave me a rough sense of how unlikely outdoor transmission is in the scenario where you’re walking unmasked on the sidewalk and briefly pass someone. First, you or the person you’re passing would have to happen to have an asymptomatic infection, he explained, and then everyone would have to be exhaling and inhaling at just the right moment, and also, exchanging enough particles to actually seed another infection: You’re talking about a probability of getting hit by a car, and being struck by lightning.

Shannon Palus

I generally agree with the assessment that the risk of transmission outside is very low – this would provide a possible explanation for the drop in cases during summer: the virus does not suddenly become less infectious in warmer weather (as we can see from the surges in Brazil and India), but human behavior changes, from staying indoors to going outside, where natural ventilation reduces the risk.

20 April 2021

The Guardian: “How Facebook let fake engagement distort global politics”

Zhang: A lot of the time it felt like trying to empty the ocean with an eyedropper. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

The tactics boosting Hernández online were similar to what Russia’s Internet Research Agency had done during the 2016 US election, when it set up Facebook accounts purporting to be Americans and used them to manipulate individuals and influence political debates on Facebook. Facebook had come up with a name for this – “coordinated inauthentic behavior” (CIB) – in order to ban it.

But Facebook initially resisted calling the Honduran activity CIB – in part because the network’s use of Pages to create false personas and fake engagement fell into a serious loophole in the company’s rules. Facebook’s policies to ensure authenticity focus on accounts: users can only have one account and it must employ their “real” name. But Facebook has no such rule for Pages, which can perform many of the same engagements that accounts can, including liking, sharing and commenting.

Zhang assumed that once she alerted the right people to her discovery, the Honduras network would be investigated and the fake Pages loophole would be closed. But it quickly became clear that no one was interested in taking responsibility for policing the abuses of the president of a poor nation with just 4.5m Facebook users. The message she received from all corners – including from threat intelligence, the small and elite team of investigators responsible for uncovering CIB campaigns – was that the abuses were bad, but resources were tight, and, absent any external pressure, Honduras was simply not a priority.

Julia Carrie Wong

These accounts about Facebook’s failure to prevent online manipulation and political propaganda – or worse, using its vast network to censor dissenting opinions on behalf of authoritarian leaders – have become as frequent as weather reports. As many have commented, ‘tight resources’ is almost certainly an excuse, considering how profitable Facebook is; rather the company is unwilling to invest in mitigation measures because it would diminish profits and decrease engagement.

Dan Wang: “2020 letter”

But there’s more on-the-ground evidence that ordinary people are growing nervous. In so many settings, one has to tread on eggshells in a public discussion in China, with organizers taking pains to remind audience members of sensitivities. Sometimes even in private, people beg off with an embarrassed laugh that they can’t discuss a subject due to unspecified difficulties. WeChat blocks sensitive keywords, which today includes “decoupling” and “sanctions”. It’s now inconvenient to use the app for professional conversations, and I’ve been pretty insistent to my contacts to use Signal instead. And since I brought up Germany, I wonder if the right analogy for China today is as a successful East Germany.

It’s hard to imagine that this increasingly censorious environment is conducive to good thinking. Actions from the government seem to be matched by a growing intolerance among the population for dissenting views. That’s due in part to their sense of feeling besieged after international opinion on China turned sharply negative after the virus outbreak. That hasn’t made it any better for Fang Fang, the novelist in Wuhan whose journal entries documenting the pandemic were first widely-read and then widely-criticized after she authorized an English translation. At that point, critics charged her with “blackening China’s name” and “handing a knife to China’s enemies”. The abuse wasn’t confined online: prominent personalities in state media have led criticism campaigns against her. I wonder if this society can be reflective and thus capable of self-improvement if it is so intolerant of criticism.

It might not be clear that censoriousness is hurting the creation of new companies, but it is clear that it’s becoming more difficult to create better cultural products. Over the last decade, China’s most successful cultural exports include TikTok, the Three-Body Problem, a few art house films (mostly directed by Jia Zhangke)… and that might be it. The Three-Body Problem was published in 2008 and translated into English in 2014; today, the series looks more like something that was able to escape the system rather than the vanguard of a great Chinese outpouring of marvelous cultural creations. Not content to allow science fiction movies to develop independently, the film authorities have this year released guidelines on the correct ideological direction of new films.

