Down the Amazon storefront rabbit hole

The list of Things I Just Don’t Understand Anymore continues to grow. I’m familiar with shopping. I’m familiar with online shopping. But then again —

A business with no end
Recently, one of my students at Stanford told me a strange story. His parents, who live in Palo Alto, Calif., had been receiving mysterious packages at their house. The packages were all different shapes and sizes but each was addressed to “Returns Department, Valley Fountain LLC.”

I looked into it and found that a company called Valley Fountain LLC was indeed listed at his parents’ address. But it also appeared to be listed at 235 Montgomery Street, Suite 350, in downtown San Francisco.

So were 140 other LLCs, most of which were registered in 2015.

And so begins another incredible journey down the e-commerce internet rabbit hole with Jenny Odell, as she tries to untangle the mess of connections between an evangelical church university, many spurious, scammy Amazon storefronts, and an American weekly news magazine.

Indeed, at some point I began to feel like I was in a dream. Or that I was half-awake, unable to distinguish the virtual from the real, the local from the global, a product from a Photoshop image, the sincere from the insincere.

I’ve highlighted Jenny Odell’s journalism here before, and this piece is just as fascinating. It’s being discussed on the Amazon Seller forums, with legitimate sellers worrying how they can possibly compete with fraudulent dropshipping at such a big scale.

A Business with No End — Much explained about shady Amazon sellers
The vast international illegal operation employs hundreds of fake companies, fake churches, fake bookstores, fake department stores that may or may not exist, fake brands, fake HB1 visas, fake reviews, a fake university in California full of “students” on student visas who write click-bait and fake reviews, and even a fake psychiatric hospital. Oh, and apparently a lot of shady fake Amazon sellers. Not confined to Amazon, the empire also involves multiple click-bait farms and fake review farms, and even Newsweek magazine. All part of a vast hidden empire run by a man named Park.

The only way is up

Whilst I’ve not worked in the HE sector for about four years now, I still like to keep an eye on what’s going on. And I see the grade inflation debate is continuing.

UK universities to hold inquiry into degree awards policies
The report led by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education concludes that while it is difficult to pinpoint the causes, perceptions of grade inflation could erode the usefulness of honours degree classes and undermine confidence in academic standards.

Perhaps the lecturers and students are just getting cleverer?

The report found that improvements in student performance, better teaching and increased efficiency “only explain a certain proportion of the uplift” in degree classes.

I wonder what could be causing this, then.

Public attitudes, including employers’ perceptions that first and 2:1 degrees are “good” degrees, may also act as incentives. Noting that institutions with a high proportion of upper degrees receive a boost in some league table, the report said: “Where competition to attract students is high, institutions have an incentive to perform well in league tables.”

Ah.

When I was a university Deputy Registrar, I was involved in Professor Bob Burgess’s nationwide HEAR implementation group, established, in part, to tackle this 2:1 issue.

HEAR: Higher Education Achievement Report
The Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) is designed to encourage a more sophisticated approach to recording student achievement, which acknowledges fully the range of opportunities that higher education institutions in the UK offer to their students. The HEAR was launched in 2008 (with 18 institutions) following recommendations that universities needed to be able to provide a more comprehensive record of student achievement.

Is that still a thing? (I note the © notice in their website footer is now three four five years out-of-date.) It’s a shame if it’s fallen away somewhat, as some of us thought it might, as it had some lofty aims. I was always frustrated, though, that it fell short of pushing for a replacement to the classification system that it deemed to be “no longer fit for purpose”.

Beyond the honours degree classification: Burgess Group Final Report October 2007 (pdf)
The diagnosis presented by the Scoping Group was simple – and one with which we swiftly concurred – the UK honours degree is a robust and highly-valued qualification but the honours degree classification system is no longer fit for purpose. It cannot describe, and therefore does not do full justice to, the range of knowledge, skills, experience and attributes of a graduate in the 21st century. Exploring how to reform or replace the classification system has not been easy. We have conducted extensive work to develop a practical set of proposals upon which we are all agreed.

One method I use to try to keep up-to-date with HE politics is to read Wonkhe, a website for “higher education wonks: those who work in and around universities and anyone interested and engaged in higher education policy, people and politics.”

This was their take on the HEAR, from 2007.

Degree classifications: just too good to lose
The report basically accepts that changing the traditional degree classification system is just too darn difficult and that we can only get round it by adding a new and improved transcript (with a new name – HEAR) to provide lots of extra info. […] Not the finest example of progressive thinking from UK universities. What proportion of students have to get a 2:1 before we change the system? Will anyone go it alone?

