They’re taking over

Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there.

I’ve shared articles about these fake, engineered nobodies before, but the transitions, animations and sliders in this piece from the New York Times are very effective, and great fun — a genuine individual on every frame.

Designed to deceive: Do these people look real to you?The New York Times
Given the pace of improvement, it’s easy to imagine a not-so-distant future in which we are confronted with not just single portraits of fake people but whole collections of them — at a party with fake friends, hanging out with their fake dogs, holding their fake babies. It will become increasingly difficult to tell who is real online and who is a figment of a computer’s imagination.

You think you know someone …

… but they turn out to be …

… someone completely different.

All these fakes — people, art, feet — it’s hard to keep track. Well, not any more.

This X Does Not Exist
Using generative adversarial networks (GAN), we can learn how to create realistic-looking fake versions of almost anything, as shown by this collection of sites that have sprung up in the past month.

Out with the new, in with the old

I got off the iPhone conveyor belt around iPhone 4, I think, so all the recent talk about the new Windows Phone-style widgets within iOS14 has passed me by.

These iOS 14 apps offer home screen widgets and more9to5Mac
Apple has officially released iOS 14, iPadOS 14, and watchOS 7 to the public. The updates bring many new features to iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch users, and third-party developers have been hard at work on updating their apps to take advantage of Apple’s latest tools.

I know I’m biased but– I don’t know, is it all starting to look a little too busy? I’d much rather look at these homescreens.

iOS: A visual historyThe Verge
Although it may be difficult to imagine now, when the original iPhone was introduced, it was actually well behind the competition when it came to a strict feature-by-feature comparison. Windows Mobile, Palm OS, Symbian, and even BlackBerry were all established systems in 2007, with a wide and deep array of features. Comparatively, the iPhone didn’t support 3G, it didn’t support multitasking, it didn’t support 3rd party apps, you couldn’t copy or paste text, you couldn’t attach arbitrary files to emails, it didn’t support MMS, it didn’t support Exchange push email, it didn’t have a customizable home screen, it didn’t support tethering, it hid the filesystem from users, it didn’t support editing Office documents, it didn’t support voice dialing, and it was almost entirely locked down to hackers and developers.

Yet all of those missing features hardly mattered and nearly everybody knew it.

What’s in a name #8

What do you get if you cross that guy who accidentally deleted his company with little Bobby Tables?

Company forced to change name that could be used to hack websitesThe Guardian
The company now legally known as “THAT COMPANY WHOSE NAME USED TO CONTAIN HTML SCRIPT TAGS LTD” was set up by a British software engineer, who says he did it purely because he thought it would be “a fun playful name” for his consulting business. He now says he didn’t realise that Companies House was actually vulnerable to the extremely simple technique he used, known as “cross-site scripting”, which allows an attacker to run code from one website on another.

The original name of the company was “”›‹SCRIPT SRC=HTTPS://MJT.XSS.HT› LTD”.

THAT COMPANY WHOSE NAME USED TO CONTAIN HTML SCRIPT TAGS LTDCompanies House
Previous company names: [NAME AVAILABLE ON REQUEST FROM COMPANIES HOUSE]

Fancy getting away from it all?

One of these could be just the ticket.

Finally! Video of a real flying car that’s actually flyingMotor1
Referred to as the AirCar, Klein’s creation attempts to streamline the flying car experience and make it a more realistic idea. As such, it allows the driver to swiftly transition from road-mode to air-mode at the push of a button – the wings can automatically be deployed or stowed while passengers remain in the cabin.

Here’s another.

AeroMobil: Flying Car
Fly. Drive. In a high tech, super luxury vehicle that is a car and airplane like no other. A supercar with super powers.

You have to wonder how much potential these plans now have, with the future of the industry as whole currently up in the air. Or not.

People have been trying to get these off the ground for years.

The AVE MizarFutility Closet
In 1971, two aeronautical engineering students set out to make an aircraft by mating the wings, engine, and airframe of a Cessna Skymaster to a modified Ford Pinto. In principle you could drive to the airport, attach the wings in two minutes, and get quickly into the air under the combined power of two engines. At your destination you’d land, stop quickly using the car’s four-wheel brakes, detach the wings, and drive off.

Be careful, though.

By 1973, two prototypes had been built and the FAA was considering certification, but on two testing flights a wing strut detached from the car. One pilot had to land in a bean field, and another died when the wing folded. The project was dropped.

I think I’ll keep my wheels on the ground.

Searching for trust

Have you googled Google in Google News recently?