Dan Wang

As with last year’s letter, an interesting essay about the life in China during this pandemic year, and how the society is evolving under increased government censorship and international pressure. Another good reflection on the current state of affairs is how American sanctions and tariffs against Chinese companies could have implications for the international trustworthiness of America, with other business partners possibly losing trust in American exporters and fearing that the same tools levied against China could be turned against them.

19 April 2021

The New York Times: “A Vast Web of Vengeance”

Mr. Babcock was sure there was a way to have lies about him wiped from the internet. Many of the slanderous posts appeared on a website called Ripoff Report, which describes itself as a forum for exposing “complaints, reviews, scams, lawsuits, frauds”. (Its tagline: “consumers educating consumers”.)

He started clicking around and eventually found a part of the site where Ripoff Report offered “arbitration services”, which cost up to $2,000, to get rid of “substantially false” information. That sounded like extortion; Mr. Babcock wasn’t about to pay to have lies removed.

Ripoff Report is one of hundreds of “complaint sites” — others include She’s a Homewrecker, Cheaterbot and Deadbeats Exposed — that let people anonymously expose an unreliable handyman, a cheating ex, a sexual predator.

But there is no fact-checking. The sites often charge money to take down posts, even defamatory ones. And there is limited accountability. Ripoff Report, like the others, notes on its site that, thanks to Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, it isn’t responsible for what its users post.

Kashmir Hill

A prime example of what went wrong with the Internet: under the protection of US laws and their absolutist interpretation of free speech, anyone from ordinary people with a grudge to organized groups spreading propaganda and misinformation can blatantly lie with impunity. The people getting hurt have few tools to fight back: a drawn out legal fight in the US… which isn’t even an option outside the US, because foreign courts generally can’t force an American website to remove content. This goes back to the issue that Americans simply assume that their rules must apply to everyone else, as in the recent debate about the Australian news legislation impacting Google and Facebook.

18 April 2021

The New York Times: “SpaceX wins NASA $2.9 Billion Contract to build Moon Lander”

NASA last year awarded contracts to three companies for initial design work on landers that could carry humans to the lunar surface. In addition to SpaceX, NASA selected proposals from Dynetics, a defense contractor in Huntsville, Ala., and Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin, which had joined in what it called the National Team with several traditional aerospace companies: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.

The award is only for the first crewed landing, and SpaceX must first perform an uncrewed landing. NASA is requiring a test flight to fully check out all systems with a landing on the lunar surface prior to our formal demonstration mission, Ms. Watson-Morgan said.

Kenneth Chang

I have not followed NASA’s plans to return to the Moon very closely, but I am rather disappointed in this decision, and what it says about the future of space exploration. As mentioned in this article and from the public source selection statement, the primary reason for selecting SpaceX was budgetary constraints, as the Blue Origin proposal had a comparable technical rating, but much higher price. Establishing a regular human presence on the surface of the Moon will be hard to achieve if NASA has to constantly defer to the US Congress for political and budgetary reasons. The most likely scenario is that the Artemis program will be modified and delayed year after year, as the agency’s priorities change with the shifting political climate. And this lack of long-term strategy is a guaranteed recipe for failure.

09 April 2021

The Atlantic: “The U.S. doesn’t know how to Treat its Allies”

President Joe Biden is promising the world that “America is back”, but his effort to reclaim global leadership shouldn’t come at the expense of the country’s closest friends. At a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sharply criticized Germany’s efforts to get more natural gas from Russia through a pipeline project known as Nord Stream 2. The president, Blinken warned, believes the pipeline is a bad idea, bad for Europe, bad for the United States. Ultimately it is in contradiction to the EU’s own security goals. Not only is the Biden administration continuing former President Donald Trump’s punitive policy against an important ally, but it’s considering further strictures.

Blinken’s statement also reflected a major defect in Obama-era foreign policy: the condescending assumption that other countries don’t understand their own interests. But the U.S. focus on stopping an energy project domestically important for Germany is all the more misguided when the administration’s strategy for managing America’s top security concern—the rise of China—is utterly dependent on a dramatic deepening of allied cooperation. Biden has a choice: Should he prioritize concern about Russia, a nettlesome but less important rival power, or should he consolidate support among America’s allies? And the administration is on the verge of choosing the wrong option.