They have quite a few articles on grade inflation for me to catch up with; this debate has been churned over for a while now.

UK degree algorithms: the nuts and bolts of grade inflation (July 2018)

Signals for some or benefit for all: grade inflation in context (June 2018)

Bang! – grade inflation in TEF3 (June 2018)

Criteria or quotas for success? Grade inflation and the role of norm-referencing (June 2018)

Grade inflation: a clear and present danger (May 2018)

Taking on grade inflation in UK higher education (January 2018)

Are today’s degrees really first class? (January 2018)

Grade inflation could be the next battleground for higher education (January 2018)

‘Too many Firsts’ mean another discussion of GPA (October 2017)

Below standard: grade inflation in TEF (September 2017)

Another false dawn for Grade Point Averages? (June 2016)

REF results marred by fears over grade inflation (December 2014)

Technology can’t stand still (unfortunately)

Using Proterozoic geology as his unusual starting point, MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito takes a look at the past, present and future of the web and cultural technology.

The next Great (Digital) Extinction
As our modern dinosaurs crash down around us, I sometimes wonder what kind of humans will eventually walk out of this epic transformation. Trump and the populism that’s rampaging around the world today, marked by xenophobia, racism, sexism, and rising inequality, is greatly amplified by the forces the GDE has unleashed. For someone like me who saw the power of connection build a vibrant, technologically meshed ecosystem distinguished by peace, love, and understanding, the polarization and hatred empowered by the internet today is like watching your baby turning into the little girl in The Exorcist.

And here’s a look into the technological future with analyst Benedict Evans.

The end of the beginning
The internet began as an open, ‘permissionless’, decentralized network, but then we got (and indeed needed) new centralised networks on top, and so we’ve spent a lot of the past decade talking about search and social. Machine learning and crypto give new and often decentralized, permissionless fundamental layers for looking at meaning, intent and preference, and for attaching value to those.

The End of the Beginning
What’s the state of not just “the world of tech”, but tech in the world? The access story is now coming to an end, observes Evans, but the use story is just beginning: Most of the people are now online, but most of the money is still not. If we think we’re in a period of disruption right now, how will the next big platform shifts — like machine learning — impact huge swathes of retail, manufacturing, marketing, fintech, healthcare, entertainment, and more?

* of the year

December’s not quite here yet, but the best somethings of the year articles are starting already. Here are two I’ve spotted recently.

National Geographic’s best photos of 2018
National Geographic’s 100 best images of the year—curated from 107 photographers, 119 stories, and more than two million photographs.

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As well as the usual, and often quite grisly, natural history images, there are some remarkable human interest stories here too.

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Books of the year 2018: the TLS contributors decide
From autofiction to ‘unbooks’ and ‘Ancient Mariner novels’.

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Having spent much of the past three years writing about a fictional piano-tuner I thought I had had enough of the instrument. Then along came Paul Kildea’s fascinating Chopin’s Piano: A journey through Romanticism (Allen Lane) and I was hooked again. The starting point for this beguiling journey is a somewhat basic piano – a pianino – made in Majorca in the 1830s on which Chopin composed and polished his 24 Preludes. […]

Hastings’s indictment of Washington policy after the South Vietnamese military coup of 1963 is lethal. America’s prolongation of the war was a mutilating act of self-harm which took generations to heal. It happened because US policymakers lied to the electorate, which is usual enough, but more culpably also lied to close colleagues and lied to themselves. In this sense, at least, Brexit is Britain’s Vietnam. […]

Schnackenberg has everything except (a) a snappy name, and (b) a recital voice powerful enough to overcome the uproar of gerbils mating. Listen to her on YouTube and you’ll think that the Americans are developing a new weapon: Stealth people. 

Sound mirrors

With parallels to that giant, concrete speaker in Taiwan, photographer Piercarlo Quecchia has tracked down all of Britain’s remaining strange and sculptural sound mirrors, built after World War 1 to detect incoming enemy aeroplanes.

Acoustic defense: photo series reflects on derelict British “sound mirrors”
“They represent an incredible demonstration of how sound can generate a physical form: both the curvature radius and the dimensions of the dishes are studied and designed according to the sound frequency that they must reflect,” explains the photographer. He hopes the series will continue to raise awareness of these artifacts.

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There are more images of these brutalist-looking structures on his website.