The US government has filed antitrust charges against GoogleThe Verge
“Countless advertisers must pay a toll to Google’s search advertising and general search text advertising monopolies,” the complaint reads, “American consumers are forced to accept Google’s policies, privacy practices, and use of personal data; and new companies with innovative business models cannot emerge from Google’s long shadow.”

It might not be that big a deal, though.

American trustbusters take on GoogleThe Economist
The sums involved are large but the charges are narrow, argues Mark Shmulik of Bernstein, a research firm. They cover only text search, not images or video. Fiona Scott Morton of Yale University, an antitrust expert critical of Google (and an adviser to Apple), notes that the suit does not tackle allegations that Google abuses its market power in digital advertising or the claims that it handicaps potential rivals in specialised searches such as travel.

Obviously Google won’t take this lying down.

Justice Dept. files landmark antitrust case against GoogleAP News
Google vowed to defend itself and responded immediately via tweet: “Today’s lawsuit by the Department of Justice is deeply flawed. People use Google because they choose to — not because they’re forced to or because they can’t find alternatives.”

But how much of a choice do we really have?

It’s Google’s World. We Just Live in It.The New York Times
Googling something was all we once did with Google. Now we spend hours a day using its maps, videos, security cameras, email, smartphones and more.

Introducing Rex Specs

First cows, now dogs?

US Army trials augmented reality goggles for dogsBBC News
In current combat deployments, soldiers usually direct their animals with hand signals or laser pointers – both of which require the handler to be close by. But that need not be the case if the prototype AR goggles are widely adopted, the army said.

The US Army is testing augmented reality goggles for dogsThe Verge
The AR goggles themselves are adapted from an established piece of kit for military canines: protective goggles known as Rex Specs. Each pair of goggles has to be customized for its wearer, with 3D scans used to ascertain where exactly to place the HUD for optimal viewing angles. The familiarity of the Rex Specs, though, makes the goggles easy to adapt to, says Peper.

“Without adult supervision”

I enjoyed, if that’s the right word, this description of us from across the Atlantic, taken from The New York Times Morning Briefing: Europe Edition newsletter. Their description of us certainly feels quite accurate. Unfortunately.

Trump, Coronavirus, Sanda Dia: Your Monday BriefingThe New York Times

Britain, operating without adult supervision
Coronavirus cases in Britain are rising rapidly, with a record 12,871 new cases reported on Saturday evening. But as our correspondent Peter Goodman writes, you would scarcely imagine it on the streets of London, where masks hang below chins, punters cluster in pubs and cafes and rules around mask wearing or social distancing are frequently ignored.

Beyond the obvious ways that this cavalier behavior is disconcerting, it has enhanced a widely shared sense that Britain — famously rule-abiding — is now operating without adult supervision. Public confidence has plummeted, with more than half of respondents in a recent survey declaring the government has botched its handling of the pandemic, up from 39 percent in May.

The current crisis seems exacerbated by an offshoot of the very virtue celebrated in Britain’s conventional historical narrative — an admirable refusal to bend. A national mantra, “keep calm and carry on,” seems to have been reconfigured into the misguided notion that nothing is amiss.

And as if to further illustrate the point about a lack of supervision.

Botched Excel import may have caused loss of 15,841 UK COVID-19 casesArs Technica
Public Health England admitted on Sunday that the agency has under-reported COVID-19 infections by 15,841 cases in recent days due to a “technical issue.” The missing positive tests were conducted between September 25 and October 2 and have since been added to national statistics, the agency said.

Excel: Why using Microsoft’s tool caused Covid-19 results to be lostBBC News
“Excel was always meant for people mucking around with a bunch of data for their small company to see what it looked like,” commented Prof Jon Crowcroft from the University of Cambridge. “And then when you need to do something more serious, you build something bespoke that works – there’s dozens of other things you could do. But you wouldn’t use XLS. Nobody would start with that.”

Tracking up-take

After a considerable false start, the long-awaited new NHS Covid-19 app is now available. Have you downloaded it yet? Even if take-up is as low as some are gloomily predicting, it could still be worthwhile.

Take-up of NHS contact-tracing app could be only 10%The Guardian
Officials at the test and trace programme, however, believe there will be benefits even if few people adopt it. A recent study by the same data team at Oxford University, looking at the experience of Washington state in the US, found that if 15% used an app that notified them of exposure to an infected person, infections were reduced by 8% and deaths by 6%.

But even the best only got up to 40% take-up.

Everything you need to know about the NHS Covid-19 tracking appWired UK
The country with the highest download rate is Singapore, which was the first nation to introduce a contact tracing app. The TraceTogether system has been downloaded 2.4 million times as of September 9. This accounts for around 40 per cent of Singapore’s population. The country has also moved beyond the contact tracing apps by trialling a Bluetooth ’token,’ a wearable device, that people can use for contact tracing purposes.

