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.”

How to advertise a phone battery

Ages ago, I shared a post about that incredible movie, The Russian Ark. It was filmed entirely in the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum with 2,000 cast members, three orchestras and a single 96-minute steadicam shot.

Well, the folks at Apple have done something similiar, to show off their new mobile, but have considerably upped the runtime. No orchestras this time, though it’s just as mesmerising.

A one-take journey through Russia’s iconic Hermitage museum, shot on iPhone 11 ProApple
Experience a 5 hr 19 min 28 sec cinematic journey through one of the world’s biggest museums in St. Petersburg, Russia. Take in 45 galleries, 588 masterpieces, and live performances, shot in 4K on iPhone 11 Pro in one continuous take.

Here’s the one and a half minute trailer, for those in a hurry.

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.

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.

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.

Feeling drained?

Battery icons shape perceptions of time and space and define user identities
“People no longer think about their destination being 10 km away or 10 stops on the tube. They think about it being 50 per cent of their battery away,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Thomas Robinson. […]

One of the study’s respondents described the experience of watching their battery icon throughout the day: “Full would be ‘Yeah, ok great’, good to go for the day’; 50 per cent I’d be a bit ‘Oh God, I had better stop it from updating itself all the time in the background’ … then it would be at 30 per cent and I would be like: ‘Now I’m not having fun anymore’,” the respondent said.

Want a better holiday?

Time away from work is great, but is a break from your phone even better?

Leave your phone at home this holiday and you’ll feel better (after you feel worse)
Travellers at this stage were forced to travel in an old-fashion manner, navigating using a printed map, talking to strangers, and reading printed bus timetables. Two of our participants even gave up at this stage as they found the emotional experience unbearable.

Those that stuck it out were glad they did.

Our participants overcame the initial emotions and then started to enjoy the digital-free experience. They found themselves more immersed in the destination, created more valuable moments with their travel companions, and had many more memorable and authentic encounters with locals.

They felt free, happy, excited, and relieved. One participant said: “I feel quite good that I made it this far without technology. I feel quite liberated.” Without the disruptions of digital technologies, they were fully engaged with their holiday experience, demonstrating that a digital-free holiday can contribute to wellbeing.

But if it’s a relaxing holiday you’re after, why not take a trip to Battle Creek Sanitarium, John Kellogg’s medical spa and birthplace of the corn flake?

Dr. John Kellogg invented cereal. Some of his other wellness ideas were much weirder
Kellogg’s interest in the therapeutic powers of electricity didn’t end with light baths. With a device he cobbled together from telephone parts, he began to administer mild doses of electrical current directly to his patients’ skin. Kellogg claimed these “sinusoidal current” treatments were painless and wrote that he’d tested them in “many thousands of therapeutic applications.” While electrical stimulation is used to this day for certain medical purposes, the ever-optimistic Kellogg maintained that it could treat lead poisoning, tuberculosis, obesity and, when applied directly to the patient’s eyeballs, a variety of vision disorders.

Raising kids these days

Bringing up children has never been very easy, but are we making it harder for ourselves these days?

Now some families are hiring coaches to help them raise phone-free children
In Chicago, Cara Pollard, a parent coach, noticed most adults have gotten so used to entertaining themselves with phones, they forgot that they actually grew up without them. Clients were coming to her confused about what to do all afternoon with their kids to replace tablets. She has her clients do a remembering exercise.

“I say, ‘Just try to remember what you did as a kid,’” Ms. Pollard said. “And it’s so hard, and they’re very uncomfortable, but they just need to remember.”

You could be putting your child off reading – here’s how to change that
From my interviews with the children, I also discovered that it was common practice for teachers and parents to ask children questions about the books they read and that reading aloud done by teachers at school was usually accompanied by questions. While this might seem like a useful learning technique, it’s not one that goes down well with the kids.

All the children I spoke with said they did not like being asked questions after reading – and that it took away the fun from reading. One boy said that knowing he would be asked questions about the reading “kind of makes me feel like they’re going to give us an exam or a test afterwards”.

To Google or not to Google

I thought coming across these articles recently (just two of many) was a little ironic, given current moves at work to migrate us away from the Microsoft ecosystem towards Google’s.