Sound Mirrors’ Portraits – Piercarlo Quecchia
They consist of concrete parabolas with a diameter of a few meters. In the twenties of the last century, their use combined with microphones, allowed to intercept planes directed towards the coast, discovering in advance any possible attacks. The need to be positioned near the coasts mainly in raised areas, the strong materiality of the concrete and their huge dimensions make them spectacular and extremely fascinating structures, able to dominate the entire surrounding landscape.

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Two contrasting technologies

Here are two technologies or tools that couldn’t be more different.

One started out around 1560 or 1795, has no moving parts, needs no manual and is still being sold in their billions…

A sharp look at the surprisingly complex process of pencil manufacturing by photographer Christopher Payne
The photographer, renowned for his cinematic images that show the architectural grace of manufacturing spaces, shares that he has held a lifelong fascination with design, assembly, and industrial processes. “The pencil is so simple and ubiquitous that we take it for granted,” Payne tells Colossal. “But making one is a surprisingly complex process, and when I saw all the steps involved, many of which are done by hand, I knew it would make for a compelling visual narrative.”

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…although for how much longer.

Children struggle to hold pencils due to too much tech, doctors say
His mother, Laura, blames herself: “In retrospect, I see that I gave Patrick technology to play with, to the virtual exclusion of the more traditional toys. When he got to school, they contacted me with their concerns: he was gripping his pencil like cavemen held sticks. He just couldn’t hold it in any other way and so couldn’t learn to write because he couldn’t move the pencil with any accuracy.”

The other, a highly complicated technological marvel that spread across the globe, revolutionising society, only to completely disappear within 30 years

VHS tapes
People have been able to consume their choice of music at home for more than a century, but it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that video was truly freed from the constraints of the multiplex and the network broadcast schedule—and not until the 1980s that it really became accessible. That heyday didn’t last long. Just three decades separated the first VHS-format VCR from the last Hollywood hit distributed on video tape. But in that time, a lot of memories were created, and a new template for consuming media was forged.

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… though fans remain.

From ignored ubiquity to design classic: the art of the blank VHS tape
When the company he worked at acquired a commercial printer with a scan bed on top, Jones began to scan tapes. Looking around on Google, he saw hardly any high-resolution images of these little pieces of everyday ephemera. There were plenty of horror and VHS box art scans, “but no love for the lowly home recording tape box that had been part of so many homes and families.” From this realization, the Vault Of VHS was born, a blog dedicated to the design of retail VHS packaging for both home and pre-recorded tapes.

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“The font, art, and tape dirt grey just feel like the gummy carpet of a grimy porn theater.”

YouTube’s conspiracy problem rears its ugly head again

The recent wildfire in California has been devastating for the towns and communities involved. This video gives us a glimpse of what some people have had to face. It’s worth pointing out that this wasn’t filmed at night.

Family drive through flames escaping California wildfire

A video on YouTube, shared via the Guardian News channel. But it’s YouTube that’s again in the news, over the blatantly false videos it hosts and the mechanisms for publicising them.

YouTube lets California fire conspiracy theories run wild
The Camp Fire in California has killed at least 79 people, left 699 people unaccounted for, and created more than a thousand migrants in Butte County, California. In these circumstances, reliable information can literally be a matter of life [and] death. But on YouTube, conspiracy theories are thriving.

I don’t want to go into the theories themselves, the specifics aren’t important.

But the point isn’t that these conspiracy theorists are wrong. They obviously are. The point is that vloggers have realized that they can amass hundreds of thousands of views by advancing false narrative, and YouTube has not adequately stopped these conspiracy theories from blossoming on its platform, despite the fact that many people use it for news. A Pew Research survey found that 38% of adults consider YouTube as a source of news, and 53% consider the site important for helping them understand what’s happening in the world.

Combine those statistics with these, from the Guardian, and you can see the problem.

Study shows 60% of Britons believe in conspiracy theories
“Conspiracy theories are, and as far as we can tell always have been, a pretty important part of life in many societies, and most of the time that has gone beneath the radar of the established media,” said Naughton. “Insofar as people thought of conspiracy theories at all, we thought of them as crazy things that crazy people believed, [and that] didn’t seem to have much impact on democracy.”

That dismissive attitude changed after the Brexit vote and the election of Trump in 2016, he said.

And that’s why these accounts of conspiracy theory vloggers manipulating YouTube to get millions of views for their blatantly false videos are so important.

The issue of conspiracy theorists in a society far predates platforms like YouTube. However, platforms such as YouTube provide new fuel and routes through which these conspiracy theories can spread. In other words, conspiracy theories are the disease, but YouTube is a whole new breed of carrier.