Update: 28/09/2020

So far, so good.

Working together

WordPress have launched P2, their new internal communications platform—a potential competitor to Microsoft Teams, and perhaps Google’s Shared Drives. It’s free so naturally I immediately signed up. But, as with so many things like this, I’m only ever in teams of one (aww), so I may find it of limited use.

A more poetic AI

I’ve a number of posts here tagged AI and art, but not so many about its impact on music or poetry. Let’s put that right. But first (via It’s Nice That), a quick recap.

The A-Z of AIWith Google
This beginner’s A-Z guide is a collaboration between the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at the University of Oxford and Google, intended to break a complex area of computer science down into entry-level explanations that will help anyone get their bearings and understand the basics.

Topics include bias and ethics, as well as quantum computing and the Turing test. Nothing about Shakespeare though.

This AI poet mastered rhythm, rhyme, and natural language to write like ShakespeareIEEE Spectrum
Deep-speare’s creation is nonsensical when you read it closely, but it certainly “scans well,” as an English teacher would say—its rhythm, rhyme scheme, and the basic grammar of its individual lines all seem fine at first glance. As our research team discovered when we showed our AI’s poetry to the world, that’s enough to fool quite a lot of people; most readers couldn’t distinguish the AI-generated poetry from human-written works.

I think they’re better off sticking to the visuals.

Beck launches Hyperspace: AI Exploration, a visual album with NASAIt’s Nice That
The project was made possible by AI architects and directors OSK, founded by artists Jon Ray and Isabelle Albuquerque, who began the project by asking, “How would artificial intelligence imagine our universe?” In answering this question it allowed the directors to create “a unique AI utilising computer vision, machine learning and Generative Adversarial neural Networks (GAN) to learn from NASA’s vast archives.” The AI then trained itself through these thousands of images, data and videos, to then begin “creating its own visions of our universe.”

Some of them can really hold a tune, though.

What do machines sing of?Martin Backes
“What do machines sing of?” is a fully automated machine, which endlessly sings number-one ballads from the 1990s. As the computer program performs these emotionally loaded songs, it attempts to apply the appropriate human sentiments. This behavior of the device seems to reflect a desire, on the part of the machine, to become sophisticated enough to have its very own personality.

Lastly, it’s good to see that you can still be silly with technology and music.

There are so many articles like this

An actually useful guide to not being on your phone all the timeVice
If you’re struggling to detach yourself from your various devices during this pandemic—or, if you can’t do that out of necessity, but would like strategies for constantly looking at a screen without wanting to crack it into pieces—here are some tips.

Alternatively

Joanne McNeil knows what she’s talking about

7 books about cyberspace by women writersElectric Literature
Here are seven texts that capture the emotional charge and atmospheric qualities of the internet, especially in its early years. These authors express what it felt like to be present and part of the free-ranging internet populace that was cyberspace and is the internet now—sometimes—in its more secretive corners.

We’re doomed! #2

You can now boot a Windows 95 PC inside Minecraft and play Doom on it – The Verge
If you’ve ever wanted to build a real and working Windows 95 PC inside Minecraft, now is the time. A new VM Computers mod has been created for Minecraft that allows players to order computer parts from a satellite orbiting around a Minecraft world and build a computer that actually boots Windows 95 and a variety of other operating systems.

uDrunkMate on Reddit

Here’s another one, though all might not be as it seems.

Doom running in task manager with each CPU core as a pixel, supposedlyBoing Boing
In this footage, a supercomputer’s CPU cores — nearly 900 of them — are neatly lined up in the Task Manager. The Doom logo appears, generated by code that targets each core. Then Doom itself plays, each “pixel” generated by thrashing a core with just the right amount of busy work.

You’re right to be incredulous — the article goes on to explain how that video might be fake.

Ignore your inbox

Why email loses out to popular apps in ChinaBBC Worklife
Zhong Ling, assistant professor of economics at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, believes WeChat fits into the Chinese working culture. “WeChat, as a messaging platform, demands less formal working time than email,” she says. “This informality makes people more likely to respond instantaneously… the demand for [an] immediate response is motivated by the cultural and business environment in China.”

To get help, pick up your phone

This is not an easy time to be living through, but perhaps spending more time on your phone could help. Did you know that the NHS has an app library, full of health-related NHS-tested apps? There’s a mental health section, with apps dealing with all sorts of issues from stress, anxiety and panic attacks, to insomnia and self-harm and more.

