31 May 2021

The Atlantic: “Our Cynicism about Afghanistan Comes at a Cost”

Withdrawing completely from Afghanistan is a decision I don’t agree with, even if it’s one that fits the mood of our country (or the slick optics of a war’s ending on the anniversary of the attacks that prompted it). To simply wash our hands of an entire country and its people is deeply cynical. Currently, approximately 2,500 U.S. troops are serving in Afghanistan, a fraction of the 100,000 troops serving there when I left a decade ago. In 2020, more U.S. troops died in training accidents at Camp Pendleton in California than died in combat in Afghanistan. Signaling our commitment by keeping a small U.S. force there wouldn’t prevent every attack, but it would go a long way toward stabilizing the region, and allowing the Afghans to finish the fight against the Taliban for themselves. But the Biden administration has made its choice and doesn’t appear likely to reverse course, no matter how many schoolgirls the Taliban or the Islamic State massacre.

The events in Kabul last weekend teach us that our cynicism comes at a cost, to Afghanistan and to the U.S. In the months ahead, we will see more images like those out of Kabul. Our current hard-edged national mood will endure for only so long. Eventually, we will have to reckon with why we chose this path, one that allows girls to die in the very schools we encouraged them to attend. If we as a country are going to actually “come home” from Afghanistan, we’re going to need to find a better answer than Our effort there at the end was hopeless. Because cynicism won’t allow us to move on. It never does.

Elliot Ackerman

Following the announcement of a complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan later this year, I went back and read the investigation published in The Washington Post in late 2019 – about half of it anyway, since it has six sizeable parts. It is truly remarkable how badly the situation in Afghanistan was mismanaged by several consecutive US administrations, from the lack of clear strategic goals, to pumping endless funds into unsustainable infrastructure projects, to a general lack of understanding of the culture and society – and how army generals tried to conceal the lack of meaningful progress.

30 May 2021

The New York Times: “Kazuo Ishiguro sees what the Future is Doing to Us”

Speaking of his comparatively small output, Ishiguro said: I don’t have any regrets about it. In some ways, I suppose, I’m just not that dedicated to my vocation. I expect it’s because writing wasn’t my first choice of profession. It’s almost something I fell back on because I couldn’t make it as a singer-songwriter. It’s not something I’ve wanted to do every minute of my life. It’s what I was permitted to do. So, you know, I do it when I really want to do it, but otherwise I don’t.

When he does want to do it, he is capable of going flat out. He produced a first draft of “The Remains of the Day” in a four-week “crash”, during which he wrote from morning until night, stopping only for meals. The practice served him well at the time — he and MacDougall needed the money a new advance would bring — but Ishiguro’s crashing days are now firmly behind him. He has grown suspicious of the modern office and its imperative to be constantly on call. The way our capitalist society is organized, it accommodates the workplace as a kind of alibi, he said. If you’re trying to avoid difficult areas in your emotional life, you can just say, Sorry, I’ve got too much work on right now. We’re invited to disappear into our professional commitments.

Giles Harvey

I must agree with these reflections on the modern office, but at the same time they come off rather hypocritical and entitled coming from a man who did not have to work in an office for the past 40 years, like the rest of us. As others have come to realize about tech entrepreneurs, a large part of their success is not necessarily based on extraordinary abilities and innovation, but rather on the right set of circumstances. In this interview, after admitting that writing is not even his main interest, that is how Kazuo Ishiguro sounds: a man who has exploited favorable circumstances by putting in a minimal amount of effort. And, in my opinion at least, this lack of interest is well reflected in the declining quality of his work.

29 May 2021

The Atlantic: “How China Sees the World”

Leaving China, I was even more convinced than I had been before that a dramatic shift in U.S. policy was overdue. The Forbidden City was supposed to convey confidence in China’s national rejuvenation and its return to the world stage as the proud Middle Kingdom. But for me it exposed the fears as well as the ambitions that drive the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to extend China’s influence along its frontiers and beyond, and to regain the honor lost during the century of humiliation. The fears and ambitions are inseparable. They explain why the Chinese Communist Party is obsessed with control—both internally and externally.

The party’s leaders believe they have a narrow window of strategic opportunity to strengthen their rule and revise the international order in their favor—before China’s economy sours, before the population grows old, before other countries realize that the party is pursuing national rejuvenation at their expense, and before unanticipated events such as the coronavirus pandemic expose the vulnerabilities the party created in the race to surpass the United States and realize the China dream. The party has no intention of playing by the rules associated with international law, trade, or commerce. China’s overall strategy relies on co-option and coercion at home and abroad, as well as on concealing the nature of China’s true intentions. What makes this strategy potent and dangerous is the integrated nature of the party’s efforts across government, industry, academia, and the military.

