Less TGI Friday, more WFH Monday

WFH = working from home. An abbreviation I hadn’t heard of until recently. It seems we’re all at it. Well, not all of us.

The great Zoom divide: How working from home is a privilegeNew Statesman
Supporting the WFH and self-isolating economy is an army of factory and warehouse workers who are now busier than ever. There is much awareness and respect, rightfully, for medical staff who are at the frontlines of fighting Covid-19 – but what about those on the industrial frontlines? Who is protecting them? How can we keep essential supplies and functions running without exposing these workers to health risks? Is that even possible?

Avoiding Coronavirus may be a luxury some workers can’t affordNew York Times
For many workers, being sick means choosing between staying home and getting paid. One-quarter of workers have no access to paid sick days, according to Labor Department data: two-thirds of the lowest earners but just 6 percent of the highest earners. Just a handful of states and local governments have passed sick leave laws. Only 60 percent of workers in service occupations can take paid time off when they are ill — and they are also more likely than white-collar workers to come in contact with other people’s bodies or food.

But for those of us who are, there’s no end of advice out there, from kit to clothes.

Don’t mute, get a better headsetMatt Mullenweg
When you’re speaking to a muted room, it’s eerie and unnatural — you feel alone even if you can see other people’s faces. You lose all of those spontaneous reactions that keep a conversation flowing. If you ask someone a question, or they want to jump in, they have to wait to unmute. I also don’t love the “unmute to raise your hand” behavior, as it lends itself to meetings where people are just waiting their turn to speak instead of truly listening.

As population works from home, Walmart reports increased sales for tops but not pantsCBS News
Men’s fashion brand Suitsupply is getting in on both sides of the trend. The company recently posted a photo on Instagram of a model wearing a button-down, tie and blazer on top — and nothing but underwear on the bottom. “Working from home doesn’t mean compromising on style. Keep your look professional—from the waist up at least,” the brand wrote. Scrolling through the Instagram post leads to a picture that says, “Off-camera?” before featuring the same model, this time wearing a sweatshirt.

Careful though.

Zoom announces 90-day feature freeze to fix privacy and security issuesThe Verge
Zoom has never shared user numbers before, but Yuan reveals that back in December the company had a maximum of 10 million daily users. “In March this year, we reached more than 200 million daily meeting participants, both free and paid,” says Yuan. That’s a huge increase that has seen people use Zoom for reasons nobody expected before the coronavirus pandemic.

Security and privacy implications of ZoomSchneier on Security
In general, Zoom’s problems fall into three broad buckets: (1) bad privacy practices, (2) bad security practices, and (3) bad user configurations. […] Zoom is a security and privacy disaster, but until now had managed to avoid public accountability because it was relatively obscure. Now that it’s in the spotlight, it’s all coming out.

Automated tool can find 100 Zoom meeting IDs per hourThe Verge
In addition to being able to find around 100 meetings per hour, one instance of zWarDial can successfully determine a legitimate meeting ID 14 percent of the time, Lo told Krebs on Security. And as part of the nearly 2,400 upcoming or recurring Zoom meetings zWarDial found in a single day of scanning, the program extracted a meeting’s Zoom link, date and time, meeting organizer, and meeting topic, according to data Lo shared with Krebs on Security.

Meanwhile.

 

A calmer way of working

It seems we’re all having to get to grips with remote working now, in attempts to flatten that curve. Might these new ways of working stay with us, once all this is over? Why was I going in the office in the first place?

Could remote working be the future of work?TechRadar
Having a flexible lifestyle is clearly the most popular benefit from remote working – named by more than half of our survey – while almost four in ten say the main advantage is not having to commute. Less predictably, perhaps, more than a one third said the best thing about being a remote worker was that they actually saved money – this was a bigger deal for them than either being able to care for their family and elderly relatives, or reducing their overall stress levels.

Covid-19 could cause permanent shift towards home workingThe Guardian
“This is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution taking hold,” said Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of WordPress and Tumblr owner Automattic. Mullenweg’s company is already “distributed”, and he predicts the changes “might also offer an opportunity for many companies to finally build a culture that allows long-overdue work flexibility. Millions of people will get the chance to experience days without long commutes, or the harsh inflexibility of not being able to stay close to home when a family member is sick… This might be a chance for a great reset in terms of how we work,” he said.

Others are less sure.

Will coronavirus spur a traffic-solving remote-work revolution? Don’t count on itThe Mercury News
But Goodwin cautioned that the notion this crisis will spur some long-lasting, traffic-solving work-from-home revolution is too simplistic. For one thing, it’s based on what is almost certainly a faulty premise: That the Bay Area we will eventually return to whenever and however this crisis subsides will look much like it did before efforts to contain the virus began significantly disrupting public life earlier this month.

Since then, thousands of people have lost their jobs or seen their work hours cut as stay-at-home orders force all but essential businesses to close. The stock market is tanking, and experts warn we’re probably headed into a recession. When the economy is good, more people are driving to jobs and traffic tends to be worse; when it’s bad, fewer people drive to work and highways are clearer.

Might it depend on how comfortable you are with the technology you’re using? Here’s a vision of the future I find quite intriguing, though perhaps not very easily implementable. Calm technology. Another attempt at digital wellness and a more tactile version of Microsoft’s pictures under glass?

Welcome to the new age of calm technologyAdobe XD Ideas
Rolston has spent his career thinking about how to bring Weiser and Brown’s idea of calm technology to life. In 2016, his team showed off a prototype for a project called “Interactive Light,” that reimagined a room as an interactive workspace. A projector cast light onto a desk while a Microsoft Kinect monitored motion. Suddenly you could use gestures to transform the objects in a room into an interface (a salt shaker might become a remote control for your speaker; the countertop could turn into your screen), and the computer would surface whatever tool you needed based on the context of where you were and what you were doing.

The concept, while just a prototype, was a playful example of the ubiquitous computing ideas coming out of PARC two decades ago. It made the interface accessible yet more or less invisible. It explored, rather literally, how once the world is overlaid with computational power that can anticipate our needs, we can finally forget the computer is there.

