27 November 2021

The New Yorker: “The Lost Canyon under Lake Powell”

The compact paved—or, if you prefer, lubricated—the way for the creation of the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Lake Mead sits behind Hoover Dam, completed in 1935, and was designed to serve the lower basin. Today, it supplies practically all the water that’s used in Las Vegas, and much of what’s drunk in cities such as San Diego and Tucson. It also provides—or used to provide, when it was fuller—water for irrigating more than three million acres of corn, cotton, and alfalfa.

Lake Powell, which serves the upper basin, doesn’t supply water to much of anyone. Water released from Powell flows into Marble Canyon, then through the Grand Canyon and into Mead. In this sense, Powell is a reservoir for a reservoir. Whether this arrangement ever made sense is unclear. In periods of high flow, Mead should have plenty of water. And in periods of low flow what’s the point of impounding the Colorado on its way to Lake Mead?

You can search and search and search, Mathew Gross, a Utah-based author and political consultant, has written. But, if you want to know why Lake Powell was created, you’ll never find a satisfactory answer.

Elizabeth Kolbert

I have never been particularly keen on visiting the continental United States – in recent years because of the increased digital surveillance of incoming visitors and the American gun culture – but after reading this article I would gladly make an exception to travel inside Glen Canyon in its strange, transitory state. Neither the arid canyon from a century ago, nor the vast water reservoir from past decades, it feels as if this place is transforming under our eyes, each scenery different from day to day, from year to year, never to return to the same state.

25 November 2021

Protocol: “How IBM lost the cloud”

If there’s one common thread through the experiences of multiple current and former IBM employees, including those who didn’t work for the cloud division, it’s the power that current customers had over everything IBM did.

Over and over again during the last decade, IBM engineers were asked to build special one-off projects for key clients at the expense of their road maps for building the types of cross-customer cloud services offered by the major clouds. Top executives at some of the largest companies in the country — the biggest banks, airlines and insurance companies — knew they could call IBM management and get what they wanted because the company was so eager to retain their business, the sources said.

Genesis would never ship. It was scrapped in 2017, and that team began work on its own new architecture project, internally called NG, that ran in parallel to the GC effort.

For almost two years, two teams inside IBM Cloud worked on two completely different cloud infrastructure designs, which led to turf fights, resource constraints and internal confusion over the direction of the division. The cancellation of Genesis forced IBM to write off nearly $250 million in Dell servers (a bitter irony, in that IBM sold its own server group just before acquiring SoftLayer) that had been purchased for that project, according to one source.

And the two architectures — which IBM had intended to be compatible but due to subtle design differences, were not — became generally available within four months of each other in 2019. IBM continued to maintain two different cloud architectures until earlier this year, according to one source, when the GC effort was scrapped.

Tom Krazit

A classic tale of disruption and internal corporate disfunctions. While IBM was spending their resources on customized orders for existing customers, Amazon, free from prior commitments and legacy systems, was building AWS from the ground up. And when IBM attempted to refocused on this emerging market, the size and complexity of their business, competition between departments, and conflicting visions have stalled their progress. To be fair, these sort of problems become more prevalent the larger a company gets – another classic example in tech is the messaging mess at Google, and Facebook could be headed in that direction as well as it’s trying to merge together three separate messaging products, two of which inherited from the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp.

The Guardian: “The WHO v coronavirus: why it can’t handle the pandemic”

There is a simple reason for this. For all the responsibility vested in the WHO, it has little power. Unlike international bodies such as the World Trade Organization, the WHO, which is a specialised body of the UN, has no ability to bind or sanction its members. Its annual operating budget, about $2bn in 2019, is smaller than that of many university hospitals, and split among a dizzying array of public health and research projects. The WHO is less like a military general or elected leader with a strong mandate, and more like an underpaid sports coach wary of “losing the dressing room”, who can only get their way by charming, grovelling, cajoling and occasionally pleading with the players to do as they say.