How can I remove Google from my life?
Google started by taking over the search engine market. It now dominates smartphone operating systems (Android), browsers (Chrome), web-based email (Gmail), online video (YouTube) and maps. It is also challenging in other areas with its own cloud platform, an online office suite, Chromebooks, Waze, Nest and so on. Google is far advanced in driverless cars (Waymo) and artificial intelligence (DeepMind). Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.

Can I buy a phone that doesn’t use anything from Google or Apple?
Very easy. You can pick up a Nokia 105 (2017 edition) for about £15 or a dual-sim Nokia 106 (2018 edition) for about £16. These are only 2G phones but they have built-in FM radios, they can send texts, they are great for making phone calls and they are not based on Google or Apple technologies. A 3G or 4G phone would cost a bit more …

Of course, you may also want to do smartphone-type things such as email and web browsing. In that case, buy a GPD Pocket 2, GPD MicroPC, One Mix Yoga, One Mix 1S, One Mix 2S or similar just-about-pocketable computer running Microsoft Windows 10 on a 7in screen. (GeekBuying stocks several models and is taking reservations on the One Mix 1S.) Mini-laptops may look expensive but they are cheaper than high-end smartphones.

This answers your question but it is obviously not the solution you are looking for …

I remember someone once saying, ‘friends don’t let friends use SharePoint’, but I’ve got used to it now, I think, and like how it links with Flow and Forms and Outlook and all the rest of it. Somehow, that will all have to be on Google Sites and Google Drive now. And I’m really not looking forward to attempting to recreate all my Excel work in Sheets.

A 10 minute comparison: Office 365 vs Google’s Suite – WorkTools #32 by Christoph Magnussen

Future of Google Sites

Well, OK, the new Sites builder (23:37 in the video above) looks good/idiot-proof, I guess. In theory. *sigh*

A well-connected farm

The festival itself really doesn’t appeal, but the infrastructure required is incredible.

How Glastonbury Festival builds a city-sized phone network for just one weekend
In 2010, data usage over the Glastonbury network reached 0.11 terabytes. In 2013, the first year of 4G at the festival, it jumped to 12.3, and at the last event in 2017 (2018 was a fallow year) it rose to 54.2 terabytes. The busiest time for data uploads was during the “legends” slot on Sunday afternoon, when Bee Gee Barry Gibb took to the Pyramid Stage. This year, EE predicts that data usage will pass 60 terabytes – with 5G being brought to the festival for the first time to take on some of the load.

The main challenge is not coverage but capacity, given the tight geographic space people are packed into. “We’re looking at Glastonbury being the size of York, but the capacity required is more like central London,” says Bennett.

a-well-connected-farm-1

We’re all plugged in

Earlier this year I linked to research from Ofcom on children’s use of technology and media. Here’s their report on the rest of us.

Adults’ media use and attitudes – Ofcom
The annual adults’ media use and attitudes report provides research that looks at media use, attitudes and understanding, and how these change over time. The report also includes a particular focus on those who tend not to participate digitally.

Basically — phones. They’re everywhere. We’ve tried to dumb them down, we’re trying to reduce screentime, but there seems to be no stopping them.

media-literacy

Adults: Media use and attitudes report 2019 (pdf)

Key findings

• Mobile phones are increasingly integral to everyday life and half of adults now say, of all devices, they would miss their mobile phone the most.

• One in three adults never use a computer to go online and one in ten only use a smartphone, an increase since 2017.

• Video-on-demand and streamed content is becoming a central part of adults’ viewing landscape.

• Social media users are less likely than in 2017 to see views they disagree with on social media.

• Compared to 2017, internet users are more likely to have encountered hateful content online, however most didn’t do anything about it.

• Although most internet users are aware of at least one of the ways in which their personal data might be collected online, less than four in ten are aware of all the ways we asked about.

• There has been little change in critical awareness in the past few years, with many still lacking the critical skills needed to identify when they are being advertised to online.

• One in ten internet users say they don’t think about the truthfulness of online content, although those who do are more likely than in 2017 to make checks to verify the information.