Kori Schake

See also:

  • refusing to contribute vaccines against a global pandemic, allegedly because of contracts signed by the previous administration. In addition to vaccines, the US has curbs on exports of key materials in place as well, which could delay the efforts to ramp up vaccine manufacturing in India.
  • threatening to impose retaliatory tariffs on six nations that introduced additional taxes on US-based tech companies (the UK, Austria, Italy, Spain, Turkey and India). This approach is particularly puzzling, as tariffs discourage trade between parties (thereby encouraging these traditional US allies to sell their products elsewhere, possibly to China) and increase domestic prices (which punishes US consumers). Previously, the Treasury Secretary has supported an international agreement at OECD level on taxation rules on tech giants, and these companies are under increased antitrust scrutiny in the US, so protecting their oversees profits makes little strategic sense.

08 April 2021

Coronavirus in Romania: troubled times

As I have feared when writing my previous update, cases of coronavirus disease in Romania started climbing again following the partial reopening of schools and restaurants. Since the last week of February, cases have increased by 20–25% each week, reaching a peak of around 6650 on March 25th. Naturally, new restrictions were put in place, stricter curfews in the larger cities during weekends, followed by rounds of street protests and online complaints, and schools will again be closed for the duration of April – officially an extended Easter break. Fortunately, we are already seeing some positive signs, with cases declining slightly last week, by 4%.

This smaller wave has brought with it increased death counts as well, climbing again above 100 deaths daily to a peak of 174 on March 23rd and 196 on April 6th. While numbers have remained slightly below the highs recorded during the autumn wave, the mortality rates look worse than before. I am using a rough estimation comparing deaths to cases from three weeks ago, as their evolution appears to track cases with a three-week delay. Calculated this way, mortality in December and January based on official coronavirus deaths dropped to 1.8–2%, while in March 2021 it is back up in the 3.3–3.4% range. Not entirely surprising, considering the increased load on the medical system (the number of ICU patients is constantly climbing and has recently surpassed 1450, above the previous record of almost 1300 in November), and the spread of the new, more lethal UK mutation of the virus.

04 April 2021

Bloomberg: “A Taiwan Crisis may mark the End of the American Empire”

But I have another analogy in mind. Perhaps Taiwan will turn out to be to the American empire what Suez was to the British Empire in 1956: the moment when the imperial lion is exposed as a paper tiger. When the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Prime Minister Anthony Eden joined forces with France and Israel to try to take it back by force. American opposition precipitated a run on the pound and British humiliation.

I, for one, struggle to see the Biden administration responding to a Chinese attack on Taiwan with the combination of military force and financial sanctions envisaged by Blackwill and Zelikow. Sullivan has written eloquently of the need for a foreign policy that Middle America can get behind. Getting torched for Taipei does not seem to fit that bill.

As for Biden himself, would he really be willing to jeopardize the post-pandemic boom his economic policies are fueling for the sake of an island Kissinger was once prepared quietly to trade in pursuit of Cold War détente? Who would be hurt more by the financial crisis Blackwill and Zelikow imagine in the event of war for Taiwan – China, or the U.S. itself? One of the two superpowers has a current account deficit of 3.5% of GDP (Q2 2020) and a net international investment position of nearly minus-$14 trillion, and it’s not China. The surname of the secretary of state would certainly be an irresistible temptation to headline writers if the U.S. blinked in what would be the fourth and biggest Taiwan Crisis since 1954.

Niall Ferguson

I found this analysis via another article expressing concern that the constant threat of a Chinese invasion has slipped away from the daily concerns of Taiwanese citizens, emboldened by their massive success in averting the pandemic and by positive messages about their ‘independence’ on Twitter. The situation in the region is particularly thorny, as just a week ago Chinese military aircraft entered Taiwan airspace, in the largest incursion yet reported by the island’s defense ministry.

01 April 2021

Spotify Newsroom: “New Features on Spotify’s Home Hub make Navigation and Discovery even simpler”

New Spotify listening history on Android

Whether you’re looking to replay some of your favorites, pick up where you left off, or discover something new, there’s something for everyone on the Home hub. Learn more about these new features below.

  • Travel back in time: Rediscover lost gems in your listening history with a new “Recently played” destination, where users can jump back in time and browse up to three months’ worth of listening history. Premium and Free users globally will be able to browse recently played individual tracks and episodes in addition to the playlists, albums, and shows they were played from.
Spotify Newsroom

I received this update earlier today and I was happy to discover it solves one of Spotify’s long-standing missing features: a history of recently played songs on mobile. Until now only the desktop app had a proper history section, and it did not sync with the mobile play history as far as I could tell (technically mobile apps do have a ‘recently played’ section, but it only showed playlists and albums, not individual tracks). There were some curios workarounds to access the listening history by creating new playlists, but that solution was far from usable for a large volume of songs.