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.)

technologically-grim-tales

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.

technologically-grim-tales-2

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.”

lend-an-ear-4

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.

Cyberspace for cattle?

Yesterday I shared an example of how technology can be used to help us, but I had to check the date when I saw this article — we’ve not jumped to the 1st of April, have we?

Cows wearing VR headsets might produce better milkEngadget
It’s not just humans who can benefit from VR. Moscow-area farmers strapped modified VR headsets to cows to see if it improved their mood — and, of course, their milk production. The project subjected cattle to a simulated summer field with colors tuned for the animals’ eyes, giving them a decidedly more pleasing landscape than a plain, confining farm.

What a time to be alive.

The research begs a few questions. Why not just put the cows in fields more often? How do you deal with battery life? And is there a risk of disturbing cows when you take their headsets off and show them dreary reality?

cyberspace-for-cattle-1

And how would they eat? And what will they see when they look at each other? What a stupid idea.

Letting Alexa help

I know we’re supposed to see Amazon as a dangerous, money-grabbing, pernicious, snooping mega-corporation, but might this be a good idea?

Amazon launches medication management features for AlexaTechCrunch
The features, though limited to one regional pharmacy for the time being, offer a view into how Amazon envisions voice-ordering for prescriptions will work for its customer base, and how such a system could be integrated with its own health care program at some later date, perhaps.

“Voice has proven to be beneficial for a variety of use cases because it removes barriers, and simplifies daily tasks. We believe this new Alexa feature will help simplify the way people manage their medication by removing the need to continuously think about what medications they’ve taken that day or what they need to take,” noted Rachel Jiang, Head of Alexa Health & Wellness, in an announcement about the new features.

Could we give this the benefit of the doubt? Something is certainly needed.

Poll shows that almost 50% of people forget to take their medication at least once a monthEpilepsy Research UK

Why people forget to take their medicine, and what can be done about itScience Daily

Medication compliance in the elderlyPubMed

The top 6 reasons elderly people don’t take medicationHometouch

The cost of not taking your medicineThe New York Times

Why do people stop taking their meds? Cost is just one reasonNPR

Forgetting to take tabletsDiabetes.co.uk

A non-binding contract?

Last year, Tim Berners-Lee launched his Contract for the Web, setting out what he hopes will be our rights and freedoms on the internet. It wasn’t received entirely positively at the time, but Tim’s persisting.

Contract for the Web
Everyone has a role to play in safeguarding the future of the Web. The Contract for the Web was created by representatives from over 80 organizations, representing governments, companies and civil society, and sets out commitments to guide digital policy agendas. To achieve the Contract’s goals, governments, companies, civil society and individuals must commit to sustained policy development, advocacy, and implementation of the Contract text.

We can all get involved — governments, corporations, individuals.

Contract for the Web: Tim Berners-Lee calls on world governments (and us all) to make the web a force for goodBoingBoing
Governments that sign on are asked to promise to “ensure everyone can connect to the internet,” to “keep all the internet available all the time,” and to “respect and protect people’s fundamental online privacy and data rights.”

Corporate signatories promise that they will “make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone,” “respect and protect people’s privacy and personal data to build online trust,” and “develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst.”

Individuals are asked to “be creators and collaborators on the Web,” “build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity,” and “fight for the Web.”

It’s the digital equivalent of the climate crisis.

Tim Berners-Lee unveils global plan to save the webThe Guardian
“I think people’s fear of bad things happening on the internet is becoming, justifiably, greater and greater,” Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, told the Guardian. “If we leave the web as it is, there’s a very large number of things that will go wrong. We could end up with a digital dystopia if we don’t turn things around. It’s not that we need a 10-year plan for the web, we need to turn the web around now.”

But, as before, doubts remain.

Tim Berners-Lee: web inventor’s plan to save the internet is admirable, but doomed to failThe Conversation
But the fact that Google and Facebook back the contract raises some questions. Do they really want to help reform the web to curb their worst behaviour or will manipulation continue to be the cost of access?

The algorithms of Google, Facebook and Twitter determine what people see online, whether that is adverts or political content. The contract does nothing to resolve this huge imbalance in influence and power. Many of us feel like we have no choice but to use their services, and they often use openness – such as free email and free apps like Google Maps – as a way of furthering their control over everything people do online.

Google makes money from people using free services, mostly by hoovering up our data to fuel targeted ads, and its business model isn’t likely to change overnight. For internet reform to succeed, it would need international collaboration between governments for effective regulation, along with pressure from users.

Sounds unlikely, to be honest. Unfortunately.

Update 05/12/2019

I’ve just come across this article that I thought fits well here, trying to imagine an internet that serves the public interest. It seems such a quaint idea, but one with a solid history behind, thanks in part to radio and the BBC.