• Thirteen percent of UK adults do not use the internet, unchanged since 2014; those aged 55 and over and in the DE socio-economic group remain less likely to be online.

• One in seven adults of working age in DE households do not go online, and when they do, one in five only go online via a smartphone.

Phone fears

I don’t have much luck with phones. After having iPhones for a while, I switched to a Windows phone. I liked the Metro UI and really thought that features like Live Tiles and Continuum would catch on. It turned out, as I said last year, that I was backing the losing horse in what was a two—not three—horse race.

So I made another switch, to Android this time. And bought a Huawei phone…

Exclusive: Google suspends some business with Huawei after Trump blacklist
Holders of current Huawei smartphones with Google apps, however, will continue to be able to use and download app updates provided by Google, a Google spokesperson said, confirming earlier reporting by Reuters. “We are complying with the order and reviewing the implications,” the Google spokesperson said.

Google blocks Huawei access to Android updates after blacklisting
Google said it was complying with an executive order issued by Donald Trump and was reviewing the “implications”, later adding that Google Play – through which Google allows users to download apps – and the security features of its antivirus software Google Play Protect would continue on existing Huawei devices. New versions of its smartphones outside China would lose access to popular applications and services including Google Play, Maps and the Gmail app.

Huawei responds to Android ban
In a statement emailed to The Verge, Huawei underscores its contributions to the growth of Android globally — which most recently saw the company’s Android phone sales growing by double digits while every other leading smartphone vendor was shrinking or stagnant — and reassures current owners of Huawei and (subsidiary brand) Honor phones that they will continue to receive security updates and after-sales service.

Meanwhile.

Mexicans buy fake cellphones to hand over in muggings
Costing 300 to 500 pesos apiece — the equivalent of $15 to $25 — the “dummies” are sophisticated fakes: They have a startup screen and bodies that are dead ringers for the originals, and inside there is a piece of metal to give the phone the heft of the real article. That comes in handy when trying to fool trigger-happy bandits who regularly attack the buses, big and small, that ferry people from the poorer outlying suburbs to jobs in the city center.

Smartphones have killed compact cameras

Via a Benedict Evans newsletter.

2019 outlook on the shipment by product type concerning cameras and related goods (pdf)
“Fascinating set of charts for the Japanese camera industry. The compact camera is now mostly gone thanks to smartphones, but the higher-end removable-lens cameras have stabilized, and at a much higher revenue than pre-digital, and lens sales are doing great. Also, the customer for these cameras is now younger and less male. Digital has opened up pro/hobbyist cameras even as smartphones killed snapshot cameras.”

smartphones-have-killed-compact-cameras

Last week, a look at the demise of CDs. Now, a similar curve for compact cameras. Avoid anything with the word ‘compact’, I think.

There, but not there

The busiest beach in the world, on the busiest weekend of the year, and yet no one seems to be fully there.

Photographer Oleg Tolstoy captures the tech-obsessed crowds on Silicon Beach
Shenzhen is known as China’s Silicon Valley, partly because so many smartphones are assembled here and partly because the city’s population has grown exponentially in recent years to match the country’s booming tech sector. Needless to say, the photo series overall offers a quizzical take on the benefits of connectivity and omnipresent technology. “It really shows that technology is taking us away from basic human interaction,” says Oleg. “The mere fact that visitors to the beach have gone with friends and family to enjoy time together but yet are communicating with people that are not present says a lot.”

there-but-not-there-1

Meanwhile.

The Instagram aesthetic is over
No one has capitalized on this look’s popularity more than influencers. Some have even started to make thousands of dollars on photo presets that warp anyone’s pictures to fit this mold. But every trend has a shelf life, and as quickly as Instagram ushered in pink walls and pastel macaroons, it’s now turning on them. “Avocado toast and posts on the beach. It’s so generic and played out at this point. You can photoshop any girl into that background and it will be the same post,” said Claire, a 15-year-old who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym because of her age. “It’s not cool anymore to be manufactured.”

Another data protection failure

Hot on the heels of Facebook’s latest password problem, TechCrunch has news of another online service with a very shoddy approach to data protection – i.e. there wasn’t any.

