31 October 2021

Dune: Part One

in Bucharest, Romania

Despite my worries about the high numbers of coronavirus infections, I bit the bullet and reserved tickets to Dune’s opening night on IMAX last Friday, curious too see how this new adaptation by Denis Villeneuve looks on the big screen, and whether it can live up to the source material. As I wrote before on my blog, I had low expectations that he can deliver on the richness and subtlety of Dune – his previous movies that I watched, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, left me with the sense that Villeneuve is more adept at creating grand and stunning, yet impersonal and detached, imagery, less so at depicting raw, personal drama. And this impression has not changed after watching his latest Dune: Part One.

As I have read all six of Frank Herbert’s novels (twice) and rewatched the previous adaptations over the past year, I will not shy away from spoilers in this review, nor from comparisons with previous movies or the book.

29 October 2021

Motherboard: “Zuckerberg announces Fantasy World where Facebook is Not a Horrible Company”

Moments before announcing Facebook is changing its name to “Meta” and detailing the company’s “metaverse” plans during a Facebook Connect presentation on Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg said some people will say this isn’t a time to focus on the future, referring to the massive, ongoing scandal plaguing his company relating to the myriad ways Facebook has made the world worse. I believe technology can make our lives better. The future will be built by those willing to stand up and say this is the future we want.

But Zuckerberg’s pitch of living, working, playing, and generally existing in a utopian, fake, Facebook-developed virtual world loaded with fun and friendly people, concerts where you can always be in the front row, seamless mixed-reality basketball games where you feel like you are actually playing basketball, and kicksass, uhh, NFTs you can use to modify your metaverse avatar, is a far cry from the disinformation, conspiracy theories, genocide-related, self-esteem destroying, spam, and general garbage content that exists on the platforms Facebook has already built.

There is no universe, meta-or-otherwise, in which people will not spread conspiracy theories, hate speech, and make threats online. In the metaverse, they will try to show each other their dicks, though it’s worth noting right now that Facebook’s current metaverse avatars do not have bodies that exist below their waists.

Jason Koebler

In the least surprising rebranding of the decade… Facebook now has a parent company called Meta, on a model similar to Google’s restructuring under the Alphabet umbrella a couple of years ago. Except this time Mark Zuckerberg continues to be firmly in charge of the new Meta, as he was before, so let’s not expect significant changes to its products and toxic effects.

The Guardian: “The dark side of wellness: the overlap between spiritual thinking and far-right conspiracies”

In 2011, sociologists Charlotte Ward and David Voas coined the term “conspirituality”. Ward defined it as a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews. It describes the sticky intersection of two worlds: the world of yoga and juice cleanses with that of New Age thinking and online theories about secret groups, covertly controlling the universe. It’s a place where you might typically see a vegan influencer imploring their followers to stick to a water fast rather than getting vaccinated, or a meditation instructor reminding her clients of the dangers of 5G, or read an Instagram comment explaining that vaccines are hiding tracking devices. It’s a place where the word “scamdemic” might comfortably run up the side of a pair of yoga pants (88% polyester, £40, also available in “Defund the Media” print, “World Hellth Organisation” and “Masked Sheeple”, in millennial pink).

While the overlap of left-wing, magazine-friendly wellness and far-right conspiracy theories might initially sound surprising, the similarities in cultures, in ways of thinking – the questioning of authority, of alternative medicines, the distrust of institutions – are clear. But something is happening, accelerated by the pandemic – the former is becoming a mainstream entry point into the latter. An entry point that can be found everywhere from a community garden to the beauty aisle at a big Tesco. Part of what makes a successful influencer is the ability to compel their followers to trust them, and they do that by sharing their lives, their homes, their diets, their concerns. It’s become clear, both by the products they buy and the choices they make, that many people trust their influencers more than their own doctor.