Deleting the micro-plastics of the mind

I know that most of the articles about social media that I share are more negative than positive these days. But is this confirmation bias in action? To find out, I’m giving Twitter another go, and will actively look for the positives this time.

micro-plastics

Perhaps I should run all my tweets through Botnet first, to see how well they’ll do?

Welcome to Botnet, where everyone’s an influencerWired
Botnet looks like a stripped-down Facebook Newsfeed, where the only posts you can see are your own. It’s just you and the bots, who like and comment on your posts with reckless abandon. Botnet is designed to simulate the experience of mega-fame on the internet, Chasen told me—not just a microcelebrity or nano-influencer, but someone on the order of Kylie Jenner or Cristiano Ronaldo. Every post on Botnet receives hundreds of thousands of likes, no matter how banal the subject matter.

Or maybe not. Anyway, we’ll see how long it lasts; I’ve lost track of how many accounts I’ve set up and deleted over the years. But is that such a bad thing? We don’t keep transcripts of our phone calls normally, so why not be as relaxed with other forms of communication? I never realised I was in such good company.

Deleting all your tweetsRoden Explorers Archive
I am a full-blown born-again Tweet Deleter. I delete most everything older than seven days. I have a cron job running on a server that deletes for me, it’s called langoliers.rb and was written by Robin Sloan. He’s also a tweet deleter. There are many of us. And I think, having now deleted tweets regularly — and this is a bold claim, backed up only by gut feelings and zero data — that the world would be a better place if tweet deleting was on by default, and if, generally, we deleted more of our social media bloviations.

Twitter can be seen as a generator of micro-plastics of the mind. And the entirety of it as a sea of these largely nutrition-free bits. That doesn’t mean a tweet can’t be valuable for a second, but it’s unlikely they’re valuable for, say, years (or hours or even minutes). Applying a tweet-delete mindset to Twitter (that is: a mindset of ephemerality, what you could perversely call Buddhist Twitter) makes it lighter, a little more fun, and a lot less serious. You can ask a question, get some responses, and then just delete your question.

Isn’t that ephemerality implied in the name, even, to simply twitter on, saying very little of importance or interest, “short bursts of inconsequential information.”

Speaking of witch, here’s Callie Beusman sharing her thoughts online on how to avoid getting distracted by all the crap out there that it’s not worth thinking about.

My mind is a palace stuffed with exquisite garbageThe Cut
A few months ago, I came up with a metaphoric framework that felt uniquely suited to my problem, one that has brought me some degree of serenity: the mind palace. Simply put, a mind palace is a repository for all the thoughts, memories, and observations that bring you joy, fortified against whatever you deem needlessly irritating, depressingly banal, or just a waste of your time.

Is #mindfulbrowsing a thing?

This is not to urge non-engagement with issues that are genuinely pressing and compelling, if unpleasant; it’s more about determining which things you truly need and want to devote your time to, and recognizing that not everything warrants your attention.

We’re all under no obligation to read everything on the web. Some things just aren’t worth the time. And that’s OK, just raise your drawbridge.

Top flight fakery

A while ago I shared news of the world’s first AI presenter. And there’s lots here about fake news. But what about taking deepfake-style technology to produce true news?

Reuters uses AI to prototype first ever automated video reportsForbes
Developed in collaboration with London-based AI startup Synthesia, the new system harnesses AI in order to synthesize pre-recorded footage of a news presenter into entirely new reports. It works in a similar way to deepfake videos, although its current prototype combines with incoming data on English Premier League football matches to report on things that have actually happened. […]

In other words, having pre-filmed a presenter say the name of every Premier League football team, every player, and pretty much every possible action that could happen in a game, Reuters can now generate an indefinite number of synthesized match reports using his image. These reports are barely indistinguishable from the real thing, and Cohen reports that early witnesses to the system (mostly Reuters’ clients) have been dutifully impressed.

top-flight-fakery-1

(via Patrick Tanguay)

Update 26/02/2020

Just found another example of a deepfake video being used in a, if not true, at least positive sense.

We’ve just seen the first use of deepfakes in an Indian election campaignVice
When the Delhi BJP IT Cell partnered with political communications firm The Ideaz Factory to create “positive campaigns” using deepfakes to reach different linguistic voter bases, it marked the debut of deepfakes in election campaigns in India. “Deepfake technology has helped us scale campaign efforts like never before,” Neelkant Bakshi, co-incharge of social media and IT for BJP Delhi, tells VICE. “The Haryanvi videos let us convincingly approach the target audience even if the candidate didn’t speak the language of the voter.”

A purposefully not smart phone

Phones. It’s a love/hate relationship for sure. Technology companies have long since realised how bored we get with what we have, and are forever designing “better” versions of the same thing for us to buy next—shinier, bendier, or just plain bigger. This is not without problems.

Z Flip and Razr: Folding screens bubble and scratch, tests findBBC News
It follows the troubled release of Samsung’s first foldable phone one year ago, leading some analysts to question whether foldable screen technology is ready for mainstream release.

Large screen phones: a challenge for UX design (and human hands)Imaginary Cloud
Each OS version ends up having their own UX animations but at the end of the day, the truth is, many navigation elements are still situated at the top part of the screen, with emphasis on the top left corner. Where are these giant handed UX designers? Can’t we solve that?

In an area forever pursing the latest gimmicky design, how refreshing to see this pared-back, no-nonsense approach.

An anti-smartphone with a rotary designed and built by space engineer Justine HauptColossal
Justine Haupt, a developer of astronomy instrumentation at Brookhaven National Laboratory, spent the last three years developing a device that strips away all of the non-phone functions of modern smartphones. The Portable Wireless Electronic Digital Rotary Telephone (aka Rotary Cellphone) does not have a touchscreen, menus, or other superfluous features. It fits in Haupt’s pocket, and it makes calls.

She’s sharing the open source design on her website, if you fancy getting yourself one.