The app, Family Locator, allows families to track each other’s movements, similar to the location sharing option in Google Maps. But it seems the backend database for their nearly a quarter of a million users wasn’t protected at all.

A family tracking app was leaking real-time location data
Based on a review of the database, each account record contained a user’s name, email address, profile photo and their plaintext passwords. Each account also kept a record of their own and other family members’ real-time locations precise to just a few feet. Any user who had a geofence set up also had those coordinates stored in the database, along with what the user called them — such as “home” or “work.”

They tried to get in touch with the developer, React Apps, but to no avail.

The company’s website had no contact information — nor did its bare-bones privacy policy. The website had a privacy-enabled hidden WHOIS record, masking the owner’s email address. We even bought the company’s business records from the Australian Securities & Investments Commission, only to learn the company owner’s name — Sandip Mann Singh — but no contact information. We sent several messages through the company’s feedback form, but received no acknowledgement.

On Friday, we asked Microsoft, which hosted the database on its Azure cloud, to contact the developer. Hours later, the database was finally pulled offline.

Note to self — and to the world

An article from Wired on how much we’re relying on our phone’s Notes app.

How the Notes app became our most private and public space
If you want to stare into the deepest depths of my soul, you’ll find it in the iPhone Notes app. Tucked between Hayu – the streaming app I use to watch episodes of Real Housewives in HD – and my calendar, the Notes app contains information about me that no one else knows. There are long, meticulously-drafted messages I considered sending my boyfriend to explain why he, not I, was in the wrong. There are thoughts I’ve had after a few too many vodka sodas, or drifting in and out of sleep. There are lists of ideas and plans that I don’t quite feel ready to share with the world.

And our music and TV personalities are using this too, as a method to shortcut the usual press release and manufacture some authenticity.

Notes apologies are a clear example of the “Kardashian” effect. Rather than maintaining distance, celebrities are increasingly using this communication method to feed into their fans’ desire for a friendship and individual dialogue. This is, of course, nothing but a fantasy that they are happy to maintain in exchange for their fans’ devotion.

This is nothing new, however. Here’s almost the same article from 2016.

Famous people love sharing from the Notes app, although Apple has made it a struggle
In the last year or so, a bunch of celebrities have made public statements by sharing from the Notes app on their iPhones. Taylor Swift did it most recently, but previously, other young stars like Ariana Grande, Amy Schumer, and Demi Lovato made public statements by posting a screenshot of one of their Notes on Twitter or Instagram (or both simultaneously because they’re that social media-savvy).

Looking for connections

As this video from Kurzgesagt explains, “We are living in the most connected time in human history, and yet an unprecedented number of us feel isolated.”

Loneliness
Everybody feels lonely sometimes. But only few of us are aware how important this feeling was for our ancestors – and that our modern world can turn it into something that really hurts us. Why do we feel this way and what can we do about it?

I mentioned last year the steps being taken by the government and others to tackle loneliness. Help might be at hand, though. Literally.

Loneliness is bad for your health. An app may help.
Little changed for those in either the control group or the one taught attention-only mindfulness. But the subjects whose training included acceptance and equanimity were measurably more sociable. Their daily routines, after using the app for two weeks, typically included several more interactions with people that lasted at least a few minutes, and their questionnaires showed a decline in their feelings of loneliness.

Because loneliness, like mindfulness, is a subjective state, it’s difficult to make definitive conclusions about why and how a focus on acceptance prompted greater sociability. But David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon who conducted the study with the lead author, Emily Lindsay, believes that “the equanimity piece is key.” The poise it teaches, he says, may help people become less self-judgmental, less self-conscious, more amenable to interacting with others.

Here’s another write-up of the research, from Reuters this time.

Smartphone mindfulness app may help curb loneliness
“Perhaps by practicing monitoring and acceptance daily, even though for a short period of time, we can feel more at peace and free, more centered, and less affected by the possible negative thoughts and feelings generated in our mind,” Zhang said. “So we are closer to who we really are – we are social beings and we inherently need to connect to others.”