Eva Wiseman

I know certain examples among acquaintances as well, specifically an old colleague from work. She was into wellness well before the pandemic, from natural plant oils to vegan food, and now she has become a staunch opposer of vaccines. She and her entire family got infected with coronavirus sometime last winter, but they all had mild illness, and she naturally interpreted this as confirmation that her alternative medicines are working. The latest I heard is that she had a massive fight with her (adult) son, because he got vaccinated behind her back…

27 October 2021

The Washington Post: “Tesla is rolling back ‘Full Self-Driving’ for some users because of software issues”

The update had already proved troublesome earlier in the weekend, as Tesla delayed its initial release Saturday morning because of what Musk wrote was “regression in some left turns at traffic lights” found by internal quality inspectors. But he said Sunday that the company has proceeded with the rollout, noting that it leans on the public to gather more data on driving conditions and parameters.

Users reported sporadic issues including hard braking events, forward collision warnings and other system misfires that had not been present in previous versions.

It was the latest twist in a saga that has disrupted typical car industry practices and drawn the attention of safety advocates and regulators, who fear the consequences of Tesla foisting the largely untested software on the public. Full Self-Driving is an expanded iteration of the software that Tesla calls Autopilot, which can navigate highways, summon and park cars, and conduct other maneuvers with an attentive driver behind the wheel. Full Self-Driving brings those capabilities to city streets, allowing the software to navigate Tesla cars through local roads and residential areas. Users must pay attention at all times, and the software — despite its name — is not considered autonomous by industry or regulatory definitions.

Faiz Siddiqui

Considering Musk’s aversion to safety rules and regulations, this might be another reason behind the decision to relocate Tesla’s headquarters to Texas – aside from the obvious tax benefits for Musk: the Texas Attorney’s Office proved easily corruptible in the Boeing 737 Max case. If Tesla lands in legal trouble because of these rash decisions that might one day cause fatal crashes, Musk might be able to buy his way out of accountability…

24 October 2021

Sky & Telescope: “New Horizons discovers Kuiper Belt ‘Twins’”

Both 2011 JY31 and 2014 OS393 appeared slightly elongated in the images compared to a nearby star. So the team fit the shapes with a two-body model: two asteroids in a tight orbit. Even though the individual rocks weren't resolved, the modeling showed that two bodies were better able to explain the elongation, as well as the brightness seen. The model for 2011 JY31 had two 50-km-wide objects nearly 200 km apart, while for 2014 OS393, the model had slightly smaller bodies (30 km across) that orbited each other 150 km apart.

The tight-orbiting twins would have formed in situ, and — like twin-lobed Arrokoth seen up close by New Horizons in early 2019 — support a formation model in which gentle, low-velocity collisions among small objects, or “pebbles”, produce denser pebble-filled clouds that then collapse into larger planetesimals, as either contact binaries (like Arrokoth) or tight twins (like the other two asteroids).

David Dickinson

Impressive how data from the New Horizons missions is still delivering scientific insights. It also supports proposals for more probes in the outer solar system, orbiting the cold giants and surveying the Kuiper Belt. Maybe this would finally settle the question whether a large ‘Planet Nine’ is orbiting the Sun somewhere in the far reaches of the system.

23 October 2021

Quanta Magazine: “Anil Seth finds Consciousness in Life’s Push Against Entropy”

The free-energy principle is not itself a theory about consciousness, but I think it’s very relevant because it provides a way of understanding how and why brains work the way they do, and it links back to the idea that consciousness and life are very tightly related. Very briefly, the idea is that to regulate things like body temperature — and, more generally, to keep the body alive — the brain uses predictive models, because to control something it’s very useful to be able to predict how it will behave. The argument I develop in my book is that all our conscious experiences arise from these predictive models which have their origin in this fundamental biological imperative to keep living.

This imperative for self-organization and self-preservation in living systems goes all the way down: Every cell within a body maintains its own existence just as the body as a whole does. What’s more, unlike in a computer where you have this sharp distinction between hardware and software — between substrate and what “runs on” that substrate — in life, there isn’t such a sharp divide. Where does the mind-ware stop and the wetware start? There isn’t a clear answer. These, for me, are positive reasons to think that the substrate matters; a system that instantiates conscious experiences might have to be a system that cares about its persistence all the way down into its mechanisms, without some arbitrary cutoff. No, I can’t demonstrate that for certain. But it’s one interesting way in which living systems are different from computers, and it’s a way which helps me understand consciousness as it’s expressed in living systems.

