31 July 2021

The New York Times: “What if American Democracy fails the Climate Crisis?”

Gunn-Wright: I mean, there’s definitely momentum, but there’s still a lot of desire to do this work in ways that look and feel familiar and keep power relationships the same as they have been for a very long time. There is a reason that we are talking about moving climate policy through budget reconciliation — not straight-out legislation. It’s because certain people don’t want to get rid of the filibuster. With the American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration was comfortable using deficit spending because it was an acute crisis. That is not the case for the infrastructure package. They don’t actually consider climate to be that type of crisis. And there is still a real desire to have this transformation happen in a way that is painless, and painless for particular people, and to have the same type of people bear the pain that often bear the pain of the system — largely Black, Latino, poor communities.

Ezra Klein

Despite the ambitious headline, the article contents is lackluster, dancing around the issue as if this were a mere academic argument. To me the answer is very straightforward: American Democracy has absolutely failed to address the climate crisis. It has failed to pay attention to the warnings of scientists, who predicted man-made global warming decades ago. It has failed in the 2000 Presidential election, when a Florida court handed over the electoral votes to George W. Bush, and with them the presidency for the next eight years. It has failed during the Obama administration, by investing in domestic fossil fuel production. It is currently failing by stripping down President Biden’s already modest plan to combat climate change. And it will continue to fail because of its two-party system, which encourages divisiveness: whenever one party adopts a policy as part of their main agenda, the other is compelled to endorse the opposite position in order to score electoral points.

29 July 2021

The Verge: “Mark Zuckerberg is betting Facebook’s future on the metaverse”

And I guess one broader point that I’d make here is, one lesson that I’ve taken from running Facebook over the last five years is that I used to think about our job as building products that people love to use. But you know, now I think we just need to have a more holistic view of this. It’s not enough to just build something that people like to use. It has to create opportunity and broadly be a positive thing for society in terms of economic opportunity, in terms of being something that, socially, everyone can participate in, that it can be inclusive. So we’re really designing the work that we’re doing in the space with those principles from the ground up. This isn’t just a product that we’re building. It needs to be an ecosystem. So the creators who we work with, the developers, they all need to be able to not only sustain themselves, but hire a lot of folks.

And this is something that I hope eventually millions of people will be working in and creating content for — whether it’s experiences, or spaces, or virtual goods, or virtual clothing, or doing work helping to curate and introduce people to spaces and keep it safe. I just think this is going to be a huge economy and frankly, I think that that needs to exist. This needs to be a rising tide that lifts a lot of boats. We can’t just think about this as a product that we’re building.

One of the big issues that I think people need to think through is right now there’s a pretty meaningful gender skew, at least in virtual reality, where there’s a lot more men than women. And in some cases that leads to harassment. And I think one of the things that we’ve been able to do better in some of our experiences than some of the other games and things out there is give people easier tools to block people, just be able to have a sense of when there might be harassment going on, to keep it a safe space that can be inclusive for everyone, that everyone wants to be a part of.

Casey Newton

A safe and inclusive space for everyone, but with tools to easily block people – what’s wrong with this picture? If some participants feel the need to block others, then the space is inherently unsafe – and by making blocking effortless you destroy this idealistic ‘for everyone’ premise.

28 July 2021

Washington Post: “Private Israeli spyware used to hack cellphones of journalists, activists worldwide”

The targeting of the 37 smartphones would appear to conflict with the stated purpose of NSO’s licensing of the Pegasus spyware, which the company says is intended only for use in surveilling terrorists and major criminals. The evidence extracted from these smartphones, revealed here for the first time, calls into question pledges by the Israeli company to police its clients for human rights abuses.

The media consortium, titled the Pegasus Project, analyzed the list through interviews and forensic analysis of the phones, and by comparing details with previously reported information about NSO. Amnesty’s Security Lab examined 67 smartphones where attacks were suspected. Of those, 23 were successfully infected and 14 showed signs of attempted penetration.

Pegasus is engineered to evade defenses on iPhones and Android devices and to leave few traces of its attack. Familiar privacy measures like strong passwords and encryption offer little help against Pegasus, which can attack phones without any warning to users. It can read anything on a device that a user can, while also stealing photos, recordings, location records, communications, passwords, call logs and social media posts. Spyware also can activate cameras and microphones for real-time surveillance.