H. R. McMaster

I was ready to dismiss the statements in this article because the author was a member of the Trump administration in its early years, and thus more likely to support its policies of portraying China as the primary US adversary, but certain remarks sound awfully close to the truth, such as the quote below about the United States:

The Guardian: “How maverick rewilders are trying to turn back the tide of extinction”

Over the last 70 years, 98% of wildflower meadows in England and Wales have been destroyed; three-quarters of ponds and heaths have vanished; half the remaining fragments of ancient woods have been obliterated. The creatures inside this habitat have gone too: since 1970, more than half of Britain’s farmland birds have disappeared, while a quarter of mammals are endangered and three-quarters of butterfly species have declined. Overall one in 10 species are threatened with extinction; 500 species have already disappeared from England. Most alarmingly, this dramatic loss of biodiversity has accelerated in the last decade. During the same period, government funding for British wildlife and the environment has been cut by 30%.

Can one individual do anything about an extinction crisis caused by the way we live, farm and build? White is doing something. For almost all of his 61 years, he has laboured mostly alone; for the last 10 years, he has been breeding native butterflies from his modest terraced house in the East Midlands for release across the country. He is part of a small, scattered band of secret breeders – or “introductionists” as they prefer – who have taken it on themselves to bring back wild species that have fallen victim to what one nature writer calls “the great thinning” of non-human life.

Patrick Barkham

Wonderful initiative in the UK from a small group of passionate people, working to introduce locally extinct butterflies back into the environment. While I admire their commitment to this worthy cause, I am unsure that their efforts will make a noticeable impact in the long term. The major issue behind the disappearance of these species is habitat decline. As long as this is not properly addressed, the butterflies will not survive for more than a couple of seasons, and new populations would have to be periodically reintroduced in favorable areas.

28 May 2021

The Verge: “Airbnb’s CEO thinks the platform can replace your landlord”

At the same time, Airbnb is expanding its idea of travel beyond short vacations. Chesky says that nearly a quarter of Airbnb bookings are “long term”, or 28 days and longer. “Millions and millions of people” are staying and living at Airbnb listings on a monthly basis, he says, and in cities like New York, that figure is more like 60 percent. He views this as a a shift from travel to “living”, which has been propelled by people discovering they do not need to be tethered to one location to live and work, per the company’s latest earnings report.

I think eventually in the future people will start paying for rent the way they pay for cable television, or for Netflix, you pay on a month-to-month basis, he says. He didn’t mention how this could impact tenants, like those who prefer long-term rentals because it locks in their rent at a set price and offers legal protections. The idea is that more people are going to want flexibility and the ability to parachute into a destination and live like a local. Chesky says that Airbnb has dealt with evictions and squatters in the past and hasn’t found any “intractable issue” that can’t be handled.

Ashley Carman

Not quite sure how this ‘parachuting’ is supposed to work once you have a partner, children, pets, or simply more belongings than you can fit in a luggage. Working from home has introduced a new degree of flexibility, but most companies will probably revert to a hybrid model with regular visits to the office once their employees are vaccinated, so I doubt there will be much room for ‘parachuting’ in a couple of months. But hey, Chesky cannot claim the title of visionary tech CEO unless he lives in a parallel reality, with little connection to the real world.

STAT: “How the Covid pandemic ends: Scientists look to the past to see the future”

How did those pandemics end? The viruses didn’t go away; a descendent of the Spanish flu virus, the modern H1N1, circulates to this day, as does H3N2. Humans didn’t develop herd immunity to them, either. That’s a phenomenon by which a pathogen stops spreading because so many people are protected against it, because they’ve already been infected or vaccinated.

Instead, the viruses that caused these pandemics underwent a transition. Or more to the point, we did. Our immune systems learned enough about them to fend off the deadliest manifestations of infection, at least most of the time. Humans and viruses reached an immunological détente. Instead of causing tsunamis of devastating illness, over time the viruses came to trigger small surges of milder illness. Pandemic flu became seasonal flu.

That immune system training will likely turn future Covid-19 infections into the equivalent of a cold, the authors concluded. Over time, as a degree of protection becomes more standard in adults, the people who will most commonly catch Covid will be young kids, in whom infections even now are rarely serious. That’s the pattern with human coronavirus infections.

I think the scenario… remains the most likely one, said Marc Lipsitch, an infectious diseases epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. That essentially, almost everybody has some form of immunity from natural infection and/or vaccination and/or one followed by the other, and that that will persist long enough so that they don’t get really sick when they get it again. And then we transition to endemicity.

Helen Branswell

Interesting historical perspective, but with big caveats: all pandemics of the past century were caused by influenza strains, not by a coronavirus, which may significantly change the interactions with the human immune system and the timeline to becoming endemic. Scientists are still unsure how long immunity against SARS-CoV-2 lasts, either from natural infection or vaccination. The possible emergence of more aggressive mutations, able to evade available vaccines and natural immunity, would also upset any estimates of a pandemic endpoint.

26 May 2021

The New York Times: “Censorship, Surveillance and Profits: A Hard Bargain for Apple in China”

The entrance to Apple’s new data center in Guiyang, China
The entrance to Apple’s new data center, which the company hoped to complete next month. Keith Bradsher/The New York Times

Behind the scenes, Apple has constructed a bureaucracy that has become a powerful tool in China’s vast censorship operation. It proactively censors its Chinese App Store, relying on software and employees to flag and block apps that Apple managers worry could run afoul of Chinese officials, according to interviews and court documents.