Dan Falk

Interesting concepts in this article about consciousness, especially this portion about it depending on a drive for self-preservation, which is absent in (current) software-based AI. I tend to agree with the view that consciousness is inextricably linked to its substrate – meaning that replicating consciousness with cleverly designed algorithms on a hardware substrate would either be impossible (or undesirable for practical purposes), or lead to a completely different form of consciousness that we may not even be able to recognize as such.

22 October 2021

Euractiv: “How the US got the upper hand in the OECD tax reform proposals”

The first section of the proposals, Pillar One, establishes the principle that profits shall be taxed where economic activities take place and value is created. However, application of the principle will be limited. It will apply only to multinational enterprises (MNEs) with a global turnover of over €20 billion and profitability above 10%. This high threshold means that only around 100 of the world’s largest multinationals will be captured by the change. In these cases, between 20-30% of “residual profit” – profit in excess of 10% of revenue – will be allocated to countries where the companies do business.

There is one final point, the issue of incentives in national taxation systems that drive base erosion and profit shifting has been largely ignored. As mentioned previously in EURACTIV over the last 70 years, US lawmakers have constructed a taxation system with avoidance baked into it, often in direct response to the corporate lobbies that fund US politics. For decades US corporations have been incentivised to delay paying US taxes by holding profits offshore, contributing to the global problems that the BEPS project was aimed to cure. There is nothing in the agreement to prevent this process from continuing.

Dick Roche

This proposed tax reform has certainly grabbed a lot of headlines, but the fine print reveals just as many exceptions and carveouts: for extractive industries, regulated financial services, and shipping. In the wake of numerous investigations about tax evasion, from the Panama to the Pandora Papers, you would be hopelessly naïve to think that rich people and corporations wound not find loopholes around these new measures.

The Conversation: “How a team of musicologists and computer scientists completed Beethoven’s unfinished 10th Symphony”

As the project progressed, the human side and the machine side of the collaboration evolved. Werzowa, Gotham, Levin, and Röder deciphered and transcribed the sketches from the 10th Symphony, trying to understand Beethoven’s intentions. Using his completed symphonies as a template, they attempted to piece together the puzzle of where the fragments of sketches should go – which movement, which part of the movement.

They had to make decisions, like determining whether a sketch indicated the starting point of a scherzo, which is a very lively part of the symphony, typically in the third movement. Or they might determine that a line of music was likely the basis of a fugue, which is a melody created by interweaving parts that all echo a central theme.

The AI side of the project – my side – found itself grappling with a range of challenging tasks.

Ahmed Elgammal

Fascinating accomplishment, one that simultaneously highlights the current limitations of AI (the Scientific American podcast episode where I heard about this makes it a lot clearer how much human input was required at each step, with composer Walter Werzowa listening to hundreds of software-generated variations daily and selecting the closest to Beethoven’s work) and its dangers. Specifically, that people would use similar tools to revive famous past musicians, flooding the market with familiar sounds and thus reducing public demand for young musicians and fresh creative work. Current stars may also use the same tools to ‘compose’ music and release hits at a faster pace, keeping them in the public’s attention – and, again, marginalizing young talent with fewer resources. Either way, the end result would be a less diverse music selection and a growing concentration of income in the hands of those who can afford to make use of these complex algorithms.

21 October 2021

The New York Times: “‘What Have We Done with Democracy?’ A Decade On, Arab Spring Gains Wither”

Elsewhere, wars that followed the uprisings have devastated Syria, Libya and Yemen. Autocrats smothered protest in the Gulf. Egyptians elected a president before embracing a military dictatorship.

Still, the revolutions proved that power, traditionally wielded from the top down, could also be driven by a fired-up street.

It was a lesson the Tunisians, who recently flooded the streets again to demonstrate against Parliament and for Mr. Saied, have reaffirmed. This time, however, the people lashed out at democracy, not at an autocrat.

The people pushing for Parliament, democracy, freedoms, we weren’t the biggest part of the revolution, said Yassine Ayari, an independent Tunisian lawmaker recently imprisoned after he denounced Mr. Saied’s power grab. Maybe a lot of Tunisians didn’t want the revolution. Maybe people just want beer and security. That’s a hard question, a question I don’t want to ask myself, he added.