Portable Wireless Electronic Digital Rotary Telephone (AKA: Rotary Cellphone)Justine Haupt
This is a statement against a world of touchscreens, hyperconnectivity, and complacency with big brother watchdogs.

not-smart-phone-1

Update 26/02/2020

I’m not sure that phone would be getting all this attention if it didn’t have a rotary dial that pinged all our nostalgia nerve endings. Here’s a follow-up piece from The Outline on that and the Freewrite “typewriter” which thinks that, unfortunately, “technology nostalgia won’t ever be enough to conquer smartphone addiction.”

Go ahead, rotary phone, try and distract meThe Outline
Anti-distraction tools such as these be effective, in the same way that driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck is an effective way of carrying piles of dirt or whatever people who use pickup trucks carry around in them. But many people do not buy a truck because they use it for such purposes, they buy it because it’s comfortable to drive, and they like how it looks and what it says about them. The aesthetics of distraction-free hardware, consciously or not, are rooted in nostalgia as much as they are in functionality: the rotary phone and the portable “typewriter” have not been in common use for decades, but the virality of Haupt’s phone and the apparent sales success of the Freewrite suggest that people long for an older, less distraction-prone time. […]

Harris and his cohort at the Center for Humane Technology are not on a buddy-buddy basis with big tech conglomerate leadership, but they ably represent how anxieties about the deleterious impact of technology can be repurposed by tech companies themselves. Justine Haupt’s rotary phone suggests a separate DIY approach, an open-source invitation for others to disconnect. The Freewrite is an easier, more expensive alternative. What they both lack is a sense of the politics of distraction, how the only way to actually end mass distraction is to completely remake the conditions that allow it to flourish in the first place.

What else doesn’t exist?

I admit I had fun with those people who don’t exist and their related websites, but it’s getting a little silly now. An artificially intelligent songwriter? AI feet??

These lyrics do not exist
This website generates completely original lyrics for various topics, uses state of the art AI to generate an original chorus and original verses.

Want some happy metal lyrics about dogs? No problem.

I am the dog in you
I am the dog in you
How one animal can be so tense, yet so free?
Such vicious dogs in search of a trophy

This foot does not exist
The foot pic, then, becomes a commodity which the consumer is willing to pay for on its basis as an intimate, revealing, and/or pornographic (and perhaps power-granting, when provided on request) asset, while the producer may** see it as a meme, a dupe, a way to trick the horny-credible out of their ill-spent cash.

The tech left behind

I first read this on my phone and now here I am, blogging about it on my tablet.

Why laptops could be facing the end of the lineThe Conversation
Research shows that PC and laptop ownership, usage and importance have declined over the past three years, replaced largely by smartphones. A survey of internet users found just 15% thought their laptop was their most important device for accessing the internet, down from 30% in 2015, while 66% thought their smartphone was most important, up from 32%.

This has led some commentators to predict the slow death of the laptop because of young people’s preference for and greater familiarity with the devices in their pocket. But a survey by UK regulator Ofcom in 2017 also found there has also been a record rise in older people using smartphones and tablets.

Good riddance?

How your laptop ruined your lifeThe Atlantic
As laptops have kept improving, and Wi-Fi has continued to reach ever further into the crevices of American life, however, the reality of laptops’ potential stopped looking quite so rosy. Instead of liberating white-collar and “knowledge” workers from their office, laptops turned many people’s whole life into an office. Smartphones might require you to read an after-hours email or check in on the office-communication platform Slack before you started your commute, but portable computers gave workers 24-hour access to the sophisticated, expensive applications—Salesforce CRM, Oracle ERP, Adobe Photoshop—that made their full range of duties possible.

Mobiles, mobiles, mobiles. They’re practically compulsory these days.

tech-left-behind

Desktop vs Mobile vs Tablet market share worldwideStatCounter Global Stats
Mobile – 52.02%, Desktop – 45.29%, Tablet – 2.7%

But not all mobiles, though. Did you ever have a Blackberry, the one that perhaps started it all?

RIP Blackberry phones — you really f***ed us over, but that keyboard was greatThe Outline
Blackberry phones died a slow death throughout the 2010s, as people migrated to newer phones with a wider selection of functions, apps, and so on. But the Blackberry’s rise was marked by the cultural shift that is, I think, the greatest anxiety of the smartphone era: the rapid upswing in how much time we spend on our damn phones.

When Barack Obama became president in 2008, he famously fought for (and won) the right to keep using his Blackberry (the phone would become the official device given out by large swathes of the federal government, including Congress). And years before reverting to a “dumb phone” became a thing for trendsetters like Anna Wintour, magazine writers tried the same stunt to lessen their Blackberry usage. One Daily Mail headline from 2006 warned of a “Blackberry addiction ‘similar to drugs,’” describing the kind of behavior we now readily associate with social media and phones more generally (“One key sign of a user being addicted is if they focus on their Blackberry ignoring those around them.”).

The rise and fall of BlackBerryYouTube

Another GlobalStats chart that caught my eye was this one, illustrating Chrome’s dominance over the other browsers.

tech-left-behind-1

Browser market share worldwideStatCounter Global Stats
Chrome – 64.1%, Safari – 17.21%, Firefox – 4.7%, Samsung Internet – 3.33%, UC Browser – 2.61%, Opera – 2.26%

Here’s The Register’s take on that.

Why Firefox? Because not everybody is a web designer, sillyThe Register
The problem with thinking that the web would be better with only one browser is that it raises the question – better for who? Better for web designers? Maybe, but that’s a statistically insignificant portion of the people on the web. Better for users? How?

But for those of us that are/were, here’s a look back at a simpler time.