The WHO’s response to Sars was considered a huge success. Fewer than 1,000 people worldwide died of the disease, despite it reaching a total of 26 countries. The pandemic was defeated not with vaccines or medicines, but with NPIs, or “non-pharmaceutical interventions” in WHO parlance: travel warnings, tracking, testing and isolating cases, and a huge information-gathering operation across multiple countries, all made possible by the WHO’s willingness to wield authority that it had, in a sense, created simply by speaking it into existence. Brundtland did things the WHO had no authority doing. She just did them, said Fidler. She sort of used Sars as a way to test drive some very radical changes.

Despite mounting frustrations – in mid-January, China also refused the WHO’s request to send a team of scientific observers to Hubei province, the centre of the outbreak – Tedros has never come close to doing what Brundtland did and calling China out. Instead, on 28 January, he had a closed-door meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing, and two days later, he praised Chinese efforts to contain the disease, declaring that China is setting a new standard for outbreak control. That same day, 30 January, the WHO declared a Pheic, and began issuing prescriptions to countries around the world. On 8 February, China finally allowed WHO observers into the country. For Tedros’s supporters, this was vindication of his strategy of keeping China onside. For his critics, it was too little, too late.

Stephen Buranyi

This article was published during the early days of the pandemic, but the information and conclusions remain valid. The comparison with the earlier SARS pandemic and other similar emergencies was particularly informative: as I remarked before, a key factor for success is the willingness to act quickly and decisively, before the situation spirals out of control. Dr. Brundtland displayed that initiative and leadership during the SARS outbreak; current WHO chief Tedros Adhanom not so much… His initial deference to China may have signaled to other countries that it’s fine to disregard the WHO – after all, it has no concrete power to impose them. And if the WHO can’t – or won’t – criticize China for its role in letting the virus loose, it can’t expect other countries to fall in line with its recommendations.

23 November 2021

Fast Company: “Niantic’s CEO believes the metaverse could be a ‘dystopian nightmare’”

You talk a lot about how your games encourage people to get out in the world and walk around.

Over the past few years of working on AR at Niantic, I’ve gotten pretty deep into the science around walking and the brain. [Walking] is so wired into our neural pathways from evolution. Our brain comes alive in a number of ways when we’re out moving through the world in a three-dimensional environment. That’s real, and it’s more than just a visual perception thing. There’s this whole debate over whether your mind is just in your brain or is it in your whole body. And there’s a very strong argument to be made that really your neural sensing and cognition happens throughout your entire body.

So the notion that you can just slap on a headset and shoot some photons into your eyes and somehow that takes the place of that whole-body experience that you have in the world—it’s false.

Mark Sullivan

This interview predates Facebook’s big Meta metamorphosis by a couple of months, but it does make some valid points about emulating the real-world experience in a virtual environment versus simply augmenting the world around us with digital overlays. While VR is aiming to replicate and reinvent the visual aspects of daily lives, it leaves out the subtler clues contributing to human perception, such as smells, touch, and our sense of equilibrium and motion. The latter is probably the hardest to recreate, and the source of the confusion many people experience while using VR headsets: the eyes show movement and motion, while the inner ear tells us we’re stationary.

The Atlantic: “Facebook Papers: ‘History Will Not Judge Us Kindly’”

Experiments showed that this change would impede the distribution of hateful, polarizing, and violence-inciting content in people’s News Feeds. But Zuckerberg rejected this intervention that could have reduced the risk of violence in the 2020 election, Haugen’s SEC filing says. An internal message characterizing Zuckerberg’s reasoning says he wanted to avoid new features that would get in the way of “meaningful social interactions”. But according to Facebook’s definition, its employees say, engagement is considered “meaningful” even when it entails bullying, hate speech, and reshares of harmful content.

This episode, like Facebook’s response to the incitement that proliferated between the election and January 6, reflects a fundamental problem with the platform. Facebook’s megascale allows the company to influence the speech and thought patterns of billions of people. What the world is seeing now, through the window provided by reams of internal documents, is that Facebook catalogs and studies the harm it inflicts on people. And then it keeps harming people anyway.