But I don’t blame the people. We had a chance to show them how democracy could change their lives, and we failed.

The revolution equipped Tunisians with some tools to solve problems, but not the solutions they had expected, Mr. Ayari said. With more needs than governing experience, he said, they had little patience for the time-consuming mess of democracy.

Vivian Yee

I consider the latter quote above a pragmatic point of view that is, unfortunately, often ignored when discussing transition to democracy. While many people may protest in the streets for greater representation and personal freedoms, a silent majority are indifferent to these ideals and prioritize jobs, stability, and economic prosperity.

20 October 2021

Engadget: “Android 12 is now rolling out to Pixel phones”

There’s another important thing to note about the Android 12 rollout. The dynamic color experience powered by the Material You design language is only available on Pixel devices for the time being. The color scheme will match the wallpaper you choose across the system and apps, and that look will be mirrored across other Google products, including smart displays, wearables, Chrome OS and the web. Google says other Android devices will get access to the experience later.

Kris Holt

I got a taste of Material You in recent weeks, as some Google apps on Android have started adopting this new design language, from Gmail to Messages to Clock, and I have to say… I really dislike it! The most prominent changes are in the Clock app, where I hate the large font and huge buttons in the ‘Timers’ section, the clashing pastel colors, and the pill-shaped accents on the bottom row. ‘Alarms’ looks somewhat decent, but the huge + button right in the middle of the screen is annoying and covers a lot of the content. The changes in other apps are subtler, from button shapes to more pastel colors, but I don’t like any of them overall. The chosen colors in particular diminish contrast and make apps look washed out and uninspiring.

18 October 2021

The Seattle Times: “Former Boeing pilot indicted on fraud charges related to 737 MAX crashes that killed 346”

Forkner described how he persuaded Lion Air officials who wanted to train their pilots on MAX simulators to drop the idea, telling them this was a difficult and unnecessary training burden for your airline.

Forkner in private messages then mocked the Lion Air representatives for their “stupidity” in asking for such training, and boasted that his efforts to dissuade them had saved Boeing a sick amount of $$$$.

Lion Air Flight JT610 was the first MAX to crash in October 2018, killing 189 people.

In a 2014 email, Forkner wrote that avoiding the need for full flight simulator pilot training, which would cost the airlines a lot of money, was a key imperative from the leadership of the MAX program.

The prosecution agreement, criticized for the way it let Boeing executives off the hook, was filed by the then-U.S. Attorney in the northern district of Texas, Erin Nealy Cox.

Cox left the Department of Justice after the agreement and in June joined Kirkland & Ellis, Boeing’s lead corporate criminal defense law firm. On Kirkland’s website, she was welcomed to the firm as a partner by Mark Filip, who had signed the DPA on behalf of Boeing.

Dominic Gates

Some follow-up news about the Boeing 737 Max crashes and subsequent investigation. While it looks like Mark Forkner has played a major part covering up the flaws, it also seems obvious that his management encouraged this course of action to increase profits. And that the American justice system, just as the political system, is rife with corruption, ineffective against people with money and power – as it was and continues to be against Donald Trump.

17 October 2021

University of Cambridge: “New class of habitable exoplanets ‘a big step forward’ in search for life”

The investigation led the researchers to identify a new class of planets, Hycean planets, with massive planet-wide oceans beneath hydrogen-rich atmospheres. Hycean planets can be up to 2.6 times larger than Earth and have atmospheric temperatures up to nearly 200 degrees Celsius, depending on their host stars, but their oceanic conditions could be similar to those conducive for microbial life in Earth’s oceans. Such planets also include tidally locked ‘dark’ Hycean worlds that may have habitable conditions only on their permanent night sides, and ‘cold’ Hycean worlds that receive little radiation from their stars.

Planets of this size dominate the known exoplanet population, although they have not been studied in nearly as much detail as super-Earths. Hycean worlds are likely quite common, meaning that the most promising places to look for life elsewhere in the Galaxy may have been hiding in plain sight.