There is just nothing from an encryption standpoint to protect against this, said Claudio Guarnieri, a.k.a. “Nex”, the Amnesty Security Lab’s 33-year-old Italian researcher who developed and performed the digital forensics on 37 smartphones that showed evidence of Pegasus attacks.

Dana Priest, Craig Timberg & Souad Mekhennet

Once you build and distribute surveillance tools, it becomes almost impossible to control how clients are using them. The list of 50,000 phone numbers mentioned in this investigative report includes, among others, three presidents, 10 prime ministers and a king, including French president Emmanuel Macron. French prosecutors already opened a probe based on this report, and Amazon Web Services has shut down infrastructure linked to Israeli surveillance vendor NSO Group.

Scientific American: “New Space Radiation Limits needed for NASA Astronauts, report says”

Everybody is planning trips to the moon and Mars, and these missions could have high radiation exposures, says Hedvig Hricak, lead author of the report and a radiologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Using current spaceflight-proved technologies, long-distance voyages—especially to the Red Planet—would exceed the proposed threshold, she says.

That could be a big problem for NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to send astronauts to the moon in preparation for future trips to Mars. Another problem for the space agency is that the epidemiological data it uses mostly come from a longevity study of Japanese survivors of atomic bomb blasts, as well as from the handful of astronauts and cosmonauts who have endured many months or even years in low-Earth orbit. NASA’s current space radiation limit, which was developed in 2014, involves a complicated risk assessment for cancer mortality that depends on age and sex, yet more relevant data are necessary, Hricak argues. In the atomic bomb survivor study, for instance, women were more likely to develop lung cancer than men, suggesting a greater sex-based vulnerability to harmful radiation. But with the knowledge we presently have, we know we cannot make a comparison between high exposure versus chronic exposure, Hricak says. The environment is different. There are so many factors that are different.

Ramin Skibba

Another indication of NASA’s increasing risk aversion around human space flight. Setting a fixed limit for radiation exposure is a blunt solution to a very complex problem; NASA should instead concentrate efforts into finding ways to extend safe human presence in space, by researching better shielding, faster propulsion methods to reduce transit times in deep space, and treatments to prevent cancer and alleviate radiation side-effects – something that could drastically improve many lives on Earth as well! At this rate though, others will set foot on the Moon and Mars well ahead of the US – maybe Elon Musk, utterly unconcerned about the safety of travelers, possibly Jeff Bezos on the Moon, but more likely China…

26 July 2021

Nieman Journalism Lab: “If you’re not a climate reporter yet, you will be”

We are not learning the lessons that the Covid-19 pandemic taught us, where we have a global crisis and the entire newsroom mobilizes to cover that crisis, said Emily Atkin, environment reporter and editor of the newsletter Heated, in a recent interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter. We understand that this infiltrates every single area of our life. She continued: There is no excuse for a reporter today who doesn’t understand the basic science of Covid-19. Why is it not the same for climate change? Everyone should be a climate reporter. And if you are not a climate reporter right now, you will be.

When asked what further changes he would hope for in his newsroom after 18 months of covering Covid-19, German science editor Stockrahm said, I would hope for a greater appreciation of the fact that questioning science is a core part of science. It is a misunderstanding of science when journalists primarily demand definitive answers from scientists or from us science journalists. But this appreciation of scientific disagreements shouldn’t be confused with a dismissal of science itself. As a large-scale analysis of roughly 100,000 English-language digital and print media articles on climate change has shown, journalists often understate just how much scientific agreement there is on climate change and its human-made causes.

Wolfgang Blau

Interesting perspective on the role of journalism faced with massive global challenges, such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. I would argue this reevaluation is long overdue: unfortunately, the journalistic focus on ‘news’, on immediate urgent events with short-term impact, to the detriment of important long-term trends, has already done much damage to the public perception of both these crises.

24 July 2021

The Guardian: “‘Humans were not centre stage’: how ancient cave art puts us in our place”

Of course, cave art also inspired the question raised by all truly arresting art: “What does it mean?” Who was its intended audience, and what were they supposed to derive from it? The boy discoverers of Lascaux took their questions to one of their schoolmasters, who roped in Henri Breuil, a priest familiar enough with all things prehistoric to be known as “the pope of prehistory”. Unsurprisingly, he offered a “magico-religious” interpretation, with the prefix “magico” serving as a slur to distinguish Paleolithic beliefs, whatever they may have been, from the reigning monotheism of the modern world. More practically, he proposed that the painted animals were meant to magically attract the actual animals they represented, the better for humans to hunt and eat them.