A Times analysis found that tens of thousands of apps have disappeared from Apple’s Chinese App Store over the past several years, more than previously known, including foreign news outlets, gay dating services and encrypted messaging apps. It also blocked tools for organizing pro-democracy protests and skirting internet restrictions, as well as apps about the Dalai Lama.

U.S. law has long prohibited American companies from turning over data to Chinese law enforcement. But Apple and the Chinese government have made an unusual arrangement to get around American laws.

In China, Apple has ceded legal ownership of its customers’ data to Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, or GCBD, a company owned by the government of Guizhou Province, whose capital is Guiyang. Apple recently required its Chinese customers to accept new iCloud terms and conditions that list GCBD as the service provider and Apple as “an additional party”. Apple told customers the change was to improve iCloud services in China mainland and comply with Chinese regulations.

Jack Nicas, Raymond Zhong & Daisuke Wakabayashi

Apple likes to regularly repeat in their press releases how it complies with local legislation – until the company can find a convenient loophole to bypass it, as it has done numerous times to evade taxes. Most of these details have been reported for years, from internal self-censorship of any Chinese criticism – going as far as firing an employee because he failed to remove an AppStore app – to public silence regarding Chinese surveillance and human rights abuses.

STAT: “Waiver of patent rights on Covid vaccines may be mostly symbolic, for now”

Prashant Yadav, a supply chain expert and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, said the biggest barrier to increasing the global vaccine supply is a lack of raw materials and facilities that manufacture the billions of doses the world needs. Temporarily suspending some intellectual property, as the U.S. proposes to do, would have little effect on those problems, he said.

There are currently no generic vaccines primarily because there are hundreds of process steps involved in the manufacturing of vaccines, and thousands of check points for testing to assure the quality and consistency of manufacturing. One may transfer the IP, but the transfer of skills is not that simple, said Norman Baylor, who formerly headed the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Vaccines Research and Review, and who is now president of Biologics Consulting.

While there are factories around the world that can reliably produce generic Lipitor, vaccines like the ones from Pfizer and Moderna — using messenger RNA technology — require skilled expertise that even existing manufacturers are having trouble sourcing.

In such a setting, imagining that someone will have staff who can create a new site or refurbish or reconfigure an existing site to make mRNA [vaccine] is highly, highly unlikely, Yadav said.

Damian Garde, Helen Branswell & Matthew Herper

The issue of patent waivers for vaccine manufacturing has sparked a lot of discussions, especially since President Biden has backed this proposal officially. Personally, this measure seems simplistic, considering the complex manufacturing steps of mRNA vaccines, constraints on raw materials (Brazil had to interrupt production of the AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this month due to a lack of ingredients), on trained staff and quality assurance (human errors at a US site producing both Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines already lead to millions of doses being discarded). Eliminating patents will not magically solve these other issues: Moderna publicly stated last October they will not enforce COVID-19 related patents during the pandemic, and the vaccine RNA sequence has also been reverse-engineered, yet no company or country took this opportunity to start manufacturing on their own.

24 May 2021

T3: “AirPods Max and AirPods Pro don’t support Apple Music Lossless, Apple confirms”

Apple has announced that it’s adding ‘Lossless’ and ‘Hi-Resolution Lossless’ streaming options to Apple Music in June 2021 for no extra charge, as well as offering Dolby Atmos ‘Spatial Audio’ 3D music, too.

In Apple’s new terminology, ‘Lossless’ is CD quality, from 16-bit 44.1kHz playback up to 24-bit 48kHz, while ‘Hi-Res Lossless’ delivers up to 24-bit 192kHz. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that means – it means music comes in larger files with much less compression, meaning more realistic results, provided you’ve got good enough equipment to actually hear the difference.

Apple has confirmed to T3 that this equipment, sadly, does not include AirPods Pro or AirPods Max. Both of Apple’s elite headphone models only use the Bluetooth AAC codec when connected to an iPhone, which means they can’t receive the full quality of the Apple Music ‘Lossless’ files, which will be encoded as ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) files.

Matthew Bolton

Apple’s current speakers do not support this recently announced lossless playback either – but the company is at least planning to add support via an upcoming software update. As for the headphones, playback quality looks limited even while wired (apparently requiring a Lightning to 3.5 mm audio cable), because of the analog to digital conversion in the cable.

The Atlantic: “Stop Worrying and Love the F-150 Lightning”

Or more relevant, for our purposes: Ford sells about 900,000 F-150s every year; all automakers collectively sold 250,000 new EVs total last year. This may be one of the important products in decarbonization, Tim Latimer, an energy-industry veteran, tweeted last week. (He is now the chief executive of the geothermal company Fervo.) An electric F-150 opens up an enormous new market for EVs and signals that climate-friendly technology has reached the soybean fields and construction sites of middle America.