The Cambridge team identified a sizeable sample of potential Hycean worlds which are prime candidates for detailed study with next-generation telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is due to be launched later this year. These planets all orbit red dwarf stars between 35-150 light years away: close by astronomical standards. Already planned JWST observations of the most promising candidate, K2-18b, could lead to the detection of one or more biosignature molecules.

Nikku Madhusudhan, Anjali A. A. Piette & Savvas Constantinou

Exciting to think that scientists could detect potential signs of life on one of these planets over the course of the next decade! Exciting with a touch of sadness, as humans will never (at least not in my lifetime) be able to visit these planets and examine their strange life forms up close. At least I can console myself with science-fiction novels, where such worlds were imagined already – the closest analog that comes to mind is Poseidon in Alastair Reynolds’ Poseidon’s Wake.

16 October 2021

IEEE Spectrum: “Space Station Incident demands Independent Investigation”

By then the warped NASA management culture that soon enabled the Columbia disaster in 2003 was fully in place. Some of the wording in current management proclamations regarding the Nauka docking have an eerie ring of familiarity. Space cooperation continues to be a hallmark of U.S.-Russian relations and I have no doubt that our joint work reinforces the ties that have bound our collaborative efforts over the many years wrote NASA Director Bill Nelson to Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency, on July 31. There was no mention of the ISS’s first declared spacecraft emergency, nor any dissatisfaction with Russian contribution to it.

To reverse the apparent new cultural drift, and thus potentially forestall the same kind of dismal results as before, NASA headquarters or some even higher office is going to have to intervene. The causes of the Nauka-induced “space sumo match” of massive cross-pushing bodies need to be determined and verified. And somebody needs to expose the decision process that allowed NASA to approve the ISS docking of a powerful thruster-equipped module without the on-site real-time capability to quickly disarm that system in an emergency. Because the apparent sloppiness of NASA’s safety oversight on visiting vehicles looks to be directly associated with maintaining good relations with Moscow, the driving factor seems to be White House diplomatic goals—and that’s the level where a corrective impetus must originate. With a long-time U.S. Senate colleague, Nelson, recently named head of NASA, President Biden is well connected to issue such guidance for a thorough investigation by an independent commission, followed by implementation of needed reforms. The buck stops with him.

James Oberg

What astonished me about this incident from earlier this year was also this relative radio silence from official NASA channels, and from the astronauts themselves! I follow one of the ESA astronauts currently on board the ISS, Thomas Pesquet, and I don’t remember him ever mentioning this unprecedented situation on his Twitter feed, which makes me suspect that NASA officials instructed them to stay quiet. Keeping things under wraps is not a great sign that the agency intends to thoroughly investigate and prevent similar incidents in the future. And sure enough, another test firing of thrusters on the Russian Soyuz crew module resulted in a second, albeit less severe, emergency just yesterday!

15 October 2021

Foreign Affairs: “The Singular Chancellor”

Yet outwardly, the most striking thing about the chancellor remains her determined normalcy. Merkel’s clear, light voice carries the unhurried intonation of the pine-forested, sandy-soiled Brandenburg countryside northwest of Berlin, where her father was a Lutheran parson. Her working uniform consists of sensible flats, black pants, and an endless supply of hip-length jackets in every color. The chancellor and her husband, a retired chemistry professor, live in their old Berlin apartment rather than the official residence; the only visible security is a police officer in front of the building. To the approval of Berliners, Merkel is sometimes seen walking in the city center or shopping in a supermarket, trailed by her bodyguards.

Merkel’s interpreters have labored heroically to reconcile these paradoxes. The simple truth is that Merkel the level-headed empiricist has little patience for visions when there are problems to be solved. She has whipsawed on her principles for the sake of power, but she has also been willing to pay a price for standing up for her deepest convictions. Few of her peers have been able to accumulate so much political capital. Yet even her admirers concede that although she has been exquisitely adroit at riding out the currents of politics, she has been far too reluctant to shape them.