Zuckerberg’s positioning of Facebook’s role in the insurrection is odd. He lumps his company in with traditional media organizations—something he’s ordinarily loath to do, lest the platform be expected to take more responsibility for the quality of the content that appears on it—and suggests that Facebook did more, and did better, than journalism outlets in its response to January 6. What he fails to say is that journalism outlets would never be in the position to help investigators this way, because insurrectionists don’t typically use newspapers and magazines to recruit people for coups.

Adrienne LaFrance

A subject I have not touched for some time, despite a growing number of investigations and revelations, partly because I myself have become almost completely disinterested in Facebook as a social network, partly because none of these revelations have had tangible effects on the company and its behavior. Quite the opposite, Zuckerberg apparently thinks that a rebranding will be enough to wash away any stains on his company’s image. At this point it seems that the only remedy to Facebook’s malignancy could be tough regulation in the US, its home country, as neither regulation abroad, nor vague and unenforceable privacy standards, neither Apple’s containment measures on iOS, nor employee criticism have managed to affect its ways. And yet, hoping for the divided US Congress to take firm action seems about as foolish as expecting Mark Zuckerberg to suddenly grow a conscience.

22 November 2021

Stephen Diehl: “The Intellectual Incoherence of Cryptoassets”

Crypto tokens are not all that dissimilar from equity investments in companies, except the underlying company has no business. This is strictly inferior than assets like stocks which either pay dividends from their revenue, buy back their own stock, or have mergers and acquisition events which introduce new cash in the system to reward investors for holding their stock. There are no fundamentals to any crypto token and it’s discounted future cashflows are all strictly zero and thus its present value must be strictly zero. It does not sell or do anything to bring in external revenue, it exists purely to grow the pool of greater fools to buy the token so that early token holders can be paid out by later token holders. There are no underlying cashflows in the enterprise by which to value the token. It’s effectively as if a penny stock company existed solely to pump, sell, and dump its own penny stock.

Setting all these models aside, there are two far more coherent perspectives on the crypto assets that have far more explanatory power for the behavior we see. Crypto assets are the synthesis of a speculative mania and a financial scam built around an opaque technology, phoney populism, with a tolerance for intellectual incoherence at its core. And it is a novel type of a scam, one that we don’t have a precise term of art for. They share the obscured and circular payouts of Ponzi schemes, the cult-like recruiting of multilevel marketing schemes, the ephemeral nature of high-yield investment fraud, and payout mechanics of pyramid schemes but strictly speaking they aren’t exactly like any of the classical scams. They’re something entirely new that we don’t have a word for yet.

Stephen Diehl

Bitcoin: neither currency, nor commodity, vaguely similar to securities for an inexistent company with no business – and thus zero value – or an absurd work of art masquerading as something else… The second paragraph though captures the essence of Bitcoin perfectly.

19 November 2021

New Statesman: Radosław Sikorski: “Poland is on the path of Hungary and Russia”

He compares the dynamics within PiS to those within the UK Conservative Party in the early 2010s, which led to the decision to call the referendum. He told the New Statesman that he saw the ruling party as having been captured by a “small group of Europhobes” pressuring the government to adopt the faction’s “anti-European agenda”.

The PiS is leading Poland on the path of Hungary, and, ultimately, Russia in trying to abolish the separation of powers, he said. Having packed the constitutional court, the government is seeking to appoint pliant judges to lower courts too, extending its control over other levels of the judiciary. And the reason for doing that is that they want immunity from prosecution for the thievery that they’re doing on an unprecedented scale, he said. Independent rankings have Poland slipping down corruption perception indexes since PiS came to power in 2015.

Poland is already moving away from democracy, Sikorski said. He argues that its elections are undemocratic, though not stolen. State media and state resources have been abused by the ruling party.

Sikorski believes that the current path taken by PiS might ultimately lead to Poland leaving the EU, even though there are no mechanisms within the European treaties to eject a member state against its will. The Polish government has said that it supports EU membership and will not seek to leave the union.