An electric vehicle is, at a mechanical level, a giant battery on wheels. Ford is pitching this not only as a technical necessity but as a feature: They want you to plug stuff into the car. Let’s say you’re at a tailgate or at work. You can set up a cement mixer, a band, or lights and draw only half the power the truck is capable of producing at a time, Linda Zhang, the chief engineer on the Lightning, told me. Like all electric vehicles, the F-150 replaces the hefty internal-combustion engine with a much smaller electric motor, and like many EVs therefore has a storage compartment under its front hood: a “frunk”. Except the F-150 has a “power frunk”—the most marvelous three-syllable phrase American marketing has produced since “half-priced apps”—meaning that it both opens to the touch of a button and has multiple plugs for appliances.

The Lightning can store so much power that, in a blackout, it can supply a house’s normal power usage for three days, according to Ford. If the house conserves power, it can keep the lights on for more than a week, Zhang said. Talking about this feature, Ford employees and Farley himself have referenced the Texas blackouts. The Lightning is a technology of resilience, of climate adaptation.

Robinson Meyer

I don’t write about cars that much because I’m not that interested in the subject, but this product launch feels significant for the future trends in the US market. If Americans won’t switch to public transportation to reduce their emissions, if the government won’t invest enough in proper infrastructure to promote safe and fast public transport, at least they could adopt electric vehicles en masse.

23 May 2021

Reading insights in the Kindle Android app

As the pandemic has disrupted lives and economies across the world, I have felt its effects in an unlikely area of my life: my reading habits. I started working from home in the second half of March 2020 and ever since I have almost completely stopped reading! Part of the explanation is that I did most of my reading on my Kindle during my daily commute on the subway – no more commute, no more reading…

21 May 2021

Twitter Engineering Blog: “Sharing learnings about our image cropping algorithm”

Twitter started using a saliency algorithm in 2018 to crop images. We did this to improve consistency in the size of photos in your timeline and to allow you to see more Tweets at a glance. The saliency algorithm works by estimating what a person might want to see first within a picture so that our system could determine how to crop an image to an easily-viewable size. Saliency models are trained on how the human eye looks at a picture as a method of prioritizing what’s likely to be most important to the most people. The algorithm, trained on human eye-tracking data, predicts a saliency score on all regions in the image and chooses the point with the highest score as the center of the crop.

Here’s what we found:

  • In comparisons of men and women, there was an 8% difference from demographic parity in favor of women.
  • In comparisons of black and white individuals, there was a 4% difference from demographic parity in favor of white individuals.
  • In comparisons of black and white women, there was a 7% difference from demographic parity in favor of white women.
  • In comparisons of black and white men, there was  a 2% difference from demographic parity in favor of white men.
Rumman Chowdhury

A single-digit deviation in any direction seems insignificant to me. A fine example of how people on Twitter (and in general) can latch onto marginal issues and blow them completely out of proportion – in this case how Twitter’s automated image cropping could sometimes select the faces of white people over black people.

20 May 2021

TechCrunch: “Google revives RSS”

Chrome, at least in its experimental Canary version on Android (and only for users in the U.S.), is getting an interesting update in the coming weeks that brings back RSS, the once-popular format for getting updates from all the sites you love in Google Reader and similar services.

In Chrome, users will soon see a “Follow” feature for sites that support RSS and the browser’s New Tab page will get what is essentially a (very) basic RSS reader — I guess you could almost call it a “Google Reader”.

Now we’re not talking about a full-blown RSS reader here. The New Tab page will show you updates from the sites you follow in chronological order, but it doesn’t look like you can easily switch between feeds, for example. It’s a start, though.

Frederic Lardinois

An unexpected update from Google, considering how long they have neglected RSS since shutting down Google Reader. Maybe someone has finally decided to offer a product to compete with Twitter and Facebook, to attract people who are unsatisfied with algorithmic newsfeeds and are asking for a simple, chronological solution.

New York Magazine: “The Lab-Leak Hypothesis”

What happened was fairly simple, I’ve come to believe. It was an accident. A virus spent some time in a laboratory, and eventually it got out. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, began its existence inside a bat, then it learned how to infect people in a claustrophobic mine shaft, and then it was made more infectious in one or more laboratories, perhaps as part of a scientist’s well-intentioned but risky effort to create a broad-spectrum vaccine. SARS-2 was not designed as a biological weapon. But it was, I think, designed. Many thoughtful people dismiss this notion, and they may be right. They sincerely believe that the coronavirus arose naturally, “zoonotically”, from animals, without having been previously studied, or hybridized, or sluiced through cell cultures, or otherwise worked on by trained professionals. They hold that a bat, carrying a coronavirus, infected some other creature, perhaps a pangolin, and that the pangolin may have already been sick with a different coronavirus disease, and out of the conjunction and commingling of those two diseases within the pangolin, a new disease, highly infectious to humans, evolved. Or they hypothesize that two coronaviruses recombined in a bat, and this new virus spread to other bats, and then the bats infected a person directly — in a rural setting, perhaps — and that this person caused a simmering undetected outbreak of respiratory disease, which over a period of months or years evolved to become virulent and highly transmissible but was not noticed until it appeared in Wuhan.

