30 August 2021

Ars Technica: “A decade and a half of instability: The history of Google messaging apps”

Even with all this shoddy history, Google doesn’t seem to have learned anything. Today, the confusing, intimidating pile of Google Messaging services is bigger than it has ever been, with Google Chat, Google Messages/RCS, Google Voice/Project Fi, and separate messaging services in Photos, Messages, Pay, Assistant, Stadia, Maps, and Phone. If you’re really an expert, you can probably narrow this list down somewhat, but Google is still simultaneously pushing the enterprise-first-but-also-consumer-messaging app, Google Chat, while also duplicating efforts and muddying its sales pitch to users with RCS on Google Messages. Which services does Google really care about? Which one is the future of the company? It’s hard to say.

The overwhelming impression from Google’s continual messaging chaos is that nobody at the company is really in charge. Some products at Google get mandatory support and hiring (like the advertising division), but others, like messaging, rely on the enthusiasm and availability of individual employees to be continually supported and stay running. Google has previously defended this hands-off management style as letting a thousand flowers bloom, but the company’s messaging situation is more like a yard full of weeds—neglected, embarrassing, and damaging to the company’s reputation.

I’ve written before about how Google’s constant product shutdowns damage the brand, and messaging apps are one of the biggest contributors to the growing Google graveyard. Switching to a messaging app requires a big commitment, with the need to get friends and family to switch. Like any social app, messaging apps are dependent on the network effect, and shutting them down every two years is a great way to sabotage any possible user adoption.

Ron Amadeo

I must admit I didn’t have the patience to read through this massive piece (I skimmed the table of contents amazed at how many messaging launches from Google I ignored in recent years), but you can hardly argue with its conclusion. Google’s complete inability to put together a half-decent strategy for messaging has become a running joke in tech publications.

The New York Times: “Brace yourself for the Man who could become California’s Governor”

But Elder’s candidacy makes the race as serious as a heart attack, especially because the rules governing California’s recall election, which will take place on Sept. 14, are unfair to the point of plausible unconstitutionality. For Newsom to prevail, a majority of voters must oppose his recall; if he were to fall even just barely short of that majority, the rival who gets the most votes becomes our next governor, even if that candidate wins far fewer votes than Newsom.

Because California’s Democrats appear deeply apathetic about the race, current polls show likely voters to be roughly tied on the question of Newsom’s recall. Elder, meanwhile, is far ahead of his fellow challengers in the race to replace Newsom — even though he is supported by only about 20 percent of voters.

But anyone who was alive in 2016 ought to appreciate the danger of Newsom’s focus on Elder’s extremism. Like Donald Trump, Elder has a keen understanding of the utility of outrage; when the left attacks him, he goes on Fox News and wears the criticism as a badge of purity, helping him further stand out from the Republican pack. Perhaps that’s why Elder’s standing in the polls has only gone up amid the onslaught of criticism. By making him the face of the recall, Newsom is cementing Elder’s lead, all but guaranteeing him as a successor should Newsom fail to win a majority. It’s a frightening strategy, even if it’s Newsom’s best play.

Farhad Manjoo

For a country that prides itself for being the greatest democracy in the world, there sure seem to be a lot of cracks in that narrative, from small local elections all the way to the US Senate. Ironically, this recall procedure is how Arnold Schwarzenegger first become Governor of California as a Republican, but with a much more substantial share of the vote (48.6%).

29 August 2021

Quanta Magazine: “DNA has Four Bases. Some Viruses swap in a Fifth”

Researchers have long been intrigued by the possibility that evolution could have gone in a different direction with DNA’s four bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G). Perhaps there could have been more than four of them, or they could have had very different chemical or binding properties, or they could have used a different set of rules to represent information. Synthetic biologists like Romesberg have explored this by engineering artificial base pairs and additional amino acids to produce novel proteins. Even so, because an organism’s survival depends on keeping its genetic alphabet and code intact, the precise ingredients in DNA’s recipe are thought to have been largely locked in by evolution for billions of years — making them “frozen accidents”, in the words of Francis Crick.

But some exceptions have cropped up. In 1977, for instance, researchers in the Soviet Union found something peculiar while looking at a virus that infects photosynthetic bacteria: All the A’s in the genome had been replaced with an alternative base, 2-aminoadenine, which was later dubbed Z. Usually, C pairs with G and T pairs with A to form double-stranded DNA. But in this virus, with no A’s to be found, T paired with Z. (During gene transcription, T-Z was still treated as though it were T-A.)