Building a more honest internetColumbia Journalism Review
Of the world’s top hundred websites, Wikipedia is the sole noncommercial site. If the contemporary internet is a city, Wikipedia is the lone public park; all the rest of our public spaces are shopping malls—open to the general public, but subject to the rules and logic of commerce.

Quitting your pocket slot machine

Political misinformation, privacy screw-ups , harmful and manipulative content — let’s just switch it off.

The case for deleting your social media accounts & doing valuable “deep work” instead, according to Prof. Cal NewportOpen Culture
As for the claim that we should join him in the wilderness of the real—his argument is persuasive. Social media, says Newport, is not a “fundamental technology.” It is akin to the slot machine, an “entertainment machine,” with an insidious added dimension—the soul stealing. Paraphrasing tech guru and iconoclast Jaron Lanier, Newport says, “these companies offer you shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bytes of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold.” But like the slot machine, the social media network is a “somewhat unsavory source of entertainment” given the express intent of its engineers to make their product “as addictive as possible,” comparable to what dietitians now call “ultra-processed foods”—all sugar and fat, no nutrients.

It’s from three years ago now, but doesn’t get any less relevant.

Quit social media | Dr. Cal NewportYouTube
‘Deep work’ will make you better at what you do. You will achieve more in less time. And feel the sense of true fulfillment that comes from the mastery of a skill.

Pragmatic password pointers

It’s 2019 and we’re still having a problem with passwords.

The Disney+ hack shows why you need to up your password gameWired UK
Although it can still be referred to as a ‘hack’, it wasn’t Disney’s servers that were compromised – but its customers.

“What hackers do is they have a huge list of previously stolen username and password combinations and they use hacking tools to automatically check those username and password combinations against the target website,” says Andrew Martin, CEO of DynaRisk, a cybersecurity company. “They throw hundreds of millions of account details at them, and they see they see what sticks.”

Here’s some essential digital literacy advice that should be a compulsory part of every school’s curriculum. And every company’s induction programme.

The ultimate guide to passwords in 2019Fleetsmith
Putting to rest some of the most persistent falsehoods about passwords and what it takes to come up with strong passwords and practice good password security in 2019.

The main points:

  • How long should my password be? 10 characters long, minimum, but make it as long as possible. Length is the most important factor to strength.
  • Does my password need special characters to be strong? Nope.
  • Does my password need numbers to be strong? Nope.
  • What about switching numbers for letters(1337 speak)? This does nothing.
  • How often should I change my password? Only change it if you think it’s been compromised. Never force users to rotate passwords, this actually lowers security.
  • Can I use the same password on multiple sites? Absolutely not. Every service should have its own unique password so that you don’t have to change all of them when (not if) they get breached.
  • How can I remember my password? Don’t try to remember your passwords, use a password manager. If you don’t want to, write it down. If you have to make a long, memorable password, use the diceware method. But never reuse a password.
  • What about two-factor authentication? Always turn on 2FA if it’s an option. Use the strongest 2FA method you can. A text message is weaker than an authenticator app is weaker than hardware-based authentication. Never give a service your phone number if you can help it.
  • What about password recovery questions? Don’t give honest answers to these. For maximum security, generate a secondary random password for each question and store it in your password manager.

Via Khoi Vinh, who goes on to examine the poor user experience of passwords across platforms and products that almost encourages carelessness.

Passwords are a design problemSubtraction.com
Create six different accounts at six different web sites and you’ll very likely encounter six different approaches to encouraging and enforcing password strength and security, some egregiously lax and others excessively restrictive. That inconsistency alone undermines much of the vigilance that otherwise responsible users might bring to password creation.

We have rights, but who pays?

Two more think pieces on Labour’s plans to provide free broadband to everyone in the UK, if elected.

Free broadband: internet access is now a human right, no matter who pays the billsThe Conversation
Before the internet, most people in democracies had roughly equal opportunities to exercise their political rights. They could vote, write to newspapers or their political representative, attend public meetings and join organisations.

But when some people gained internet access, their opportunities to exercise political rights became much greater compared to those without the internet. They could publish their views online for potentially millions of people to see, join forces with other people without having to physically attend regular meetings, and obtain a wealth of previously inaccessible political information.

Today, a large proportion of our political debates take place online, so in some ways our political rights can only be exercised via the internet. This means internet access is required for people to have roughly equal opportunities to make use of their political freedoms, and why we should recognise internet access as a human right.

Economics of Labour’s plan to nationalise broadband – £20 billion cost is unrealisticThe Conversation
While there is no nationalised and free full-fibre scheme to compare Labour’s proposal to, Australia carried out a government-funded broadband rollout scheme that is widely viewed as a relative failure. This policy was not identical – it was not for full-fibre connections – but costs of the programme spiralled and it became a political football.