There is no direct evidence for these zoonotic possibilities, just as there is no direct evidence for an experimental mishap — no written confession, no incriminating notebook, no official accident report. Certainty craves detail, and detail requires an investigation. It has been a full year, 80 million people have been infected, and, surprisingly, no public investigation has taken place. We still know very little about the origins of this disease.

Nicholson Baker

The author of this article goes out of his way to remind us at each step that he is not promoting a conspiracy theory about the virus’ origin, but merely discussing a plausible theory. Nevertheless, his arguments and assertions do resemble the methods employed by conspiracy theorists a lot, connecting convenient bits of facts and presenting them as established truth, while ignoring other, more likely explanations.

19 May 2021

Mobile Dev Memo: “Apple robbed the mob’s bank”

With ATT, Apple has robbed the mob’s bank. In bolstering its ads business while severely handicapping other advertising platforms — but especially Facebook — with the introduction of a privacy policy that effectively breaks the mechanic that those platforms use to target ads, Apple has taken money from a party that is so unsympathetic that it can’t appeal to a greater authority for redress. Apple has brazenly, in broad daylight, stormed into the Bank of Facebook, looted its most precious resource, and, camouflaged under the noble cause of giving privacy controls to the consumer, fled the scene.

This is the odious specter of ATT: it’s an obvious commercial land grab dressed up as a moral crusade, and it will ultimately subvert the open web and the freemium business model. ATT doesn’t provide real consumer choice, and Apple has clearly privileged its own ad network with this new privacy policy in very obvious ways. And Apple has engineered all of this while being cheered on by parties that ape Apple’s commercial slogan regarding the righteousness of first-party data for ads targeting. Case studies will be written in decades to come about Apple’s astute attack on Facebook via an esoteric advertising identifier. If anything is clear from the (protracted) rollout of ATT, it is that Apple’s PR department deserves a pay raise.

Eric Benjamin Seufert

If there was any question about Apple’s true motives, the company recently hired a former product manager for ad targeting at Facebook (and then promptly fired him following a petition from its employees). In other words, Apple is perfectly comfortable tracking its users and selling ads against this targeted data, but is preventing others from doing the same, justifying anticompetitive practices with tenuous privacy promises…

New Statesman: “America’s race to net zero”

When you break down the items included in the package, its true modesty becomes clear. On passenger railway transport – an area in which the US lags far behind China and other advanced economies – the Jobs Plan proposes $10bn per annum over eight years. That, as the fine print states, should allow America to address Amtrak’s repair backlog; modernise the high-traffic Northeast Corridor; improve existing corridors and connect new city pairs. It will no doubt create good jobs. What it will not do is catapult the US into an age of high-speed rail travel to match that pioneered by Japan and China. The latter currently has 19,000 miles of high-speed track; America boasts 500 miles.

It is indicative of the lack of transformative ambition that the proposed spending on electric cars is larger than that targeted at public transport. Car culture, one of the symbolic essentials of the American way of life, is clearly non-negotiable. A total of $174bn is allocated to the electric vehicle sector, including spending on the motor industry, purchase subsidies and car-charging infrastructure.

The Jobs Plan proposes to allocate much funding to universities; but the core promise on clean energy R&D is to invest $35bn in the full range of solutions needed to achieve technology breakthroughs that address the climate crisis and position America as the global leader in clean energy technology and clean energy jobs. This sum, $35bn, is less than Americans spend annually on pet food and will be spread over eight years. Either you don’t dare ask for more, or you underestimate the scale of the technological challenge and believe that the full range of solutions needed for the US to make these breakthroughs and become a global leader will be as easy as buying dog treats.

Adam Tooze

Aside from its modest size and ambition, the fundamental question behind any US climate action plan is whether it can survive a change of administration, or even the elections for Congress coming up in 2022. The world cannot afford to have the United States, the largest emitter of CO2, change its climate policies with each election cycle, to have a global effort delayed by a party allergic to any scientific evidence. Maybe US companies will continue to pursue green energy in the absence of active government support, but the process would be considerably faster with proper stimulus and central guidance – and some areas, like public transportation, railroad and car charging infrastructure, are mostly the government’s responsibility anyway.

18 May 2021

The Verge: “Starlink review: Broadband Dreams fall to Earth”

In my week of testing, Starlink was perfectly fine for anything that buffers — I was able to stream Netflix and Disney Plus in 4K and jump around YouTube videos without significant issues — but doing something faster-paced, like quickly scrolling through TikTok videos, would run into delays.

Services that require a sustained, real-time connection, like Slack, Zoom, or gaming, simply weren’t usable for me, even when I was seeing the fastest speeds. I had high hopes that I could spend several days working over Starlink, and after just a few lost Slack messages and Zoom calls where my video dropped to low resolution and then froze entirely, I gave up. Many Starlink beta testers similar report experiences — consistent dropouts of a few seconds, every few minutes.