Old CSS, new CSSFuzzy Notepad
Damn, I miss those days. There were no big walled gardens, no Twitter or Facebook. If you had anything to say to anyone, you had to put together your own website. It was amazing. No one knew what they were doing; I’d wager that the vast majority of web designers at the time were clueless hobbyist tweens (like me) all copying from other clueless hobbyist tweens. … Everyone who was cool and in the know used Internet Explorer 3, the most advanced browser, but some losers still used Netscape Navigator so you had to put a “Best in IE” animated GIF on your splash page too. […]

Sadly, that’s all gone now — paved over by homogenous timelines where anything that wasn’t made this week is old news and long forgotten. The web was supposed to make information eternal, but instead, so much of it became ephemeral. I miss when virtually everyone I knew had their own website. Having a Twitter and an Instagram as your entire online presence is a poor substitute.

Indeed.

Tech’s evil twin

Cyber attacks, like the one that left government workers in Alaska resorting to typewriters, seem increasingly common. But just how easy is it to set up such a scheme and hold organisations to ransom like that? In what reads like a cross between a heist movie and an episode of the IT Crowd, Drake Bennett from Bloomberg gives it a go.

I used dark web ransomware to sabotage my bossBloomberg
These days, prospective attackers don’t have to create their own ransomware; they can buy it. If they don’t really know how to use it, they can subscribe to services, complete with customer support, that will help coordinate attacks for them. … In the public imagination, hackers are Mephistophelian savants. But they don’t have to be, not with ransomware. “You could be Joe Schmo, just buying this stuff up,” says Christopher Elisan, director of intelligence at the cybersecurity firm Flashpoint, “and you could start a ransomware business out of it.”

You could even be a liberal-arts-educated writer with a primitive, cargo-cult understanding of how an iPhone or the internet work, who regularly finds himself at the elbow of his office’s tech-support whiz, asking, again, how to find the shared drive. In other words, you could be me. But could you really? I didn’t start out on this article planning to try my hand at ransomware. A few weeks in, though, it occurred to me that if someone like me could pull off a digital heist, it would function as a sort of hacking Turing test, proof that cybercrime had advanced to the point where software-aided ignorance would be indistinguishable from true skill. As a journalist, I’ve spent years writing about people who do things that I, if called upon, couldn’t do myself. Here was my chance to be the man in the arena.

Just be careful, OK?

But where did he get all the phones from?

In a different take on interactive art, here’s a story of the little guy getting one over on a multinational conglomerate—by making his own traffic jam.

Google Maps hackSimon Weckert
99 second hand smartphones are transported in a handcart to generate virtual traffic jam in Google Maps. Through this activity, it is possible to turn a green street red which has an impact in the physical world by navigating cars on another route to avoid being stuck in traffic.

Google Maps Hacks by Simon WeckertYouTube

all-the-phones

It’s certainly been getting plenty of attention. I wonder if others will be giving it a go.

Man creates fake traffic jam on Google Maps by carting around 99 cellphonesBoing Boing
Simon Weckert loaded a hand-cart with cellphones and pulled them slowly through Berlin. This fooled Google Maps into registering severe congestion, marking the streets bright red in the service, and rerouting traffic to avoid the area.

Hacking Google, a red handcart for red roads Traffic Google MapsKottke
You’ve got to love little artistic hacks like this. Simon Weckert put 99 second-hand smartphones in a red handcart and walked around a few blocks in Berlin. Each phone was running Google Maps and being tracked for trafic measurements. Their presence and slow rolling around the streets caused Google to display a traffic jam.

An artist used 99 phones to fake a Google Maps traffic jamWired
“What I’m really interested in generally is the connection between technology and society and the impact of technology, how it shapes us,” Weckert says. He cites philosopher Marshall McLuhan: We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. “I have the feeling right now that technology is not adapting to us, it’s the other way around.”

Traffic jams in Google Maps could be spoofed with 99 phones and a little red wagonThe Verge
Google jokingly told The Verge that it hasn’t “quite cracked” how to correctly track traffic data that comes from toy wagons, but that it can already distinguish between Google Maps data coming from cars and motorcycles in several countries.

Berlin artist uses 99 phones to trick Google into traffic jam alertThe Guardian
The work, revealed just a few days before the 15th anniversary of Google Maps’ founding, is just the latest example of a prankster taking advantage of the “crowdsourced” nature of much of Google’s data collection. In 2015, the company had to shut off one feature, Map Maker, after a series of embarrassing vandalism incidents culminated in the creation of a virtual park, the shape of which appeared to resemble the company’s Android logo urinating on Apple’s trademark.

Twitter news echoes

Grumpy old man alert! I know everyone uses Twitter to find news these days, but I can do without news organisations passing off as news what’s simply a report on what’s been said on Twitter. Hashtag: lazy-journalism-question-mark; hashtag: these-are-not-slow-news-days-after-all; hashtag: 24-hour-news-filler-I-can-do-without; hashtag: yes-I-know-hashtags-don’t-work-like-this.

Trump’s new Space Force logo looks awfully familiar to Star Trek fansThe Verge
Although, as one user on Twitter noted, the designers did seem to take some cues from the NASA logo, predominantly the exact placement of the stars that appear to have been copied over directly.

Philip Pullman calls for boycott of Brexit 50p coin over ‘missing’ Oxford commaThe Guardian
“The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people,” wrote the novelist on Twitter, while Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell wrote that, while it was “not perhaps the only objection” to the Brexit-celebrating coin, “the lack of a comma after ‘prosperity’ is killing me”.

Broadcasters speak up for Alastair Stewart after ITV News exitBBC News
ITV presenter Julie Etchingham wrote on Twitter: “So sad to learn this – we have worked on many big stories together & Al is a trusted friend and guide to many of us.”

Moving away from paper monitors

Thinking about the old web again, and how different web pages looked back then, compared to now. In a word, tiny.

A short history of body copy sizes on the WebFlorens Verschelde
Ten and 11 pixels may seem puny today, but in the early 2000s that was deemed readable for two reasons:

  1. the 800×600 and 1024×768 screens of the late 1990s and early 2000s had biggish pixels, so the result was on the small side but not as small as it might look today;
  2. designers and their clients were accustomed to 9, 10 and 11 point sizes for body copy in print (books, magazines, leaflets…), and the prospect of using bigger values felt like shouting at readers.