Expanding access to super-fast broadband is clearly an important policy goal and rural communities would likely be the biggest beneficiaries, as market forces are unlikely to provide this in the short or medium term. But Labour appears to significantly underestimate the costs, while possibly overestimating the savings.

Ultimately, the question to ask is whether guaranteed full-fibre connections in every home is justifiable if the programme started to run several times over budget, as seems likely. There would be a very real risk of non-delivery if the project keeps going over budget. Then, a lack of private sector provision would leave little alternative for consumers to turn to.

Past and future of gaming

Google’s leapt into gaming with the launch of Stadia.

Why Google Stadia is a ‘leap forward’ for gaming, according to its bossBBC News
“I don’t think what we’re doing is particularly revolutionary when you consider what’s happened in the music, television and film industries,” Google Vice President Phil Harrison tells Radio 1 Newsbeat. “They’ve moved from being packaged goods, discs, CDs, DVDs, blu rays, to almost exclusively an online and streaming experience.” And he believes Google will be just the first of many companies who ditch consoles and discs forever, and make the switch to a browser-led game streaming service.

No launch is ever perfect, though.

Google Stadia review: a terrible but tantalising glimpse of the futureWired UK
So, does it work? Kinda. Or, to be slightly harsher, not as such. At launch, Stadia does not live up to its promise of being able to play anywhere, on any screen, just by connecting a controller and accessing your library. It is utterly, expectedly, beholden to the stability and speed of your internet connection, which means for the great majority of players staying at home – just as they would with a console.

Stadia: Google’s online game streaming service launches to complaints about lagSky News
Gamers are finding that the process of communicating with Google’s servers where the games are being run is adding significant delays between when they press a button and when that action is carried out in-game.

These games might not have those heavy server demands and latency issues.

TweetTweetJam 3: Make a game in 560 characters of codeitch.io
Why 560? Because you don’t always need a ton of code to make something fun. Because sometimes it’s nice to scale back. But mostly because it’s the length of two tweets.

But let’s not lose sight of where we’ve been. Have a stroll down memory lane with this collection of gaming graphic design. It’s just one of several collections of logos Reagan has on his website.

Video game console logosReagan Ray
This list covers the second (1976) through eighth (present) generation consoles. According to Wikipedia, there were 687 first-generation consoles produced, so I decided that was a rabbit hole I didn’t want to enter. I had fun designing the page to look like an old video game ad or one of those posters that came in Nintendo Power. The TV screen borders even made me nostalgic for playing games on an old crappy 19-inch TV.

past-and-future-of-gaming-1

And if you want to learn the dark truth about what’s behind platform games, watch this.

Little Runmo

Extreme archives

That 10,000 year clock is being built in remote, mountainous west Texas, a location thought to be safe from whatever the future might have in store for us. Here’s news of another.

Microsoft apocalypse-proofs open source code in an Arctic caveBloomberg
This is the Arctic World Archive, the seed vault’s much less sexy cousin. Friedman unlocks the container door with a simple door key and, inside, deposits much of the world’s open source software code. Servers and flash drives aren’t durable enough for this purpose, so the data is encoded on what look like old-school movie reels, each weighing a few pounds and stored in a white plastic container about the size of a pizza box. It’s basically microfilm. With the help of a magnifying glass, you—or, say, a band of End Times survivors—can see the data, be it pictures, text, or lines of code.

extreme-archives-1

What starts out as a quirky vanity project/photo op for the GitHub CEO becomes to be seen, at the very end of the article, and for him personally, as a timely precaution against a world “fundamentally weirder than it was 20 years ago”.

Mixing yesterday’s politics with tomorrow’s technology

I must admit I was as incredulous as everybody else when this was announced. Any talk of nationalisation makes me cringe.

Full text of Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on Labour’s British Broadband announcementThe Labour Party
A Labour government will make broadband free for everybody. And not just any broadband, but the very fastest. Full-fibre broadband to every home, in every part of our country, for free – as a universal public service.

And once it’s up and running, instead of you forking out for your monthly bill, we’ll tax the giant corporations fairly – the Facebooks and the Googles – to cover the running costs.

But perhaps I’m being too hasty to dismiss this?

The Conservative’s own research shows why Labour’s broadband plan makes perfect senseWired UK
Research commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) last year argued that current major providers are competing for a slice of just 75 per cent of the UK broadband market – and largely ignoring rural areas that they consider unprofitable. …

Openreach was even identified as the best (and only) contender for the job, and advised against “competitive tendering”. In a similar way to Australia and Singapore, this model could deliver coverage at a lower cost than a model that relies more heavily on the private sector, analysts argued.

We’ll have to wait and see. It could all be academic anyway, come 12 December.