How on (the round) earth can we fix this?

There are cameras everywhere

There is such a high level of surveillance in our society. There are cameras everywhere, but they’re our cameras.

The ubiquity of smartphones, as captured by photographers
With so many devices in so many hands now, the visual landscape has changed greatly, making it a rare event to find oneself in a group of people anywhere in the world and not see at least one of them using a phone. Collected here: a look at that smartphone landscape, and some of the stories of the phones’ owners.

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What an odd world we live in.

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The real world isn’t really real unless there’s a screen between us and it.

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But then you come across a photo like this.

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Such a strong image. The difference between surveillance and sousveillance.

Sousveillance
Sousveillance is the recording of an activity by a participant in the activity, typically by way of small wearable or portable personal technologies. The term “sousveillance”, coined by Steve Mann, stems from the contrasting French words sur, meaning “above”, and sous, meaning “below”, i.e. “surveillance” denotes the “eye-in-the-sky” watching from above, whereas “sousveillance” denotes bringing the camera or other means of observation down to human level, either physically (mounting cameras on people rather than on buildings), or hierarchically (ordinary people doing the watching, rather than higher authorities or architectures doing the watching).

Searching for digital sovereignty

Have you used Qwant yet?

Qwant – The search engine that respects your privacy
Based and designed in Europe, Qwant is the first search engine which protects its users freedoms and ensures that the digital ecosystem remains healthy. Our keywords: privacy and neutrality.

I must admit I had never heard of this search engine before I read this article from Wired. The French National Assembly and the French Army Ministry have announced that they’ll stop using Google as their default search engines, and use Qwant instead.

France is ditching Google to reclaim its online independence
“We have to set the example,” said Florian Bachelier, one of MPs chairing the Assembly’s cybersecurity and digital sovereignty task-force, which was launched in April 2018 to help protect French companies and state agencies from cyberattacks and from the growing dependency on foreign companies. “Security and digital sovereignty are at stake here, which is anything but an issue only for geeks,” Bachelier added. […]

In France, this all started with the Edward Snowden. In 2013, when the American whistleblower revealed that the NSA was spying on foreign leaders and had important capability to access data stocked on private companies’ clouds, it was a wake up call for French politicians. A senate report that same year fretted that France and the European Union were becoming “digital colonies”, a term that since then has been used by French government officials and analysts to alert about the threat posed by the US and China, on issues of economic, political and technological sovereignty. Recent scandals, including the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook imbroglio, further shook French politicians and public opinion.

A European Duckduckgo, but without the stupid name? Might be something to look further into.

Excel-lent architecture

I love this new take on an old art form.

The spreadsheet architecture of Emma Stevens
Normally the mere mention of a spreadsheet can bring a distant glaze across the eyes of most creatives – the file format perceived as the antithesis of imagination by those desiring to create rather than tabulate. But Australian landscape architect Emma Stevens imagined the mundane Excel spreadsheet as an opportunity rather than an impediment to exploring art, using a tried and true technique of type as a medium to create a vast skyline out of text and cells.

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It’s hard to believe that it’s the same tool, but used in a very different way, as the one this Japanese artist uses.

Meet Tatsuo Horiuchi, the 77-year-old artist who ‘paints’ Japanese landscapes with Excel
For over 15 years, Japanese artist Tatsuo Horiuchi has rendered the subtle details of mountains, cherry blossoms, and dense forests with the most unlikely tool: Microsoft Excel. The 77-year-old illustrator shunned the idea of paying for expensive painting supplies or even a basic drawing program for his computer, saying that he prefers Excel even over Microsoft Paint because it has “more functions and is easier to use.” Using simple vector drawing tools developed primarily for graphs and simple shapes, Horiuchi instead draws panoramic scenes of life in rural Japan.

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Sadly, all the spreadsheets I create are far more conventional.

Another day, another data protection issue

We’re generating data all the time, without realising, and without really knowing where it all goes.

Users told to ditch OneDrive and Office 365 to avoid ‘covert’ data harvesting
Microsoft Office and Windows 10 Enterprise uses a telemetry data collection mechanism that breaches the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), according to a 91-page report commissioned by the Dutch government, and conducted by firm Privacy Company.

It’s not just Microsoft in the firing line, of course.

With GDPR now several months into play, data watchdogs across Europe are beginning to take their first steps in the new regulatory landscape. Microsoft is the latest in a line of major companies accused of breaching GDPR, with Oracle and Equifax among seven firms reported for violations by a data rights group last week.