Constanze Stelzenmüller

As Angela Merkel prepares to end her final mandate as German Chancellor, an interesting overview of her most consequential decisions during this long tenure. Naturally, a newspaper article, however long, can hardly grasp everything that happened during the past 16 years, nor map out all the repercussions of these decisions – in fact, we may not recognize them in full for years.

14 October 2021

ZDNet: “Hey, Apple and Samsung, stop fixating on cameras! My dream phone gets work done”

Smartphone makers want you to spend a lot of money replacing your current phone with the latest, helping you take slightly better photos. When you then share these photos on social media and the quality is compressed, I’m sure you’ll be very excited that you spent over $1,000 to capture a photo no one really cares about.

As Apple iPhone sales indicate, most people simply want a smartphone camera where they can point, shoot, and share. If you want to get a bit creative, then there are many affordable and capable Android phones with accessible modes to enhance your creativity. Don’t get sucked into the marketing hype and think you will challenge professional reviewers or photographers with your expensive smartphone. Good photos and videos are a result of skills — not just the hardware.

Matthew Miller

I am not precisely a typical consumer in this regard, as I own a semi-professional Canon camera for most of my ‘serious’ photography, but I do agree with this article. The race among smartphone manufacturers in recent years to add multiple focal lengths and lenses to their flagship products feels more like a marketing gimmick to push people to spend more on devices and to upgrade them more frequently. Other features, such as screen quality, battery life and fast charging, are more important for the user experience, but are talked about less, probably because progress is slower and less tangible from year to year.

12 October 2021

IEEE Spectrum: “An Inconvenient Truth about AI”

Regardless of what you might think about AI, the reality is that just about every successful deployment has either one of two expedients: It has a person somewhere in the loop, or the cost of failure, should the system blunder, is very low. In 2002, iRobot, a company that I cofounded, introduced the first mass-market autonomous home-cleaning robot, the Roomba, at a price that severely constricted how much AI we could endow it with. The limited AI wasn't a problem, though. Our worst failure scenarios had the Roomba missing a patch of floor and failing to pick up a dustball.

That same year we started deploying the first of thousands of robots in Afghanistan and then Iraq to be used to help troops disable improvised explosive devices. Failures there could kill someone, so there was always a human in the loop giving supervisory commands to the AI systems on the robot.

Rodney Brooks

I very much appreciate Rodney Brooks’ grounded perspective on artificial intelligence – and I am a bit surprised to see that I haven’t quoted any of his articles on my blog previously. I have certainly written about enough examples that fall quite neatly into these two categories: in military applications human supervision is supposed to continue for the foreseeable future, whereas for games or automated translations the cost of failure is low to nonexistent. And when companies start overstepping clear boundaries, AI systems often fail spectacularly, as it happened with the Apple Card algorithms, and with automated piloting systems. Even Google’s Waymo, arguably the most advanced in the field of self-driving cars, is still employing remote overseers to guide vehicles out of irregular situations.

The New York Times: “John Kerry’s Sales Pitch to Save the Planet”

Portrait of John Kerry, the US presidential envoy for climate
I think most of the problems on Earth are caused by human beings, said John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy. And if we cause them, we ought to be able to solve them or prevent them. Al Drago for The New York Times

I deeply believe that this is a major crisis for our world, he said, as he relaxed in his hotel suite after a battery of meetings with Indian ministers and business leaders. And this is a moment where we have a chance to do something about it. And who can say no to a president of the United States who asks you to do that at this particular moment in time.

The wind is not at his back.

His trip last week ended without a commitment from India, the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitting country, that it would raise its ambitions to fight climate change. He ended a recent trip to China, the top emitter, similarly empty-handed. Brazil, which plans to continue burning coal for the next 30 years and where deforestation of the Amazon is a major contributor to climate change, skipped a virtual climate meeting convened by Mr. Biden last week.

Lisa Friedman

Unfortunately for John Kerry’s crucial mission, in international politics as in most aspects of life facts matter more than words and intentions. And facts speak against him at every step of the way: the United States is by far the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, but has done little to lead the world towards workable solutions. Instead, US lawmakers have constantly delayed and watered down these issues, incentivized by generous lobbying from the oil industry. As I write this, Biden’s modest climate agenda is stuck in Congress, opposed by members of his own Democratic party! And the same Congress has absolutely no issue approving, year after year, substantially higher military budgets.