The Z base looks like a chemical modification of A; it’s an adenine nucleotide with an extra attachment. But that modest change allows Z to form a triple hydrogen bond with T, which is more stable than the double bond that holds together A-T.

Jordana Cepelewicz

Fascinating! The new development is that recently scientists have discovered this Z substitution in more than 200 phages, taking it from a singular occurrence to something that may happen regularly in nature under evolutionary pressure. Evidently there is much more to learn about molecular biology and perhaps the emergence and development of life: DNA is believed to have existed in its current form for billions of years, but this piece of evidence shows that, at least for viruses, that may not be entirely the case.

23 August 2021

Automatically switch the theme of Twitter Widgets to match user preferred theme

As mentioned several times before, I enjoy using Twitter and generally find a lot of interesting information, analysis and news on the platform. Some tweets get embedded into my blog posts as well. One of the big advantages compared to embeds from other social networks is how straightforward the fallback is: the tweet text is inserted inside a <blockquote> tag, and any styles and media in the tweet are added by the embedding script. This means that, even if the tweet gets deleted or the script does not load (or when Twitter shuts down, at some point in the future), the relevant information is preserved in the text on my blog post.

You can add several options to each individual embedded tweet to control its display, for example to align it to center, to display or hide the conversation, or to fine-tune its appearance. As I was looking at these options, I discovered Twitter provides some global controls as well. These can be enabled through <meta> tags on each site. This includes the ability to switch the default theme of embedded tweets from light to dark, with this element:

<meta name="twitter:widgets:theme" content="dark">

19 August 2021

The Atlantic: “Biden’s ‘America First’ Policy on Afghanistan”

This focus on narrow national interest is what Trump called “America First”. Biden would never use that term, not least because of its dark history as a World War II–era anti-Semitic rallying cry. And in contrast to Biden’s paean to fallen service members, Trump disparaged the war dead as “suckers” and “losers”. But their shared lodestar is the idea that it’s time for the U.S. to focus on its own interests—and to leave other countries to fend for themselves, come what may.

In particular, Biden blamed Afghans for the collapse of the government. He scolded the country’s leaders for fleeing the country and for refusing his advice about preparing for a post-American future. He accused the Afghan army of going down without a fight. The fact that the Taliban had so quickly overrun the government, despite two decades and astronomical American spending on training and equipment, he said, showed that staying in Afghanistan any longer would have been fruitless. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war, and dying in a war, that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves, he said. It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not. Additionally, although Biden often touts his work with Barack Obama, today he noted that he opposed the 2009 surge into Afghanistan that Obama ordered.

The implicit dismissal of the American role in creating the conflict is glib and cynical. Afghanistan is engulfed in a civil war—or was until this weekend, when the Taliban effectively won—but the U.S. was no disinterested third party. The war escalated with the American invasion in 2001, and Afghans have paid dearly for it, only to end up with the same group in control 20 years later.

David A. Graham

Hard to argue with this conclusion.

18 August 2021

The Guardian: “The financial scandal no one is talking about”

The disappearance of one of the four major firms – for example through the loss of licences following a criminal conviction, as happened to Arthur Andersen & Co in 2002 – presents an unacceptable threat to auditing. So, in what one former big-four partner described to the FT as a “Faustian relationship” between government and the profession, the firms escape official scrutiny even at low points such as the aftermath of the financial crisis. They are too few to fail.

The major accountancy firms also avoid the level of public scrutiny that their importance warrants. Major scandals in which they are implicated invariably come with more colourful villains for the media to spotlight. When, for example, the Paradise Papers hit the headlines in November 2017, the big news was that racing driver Lewis Hamilton had avoided VAT on buying a private jet. The more important fact that one of the world’s largest accountancy firms and a supposed watchdog of capitalism, EY, had designed the scheme for him and others, including several oligarchs, went largely unnoticed.