Being an astronaut isn’t plain sailing

One way of escaping our worries here on Earth could be to take a trip to the International Space Station. That might not work out so well, though.

Life on the Space Station is about to get really weird and lonelyWired UK
Right now, there are six astronauts aboard the International Space Station, floating 408km above our heads. But soon things could be about to get a lot lonelier up there. Delays in building new spacecraft to get astronauts into space mean that the next trio of astronauts set to join the ISS in April 2020 are facing the possibility of being the space station’s lone occupants for six months.

Space can make your blood flow backwardsBGR
On Earth, gravity aids in draining blood from the head and ensuring a steady flow. In space, that assistance just isn’t there, and slow-moving or stagnant blood can cause clotting. In fact, two of the crew members were found to have clots or partial clots in their left internal jugular vein. Blood clotting is incredibly dangerous when it happens within the body, and if a clot were to form and then travel to the lungs it could create a pulmonary embolism, which is a potentially fatal condition that requires immediate treatment.

It’s OK

Technology is the reason we get old enough to complain about technology.
Garry Kasparov

It’s worth remembering that there is good news out there, if you know where to look.

A quick word about data compression

Yes, data compression is a very technical subject but, as this Quartz Obsession summary shows, its roots are quite analogue.

Data compression
1867: Chicago Tribune publisher Joseph Medill argues for eliminating excess letters from the English language, like dropping the “e” in “favorite.” …

1934: Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick, Medill’s grandson, institutes compressed spelling rules; some stick (“analog,” “canceled”), some don’t (“hocky,” “doctrin”).

More people who aren’t there

Remember that website full of photos of fake faces? Well, Dr Julian Koplin from the University of Melbourne has been combining those AI generated portraits with AI generated text, and now there’s a whole city of them.

Humans of an unreal city
These stories were composed by Open AI’s GPT-2 language model and AllenAI’s Grover news generator, which were given various prompts and asked to elaborate. My favourite results are recorded here – some lightly edited, many entirely intact. The accompanying photos were generated by the AI at This Person Does Not Exist. They are not real humans, but you can look into their eyes nonetheless.

As he explains in this commentary on the ethics of the project, some of the results are convincingly human.

more-people-who-arent-there

The very human language of AI
AI can tell stories about oceans and drowning, about dinners shared with friends, about childhood trauma and loveless marriages. They can write about the glare and heat of the sun without ever having seen light or felt heat. It seems so human. At the same time, the weirdness of some AI-generated text shows that they ‘understand’ the world very differently to us.

I’m worried less about the machines becoming sentient and taking over, with their AI generated art and poetry, and more about the dangers these tools pose when in the hands of ill-intentioned humans.

Meanwhile.

100,000 free AI-generated headshots put stock photo companies on notice
It’s getting easier and easier to use AI to generate convincing-looking, yet entirely fake, pictures of people. Now, one company wants to find a use for these photos, by offering a resource of 100,000 AI-generated faces to anyone that can use them — royalty free. Many of the images look fake but others are difficult to distinguish from images licensed by stock photo companies …

Zhabinskiy is keen to emphasize that the AI used to generate these images was trained using data shot in-house, rather than using stock media or scraping photographs from the internet. “Such an approach requires thousands of hours of labor, but in the end, it will certainly be worth it!” exclaims an Icons8 blog post. Ivan Braun, the founder of Icons8, says that in total the team took 29,000 pictures of 69 models over the course of three years which it used to train its algorithm.

There are valid concerns about technology that’s able to generate convincing-looking fakes like these at scale. This project is trying to create images that make life easier for designers, but the software could one day be used for all sorts of malicious activity.

None for me, thanks

Are you annoyed as I am when adverts for things I may or may not be interested in creepily follow you around the entire web, from one website to another? Maybe you aren’t, it’s not an issue for a lot of people. But for some it is, and Firefox is here to help.

The latest version of Firefox shows the wild scale of web tracking
It’s a big issue. According to cookie tracker tool Web Cookies, there are an average of 12.5 third-party cookies on every site, with a monstrous 412 cookies found on one shady site. Mozilla’s own estimates say there are roughly 170 third-party trackers following each user around the web every single day.

With Firefox 70, Mozilla continues with the universal blocking of all third-party cookies and web trackers for all users, which it introduced with Firefox 69, but it has also added the ability for users to see exactly which trackers are attempting to track them, as well as how many have been blocked.

This is a step in the right direction. I guess it’s a matter of choice, but people need to be aware of the scale of this issue first.

“We’re making it so that people don’t have the opportunity to create a profile of you online that they can use to serve you ads or political information,” says Celeste Kinswood, senior product marketing manager at Mozilla. “The volume of the tracker epidemic is super high, and people don’t know.”