11 October 2021

The Verge: “Teaching AI to taste and smell could help the future of product design”

00:07:05 Ashley Carman: But successfully making these on demand personalized scents is just part one of Centronics loftier goal.

00:07:12 Frederik Duerinck: The ultimate goal that we have is we really want to give you something that allows you to feel in a certain way that you want. So for instance, if you would say hey, you know, I’ve had a bad day and I want to relax a little bit. Can you give me something that really physiologically helps you to relax? So that’s an extremely complex, because then you need to understand like, OK, what is your physiological response, but as well what do you perceive?

00:09:20 Frederik Duerinck: If you go further down the line, we’re working on a very small device that you can wear, and you can connect to your phone, and basically if your smartwatch detects like, hey, you’re stressed, it can give you a small puff, because you kind of optimize it in such a way that you are able to control your mood a little bit. So that’s the end goal.

Ashley Carman

I have not come across this application of AI before listening to this podcast, although it makes sense to pursue. After all, our smell and taste senses are triggered by chemical compounds, and computer algorithms could help uncover or design new molecules to activate novel sensations.

08 October 2021

Nieman Journalism Lab: “When Facebook went down this week, traffic to news sites went up”

On August 3, 2018, Facebook went down for 45 minutes. That’s a little baby outage compared to the one this week, when, on October 4, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp were down for more than five hours. Three years ago, the 45-minute Facebook break was enough to get people to go read news elsewhere, Chartbeat’s Josh Schwartz wrote for us at the time.

So what happened this time around? For a whopping five-hours-plus, people read news, according to data Chartbeat gave us this week from its thousands of publisher clients across 60 countries. (And they went to Twitter; Chartbeat saw Twitter traffic up 72%. If Bad Art Friend had been published on the same day as the Facebook outage, Twitter would have literally exploded, presumably.)

Laura Hazard Owen

While other sources have reported different traffic gains for social networking and messaging competitors during Facebook’s outage, the increased visits to news publications challenges their assumptions that they are reliant on Facebook social traffic for sustained success. I suspect the opposite is more prevalent: people consuming headlines on Facebook and interacting in the comments without ever visiting the original article, and so this downtime drove them to read news at the source. I am somewhat guilty of this as well, but on Reddit instead of Facebook, where I rarely visit links shared in the various subreddits I follow, except when I want to share the article elsewhere.

05 October 2021

Krebs on Security: “What happened to Facebook, Instagram, & WhatsApp?”

Doug Madory is director of internet analysis at Kentik, a San Francisco-based network monitoring company. Madory said at approximately 11:39 a.m. ET today (15:39 UTC), someone at Facebook caused an update to be made to the company’s Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) records. BGP is a mechanism by which Internet service providers of the world share information about which providers are responsible for routing Internet traffic to which specific groups of Internet addresses.

In simpler terms, sometime this morning Facebook took away the map telling the world’s computers how to find its various online properties. As a result, when one types Facebook.com into a web browser, the browser has no idea where to find Facebook.com, and so returns an error page.

In addition to stranding billions of users, the Facebook outage also has stranded its employees from communicating with one another using their internal Facebook tools. That’s because Facebook’s email and tools are all managed in house and via the same domains that are now stranded.

Not only are Facebook’s services and apps down for the public, its internal tools and communications platforms, including Workplace, are out as well, New York Times tech reporter Ryan Mac tweeted. No one can do any work. Several people I’ve talked to said this is the equivalent of a ‘snow day’ at the company.

Brian Krebs

Personally I use Facebook so rarely nowadays that I wouldn’t have noticed this outage, but this issue took down WhatsApp as well and affected other sites because of increased errors in DNS lookups. Guess that’s what happens when you integrate all your products onto a common backend: a single failure has much broader consequences, toppling the entire company like a house of cards. While most of the coverage has focused on Facebook, from internal disruptions because critical employee systems were crippled to their efforts to restore normal operations, I think the impact was mostly felt outside the US, as WhatsApp is an essential communication tool for billions of people in both personal and business contexts.