And that story about Google’s AI company having access to NHS data is still rumbling on.

Google: Our DeepMind health slurp is completely kosher
DeepMind told The Reg: “It is false to say that Google is “absorbing” data. This data is not DeepMind’s or Google’s – it belongs to our partners, whether the NHS or internationally. We process it according to their instructions.”

That claim, echoed by DeepMind Health chief Dominic King, brought a swift correction from legal experts. “It doesn’t belong to DeepMind’s partners, it belongs to the individuals,” Serena Tierney partner at lawyers VWV. “Those ‘partners’ may have limited rights, but it doesn’t belong to them.”

I wonder if we’ll be seeing more of these issues, what with one thing and another.

What the potentially useless draft Brexit agreement means for tech
One of the big questions for Brexit is data protection, and the agreement seeks to hold onto the status quo. Scroll through to Article 71 for the text, which says that EU data protection law will continue to cover the UK before and after the transition period, which runs until the end of 2020. That means personal data can continue to flow between the UK and the EU.

“This issue is critical to the tech sector and to every other industry in a modern digitising economy,” says Tech UK CEO Julian David in a blog post. Data’s the oil that greases tech, and all that.

That doesn’t mean that GDPR will continue to apply in the UK post Brexit. Christopher Knight, privacy lawyer at 11KBW, notes that the UK will become a “third state”. That means the UK won’t be required to apply GPDR and other data laws to “wholly internal situations of processing”.

Update 20/11/2018

Well, here’s a thing. I’m still getting used to this new Android phone, with its Google news feed thing, and some time after first drafting this post I was browsing through it and came across the article below. How did it know to surface stories about DeepMind? I’m sure I hadn’t searched for it, but came across it in a newsletter. Is Google reading what I type into WordPress?

Inside DeepMind as the lines with Google blur
Last week, the line between the companies blurred significantly when DeepMind announced that it would transfer control of its health unit to a new Google Health division in California. […]

In March 2017, DeepMind also announced it would build a “data audit” system, as part of its public commitment to transparency. The technology would allow NHS partners to track its use of patient data in real time, with no possibility of falsification, DeepMind said. Google did not comment on whether it will finish the project.

Coffee to the rescue

It’s Monday, so put the kettle on.

How coffee protects the brain
Scientists have now proved that drinking certain types of coffee can be beneficial to brain health, but how does this popular brew support cognitive function? A new study identifies some of the mechanisms that allow coffee to keep mental decline at bay.

Yes, I know this is one of those health pendulum stories—coffee/bacon/red wine is good for you one week, bad for you the next—but I’m happy to think of all this coffee I’m drinking as an investment for my future.

How to fix* broken Brexit

With humour.

Instead of this …

Draft Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community, as agreed at negotiators’ level on 14 November 2018 (pdf)

… and this …

Brexit analysis: Why Theresa May’s deal may be doomed
Somehow, all this would be bought at no cost. British citizens would continue to enjoy frictionless travel to the E.U; goods and services would still cross borders with hyperloop-y speed and ease. But immigrants would find that Britain’s international entry points had become a veritable eye of the needle. Above all, we were told that all our E.U. contributions would now get fed straight into the National Health Service […] It’s not just that these assertions were unfounded. They showed a fundamental overestimation of Britain’s power and prestige, of its ability to bend other states to its will. The E.U. has not as yet capitulated to a single meaningful demand from a British government that has frequently looked weak and confused.

… read this.

And instead of this …

Brexit deal resignations are more bad news for the British pound
Today’s resignations have been far worse for the pound. About an hour after Raab, Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey resigned, too. There have been four more junior-level resignations on top of that, all before lunch.

… read this.

(* Ok, not so much ‘fix’ as ‘get through’.)

Soviet photography

Following on nicely from yesterday’s post about Soviet balalaika music, I’ve just come across a link to a lot of Soviet photography.

Download 437 issues of Soviet Photo Magazine, the Soviet Union’s historic photography journal (1926-1991)
The early years of the Soviet Union roiled with internal tensions, intrigues, and ideological warfare, and the new empire’s art reflected its uneasy heterodoxy. Formalists, Futurists, Suprematists, Constructivists, and other schools mingled, published journals, critiqued and reviewed each other’s work, and like modernists elsewhere in the world, experimented with every possible medium, including those just coming into their own at the beginning of the 20th century, like film and photography.

These two mediums, along with radio, also happened to serve as the primary means of propagandizing Soviet citizens and carrying the messages of the Party in ways everyone could understand. And like much of the rest of the world, photography engendered its own consumer culture.