It took quite an effort to pull web designers away from this assumption that screens should be treated the same way as print.

moving-away-from-paper-monitors

In November 2006, iA’s Oliver Reichenstein ran a simple experiment: he compared a magazine’s body copy at arms’ length and a typical site’s body copy at a common, eye-to-desktop-screen distance. The website’s text looked much smaller. Oliver argued for setting the body copy to the browser’s default, or 100%, which by convention is 16px in common browsers. In 2006, and even a few years later, it was a revolutionary proposition. Web designers and clients thought it was extreme. Five years later, we still had to fight for the death of 11px body copy (example, in French).

It’s been interesting to see how text has been treated over the years, not only on the various default WordPress themes but on blogs like Jason Kottke’s, and my own when it was on Blogger. Layouts like Swiss Miss’s look anachronistic now.

Verschelde’s exploration into this aspect of web design is full of links to examples and other articles about typography and layout, including Jeremy Keith’s Resilient web design, a online book that uses CSS to smoothly vary the font size depending on the width of the screen. It’s a great read, especially the opening chapter’s review of the intertwined history of interfaces.

Resilient Web Design – Chapter 1
The hands on a clock face move in a clockwise direction only because that’s the direction that the shadow cast by a sundial moves over the course of a day in the northern hemisphere. Had history turned out differently, with the civilisation of the southern hemisphere in the ascendent, then the hands on our clocks would today move in the opposite direction. […]

These echoes of the past reverberate in the present even when their usefulness has been outlived. You’ll still sometimes see a user interface that displays an icon of a Compact Disc or vinyl record to represent music. That same interface might use the image of a 3½ inch floppy disk to represent the concept of saving data. The reason why floppy disks wound up being 3½ inches in size is because the disk was designed to fit into a shirt pocket. The icons in our software interfaces are whispering stories to us from the history of clothing and fashion.

The quote used in the introduction to that online book seems appropriate here.

We look at the present through a rear‐view mirror. We march backwards into the future.
Marshall McLuhan

Google’s dark patterns

Google’s being sneaky again. Last year I shared an article about research into ‘dark patterns’, sneaky user interface tricks that shopping websites use to catch us out. It seems the search advertising giant is getting in on the act now.

Google’s ads just look like search results nowThe Verge
Last week, Google began rolling out a new look for its search results on desktop, which blurs the line between organic search results and the ads that sit above them. In what appears to be something of a purposeful dark pattern, the only thing differentiating ads and search results is a small black-and-white “Ad” icon next to the former. It’s been formatted to resemble the new favicons that now appear next to the search results you care about. Early data collected by Digiday suggests that the changes may already be causing people to click on more ads.

Indeed, when I search for pet insurance, I can hardly see any real search results without scrolling down.

googles-being-sneaky-again

Google made a big change to search results that makes it harder to distinguish ads from regular results, and people are calling Google out for itBusiness Insider
This is not the first time Google has been accused of using manipulative design practices, known as “dark patterns,” to trick users into clicking on ads.

The Wall Street Journal reporter Rolfe Winkler said the Federal Trade Commission sent letters in 2013 to Google and other search engines saying the distinction between ads and organic search results had become “less noticeable to consumers.” In the letters, the FTC told the companies to “make any necessary adjustments to ensure you clearly and prominently disclose any advertising.”

I’d say those letters have been completely ignored, wouldn’t you?

Update 26/01/2020

A rethink.

Google backtracks on desktop search redesign blurring ads from organic resultsBoing Boing
Google’s recently announced new redesign of desktop search results would have made ads pretty much look exactly like search results. Google is now backtracking, listening to the criticism, and trying a different visual approach.

Google backtracks on search results designTechCrunch
The company acknowledged that its latest experiment might have gone too far in its latest statement and noted that it will “experiment further” on how it displays results.

A little robot round-up #2

Another quick look at what our new robot overlords are up to.

Robogamis are the real heirs of terminators and transformersAeon
Robogami design owes its drastic geometric reconfigurability to two main scientific breakthroughs. One is its layer-by-layer 2D manufacturing process: multiples of functional layers of the essential robotic components (ie, microcontrollers, sensors, actuators, circuits, and even batteries) are stacked on top of each other. The other is the design translation of typical mechanical linkages into a variety of folding joints (ie, fixed joint, pin joint, planar, and spherical link). […]

Robotics technology is advancing to be more personalised and adaptive for humans, and this unique species of reconfigurable origami robots shows immense promise. It could become the platform to provide the intuitive, embeddable robotic interface to meet our needs. The robots will no longer look like the characters from the movies. Instead, they will be all around us, continuously adapting their form and function – and we won’t even know it.

Biological robots – A research team builds robots from living cellsThe Economist
But one thing all robots have in common is that they are mechanical, not biological devices. They are built from materials like metal and plastic, and stuffed with electronics. No more, though—for a group of researchers in America have worked out how to use unmodified biological cells to create new sorts of organisms that might do a variety of jobs, and might even be made to reproduce themselves. […]

Though only a millimetre or so across, the artificial organisms Dr Bongard and Dr Levin have invented, which they call xenobots, can move and perform simple tasks, such as pushing pellets along in a dish. That may not sound much, but the process could, they reckon, be scaled up and made to do useful things. Bots derived from a person’s own cells might, for instance, be injected into the bloodstream to remove plaque from artery walls or to identify cancer. More generally, swarms of them could be built to seek out and digest toxic waste in the environment, including microscopic bits of plastic in the sea.

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Sounds like (old) science fiction to me.

Did HAL Commit Murder?The MIT Press Reader
As with each viewing, I discovered or appreciated new details. But three iconic scenes — HAL’s silent murder of astronaut Frank Poole in the vacuum of outer space, HAL’s silent medical murder of the three hibernating crewmen, and the poignant sorrowful “death” of HAL — prompted deeper reflection, this time about the ethical conundrums of murder by a machine and of a machine. In the past few years experimental autonomous cars have led to the death of pedestrians and passengers alike. AI-powered bots, meanwhile, are infecting networks and influencing national elections. Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Sam Harris, and many other leading AI researchers have sounded the alarm: Unchecked, they say, AI may progress beyond our control and pose significant dangers to society.