Unfortunately for this theory, it turns out that the animals on cave walls were not the kinds that the artists usually dined on. The creators of the Lascaux art, for example, ate reindeer, not the much more formidable herbivores pictured in the cave, which would have been difficult for humans armed with flint-tipped spears to bring down without being trampled. Today, many scholars answer the question of meaning with what amounts to a shrug: “We may never know.”

Barbara Ehrenreich

Fascinating mystery, and one for which we, contemporary humans, will most likely never find the true answer, as the people drawing these paintings are long gone and have not left behind written accounts of their motives. Nevertheless, the “magico-religious” interpretation seems the likeliest to me. Throughout history, spiritual and religious beliefs have constantly accompanied human culture and society, and there is no reason to think this was not the case before large-scale communities coalesced into the first recorded civilizations. These prehistoric people may have revered large beasts as something akin to deities or nature spirits and painted themselves as puny and insignificant alongside their power and magnificence. Just as we are now visiting cathedrals adorned with stories from our religions, these ancestors may have gathered in painted caves as places of worship, to reenact their myths and pass them along to a new generation.

22 July 2021

Bloomberg: “Netflix plans to offer Video Games in Push beyond Films, TV”

Mike Verdu will join Netflix as vice president of game development, reporting to Chief Operating Officer Greg Peters, the company said on Wednesday. Verdu was previously Facebook’s vice president in charge of working with developers to bring games and other content to Oculus virtual-reality headsets.

The idea is to offer video games on Netflix’s streaming platform within the next year, according to a person familiar with the situation. The games will appear alongside current fare as a new programming genre – similar to what Netflix did with documentaries or stand-up specials. The company doesn’t currently plan to charge extra for the content, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private.

Lucas Shaw & Mark Gurman

Hmm, an intriguing initiative from Netflix – who in the meantime clarified it will focus on mobile games initially – but I am unsure how successful it might be. The broad idea is to keep subscribers on Netflix, as opposed to them spending time elsewhere, creating more engagement and brand loyalty. On the flip side though, developing games is complicated, requiring considerable time and money, and has very little overlap with film production, apart from leveraging existing intellectual property and maybe reusing actors to voice game characters. This would generate a large new cost center in Netflix’ financials, with little extra revenue to offset it.

20 July 2021

Ars Technica: “Disable the Windows print spooler to prevent hacks, Microsoft tells customers”

An elevation of privilege vulnerability exists when the Windows Print Spooler service improperly performs privileged file operations, Microsoft wrote in Thursday’s advisory. An attacker who successfully exploited this vulnerability could run arbitrary code with SYSTEM privileges. An attacker could then install programs; view, change, or delete data; or create new accounts with full user rights.

Microsoft said that the attacker must first have the ability to execute code on a victim’s system. The advisory rates in-the-wild exploits as “more likely”. Microsoft continues to advise that customers install the previously issued security updates. A print spooler is software that manages the sending of jobs to the printer by temporarily storing data in a buffer and processing the jobs sequentially or by job priority.

The workaround for this vulnerability is stopping and disabling the Print Spooler service, Thursday’s advisory said. It provides several methods customers can use to do so.

Dan Goodin

I went ahead and disabled the print spooler on my personal laptop, thinking I would not need it on a regular basis, but in the process I stumbled upon one of the weirder and more unexpected dependencies in Microsoft software. Apparently, since Excel 2010, charts located on separate chart sheets somehow rely on printer drivers for their dimensions. With the print spooler stopped, the system behaves as if no printer is installed and because of this Excel chart areas default to a fixed size and cannot be resized! The result is a weird looking mini-chart, sometimes with distorted text.

17 July 2021

The New York Times: “How Humanity gave itself an Extra Life”

In effect, during the century since the end of the Great Influenza outbreak, the average human life span has doubled. There are few measures of human progress more astonishing than this. If you were to publish a newspaper that came out just once a century, the banner headline surely would — or should — be the declaration of this incredible feat. But of course, the story of our extra life span almost never appears on the front page of our actual daily newspapers, because the drama and heroism that have given us those additional years are far more evident in hindsight than they are in the moment. That is, the story of our extra life is a story of progress in its usual form: brilliant ideas and collaborations unfolding far from the spotlight of public attention, setting in motion incremental improvements that take decades to display their true magnitude.