Maybe this will change as the company launches more satellites. Maybe it will eventually work better in areas that are dominated by tall trees. Maybe one day it will not drop out in wind and heavy rain. I didn’t give Starlink a formal review score because the whole thing is openly in beta and the company isn’t making many promises about reliability. But even when it’s final, you’re still looking at a service whose near-term, best-case scenario is being competitive with a solid LTE connection. I am no fan of cable companies and wireless carriers, but it’s simply true that my cable broadband and 5G service are both faster and more reliable than Starlink, and they will almost certainly remain that way.

Nilay Patel

I look forward to the solutions tweeted out by Elon Musk: ‘Let’s launch MORE satellites!’. Or better yet: ‘Cut down those pesky trees! Who needs oxygen when you can have spotty satellite Internet?!’

17 May 2021

The Atlantic: “The Looting Network”

Before the war, almost no one Al Mohamad knew used Facebook. But as conflicts displaced communities, people across the Middle East turned to the social network to stay in touch with family and friends: From 2011 to 2017, users in Syria increased 1,900 percent.

During this time, ISIS was searching for more ways to finance its self-proclaimed government. Aleppo doesn’t have much oil, and operating a militant caliphate is expensive. So it expanded its revenue streams to include the extraction of Syria’s cultural-artifact reserves, eventually establishing a Department of Antiquity that managed the process and taxed looters 20 percent on all sales. On Facebook, it found a perfect place to sell its spoils. Online, looters now had access to a wide network of deep-pocketed dealers and collectors in America, France, Dubai, and elsewhere, and they could connect with many of them at once, Al Mohamad learned, simply by posting a photo of a looted artifact in a group. A mosaic that would sell for only $15 in Syria could fetch more than $35,000 from a buyer on Facebook; other artifacts could sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And because Facebook did not prohibit selling historical artifacts on its site, almost nothing was stopping ISIS from destroying UNESCO World Heritage sites and ransacking museums.

I became an archaeologist because I love my heritage, he told me in Istanbul. He hated what he was seeing in Facebook groups and in the pockmarked hills outside Aleppo: Centuries of history—his family’s heritage—sold to the highest bidder, via a platform that had made it unprecedentedly lucrative and scalable, but appeared to him to be indifferent to the consequences. Facebook is how our community has stayed connected during the war, but at the same time, it’s also helped destroy it, he said. For Syrians, this is real life, not an online life. Smuggling and trafficking these artifacts is a war crime, so why isn’t Facebook held to the standard of international law?

Jenna Scatena

When you set out to connect everyone on the planet, it turns out you end up connecting and enabling a lot of criminal activity as well.

Vox: “Vietnam defied the experts and sealed its border to keep Covid-19 out”

This strict approach to travel, global health experts say, is directly connected to Vietnam’s seeming defeat of Covid-19. Thirty-five people have reportedly died in total, and a little more than 2,700 have been infected with the virus during three small waves that have all been quickly quashed. Even on the worst days of the pandemic, the country of 97 million has never recorded more than 110 new cases — a tiny fraction of the 68,000 daily case high in the United Kingdom, which has a population one-third smaller than Vietnam, or the record 300,000-plus cases per day only the US and India managed to tally.

Last year, Vietnam’s economy even grew 2.9 percent, defying economists’ predictions and beating China to become the top performer in Asia.

At the same time, speaking out against travel bans had become synonymous with opposing nationalism and wall-building, said Lee. There were these progressive, human rights values that were upheld by not using travel measures.

But it’s now clear that the well-meaning advice and previous research findings didn’t match up with the situation the world was facing in early 2020. The new virus was different — more contagious and harder to stop. SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted prior to the onset of symptoms, if they ever occur — while with SARS and Ebola, for example, people are only contagious when they are very ill or symptomatic.

Julia Belluz

One of the more puzzling aspects of the pandemic for me was this constant insistence from many experts, including the WHO, that countries should not limit travel in an effort to contain the spread of the pandemic. Quarantines and movement restrictions have been used for centuries to keep disease out, even before people understood the mechanisms causing infection. It is blindingly obvious that, if you prevent infected people from entering a region, that place will be protected from the spread. Even if travel restrictions only delayed infections, they would still be valuable measures allowing countries more time to prepare their health systems – just as the initial lockdowns were supposed to.

16 May 2021

IEEE Spectrum: “The Radio We Could Send to Hell”

To solve this and Venus’s other riddles, we’ll need several very capable robotic landers. But can we build machines—complete with instrumentation, communications, controllability, and mobility—that can survive such a hostile environment not just for hours but for months to years?

We can. Materials technology has advanced enough since the 1960s, when the former Soviet Union began launching its Venera series of landers to Venus, to ensure that the outer hull and mechanics of a future lander will be able to last for months. But what about those tender electronics? Today’s silicon-based systems would not last a day under Venus conditions. (We mean an Earth day, of course. A Venusian day is 243 Earth days.) Even adding active cooling systems might not give them more than an extra 24 hours.