A theme which kicks off this stand-up routine from Simon Amstell, from 2010. This is how he starts, once the applause as he walks on stage dies down.

“Hello. Thank you. How are you? Are you all right? Well, this is fun, isn’t it? This is sort of a fun thing to be doing. This is fun, right? I’m quite lonely, let’s start with that.”

Simon Amstell – Do Nothing Live

Don’t worry, though. He ends it on quite a positive, inspirational note. It’s all about letting go.

Stop, we want to get off

Shortly before he died in 2015, Oliver Sacks wrote this slightly melancholic article about his fears for the future of a society so obsessed with “peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces”, oblivious to their surroundings.

I’m not sure why the New Yorker has published this now, four years later, but I must admit to sharing some of his concerns.

The Machine Stops, by Oliver Sacks
In his novel “Exit Ghost,” from 2007, Philip Roth speaks of how radically changed New York City appears to a reclusive writer who has been away from it for a decade. He is forced to overhear cell-phone conversations all around him, and he wonders, “What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say—so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? . . . I did not see how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence by walking about talking into a phone for half his waking life.”

These gadgets, already ominous in 2007, have now immersed us in a virtual reality far denser, more absorbing, and even more dehumanizing. […]

I have only to venture into the streets of my own neighborhood, the West Village, to see such Humean casualties by the thousand: younger people, for the most part, who have grown up in our social-media era, have no personal memory of how things were before, and no immunity to the seductions of digital life. What we are seeing—and bringing on ourselves—resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.

Out of curiosity, I took the option on the New Yorker webpage of having this article read to me. I enjoyed the irony of listening, right at the end, to an advert for an iPhone app.

How much is too much?

Screentime, I mean.

I know I’ve asked this more than once or twice before, but the answer still seems to be ‘it depends’. Take this article, for example, on the trend for music concerts to impose a no phones rule. It sounds eminently sensible.

The simple joy of “No Phones Allowed”
The no-phones policy illuminated something about smartphone use that’s hard to see when it’s so ubiquitous: our phones drain the life out of a room. They give everyone a push-button way to completely disengage their mind from their surroundings, while their body remains in the room, only minimally aware of itself. Essentially, we all have a risk-free ripcord we can pull at the first pang of boredom or desire for novelty, and of course those pangs occur constantly.

Every time someone in a group of people deploys a screen, the whole group is affected. Each disengaged person in a crowd is like a little black hole, a dead zone for social energy, radiating a noticeable field of apathy towards the rest of the room and what’s happening there. […]

I imagine that in another decade or two we’ll look at 2010s-era device use something like we do now with cigarette smoking. I was born in 1980, and I remember smoking sections on planes, which is unthinkable today. I wonder if today’s kids will one day vaguely remember the brief, bizarre time when people didn’t think twice about lighting up a screen in the middle of a darkened concert hall.

Yes, but what about the children, I hear you cry. How much screen time should we let them have?

A philosophy professor argues kids should use more technology, not less
Kids aren’t losing themselves in their devices, but potentially finding themselves. What’s more, they’re doing exactly what generations of kids have long done: Immersing themselves in the toys and objects of the moment that reflect the society they inhabit, and which will help prepare them for the future.

Shapiro, an assistant professor of philosophy at Temple University and a respected thinker on education, childhood and technology, presents his case in the new book The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World.

Ok well never mind the philosophy professors, what do the real experts say?

Screen time not intrinsically bad for children, say doctors
Spending time looking at screens is not intrinsically bad for children’s health, say the UK’s leading children’s doctors, who are advising parents to focus on ensuring their children get enough sleep, exercise and family interaction rather than clamping down on phones and laptops.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has produced the first guidance for parents on how long children should spend on their laptops and phones, which throws the ball firmly back into the parents’ court.

Worry less about children’s screen use, parents told
It said there was no good evidence that time in front of a screen is “toxic” to health, as is sometimes claimed. The review of evidence found associations between higher screen use and obesity and depression. But the college looked at this and said it was not clear from the evidence if higher screen use was causing these problems or if people with these issues were more likely to spend more time on screens. […]

Dr Max Davie, officer for health promotion for the RCPCH, said phones, computers and tablets were a “great way to explore the world”, but parents were often made to feel that there was something “indefinably wrong” about them. He said: “We want to cut through that and say ‘actually if you’re doing OK and you’ve answered these questions of yourselves and you’re happy, get on and live your life and stop worrying’.