Another reason we have a hard time recognizing this kind of progress is that it tends to be measured not in events but in nonevents: the smallpox infection that didn’t kill you at age 2; the accidental scrape that didn’t give you a lethal bacterial infection; the drinking water that didn’t poison you with cholera. In a sense, human beings have been increasingly protected by an invisible shield, one that has been built, piece by piece, over the last few centuries, keeping us ever safer and further from death.

Steven Johnson

Insightful outline of the medical innovations and social changes during the past centuries that enabled people to live much longer and healthier lives than our ancestors. I was aware of most of these, but if asked, I could not have placed them in the correct historical timeframe. I was somewhat surprised to discover how recently antibiotics became widespread, and that vaccination is has been around for much longer than I would have expected.

16 July 2021

CNBC: “‘Black Swan’ author Nassim Taleb says bitcoin is worth zero”

The author of “The Black Swan” said in a recent paper that the largest cryptocurrency by market cap has failed to satisfy the notions of it as a currency without government, as a hedge against inflation and as a safe haven investment.

Taleb noted that in March 2020 bitcoin dropped further than the stock market and recovered with it upon the massive injection of liquidity. That’s sufficient evidence that it cannot remotely be used as a tail hedge against systemic risk, he said.

He said bitcoin tends to respond to liquidity and that it’s unclear what would happen if the internet experienced even a regional outage, particularly if it took place during a financial collapse.

People also conflate the success of bitcoin as a digital currency with the success of bitcoin as a speculative investment. To be a currency would require it to have some stability and usability, Taleb said.

Tanaya Macheel

You don’t say? 😏

10 July 2021

The Guardian: “America’s secret role in the Rwandan genocide”

The Rwanda genocide has been compared to the Nazi Holocaust in its surreal brutality. But there is a fundamental difference between these two atrocities. No Jewish army posed a threat to Germany. Hitler targeted the Jews and other weak groups solely because of his own demented beliefs and the prevailing prejudices of the time. The Rwandan Hutu génocidaires, as the people who killed during the genocide were known, were also motivated by irrational beliefs and prejudices, but the powder keg contained another important ingredient: terror. Three and a half years before the genocide, a rebel army of mainly Rwandan Tutsi exiles known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, had invaded Rwanda and set up camps in the northern mountains. They had been armed and trained by neighbouring Uganda, which continued to supply them throughout the ensuing civil war, in violation of the UN charter, Organisation of African Unity rules, various Rwandan ceasefire and peace agreements, and the repeated promises of the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni.

US officials knew that Museveni was not honouring his promise to court martial RPF leaders. The US was monitoring Ugandan weapons shipments to the RPF in 1992, but instead of punishing Museveni, western donors including the US doubled aid to his government and allowed his defence spending to balloon to 48% of Uganda’s budget, compared with 13% for education and 5% for health, even as Aids was ravaging the country. In 1991, Uganda purchased 10 times more US weapons than in the preceding 40 years combined.

Helen C Epstein

How many conflicts could have been avoided, or at least vastly diminished in size, if the US would have stopped arming one (or even both) of the parties? The practice of unaccountable ‘defense aid’ is unfortunately alive and well in recent times, as evidenced by the fight against ISIS and the subsequent devastation of Syria.

07 July 2021

Digital Photography Review: “Instagram alienates photography community after CEO’s recent statement”

We’re [also] going to be experimenting with how do we embrace video more broadly – full screen, immersive, entertaining, mobile-first video, Mosseri says in the clip. You’ll see us do a number of things, or experiment with a number of things in this space over the coming months. It was this line that caused an uproar in the photography community, however: We’re no longer a photo-sharing app or a square photo-sharing app, Mosseri fatefully stated.

While he would take to Twitter in an attempt to retract those last words, the damage had been done. His initial statement spread like wildfire across the Internet and was the last straw for many photographers that saw their engagement drop over time on an app whose algorithm was favoring more ‘entertaining’ content, regardless of the quality in some instances.