The Atlantic: “We’re Already Barreling toward the Next Pandemic”

America failed to test sufficiently throughout the pandemic even though rigorous tests have long been available. Antiviral drugs played a bit part because they typically provide incremental benefits over basic medical care, and can be overly expensive even when they work. And vaccines were already produced far faster than experts had estimated and were more effective than they had hoped; accelerating that process won’t help if people can’t or won’t get vaccinated, and especially if they equate faster development with nefarious corner-cutting, as many Americans did this year. Every adult in the U.S. has been eligible for vaccines since mid-April; in that time, more Americans have died of COVID-19 per capita than people in Germany, Canada, Rwanda, Vietnam, or more than 130 other countries did in the pre-vaccine era.

We’re so focused on these high-tech solutions because they appear to be what a high-income country would do, Alexandra Phelan, an expert on international law and global health policy at Georgetown University, told me. And indeed, the Biden administration has gone all in on vaccines, trading them off against other countermeasures, such as masks and testing, and blaming “the unvaccinated” for America’s ongoing pandemic predicament. The promise of biomedical panaceas is deeply ingrained in the U.S. psyche, but COVID should have shown that medical magic bullets lose their power when deployed in a profoundly unequal society. There are other ways of thinking about preparedness. And there are reasons those ways were lost.

In 1849, after investigating a devastating outbreak of typhus in what is now Poland, the physician Rudolf Virchow wrote, The answer to the question as to how to prevent outbreaks … is quite simple: education, together with its daughters, freedom and welfare. Virchow was one of many 19th-century thinkers who correctly understood that epidemics were tied to poverty, overcrowding, squalor, and hazardous working conditions—conditions that inattentive civil servants and aristocrats had done nothing to address. These social problems influenced which communities got sick and which stayed healthy. Diseases exploit society’s cracks, and so medicine is a social science, Virchow famously said. Similar insights dawned across the Atlantic, where American physicians and politicians tackled the problem of urban cholera by fixing poor sanitation and dilapidated housing. But as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, this social understanding of disease was ousted by a new paradigm.

Ed Yong

While this article is ostensibly about the United States, some of the remarks apply equally well to my own country – especially the crucial role of education…

04 October 2021

Culture Study: “The Myth of the Productive Commute”

People are always going to need to commute in some capacity to jobs that require presence — and we should continue working to ensure that housing is affordable in the places where people need to work, and that public transit is robust. That means getting on board for housing policy that increases density and taxes that pay for things even if you don’t need them, because other people who make our society run need them. If a company wants to put its business in a place where people who work there at all levels aren’t paid enough to live in close proximity… but it also doesn’t want to pay taxes to increase public transport funding to get people there quickly and efficiently, then it should pay for its employees’ commuting time (and the mileage on their cars and their parking).

With that said: the pandemic has underlined that most people working office jobs do not, in fact, need to be in their offices every day — and millions of people working those jobs were wasting unpaid hours of their day getting into those offices. If your presence is not necessary to do your job, daily commutes are a waste. Full stop.

Just like someone working a 40-hour week on an hourly wage shouldn’t have to take a second job to make ends meet, knowledge workers shouldn’t have to quietly cede ever-more of your time to work obligations, simply because they are salaried employees. Working from home is not so great of a privilege that you should give your employer one to two more hours of uncompensated work in return. You also shouldn’t have to rely on the benevolence or good management skills or your company to ensure that this doesn’t happen — that, again, is what a (good) union can help cement in a way that’s resistant to erosion.

Anne Helen Petersen

Throughout my career – before the pandemic forced companies into working from home – I never had a job with a commute shorter than 30 minutes one-way, and for much of that decade and a half it was significantly longer, 50 to 60 minutes depending on subway schedules. That amounts to some 9 hours each week spent going back and forth between the office and my home. I made some productive use of that time of course, reading or listening to podcasts, but nevertheless I would not have chosen to spend my time that way if I had a proper choice. There was always a lingering sense of resentment towards colleagues who lived 15 to 20 minutes away from the offices, and towards the company for not allowing us to work from home on occasion. So, I cannot agree more with the sentiment in this article that daily commutes are a waste.