Back in the real world, of course, the dangers are more mundane. Those “significant dangers to society” are more financial.

Could new research on A.I. and white-collar jobs finally bring about a strong policy response?The New Yorker
Webb then analyzed A.I. patent filings and found them using verbs such as “recognize,” “detect,” “control,” “determine,” and “classify,” and nouns like “patterns,” “images,” and “abnormalities.” The jobs that appear to face intrusion by these newer patents are different from the more manual jobs that were affected by industrial robots: intelligent machines may, for example, take on more tasks currently conducted by physicians, such as detecting cancer, making prognoses, and interpreting the results of retinal scans, as well as those of office workers that involve making determinations based on data, such as detecting fraud or investigating insurance claims. People with bachelor’s degrees might be more exposed to the effects of the new technologies than other educational groups, as might those with higher incomes. The findings suggest that nurses, doctors, managers, accountants, financial advisers, computer programmers, and salespeople might see significant shifts in their work. Occupations that require high levels of interpersonal skill seem most insulated.

Update 31/01/2020

Found another article about those biological robots, above, which serves as a great counter-point to all these wildly optimistic Boston Dynamics announcements.

Robots don’t have to be so embarrassingThe Outline
These stuff-ups are endlessly amusing to me. I don’t want to mock the engineers who pour thousands of hours into building novelty dogs made of bits of broken toasters, or even the vertiginously arrogant scientists who thought they could simulate the human brain inside a decade. (Inside a decade! I mean, my god!) Well, okay, maybe I do want to mock them. Is it a crime to enjoy watching our culture’s systematic over-investment in digital Whiggery get written down in value time and time again? […]

What these doomed overreaches represent is a failure to grasp the limits of human knowledge. We don’t have a comprehensive idea of how the brain works. There is no solid agreement on what consciousness really “is.” Is it divine? Is it matter? Can you smoke it? Do these questions even make sense? We don’t know the purpose of sleep. We don’t know what dreams are for. Sexual dimorphism in the brain remains a mystery. Are you picking up a pattern here? Even the seemingly quotidian mechanical abilities of the human body — running, standing, gripping, and so on — are not understood with the scientific precision that you might expect. How can you make a convincing replica of something if you don’t even know what it is to begin with? We are cosmic toddlers waddling around in daddy’s shoes, pretending to “work at the office” by scribbling on the walls in crayon, and then wondering where our paychecks are.

Can we not have web 1.0 back?

I do miss the early web, sometimes. Amateurish, in a good way—spontaneous, care-free, lighthearted.

The early internet, explained by one weird Celine Dion fan siteThe Atlantic
Celine Dreams was a bit of a sensation. Toroptsov never lacked for dream submissions, and at the turn of the century—before the internet was a corporatized monoculture repeated across only a handful of giant web properties—a scrappy, DIY fan site could easily build an audience by climbing up search rankings and encouraging active participation. For years, Celine Dreams appeared in the first page of Google and Yahoo search results for Celine Dion—a distinction now reserved for Celine Dion’s official website, Celine Dion’s Wikipedia page, Celine Dion’s Twitter page, Celine Dion on Spotify, and Celine Dion on YouTube.

And then it shut down, blinkering out at the same time as thousands of other fan sites. The whole ecosystem slid into the digital ocean slowly, but pretty much all at once, like a famous ship.

Nothing lasts forever. Especially nowadays.

More of these fan sites disappear all the time, and the Wayback Machine isn’t able to keep even a near-perfect record. Toroptsov’s project, and the work of his “competitors,” are vanishing in what information scientists have long been referring to as the “digital dark age.” “However widely the myth of the automatically archival Internet has spread over the past 70 years, the fact is that the system of networked computing utterly fails as a memory machine,” the UC Berkeley media researcher Abigail De Kosnik writes in her 2016 book, Rogue Archives. “The internet and computers do not constitute the greatest archive in human history, but rather the reverse.”

This applies to iconic software, too.

The last vestige of Internet Explorer dies todayGizmodo
When Microsoft decided to use EdgeHTML, it made sense. Internet Explorer had once been the biggest web browser around and consequently, lots of web page designers focused their energies on making their sites work for IE. But Chrome had a foothold when Edge launched and Microsoft’s new browser just never gained the popularity it needed. Instead, more and more web page designers focused on making the best looking sites the could—for Chrome.

Chrome uses the Blink engine and the source code originates with the open-source Chromium project. The Edge that launches today will rely on Blink and Chromium too.

Some people are clinging on, though. I’ve been reading Joanne McNeils’s newsletter for a while, now, and her website is joyously web 1.0.

joannemcneil.com
Hi, my name is Joanne McNeil and this is my Home Page on the World Wide Web. My book Lurking is out on February 25, 2020 with MCD.

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And do you remember Noah Everyday from the 2000s? He’s back again, and doesn’t look a day older. Ok, that’s a lie. He looks older, we all do.

Man takes picture of himself every day for 20 yearsFlowingData
In 2007, Noah Kalina posted a time-lapse video showing a picture of himself every day for six years. Pop culture swallowed it up. There was even a Simpsons parody with Homer. After another six years, it was a video for twelve years’ worth of photos. Kalina has kept his everyday project going, and the above is the new time-lapse for two decades.

Noah takes a photo of himself every day for 20 yearsYouTube

Searching for a search engine

Here’s an odd story from The Verge about Google and user choice—or the lack of it.

Bing loses out to DuckDuckGo in Google’s new Android search engine ballotThe Verge
EU citizens setting up Android devices from March 1 will be given a choice of four search engines to use as their default, including Google. Whichever provider they chose will become the default for searches made in Chrome and through Android’s home screen search box. A dedicated app for that provider will also be installed on their device.