Ido Vock

My initial, extremely cynical reaction to these developments was: “So long Poland, and best of luck dealing with your Eastern neighbors on your own”.

16 November 2021

Being more productive with the Excel Quick Access Toolbar

I have been meaning to share more tips and tricks for working with Microsoft Excel on my blog, since this constitutes a large portion of my daily activity, but there always seems to be something more pressing to write about. One of my favorite productivity features in more recent versions of Excel – if you can still call the Office Ribbon, introduced in Excel 2007, ‘recent’ – is the Quick Access Toolbar. Usually merged with the Title bar, the Quick Access Toolbar comes prepopulated with a small set of tools like Save, Undo and Redo, which you can customize to your needs.

09 November 2021

Protocol: “Spotify for readers: How tech is inventing better ways to read the internet”

But if you really want to understand where reading is going, you have to talk about Spotify. The big green music app is the analog nearly everyone in the space seems to turn to for guidance. Springwater mentioned Spotify early and often in our conversations. So did Jeroen Seghers, the founder of an app called Upnext that aims to offer this kind of experience for articles as well as podcasts and videos.

After all, what does Spotify do? It takes a corpus of stuff (music) and finds endless new ways to show it to users. Users can save the stuff they know they like (a library), explore things curated by other users (playlists) or turn to the app’s machine-learning tools for ultra-personalized recommendations (Discover Weekly and the like).

So now imagine a reading app. You can save all the articles, tweet threads, PDFs and Wikipedia pages you want into your library. You can follow other users to see what they’re saving, or check out what a curator thinks you might be into. The more you read, the more the app begins to understand that you like celebrity profiles, you’re learning a lot about NFTs right now, you worship at the altar of Paul Graham and you’ll read anything anyone writes about “The Bachelorette”. Now, every time you open the app, it’s like a magazine made just for you.

David Pierce

Some interesting concepts in this article, such as being able to read podcasts (their transcripts anyway) and highlight sections just as you would do with a written article. Other proposals sound rather awful though: a daily email reminder with random highlights from past articles feels completely useless to me, an annoyance I would immediately turn off. For context, some of these startups are invite-only betas, or available exclusively on iOS, so I would wait until they manage to become profitable and expand to other platforms before even considering them.

07 November 2021

National Geographic: “Bringing Them Back to Life”

I met Fernández-Arias last autumn at a closed-session scientific meeting at the National Geographic Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. For the first time in history a group of geneticists, wildlife biologists, conservationists, and ethicists had gathered to discuss the possibility of de-extinction. Could it be done? Should it be done? One by one, they stood up to present remarkable advances in manipulating stem cells, in recovering ancient DNA, in reconstructing lost genomes. As the meeting unfolded, the scientists became increasingly excited. A consensus was emerging: De-extinction is now within reach.

It’s gone very much further, very much more rapidly than anyone ever would’ve imagined, says Ross MacPhee, a curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. What we really need to think about is why we would want to do this in the first place, to actually bring back a species.

Carl Zimmer

I found this older magazine piece while writing my blog post about the recent mammoth de-extinction initiative. It occurs to me that I forgot to mention one other hurdle on the path to successfully returning an extinct species into the natural environment: the low genetic variability of the resurrected animals, which would make them more susceptible to diseases and environmental changes. This would affect larger animals with slower reproductive cycles in particular, so the challenge of this mammoth project becomes that much more complicated. It is evidently much easier to prevent species from going extinct, and that’s where the majority of our efforts should focus.

06 November 2021

CNBC: “Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin unveils Orbital Reef private space station”

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin unveiled Monday its plan for a private space station called “Orbital Reef”, which it will build in partnership with multiple space companies and expects to deploy between 2025 and 2030.

Blue Origin describes the Orbital Reef station, which would be habitable for up to 10 people, as a “mixed use business park” in space — as well as capable of “exotic hospitality” for space tourists. Orbital Reef is designed to have almost as much habitable volume as the International Space Station.