The answer is a semiconductor that combines two plentiful elements, carbon and silicon, in a 1:1 ratio—silicon carbide. SiC can withstand extremely high temperatures and still work just fine. Scientists at the NASA Glenn Research Center have already operated SiC circuits for more than a year at 500°C, demonstrating not only that they can take the heat but can do so over the kinds of lifetimes a Venus lander will need.

Alan Mantooth, Carl-Mikael Zetterling & Ana Rusu

While Mars is the current star of solar system exploration – with a Chinese rover recently landing on the planet, only the second country to manage a successful landing – the true frontier of planetary exploration is Venus, with its hellish environment that can simultaneously melt, crush and corrode incoming probes. But as materials technology advances, a long-term mission on its surface may become an achievable goal – and drive a number of Earth-based advancements as well. Given the high heat tolerance of SiC circuitry, I have to think they could deliver upgraded components for solar probes as well, designed to investigate our star closer and in more detail.

11 May 2021

Bloomberg: “Big Oil’s Secret World of Trading”

Massive trading floors that mirror those of Wall Street’s biggest banks are becoming increasingly important to the oil companies, which are driven by fears that global oil demand could start to drop in the next few years as climate change concerns reshape society’s — and investors’ — attitudes toward fossil fuel producers. No longer looked down upon as handmaidens to the engineers who built Big Oil, the traders are increasingly being seen as their companies’ saviors. The brightest stars can make more than $10 million a year, outstripping their bosses.

One reason profits are so high is because the three companies can reduce their trading tax bill by routing their business through low-tax jurisdictions—a strategy not available to their oil pumping and refining businesses, which are rooted in physical infrastructure in particular countries. Shell, for example, concentrates all its trading of West African and Latin American crude via a subsidiary in the Bahamas. With just 36 traders in Nassau, Shell reported profits in the Bahamas of $847.5 million in 2019. Yet it didn’t pay a single dollar in taxes on those gains.

Javier Blas & Jack Farchy

Big Tech are not the only companies profiting from tax havens and international legislation loopholes, to the detriment of wider public.

05 May 2021

MIT Technology Review: “How Facebook got addicted to spreading misinformation”

By the time thousands of rioters stormed the US Capitol in January, organized in part on Facebook and fueled by the lies about a stolen election that had fanned out across the platform, it was clear from my conversations that the Responsible AI team had failed to make headway against misinformation and hate speech because it had never made those problems its main focus. More important, I realized, if it tried to, it would be set up for failure.

The reason is simple. Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth. Quiñonero’s AI expertise supercharged that growth. His team got pigeonholed into targeting AI bias, as I learned in my reporting, because preventing such bias helps the company avoid proposed regulation that might, if passed, hamper that growth. Facebook leadership has also repeatedly weakened or halted many initiatives meant to clean up misinformation on the platform because doing so would undermine that growth.

It seems like the ‘responsible AI’ framing is completely subjective to what a company decides it wants to care about. It’s like, We’ll make up the terms and then we’ll follow them, says Ellery Roberts Biddle, the editorial director of Ranking Digital Rights, a nonprofit that studies the impact of tech companies on human rights. I don’t even understand what they mean when they talk about fairness. Do they think it’s fair to recommend that people join extremist groups, like the ones that stormed the Capitol? If everyone gets the recommendation, does that mean it was fair?

Karen Hao

Evergreen conclusion about Facebook’s ultimate motives and their impact on society. I’m sharing the article mostly for the below image and its caption.

STAT: “The story of mRNA: How a once-dismissed idea became a leading technology in the Covid vaccine race”

And even though the studies by Karikó and Weissman went unnoticed by some, they caught the attention of two key scientists — one in the United States, another abroad — who would later help found Moderna and Pfizer’s future partner, BioNTech.

Derrick Rossi, a native of Toronto who rooted for the Maple Leafs and sported a soul patch, was a 39-year-old postdoctoral fellow in stem cell biology at Stanford University in 2005 when he read the first paper. Not only did he recognize it as groundbreaking, he now says Karikó and Weissman deserve the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

If anyone asks me whom to vote for some day down the line, I would put them front and center, he said. That fundamental discovery is going to go into medicines that help the world.

Meanwhile BioNTech has often acted like the anti-Moderna, garnering far less attention.

In part, that was by design, said Sahin. For the first five years, the firm operated in what Sahin called “submarine mode”, issuing no news releases, and focusing on scientific research, much of it originating in his university lab. Unlike Moderna, the firm has published its research from the start, including about 150 scientific papers in just the past eight years.

In 2013, the firm began disclosing its ambitions to transform the treatment of cancer and soon announced a series of eight partnerships with major drug makers. BioNTech has 13 compounds in clinical trials for a variety of illnesses but, like Moderna, has yet to get a product approved.

Damian Garde & Jonathan Saltzman

Global crises can often accelerate innovation and technological progress. This time around, the coronavirus pandemic has surfaced biotech research being developed for years, relatively unknown to the broader public.