Can apps help you manage your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic? – Patient
“This is a time of great unrest and financial anxiety and some people may not feel confident or able to enter into the commitment of more traditional modes of therapy when their lives feel so up in the air,” she says. “The cost and upkeep of a therapy relationship on balance may only add to anxieties rather than resolve them, so an app may be a useful short-term intervention until they can access the right avenue of support.”

Sadly, there’s nothing on there about tinnitus, my constant companion, but fear not, help of a familiar kind might be on the way.

Are iCBT chatbots helpful for tinnitus?British Tinnitus Association
Two studies are investigating a new iCBT smartphone application that has been developed by Fabrice Brady, the Co-Founder at Hearing Power and Dr James Jackson, at Leeds Trinity University, to help reduce tinnitus related distress.

Tinnitus remedies and reliefTake on tinnitus
One in eight people suffer from tinnitus and experience a ringing in the ears or buzzing in the ears. There are lots of promises of tinnitus remedies, treatments and cures online. Take on tinnitus is designed to help you better understand tinnitus and offer practical ways that could help to relieve your tinnitus.

Free vintage computers

Well, models of them, at least.

Papercraft ModelsRocky Bergen
Construct the computer from your childhood or build an entire computer museum at home with these paper models, free to download and share.

Yes, there’s the Apple Macintosh, the BBC microcomputer and some Nintendo and Sega systems, but my faves are definitely the Commodore 64, complete with printer and paper, and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum with a TV and cassette recorder from the 1982 Dixons catalogue, no less. (via Boing Boing)

It’s been more years than I care to remember, but I can still hear and feel those keyboards—the clack of the Commodore’s and the squidge of those silly little Spectrum keys.

And for more retro goodness, how about two minutes of beeps and chimes from other old machines.

Windows All Startup Sounds on Piano – Bored Piano

Over-promising, under-delivering

We’re expecting news of more lockdown restrictions being eased today; restaurants, cinemas, museums, 2 metre rule etc. But the virus hasn’t gone anywhere, and we’re still without a vaccine, so we’re relying on a rigorous track and trace system, I guess. That works very well in other countries, scarily so sometimes.

The detectives racing to contain the virus in SingaporeBBC News
“It was surreal,” she says, describing the moment an unknown number flashed up on her phone. “They asked ‘were you in a taxi at 18:47 on Wednesday?’ It was very precise. I guess I panicked a bit, I couldn’t think straight.” Melissa eventually remembered that she was in that taxi – and later when she looked at her taxi app realised it was a trip that took just six minutes. To date, she doesn’t know whether it was the driver or another passenger who was infected. All she knows is that it was an officer at Singapore’s health ministry that made the phone call, and told her that she needed to stay at home and be quarantined.

The next day Melissa found out just how serious the officials were. Three people turned up at her door, wearing jackets and surgical masks. “It was a bit like out of a film,” she says. “They gave me a contract – the quarantine order – it says you cannot go outside your home otherwise it’s a fine and jail time. It is a legal document. They make it very clear that you cannot leave the house. And I knew I wouldn’t break it. I know that I live in a place where you do what you’re told.”

It’s a different picture here, however.

England’s ‘world beating’ system to track the virus is anything butThe New York Times
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain unveiled last month a “world beating” operation to track down people who had been exposed to the coronavirus, giving the country a chance to climb out of lockdown without losing sight of where infections were spreading. As with much of the government’s response to the pandemic, however, the results have fallen short of the promises, jeopardizing the reopening of Britain’s hobbled economy and risking a second wave of death in one of the countries most debilitated by the virus.

Can technology come to the rescue?

What Big Tech wants out of the pandemicThe Atlantic
The government has flailed in its response to the pandemic, and Big Tech has presented itself as a beneficent friend, willing to lend a competent hand. As Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, wrote in April, “The challenges we face demand an unprecedented alliance between business and government.”

Also in April, Google and Apple announced that they would suspend their rivalry to work with nations of the world to create a new alert system. They would reconfigure their mobile operating systems, incompatible by design, to notify users if they have stepped within the radius of a device held by a COVID‑19 patient.

Is this the approach others are taking?

Japan rolls out Microsoft-developed COVID-19 contact tracing appThe Verge
Japan’s government today released its coronavirus contact tracing app for iOS and Android. The apps rely on Apple and Google’s co-developed exposure notification platform, using Bluetooth to help determine whether users have come into close contact with others who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Germany says coronavirus tracing app ready to goReuters
After delays to ensure the bluetooth technology would work at the correct distance, the government says the app will be a vital tool to help avoid a second wave of infections.