Out of these competing impulses came Soviet Photo (Sovetskoe foto), a monthly photography magazine.

It’s interesting to note how the politics of the country affected the art form, and the magazine.

The aesthetic purges under Stalin—in which artists and writers one after another fell victim to charges of elitism and obscurantism—also played out in the pages of Soviet Photo. “Even before Socialist Realism was decreed to be the official style of the Soviet Union in 1934,” Nouril writes, “the works of avant-garde photographers,” including Rodchenko, “were denounced as formalist (implying that they reflected a foreign and elitist style).” Soviet Photo boycotted Rodchenko’s work in 1928 and “throughout the 1930s this state-sanctioned journal became increasingly conservative,” emphasizing “content over form.”

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You can browse 437 complete issues of ‘Soviet Photo’ magazine online
Dig deep enough, and you’ll find some really interesting (and surprisingly familiar) things in there. From standard street photography, to architecture, rooftopping, and (unfortunately) train track portraits, to conflict photography, even some pretty amazing photojournalism, and gear/equipment ads.

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Had the magazine continued to the year 2000 (collapse of the Union notwithstanding), the secret photographer Masha Ivashintsova might have been included.

Tetris: blocks and balalaikas

Recently, I accepted defeat and replaced my Windows phone with an Android one. Going through Google’s app store I came across Tetris (the older one, not the trippy new one), a game I’ve not played in ages. I was never any good at it, but that’s not the point, I guess.

Why are humans suddenly getting better at Tetris
As John Green explains in this video, a few people are actually getting much better at the NES version of Tetris than anyone was back in the 90s. One of the reasons for this is that a smaller dedicated group working together can be more effective than a massive group of people working alone on a problem.

The video ends on an uplifting note about the state of the internet—don’t worry about the dire state of the internet, just try to improve your internet. A new take on the ‘be the change you wish to see’ idea.

Study: Tetris is a great distraction for easing an anxious mind
The best distracting activities are those that can induce a sense of “flow … It’s something that fully captures your attention and engages you,” says Sweeny. “I often describe it as the kind of thing you can’t start doing if you only have ten minutes, because you know you’ll lose track of time.” Video games are perfect for this, provided they hit that sweet spot of being easy enough to learn while still pushing the skill level of the player, without becoming so challenging that the player becomes frustrated.

The psychology of Tetris
Tetris holds our attention by continually creating unfinished tasks. Each action in the game allows us to solve part of the puzzle, filling up a row or rows completely so that they disappear, but is also just as likely to create new, unfinished work. A chain of these partial-solutions and newly triggered unsolved tasks can easily stretch to hours, each moment full of the same kind of satisfaction as scratching an itch.

I like the line in that article about the game taking advantage of the mind’s basic pleasure in tidying up.

How Tetris became the world’s favourite computer game
With the iron curtain still firmly in place, Moscow did not have anything resembling a computer industry and software was not for sale. “The idea of receiving money for the programme seemed really strange and ridiculous at that time. So somehow Tetris was copied from my computer and from floppy disk to floppy disk – it just spread like wildfire,” says Mr Pajitnov.

These days, we can’t imagine anything spreading quickly that has to use floppy disks to get around, but you get the idea.

Tetris was passed between computer users the length and breadth of the Soviet Union and before long the government noticed that it had begun affecting productivity in the workplace. In order to combat the problem they created an early form of spyware, which was installed on state computers to corrupt both Tetris and the floppy disk it originated from the moment the game was opened.

Well, that’s one way to manage your workforce.

But never mind all that, let’s talk about the music!

Korobeiniki
“Korobeiniki” is a nineteenth-century Russian folk song that tells the story of a meeting between a peddler and a girl, describing their hajggling over goods in a veiled metaphor for courtship. Outside Russia, “Korobeiniki” is widely known as the Tetris theme (titled “A-Type” in the game), from its appearance in Nintendo’s 1989 version of the game.

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Ready to follow along?

Korobeiniki – Piano Tutorial

Now let’s bring on the balalaikas and sing along with the Red Army Choir.

Red Army Choir – Korobushka song (Korobeiniki)

That clip led me to this one, with some crazy fingerpicking skills on show.

Red Army Ensemble – Kamarinskaya

Here’s another version of that piece, Kamarinskaya, from the Osipov Orchestra in 1953.

“Kamarinskaya” – The Osipov Orchestra of the Russian Folk Instruments (1953)

A version of that, by the same orchestra I think, makes an appearance on the soundtrack to The Grand Budapest Hotel, and is immediately followed by an arrangement of Moonshine, or Светит месяц – another corker.