Richard Brooks

While antitrust has become a hot topic in the tech sector, other branches are profiting from market concentration and oligopolistic arrangements as well. The Big Four auditing companies, despite their overt role of insuring proper reporting standards, have failed at this task numerous times without being held accountable; meanwhile, their consulting arms are helping corporations and rich people shield taxable incomes from authorities through various, albeit legal, loopholes. I would argue that this is a case where society would benefit from tighter government regulations, or even public agencies taking over some of the responsibilities of private auditing companies. Bureaucracy is often frowned upon, but if it improves tax collections and corporate governance, it might be well worth it.

16 August 2021

AIP: “Superflares: less harmful to exoplanets than previously thought”

Ekaterina Ilin, PhD student at AIP, and the team developed a method to locate where on the stars’ surface flares are launched from. We discovered that extremely large flares are launched from near the poles of red dwarf stars, rather than from their equator, as is typically the case on the Sun, said Ilin. Exoplanets that orbit in the same plane as the equator of the star, like the planets in our own solar system, could therefore be largely protected from such superflares, as these are directed upwards or downwards out of the exoplanet system. This could improve the prospects for the habitability of exoplanets around small host stars, which would otherwise be much more endangered by the energetic radiation and particles associated with flares compared to planets in the solar system.

Ekaterina Ilin

Some potential good news for the long-term survival of life around M dwarf stars, the smallest and most numerous in our galaxy – and an additional conundrum for the Red Sky Paradox. The sample size of only four stars is very small though, and there may be other mechanisms affecting the distribution of flares depending on the stellar mass, age, composition, and magnetic field. Flares could also migrate in periodic cycles over the surface of the star, similar to sunspots on our local star, so I think some additional observations on these sample stars would be in order.

10 August 2021

Stratechery: “Apple’s Mistake”

Apple’s choices in this case, though, go in the opposite direction: instead of adding CSAM-scanning to iCloud Photos in the cloud that they own and operate, Apple is compromising the phone that you and I own and operate, without any of us having a say in the matter. Yes, you can turn off iCloud Photos to disable Apple’s scanning, but that is a policy decision; the capability to reach into a user’s phone now exists, and there is nothing an iPhone user can do to get rid of it.

A far better solution to the “Flickr problem” I started with is to recognize that the proper point of comparison is not the iPhone and Facebook, but rather Facebook and iCloud. One’s device ought be one’s property, with all of the expectations of ownership and privacy that entails; cloud services, meanwhile, are the property of their owners as well, with all of the expectations of societal responsibility and law-abiding which that entails. It’s truly disappointing that Apple got so hung up on its particular vision of privacy that it ended up betraying the fulcrum of user control: being able to trust that your device is truly yours.

Ben Thompson

Apple’s latest initiative to combat child sexual abuse has been met with widespread criticism – and I feel the majority are justified! As Ben Thompson points out in the article above, the underlying law does not require companies to actively scan for CSAM on their services – and yet, this is precisely what Apple is planning to do.

07 August 2021

The New Yorker: “Britney Spears’s Conservatorship Nightmare”

Britney Spears appears on a phone behind a series of blurred lines
Photograph by Arvida Byström for The New Yorker; Source photograph from Getty

For the next twenty minutes, Spears described how she had been isolated, medicated, financially exploited, and emotionally abused. She assigned harsh blame to the California legal system, which she said let it all happen. She added that she had tried to complain to the court before but had been ignored, which made her feel like I was dead, she said—like I didn’t matter. She wanted to share her story publicly, she said, instead of it being a hush-hush secret to benefit all of them. She added, It concerns me I’ve been told I’m not allowed to expose the people who did this to me. At one point, she told the court, All I want is to own my money, for this to end, and for my boyfriend to drive me in his fucking car.

According to Jonathan Martinis, the senior director for law and policy at a center for disability rights at Syracuse University, one of the most dangerous aspects of guardianships is the way that they prevent people from getting their own legal counsel. The rights at stake in guardianship are analogous to the rights at stake in criminal cases, Martinis said. Britney could have been found holding an axe and a severed head, saying I did it, and she still would’ve had the right to an attorney. So, under guardianship, you don’t have the same rights as an axe murderer.

Ronan Farrow & Jia Tolentino

For a country that prides itself for treating all citizens equally in the eyes of the law, examples such as these are a complete disgrace – and in California no less, one of the most progressive states. For more than a decade, Britney Spears has lived in a state of effective servitude, lacking even the right to challenge the legal ruling that gave her father complete control over her life – and there are certainly many people in similar situations, but without the same public exposure. Despite its idealized self-image, on closer inspection the US justice system shows numerous flaws that allow some people to ignore the system – as Donald Trump has done for years – while others are punished beyond the measure of their actions.