But we don’t need their help, right?

Britain didn’t want Silicon Valley’s help on a tracing app. Now it does.The New York Times
For months, British authorities have pursued an app that they promised would help ease the country’s coronavirus lockdown, despite growing criticism that it posed privacy risks and would not work well. On Thursday, officials abruptly reversed course, saying Britain will join other countries and design a new contact-tracing app based on software provided by Apple and Google.

So what happened?

Why the NHS Covid-19 contact tracing app failedWired UK
Matt Hancock has had another app catastrophe. England’s planned contact tracing app, which has been trialled on the Isle of Wight and downloaded by tens of thousands of people, has been ditched in favour of a system developed by Google and Apple.

The reversal, first reported by the BBC and later confirmed by the government, follows months of delays for the home-brewed app and difficulties surrounding its implementation. It also makes England the latest in a string of countries to ditch a centralised system in favour of a decentralised one supported by two Silicon Valley giants. That club also includes Germany, Italy and Denmark.

UK abandons contact-tracing app for Apple and Google modelThe Guardian
Work started in March as the pandemic unfolded, but despite weeks of work, officials admitted on Thursday that the NHS app only recognised 4% of Apple phones and 75% of Google Android devices during testing on the Isle of Wight. That was because the design of Apple’s iPhone operating system is such that apps quickly go to sleep when they are not being used and cannot be activated by Bluetooth – a point raised by experts and reported by the Guardian in early May.

What went wrong with the UK’s contact tracing app?BBC News
Two days later, with quite a fanfare, Health Secretary Matt Hancock unveiled the plans for the Covid-19 app, promising “all data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards, and would only be used for NHS care and research”.

But immediately privacy campaigners, politicians and technology experts raised concerns. “I recognise the overwhelming force of the public health arguments for a centralised system, but I also have 25 years’ experience of the NHS being incompetent at developing systems and repeatedly breaking their privacy promises,” said Cambridge University’s Prof Ross Anderson.[…]

The blame game has already begun. Mr Hancock and some of the scientists working with the NHS believe Apple should have been more cooperative. Technology experts and privacy campaigners say they warned months ago how this story would end.

Now what?

UK virus-tracing app switches to Apple-Google modelBBC News
Baroness Dido Harding – who heads up the wider Test and Trace programme – will only give the green light to actually deploying the Apple-Google technology if she judges it to be fit for purpose, which she does not believe is the case at present. It is possible this may never happen. […]

The NHS has been testing both systems against each other, over the course of the past month. The centralised version trialled on the Isle of Wight worked well at assessing the distance between two users, but was poor at recognising Apple’s iPhones. Specifically, the software registered about 75% of nearby Android handsets but only 4% of iPhones. By contrast, the Apple-Google model logged 99% of both Android mobiles and iPhones. But its distance calculations were weaker.

The Apple-Google model faired better, so that’s the option to take further, in this embarrassing reversal turnaround backtrack ‘next phase’.

Next phase of NHS coronavirus (COVID-19) app announcedGOV.UK
This next phase will bring together the work done so far on the NHS COVID-19 app and the new Google/Apple framework. Following rigorous field testing and a trial on the Isle of Wight, we have identified challenges with both our app and the Google/Apple framework. This is a problem that many countries around the world, like Singapore, are facing and in many cases only discovering them after whole population roll-out. As a result of our work, we will now be taking forward a solution that brings together the work on our app and the Google/Apple solution.

That seemed to take Apple by surprise.

Apple ‘not told’ about UK’s latest app plansBBC News
During the briefing, Mr Hancock said: “Measuring distance is clearly mission critical to any contact-tracing app.” However, speaking to the Times, Apple said: “It is difficult to understand what these claims are as they haven’t spoken to us.” The firm also pointed out that the tech was already either in use or intended for use in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Ireland.

The tech giant also expressed surprise that the UK was working on a new version of the contact-tracing app which incorporated the Apple-Google software tool. “We’ve agreed to join forces with Google and Apple, to bring the best bits of both systems together,” Mr Hancock said. However, Apple said: “We don’t know what they mean by this hybrid model. They haven’t spoken to us about it.”

<sigh>

Should we be more pessimistic?New York Times
“[The virus] challenges our presumptions about being able to fully control things, and it raises existential issues about our very ability to relate to the world outside of a human-centric point of view,” said Eugene Thacker, a professor of media studies at the New School and the author of books on pessimism, including “In The Dust of This Planet” and “Infinite Resignation.” “It’s at once awe-inspiring and scary. You have a sense of wonder at something bigger than the human, but also a sense of the ground giving way beneath your feet.”