Here’s a version featuring Jeffery Archer.

Балалайка Михаил Рожков Светит месяц

(Ok, that’s not Jeffery Archer but Mikhail Rozhkov, the ‘Paganini of the Russian balalaika’.)

And here’s an orchestral version, though without the chorus that’s used in Alexandre Desplat’s arrangement.

В Андреев “Светит месяц” / АОРНИ имени Н.Некрасова

I wonder if Wes Anderson was a fan of Tetris.

Locking words in

After reading recent articles about the state of the web, you could be forgiven for wanting to turn back to a more reliable and trustworthy method of communication, like letter writing. But have you heard of letterlocking?

Before envelopes, people protected messages with letterlocking
Around 2 A.M. on February 8, 1587, Mary Queen of Scots penned a letter to her brother-in-law, King Henri III of France. It would be her last. Six hours later, she was beheaded for treason by order of her cousin, Elizabeth I of England. The letter has since become one of Scotland’s most beloved artifacts, the handwritten pages offering a poignant glimpse of a monarch grappling with her impending execution.

But it’s not the words that fascinate Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson conservator at MIT Libraries. For more than a decade, Dambrogio has been studying “letterlocking,” the various systems of folds, slits, and wax seals that protected written communication before the invention of the mass-produced envelope. To guard her final missive from prying eyes, the queen used a “butterfly lock”—one of hundreds of techniques catalogued by Dambrogio, collaborator Daniel Starza Smith, and their research team in a fast-growing dictionary of letterlocking.

And here’s a demonstration of that locking method.

Letterlocking: Mary Queen of Scots last letter, a butterfly lock, England (1587)
Modelled after images of Mary Queen of Scots’ letter to her brother-in-law Henri III, King of France in the National Library of Scotland.

It looks very fiddly. I wonder if, the night before her execution, her hands would have been steady enough to do this herself. It’s a remarkable document, though.

The last letter of Mary Queen of Scots
Sire, my brother-in-law, having by God’s will, for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates. I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I would wish, to your kingdom where I had the honour to be queen, your sister and old ally.

Online ‘truth decay’

Fake news is old news, but I came across a new phrase today — well, new to me, anyway.

You thought fake news was bad? Deep fakes are where truth goes to die
Citron, along with her colleague Bobby Chesney, began working on a report outlining the extent of the potential danger. As well as considering the threat to privacy and national security, both scholars became increasingly concerned that the proliferation of deep fakes could catastrophically erode trust between different factions of society in an already polarized political climate.

In particular, they could foresee deep fakes being exploited by purveyors of “fake news”. Anyone with access to this technology – from state-sanctioned propagandists to trolls – would be able to skew information, manipulate beliefs, and in so doing, push ideologically opposed online communities deeper into their own subjective realities.

“The marketplace of ideas already suffers from truth decay as our networked information environment interacts in toxic ways with our cognitive biases,” the report reads. “Deep fakes will exacerbate this problem significantly.”

Maybe I need to stop reading about fake news, it’s not good for my blood pressure. Just a couple more, then I’ll stop.

After murder and violence, here’s how WhatsApp will fight fake news
WhatsApp has announced it is giving 20 different research groups $50,000 to help it understand the ways that rumours and fake news spread on its platform. The groups are based around the world and will be responsible for producing reports on how the messaging app has impacted certain regions.

The range of areas that are being studied highlight the scale of misinformation that WhatsApp faces. One set of researchers from the UK and US are set to see how misinformation can lead to disease outbreaks in elderly people, one will look at how information was shared on WhatsApp in the 2018 Brazilian elections and another is examining how posts can go viral on the messaging service.

Inside the British Army’s secret information warfare machine
This new warfare poses a problem that neither the 77th Brigade, the military, or any democratic state has come close to answering yet. It is easy to work out how to deceive foreign publics, but far, far harder to know how to protect our own. Whether it is Russia’s involvement in the US elections, over Brexit, during the novichok poisoning or the dozens of other instances that we already know about, the cases are piling up. In information warfare, offence beats defence almost by design. It’s far easier to put out lies than convince everyone that they’re lies. Disinformation is cheap; debunking it is expensive and difficult.

Even worse, this kind of warfare benefits authoritarian states more than liberal democratic ones. For states and militaries, manipulating the internet is trivially cheap and easy to do. The limiting factor isn’t technical, it’s legal. And whatever the overreaches of Western intelligence, they still do operate in legal environments that tend to more greatly constrain where, and how widely, information warfare can be deployed. China and Russia have no such legal hindrances.