Blue Origin intends to bid for one of NASA’s expected contracts for the “Commercial LEO Destinations” program, but Bezos’ company is not alone. NASA director of commercial spaceflight Phil McAlister told CNBC last month that the program “received roughly about a dozen proposals” from a variety of companies for contracts.

With NASA planning to retire the International Space Station by the end of the decade, the CLD program represents an effort to turn to private companies for new space stations — with the space agency expecting to save more than $1 billion annually as a result.

Michael Sheetz

Exciting times for space exploration! I feel that this step in humanity’s progress to space has been long overdue, and human presence in space has stagnated since the early excitement of the Apollo program. It would be great to see more permanent habitation in space stations, along with the technological developments that could be derived from overcoming these challenges.

04 November 2021

Google Workspace vs. Microsoft Office in the workplace

Between all the job changes I went through this past year, I managed to land at a company using Google’s office suite, not Microsoft’s, as it was the default for most of my career. Coincidently, a good friend also recently switched jobs and discovered her new company uses Google Workspace as well. Naturally we exchanged tips and complained privately about the various ways this suite is different, mostly for the worse, than what we were used to.

I wanted to gather these in a blog post, since it feels relevant to other people and to the general themes I write about. I am not touching on the Docs/Sheets/Slides portion of Google Workspace, as we almost never use those – both companies also provide Microsoft Office to their employees, just older versions, not the subscription-based Office365. And I hope no one in their right mind would use the web-based Sheets for complex accounting tasks instead of Excel…

02 November 2021

The Wall Street Journal: “How the Search for Extraterrestrial Life Helped Make Your Smartphone’s Screen Possible”

The connection between humanity’s boldest experiment in deep-space exploration and the gadgets in your hands is the technology to produce giant, ultrahigh-precision mirrors and lenses. Such “optics” weren’t possible until NASA asked a handful of companies more than 20 years ago to bid on the rights to figure out a way.

The result, developed by a company called Tinsley Integrated Optical Systems, was a technique that enabled production of very large mirror surfaces that are so nearly flawless that any imperfections on their surface are only a few atoms thick. And that technology can also be involved in producing many displays—using lasers to transform extra-large sheets of silicon deposited on glass—significantly reducing the costs of electronic components for some displays.

The transfer of know-how from space telescopes to the manufacture of displays is the latest in a long line of commercial technologies with similar lineage, from digital-camera sensors to the Dustbuster, which was developed by Black & Decker out of its partnership with NASA.

Christopher Mims

Recurring reminder for the growing number of people complaining that space travel is distracting us from saving the planet: space exploration has yielded numerous scientific and engineering advances that have improved our lives back on Earth. And it will continue to do so, if given enough attention and funding.

01 November 2021

Ctrl blog: “Brave and Firefox to intercept links that force-open in Microsoft Edge”

Microsoft has inadvertently re-heated the web browser wars with the company’s anti-competitive changes to Windows 11. It made it more difficult to change the default web browser and has expanded the use of links that force-opens Edge instead of the default browser.

So, how did we get here? Until the release of iOS version 14 in September 2020, you couldn’t change the default web browser on iPhones and iPads. Google has many apps for iOS, including a shell for its Chrome browser. To tie all its apps together, Google introduced a googlechrome: URL scheme in February 2014. It could use these links to direct you from its Search or Mail app and over to Chrome instead of Apple’s Safari browser.

These vendor-specific URL schemes were introduced to combat Apple’s anti-competitive behavior on its iOS platform. Microsoft just turned the racket on its head and changed more and more links in its operating system and apps to use its vendor-specific URL scheme. The original sin was Apple’s, but Microsoft is gulping the juice of the apple with gusto.

Daniel Aleksandersen

I haven’t paid much attention to the default browser controversy in Windows 11 since I use Edge as my default browser anyway, and have no intention of upgrading from Windows 10 anytime soon. But this bit of context is certainly illuminating: the primary culprit was Apple and its relentless drive to lock down iOS and prevent competition. Funny how rarely this connection is mentioned whenever the press criticizes Microsoft…