Kara Murphy

Not exactly surprising, considering Instagram has consistently moved away from its initial focus for years. Can any photographer recall when Instagram launched a feature dedicated to photography in recent years? Even the ability to upload from the desktop site is still missing, though currently in testing. The current app is anything from a market place for influencers to promote their brands and products, to a place to chat and keep up with friends, where you can share funny clips and memes, even a dating app – but an app for photographers? Instagram has not fit that profile in a long while, and you might argue it was never meant for that role.

05 July 2021

The Verge: “Windows 11 is a new and refreshing approach to an old and familiar home”

The biggest changes you’ll find in Windows 11 will be immediately obvious. A new Start menu appears alongside a taskbar that’s centered. It’s clear Microsoft has taken cues from macOS, Chrome OS, and even Android and iOS here. Gone are the Live Tiles with their widget-like information, replaced instead with a launcher and your recent documents and files. I’m a big fan of this new Start menu, and I think it acts as the front door that invites you to explore a refreshed and simplified version of Windows.

Another obvious change to Windows 11 is the new Widgets section. While Microsoft added a weather widget to the taskbar in Windows 10, it has now been shifted into a dedicated section that flies out from the left-hand side of the screen. This reminds me a lot of Windows Vista, but these widgets can’t be dragged and dropped onto your desktop and pinned elsewhere.

Tom Warren

It feels unfair to judge a design based on short video of a beta version, but I keep finding reasons to dislike this new Windows 11 design. The Start menu looks terribly cramped and generic. In Windows 10 you could opt for a full screen menu, resize tiles, create groups of tiles and folders to organize them better – these options are seemingly gone from the new OS version, along with the ability to move the taskbar to the side or top of the desktop. Simplification? More like senseless dumbing down…

03 July 2021

Scientific American: “Neck-Zapping Gadget reduced All-Nighter Fatigue in New Study”

Instead of reaching for a cup of coffee during a graveyard shift, workers might one day hold an electric-razor-sized device to their necks. After a couple of minutes they would emerge refreshed and awake from this experience, which could come to be known as a “vagus nerve break”.

The device, called gammaCore, sends a series of vibrating bursts of low-voltage electricity, each lasting a millisecond, to the side of the neck. It is meant to stimulate part of the vagus nerve, a connector between brain and body, and cause the release of wakefulness chemicals.

In the study, researchers observed 40 active-duty soldiers from an Air Force base as they stayed awake for 34 hours, during which time they completed cognitive tests and reported their mood and level of fatigue. Half of the participants used gammaCore for eight minutes near the beginning of testing, while the other half were given a sham device that looked and felt like the real deal but did not provide an electrical current. Those in the group that received the real vagus nerve stimulation stuck more closely to their baseline performance as the night wore on and reported less fatigue over time than the other group.

Maddie Bender

I see that research into human sleep processes and mitigating the negative effects of sleep deprivation is progressing. Reading the headline however, I had an instant dystopian vision of a near-future where corporations mandate similar devices for their employees to ensure their continued attention during working hours – and maybe extend them beyond the regular schedule. The flip side may also come true, with students and workers relying on electrical stimulation to keep themselves awake because of pressures to perform.

01 July 2021

Bloomberg: “Sam Altman’s Worldcoin will give Free Crypto for Eyeball Scans”

With Worldcoin, the startup promises a new global digital currency that will launch by giving a share to every single person on earth, according to an online job description. The company aims to help economies transition to cryptocurrencies through a novel approach: a dedicated hardware device ensuring both humanness and uniqueness of everybody signing up, while maintaining their privacy and the overall transparency of a permissionless blockchain.

The device is a silver-colored spherical gizmo the size of a basketball that can be carried around and used to scan people’s irises in order to ascertain their unique identities, Blania said. Worldcoin has already started testing the orb on a small scale in various cities, he said. The Worldcoin currency itself is not yet ready for distribution, so the company is currently offering volunteers other types of digital coins, mostly Bitcoin, in exchange for scanning their eyes and giving feedback on the process.

The company has fewer than 20 prototypes in circulation around the world, Blania said. A prototype orb costs about $5,000 to make, but the price will decline steeply as the company refines the process, he said. Worldcoin will eventually be headquartered in San Francisco, though its employees are currently scattered because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ellen Huet & Gillian Tan

To be filed under ‘ridiculous ideas from Silicon Valley billionaires’. I had to double-check if I read the size comparison correctly, because carrying around a basketball-sized sphere sounds absurd – and I still think (hope, even!) this is a typing mistake.