Tim’s hippie manifesto

Some less than positive reaction from The Register and others to Tim Berners-Lee’s latest campaign to save the web from itself. To describe it as a hippie manifesto sounds a little harsh but, as I said before, I can’t see this making much difference unless Facebook and Google agree to give up power, money etc.

Web Foundation launches internet hippie manifesto: ‘We’ve lost control of our data, it is being used against us’
It identifies the same problems that everyone and their dog has been writing about for years: there is a digital divide; internet access can be expensive; an entire industry has grown up selling your personal data; governments abuse the internet sometimes; people use the internet to do unpleasant things like bully and harass people; net neutrality’s a thing.

It has some charts and stats. But basically it reads like a High School final project on the problems of the internet. Competent but not consequential. […]

But simply saying companies shouldn’t make money from personal data and governments shouldn’t turn off the internet is not going to achieve a single thing. There needs to be clear plan of attack, recognition of pain points for companies, a broad and well-organized campaign to engage and rally people.

Berners-Lee takes flak for ‘hippie manifesto’ that only Google and Facebook could love
Open-source advocate Rafael Laguna, co-founder of Open-Xchange, is suspicious that Google and Facebook – the companies most under fire for privacy and other human rights abuses – were first to voice their support for the Greatest Living Briton’s declaration. “They are the two outstanding creators of the problems proclaimed in Tim’s paper,” Laguna notes. […]

Laguna told us: “As we have seen before with ‘Privacy Shield’, I suspect this move will be used as ‘proof’ of their reputability – but I fail to see how Google and Facebook will genuinely adhere to the requirements laid out in the initiative. The only result I can see is that it gets watered down, that it remains a lip service and, worst case, the whole thing loses credibility.”

TV’s golden, black and white age

A TV Licensing report out recently revealed that there are still 7,000 households watching TV in black and white. You might wonder why. Stuart Jeffries from the Guardian has a theory.

Black and white TVs are a lo-fi rebuke to a world gone wrong
One champion of black and white, TV historian Jeffrey Borinsky, asked rhetorically yesterday: “Who wants all this new-fangled 4K ultra HD, satellite dishes or a screen that’s bigger than your room when you can have glorious black and white TV?” Viewed thus, black and white TV is like craft beer, lo-fi reproof to a world gone wrong.

It’s a good point. Technological “progress” often just gives us more of what we don’t want. Endless choice is misery-making rather than liberating. No wonder the 7,000 rebel against colour TV’s gimcrack lunacy of red buttons; endless channels screening nothing worth watching; the binge-based death-in-life of modern viewing, and the whole lie that having access all the time to everything will make us happy rather than confused and sad.

The report doesn’t break down the demographics of those 7,000 into lavishly bearded, vinyl-collecting, folk-loving, vegan hipster devotees of the slow movement; but it’s my guess that this group is well represented.

I doubt it. Perhaps the sets (or their owners?) are just simply dying off. As the Guardian says elsewhere,

7,000 UK households still watching TV in black and white
Regular colour broadcasts began on BBC Two in July 1967 with the Wimbledon tennis tournament. The number of black and white licences issued each year has since been in steady decline since. In 2000, there were 212,000 black and white TV licences but by 2003 that number had shrunk to 93,000. By 2015, the number had dipped below 10,000.

I did remind me, though, of the old black and white portable I had in my student days. And specifically, of watching a strange little art film about television, starring solely the voice and face of the newsreader Richard Baker. I can’t find anything about it on the web now, or really remember much about it at all. Just a close up of his face, in grainy, flickery black and white (to me, anyway), intoning, “This is my voice. This is not my voice, merely a recording of my voice. This is my face. This is not my face, merely a recording of my face.” Or something.

Watching it on a rickety black and white portable TV set really brought home the artificiality of the medium: the people on your screen are not really there, they don’t actually exist as we imagine them too – it’s all mediation. I wasn’t so much watching television as looking at a site-specific installation which included a TV screen and a recording of one of the most trusted voices in Britain.

Richard Baker: The birth of TV news
“All I did in that first programme, at 7.30pm on 5 July 1954, was to announce, behind a filmed view of Nelson’s Column: Here is an illustrated summary of the news. It will be followed by the latest film of happenings at home and abroad.”

“We were not to be seen reading the news because it was feared we might sully the pure stream of truth with inappropriate facial expressions, or (unthinkably) turn the news into a personality performance.”

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