04 August 2021

Foreign Policy: “China and the Taliban begin their Romance”

Amid all of this regional angst, China is quietly attempting to secure its interests in post-U.S. Afghanistan. Beijing has reportedly been actively engaging with Kabul on construction of the Peshawar-Kabul motorway, which would connect Pakistan to Afghanistan and make Kabul a participant in China’s massive infrastructure and investment plan, the Belt and Road Initiative. Up until now, Kabul has resisted participation in the initiative to avoid getting on the wrong side of Washington. Beijing is also building a major road through the Wakhan Corridor—a slim strip of mountainous territory connecting China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang to Afghanistan—and onward to Pakistan and Central Asia, complementing its existing road network through the region. Once completed, these new thoroughfares should enable Beijing to pursue its goals of increased trade with the region and natural resource extraction in Afghanistan. According to a 2014 report, Afghanistan may possess nearly a trillion dollars’ worth of extractable rare-earth metals locked within its mountains.

Going forward, assuming the Taliban retake Afghanistan, the nature of China-Taliban ties will be geostrategically significant. A sustained positive relationship may further enable Beijing to make broad economic and security inroads into Afghanistan and Central Asia. Beijing already has strong bilateral and multilateral relations throughout the region (not least via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization), but an improved relationship with Afghanistan will pay even larger dividends. If the Taliban stay true to their word—a big if—then Beijing is set to benefit from Belt and Road projects transiting Afghanistan as well as what China frames as counterterrorism cooperation against Uyghur extremists in Xinjiang.

Beijing’s growing clout in the region, spurred on by closer ties to the Taliban, could also raise suspicions in Moscow that China is eclipsing Russia as the dominant power in Central Asia—potentially adding a rare friction point to their relationship. Although India also appears to be engaged in back-channel negotiations with the Taliban, an official Chinese recognition of the Taliban is unlikely to sit well in New Delhi because of China’s ties to Pakistan, furthering India’s already strained relationship with China over territorial disputes in the Himalayas.

Derek Grossman

With the imminent withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, the power vacuum left behind is set to swiftly be filled by Taliban guns, with Chinese money following close behind. I heard the issue being discussed in a recent episode of the Deep State Radio podcast, with a general consensus that China is unlikely to succeed where both the US and Russia have repeatedly failed.

03 August 2021

Protocol: “Inside Big Tech’s angry, geeky, often petty war for your privacy”

The W3C’s members do it all by consensus in public GitHub forums and open Zoom meetings with meticulously documented meeting minutes, creating a rare archive on the internet of conversations between some of the world’s most secretive companies as they collaborate on new rules for the web in plain sight.

But lately, that spirit of collaboration has been under intense strain as the W3C has become a key battleground in the war over web privacy. Over the last year, far from the notice of the average consumer or lawmaker, the people who actually make the web run have converged on this niche community of engineers to wrangle over what privacy really means, how the web can be more private in practice and how much power tech giants should have to unilaterally enact this change.

Because the W3C’s standards are voluntary, no one was under any real obligation to heed the Do Not Track signal, effectively neutering the feature. Browsers could send a signal indicating a user didn’t want to be tracked, but websites and companies powering their ads didn’t (and don’t) have to listen.

In his post-mortem on the ordeal, Tene summed up the Do Not Track effort succinctly: It was protracted, rife with hardball rhetoric and combat tactics, based on inconsistent factual claims, and under constant threat of becoming practically irrelevant due to lack of industry buy-in.

For anyone participating in today’s privacy discussions inside the W3C, it’s a description that sounds eerily familiar.

Issie Lapowsky

As much as some people, especially in American tech circles, constantly complain and actively push against privacy legislation, this W3C process looks completely dysfunctional. European regulations, imperfect as they may be, are at least reached through a democratic process and better represent the interests of the general public. The W3C, as presented in this article, has no input from the public or elected officials, representing instead only the interests of Big Tech and ad companies, which seldomly align with the idea of privacy as a human right. No wonder progress is slow; neither of these entities in genuinely interested in people’s privacy, so they are simply pushing competing visions of the Internet that would benefit them most and hurt their competitors.