The “choice screen” is being introduced by Google following an antitrust ruling from the European Union last March. Google was fined a record $5 billion by EU regulators, who said the company had to stop “illegally tying” its search engine and browser to its mobile OS.

That all sounds fair enough, but the mechanism by which the other search providers are selected is far from straightforward.

The search engines shown to new users will vary for each EU country, with the selection decided based on a “fourth-price” auction system. Each provider tells Google how much it’s willing to pay the company every time a user selects their product as the default. […]

All this means that the choices Google will show to users don’t necessarily reflect a search engine’s popularity in that country. Rather, it shows how much the provider is willing to pay for users.

Needless to say, some of Google’s rivals aren’t happy.

Eric Leandri, CEO of privacy-focused search engine Qwant, said it was a “total abuse of [Google’s] dominant position” to “ask for cash just for showing a proposal of alternatives.” Gabriel Weinberg, CEO of DuckDuckGo, said the auction system was a “pay-to-play auction” that meant “Google will profit at the expense of the competition.” The CEO of Ecosia, a search engine that uses its profits to plans trees, boycotted the auction entirely.

What a shame that the more interesting options like Qwant and Ecosia aren’t getting a look-in. From the article’s list of all the options for users in each EU country, I can see that for the UK the options are: Bing, DuckDuckGo and Info.com. Sorry, who?

Update 15/01/2020

Someone else asking that question.

What is info.com, the search engine soon to appear on all Android devices in Europe?Quartz
Info.com, or InfoSpace, is an online search company and one-time internet darling. It was founded in 1996 in Seattle and backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. InfoSpace went public in December 1998, at the height of the dot-com bubble. By March 2000, it was valued roughly on par with Boeing, at $31 billion. Not long after that, the bubble burst and InfoSpace’s stock price collapsed. “The company once worth more than Boeing fell to the value of two Boeing 777s,” quipped the Seattle Times.

Technologically grim tales

What a way to end 2019.

The most dangerous people on the internet this decadeWired
In some cases these figures represent dangers not so much to public safety, but to the status quo. We’ve also highlighted actual despots, terrorists, and saboteurs who pose a serious threat to lives around the world. As the decade comes to a close, here’s our list of the people we believe best characterize the dangers that emerged from the online world in the last 10 years—many of whom show no signs of becoming any less dangerous in the decade to come.

It’s not just the people that are alarming, it’s the technology too, and what can be done with it, like this investigation into the smartphone tracking industry. (I didn’t even realise there was such an industry.)

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Twelve million phones, one dataset, zero privacyThe New York Times
Every minute of every day, everywhere on the planet, dozens of companies — largely unregulated, little scrutinized — are logging the movements of tens of millions of people with mobile phones and storing the information in gigantic data files. The Times Privacy Project obtained one such file, by far the largest and most sensitive ever to be reviewed by journalists. It holds more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans as they moved through several major cities, including Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Each piece of information in this file represents the precise location of a single smartphone over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017.

But perhaps there’s some room for optimism? Here’s the New York Times again, gazing into their crystal ball.

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No more phones and other tech predictions for the next decadeThe New York Times
There has been a lot of gnashing and wailing about screen addiction, “sharenting” and the myriad other negative effects of all the devices we have come to rely on. (I am guilty as charged.) These gadgets have been designed to hook you, not unlike sugar or cigarettes or gambling or opiates. The well known techie Tristan Harris calls it “human downgrading” — and he’s right. But there is yet another opportunity here to push for design ethics, a movement that I think will gain traction as we all assess what our dives into digital have done to humanity. While our tech devices have, on the whole, been good for most people, there is a true business opportunity in making them work more efficiently and without a reliance on addiction. Whether we move toward more intuitively created tech that surrounds us or that incorporates into our bodies (yes, that’s coming), I am going to predict that carrying around a device in our hand and staring at it will be a thing of the past by 2030. And like the electrical grid we rely on daily, most tech will become invisible.

I love the sentiment, but remain very doubtful.

Lend him a hand—or an ear

Cyborgs. So much promise, so little follow-through.

Transhumanism is tempting—until you remember Inspector GadgetWired
It’s comforting to think of the body as a machine we can trick out. It helps us ignore the strange fleshy aches that come with having a meat cage. It makes a fickle system—one we truly don’t understand—feel conquerable. To admit that the body (and mind that sits within it) might be far more complex than our most delicate, intricate inventions endangers all kinds of things: the medical industrial complex, the wellness industry, countless startups. But it might also open up new doors for better relationships with our bodies too: Disability scholars have long argued that the way we see bodies as “fixable” ultimately serves to further marginalize people who will never have the “standard operating system,” no matter how many times their parts are replaced or tinkered with.

In the movies, they’re heroic, philosophical, scary, goofy. In real life? Well.

I remember Professor Reading from Warwick University/Professor Warwick from Reading University being the talk of the town back in the 90s, when I was a student researching interactive art.

The Cyborg: Kevin Warwick is the world’s first human-robot hybridVice
This isn’t just for fun: Warwick is certain that without upgrading, humans will someday fall behind the advances of the robots they’re building – or worse. “Someday we’ll switch on that machine, and we won’t be able to switch it off.” That might explain why he has very little technology at home, and counts The Terminator among his biggest influences. He doesn’t want to become a robot; he wants to be a better human.

It got me thinking about Stelarc, the Cypriot/Australian performance artist who visited our campus one day to deliver a must bizarre lecture. He demoed his extra hand and talked about the new ear he was planning on installing/implanting/growing.

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Here’s Wired’s profile of him, from 2012.

For extreme artist Stelarc, body mods hint at humans’ possible futureWired
He speaks excitedly about potential future applications for the ear. “The ear also might be a kind of distributed Bluetooth system, where if you telephone me on your cellphone, I’ll be able to speak to you through my ear,” Stelarc said. “But because the small speaker and the small receiver would be implanted in a gap between my teeth, I would hear your voice in my head. If I keep my mouth closed, only I hear your voice. If I open my mouth and someone else is close by, they might hear your voice seemingly coming from my mouth. And if I lip-sync, I’d look like some bad foreign movie.”