04 May 2021

Fast Company: “Apple AirTags can enable domestic abuse in terrifying ways”

Apple has built some protections into this system. If you are an iPhone user, for instance, and someone has placed an AirTag on your person, your phone will eventually alert you that an AirTag that isn’t yours has been found “moving with you”. Apple didn’t clarify how quickly or often this alert will arrive, but it did share that it will occur when you arrive at your home (the address stored in your Apple “Me” card) or at certain other locations that your phone has learned you frequent over time. Apple declined to disclose further specifics, citing the interest of public safety.

If you are an Android user—note that Android made up 87% of the worldwide smartphone market share as of 2019—you don’t have the protection of Apple’s network notifications. Instead, an AirTag that has not paired locally with its iPhone in three days will emit a sound. So if you are an Android user who has had an AirTag placed on you, you will know in 72 hours. (Apple told Fast Company last week that it could lengthen or shorten that time span in the future, and it reiterated that point for this article.) If you are an Android user living with an iPhone abuser, however, a hidden AirTag could be pairing far more often.

Mark Wilson

So… Apple’s built-in protections allow anyone with an iPhone and AirTag to discover someone’s home address, before the person being tracked has any chance to prevent it (unless they happen to discover the AirTag slipped on them). Apple’s next marketing pitch might as well be: “More privacy online, less privacy offline!”

03 May 2021

Bloomberg: “How Intel Missed the Mobile Revolution and Fell Behind”

Ultimately, according to several people with knowledge of Intel’s strategy and operations, the company was never willing to divert its production and design resources away from PC and server chips, and its mobile efforts suffered as a result. Intel not only forfeited billions of dollars in revenue, but it also gave its competitors an opening to gain the manufacturing expertise that comes from making chips at such high volume and to exacting specifications. There are far more mobile phones than PCs and servers in the world, and the chips that run them need to be energy efficient to preserve battery life. Landing Apple as a customer became such a driver for TSMC, says Risto Pahukka, president of VLSI Research Inc. The combination turned out to be very fruitful and is staying that way.

Over his five-year tenure, Krzanich reversed Grove’s policy of embracing Cassandras. Instead he publicly humiliated executives with whom he disagreed, ignoring warnings that Intel was falling behind in its ability to manufacture key products. Brian did not create an environment where people could bring him problems that could be worked on, one former executive says. Limiting the truth is death for a complex company like Intel.

In the review meetings that his predecessors had used as forums for debate, Krzanich answered emails, shopped online, or left to make phone calls, say people who worked for him. Colleagues say this was his way of showing those presenting that he wasn’t interested, had made up his mind already, or didn’t value what they were saying. When he did participate it was often to sneer at presenters or verbally abuse them, sometimes telling experts they had no idea what they were talking about, according to a dozen sources. Krzanich did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ian King & Tom Giles

Far from surprising: ignoring issues and delaying decisions does not magically make them disappear. When top management behaves this way, the entire company struggles.

02 May 2021

The New Yorker: “The Invisible City beneath Paris”

All cities are additions to a landscape that require subtraction from elsewhere. Much of Paris was built from its own underland, hewn block by block from the bedrock and hauled up for dressing and placing. Underground stone quarrying began in the thirteenth century, and Lutetian limestone was used in the construction of such iconic buildings as Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and Saint-Eustache Church. The result of more than six hundred years of quarrying is that beneath the southern portion of the upper city exists its negative image: a network of more than two hundred miles of galleries, rooms and chambers, extending beneath several arrondissements. This network is the vides de carrières—the quarry voids, the catacombs, which together total an underground space around ten times the space of Central Park.

Urban exploration is international in its geography, with groups, crews, and chapters scattered around the world. There is a surprising number of female explorers, and the class base is mixed, often drawing on a disaffected and legally disobedient demographic. At its more political fringes, urban exploration mandates itself as a radical act of disobedience and liberation, a protest against state constraints on freedom within the city. The subculture has its subcultures: there are explorers who specialize in “track-running” underground rail systems to gain access to off-limits parts of those networks; others are particularly known for their ascents of factory chimneys in former Soviet-bloc countries. Detroit and Pripyat—the city evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster—might be thought of as two meccas for those urban explorers who seek out the problematic pathos of “derp” (explorers’ argot for “derelict and ruined places”), Instagramming shots of collapsing pianos, scattered archives, and children’s toys abandoned in the corners of dusty rooms.

Robert Macfarlane

Fascinating deep-dive into the hidden geography underneath Paris, its centuries-long history, and the contemporary people exploring the tunnels and escaping into an alternative life not possible at the surface. I have visited Les Catacombes during my time in Paris, but naturally only the ‘safe’ space available to tourists. I was vaguely aware they are much larger, but I had no idea how extensive, nor that they were used as shelters for the population and hiding places for the French Resistance during World War Two. These days, they are fulfilling another human need, offering a sense of the unexpected, a target for exploration in a world that so often can seem steady and predictable.