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Several years and surgical procedures later, and he’s still battling away.

Stelarc — Making art out of the human bodyLabiotech
The final procedure will re-implant the microphone, which will be wirelessly connected to the Internet. The goal is to use it to listen in to what’s happening in other places of the world. “The ear is not for me. I’ve got two good ears to hear with,” the artist says. “For example, someone in Venice could listen to what my ear is hearing in Melbourne.”

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Redefining the human body as “meat, metal and code”: An interview with StelarcSleek Magazine
I left our meeting in awe of a man that, at the age of 71, is still at the foreground of technological art and posthumanist thought. Stelarc was making interactive internet art before the invention of Google (and dare I say it, before I could talk). Decades into his work and exploration of the limits of the human body, Stelarc continues to break and bend our conceptions of what constitutes a body, and fundamentally, what it means to be human.

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Mixed messages

Here’s a breakdown of the seemingly inconsequential design decisions that led to very significant changes in how we communicate and relate to each other. Take the ‘typing indicator’, for instance…

The loss of micro-privacyMedium
The typing indicator elegantly solved what the team had set out to solve. But it also did a bit more than that. Apart from increased engagement, it also single-handedly introduced a whole new level of emotional nuance to online communication. This seemingly small detail inadvertently conveyed things no message by itself ever could. Picture this scenario:

Bob: “Hey Anna! It was so great to meet you. You’d like to go out for a drink tonight?”

Anna: “Starts typing…”

Anna: “Stops typing…”

Anna: “Starts typing again…”

Anna: “Sure!”

How convinced is Anna really? You might have experienced it yourself: the angst of prolonged typing indicators followed by a short response or even worse: nothing! Bob might have been happier if he hadn’t observed Anna’s typing pattern. But he did. And now he wonders how such a tiny animation can have such a profound impact on how he feels…

Ouch. It was so much easier in the old days. Well, perhaps it was just easier through these rose-tinted glasses, but it was certainly different, as these interviews from The Atlantic explain.

How the loss of the landline is changing family lifeThe Atlantic
“The shared family phone served as an anchor for home,” says Luke Fernandez, a visiting computer-science professor at Weber State University and a co-author of Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Feelings About Technology, From the Telegraph to Twitter. “Home is where you could be reached, and where you needed to go to pick up your messages.” With smartphones, Fernandez says, “we have gained mobility and privacy. But the value of the home has been diminished, as has its capacity to guide and monitor family behavior and perhaps bind families more closely together.”

(It reminds me of an article I found last year, about when we would have just the one shared family computer. Now everyone has their own computer on them at all times, one that they’re very reluctant to part with.)

What’s more, the calls, texts, and emails that pass through cellphones (and computers and tablets) can now be kept private from family members. “It keeps everybody separate in their own little techno-cocoons,” says Larry Rosen, a retired psychology professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills and a co-author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Whereas early landlines united family members gathered in a single room, cellphones now silo them.

This part particularly resonated with me, as a parent of two teenagers.

Cheryl Muller, a 59-year-old artist living in Brooklyn, raised her two sons, now 30 and 27, during the transition from landline to cellphone. “I do remember the shift from calling out ‘It’s for you,’ and being aware of their friends calling, and then asking them what the call was about, to pretty much … silence,” she says. Caroline Coleman, 54, a writer in New York City whose children grew up during the same transition, recalls how at age 10 her son got a call from a man with a deep voice. “I was horrified. I asked who it was—and it was his first classmate whose voice had changed,” she said. “When you get cells, you lose that connection.”

But perhaps I needn’t worry so much.

A mobile phone for Christmas doesn’t mean less family time for teenagersThe Conversation
In a recent study, we found that talking online and texting actually strengthened friendships more than just spending time in each other’s company. Rather than neglecting relationships and encouraging insularity, having a phone meant that young people were more likely to feel connected to their friends and closer to their family.

This is particularly important for teenagers, who are at an important stage in their development. They need to make close friends and renegotiate relationships with their parents. Making friends allows teenagers to learn how to interact with others, learn more about themselves and find their own place in the world. Mobile tech allows teenagers to stay in touch with others and can help them develop closer, more supportive friendships.

Well, if you say so.

Google Chrome’s hidden treats

I wasn’t expecting much from this article, to be honest, with its click-baity headline—just filler about keyboard shortcuts and pinned tabs. But I was pleasantly surprised by how useful this  create-your-own-search-engine tip was.

How to use Google Chrome like a proWired UK
With a few tweaks you can also search your email or Google Drive directly from the search bar. To do this you have to create a new search engine in Chrome – it’s not as complex as it sounds. Right click in the Omnibox and select ‘edit search engines’. Scroll to ‘other search engines’ and click on add. Here you enter the name of the website you want to search, a keyword that you’ll type into Chrome’s Omnibox, and a URL. The URL should be the search result page of the service you’re setting the system up for.

I’ve just set up search engines for my gmail, calendar, onedrive and blog. Being able to quickly jump into those things directly from the search bar is quite addictive.

Here’s something else that intrigued me, though I’m not sure how much I’ll use it.

You can even use a blank tab as a one-off note taker – enter “data:text/html, <html contenteditable>” and you’ll get a quick notepad. The files won’t save, but it’s useful if you want to jot something down quickly.

Bringing the click wheel back

There’s something fundamentally pleasing about a solid, tactile interface. That’s missing from all our gadgets now, I think, as we jab at our pictures under glass. The original iPod was on to something, and now it’s gone.

But now it’s back! Kind of.

This iPhone app will make you nostalgic for the iPod click wheelThe Verge
Elvin Hu, a design student at Cooper Union college in New York City, has been working on the project since October, and shared an early look at the app on Twitter yesterday. It essentially turns your iPhone into a fullscreen iPod Classic with a click wheel that includes haptic feedback and click sounds just like Apple’s original device.