Stop worrying? That’s not a phrase you come across in the news very often.

Stop scaremongering about kids spending time on their phones
Still, the screen time scaremongering continues. Partly it’s the fault of scientists and journals, for doing and encouraging shoddy, shocking science; and partly it’s the media’s fault for overhyping weak and uncertain results. “It’s a lot easier,” says David Ellis, a psychologist at Lancaster who specialises in the psychological impacts of technology, “to get the press to cover something about how tech is having a bad effect, than something which says it’s having very little effect.” The RCPCH’s guidelines are a refreshing change.

So we need more research on the quality of the research?

Screens might be as bad for mental health as … potatoes
“Researchers will essentially torture the data until it gives them a statistically significant result that they can publish,” Przybylski says. (Not all researchers who report such results do so with the intention to deceive. But researchers are people; science as an institution may strive for objectivity, but scientists are nevertheless susceptible to biases that can blind them to their misuse of data.) “We wanted to move past this kind of statistical cherry-picking. So we decided to look for a data-driven method to collect the whole orchard, all at once.” […]

To put it in perspective, the researchers compared the link between technology use and adolescent well-being to that of other factors examined by the large-scale data sets. “Using technology is about as associated with well-being as eating potatoes,” Przybylski says. In other words: hardly at all. By the same logic, bullying had an effect size four times greater than screen use. Smoking cigarettes? 18 times. Conversely, getting enough sleep and eating breakfast were positively associated with adolescent well-being at a magnitude 44 and 30 times that of technology use, respectively.

The kids (who use tech) seem to be all right
“This is an incredibly important paper,” says Candice Odgers, a psychologist studying adolescent health and technology at the University of California, Irvine, who wasn’t involved in the research. “It provides a sophisticated set of analyses and is one of the most comprehensive and careful accountings of the associations between digital technologies and well-being to date. And the message from the paper is painstakingly clear: The size of the association documented across these studies is not sufficient or measurable enough to warrant the current levels of panic and fear around this issue.”

I know it’s not strictly screen time that us parents worry about, but will all this stop the scaremongering in the media about too much of it being bad for us and our children? I’ll certainly be glued to my phone, waiting to find out.

Can’t go back

2019! As everyone else is greeting the new year with positivity and optimism for the future, I’m taking the contrary position and sharing some rather backward-facing articles.

Jason Koebler at Vice reminiscences about his old Tripod homepage (I had one of those!), and wonders whether he should rejuvenate it.

We should replace Facebook with personal websites
There’s a subtext of the #deleteFacebook movement that has nothing to do with the company’s mishandling of personal data. It’s the idea that people who use Facebook are stupid, or shouldn’t have ever shared so much of their lives. But for people who came of age in the early 2000s, sharing our lives online is second nature, and largely came without consequences. There was no indication that something we’d been conditioned to do would be quickly weaponized against us.

Wired’s Jason Kehe takes a step back from his iPhone.

Going dumb: My year with a flip phone
I felt like a wholer person. My mind was reabsorbing previously offloaded information and creating new connections. I was thinking more and better. My focus was improving. I thought I was breaking through.

In the end, I was not.

(He chooses a Kyocera phone, though I think we can all agree this was the best phone of its time.)

Web designer Andy Clarke shares the techniques he would have used back in 1998 to lay out a website — frames, tables and spacer gifs. Remember them?

Designing your site like it’s 1998
The height and width of these “shims” or “spacers” is only 1px but they will stretch to any size without increasing their weight on the page. This makes them perfect for performant website development.

Of course, these days we’re certain we know a much better way of doing all this. And that’s his point.

Strange as it might seem looking back, in 1998 we were also certain our techniques and technologies were the best for the job. That’s why it’s dangerous to believe with absolute certainty that the frameworks and tools we increasingly rely on today—tools like Bootstrap, Bower, and Brunch, Grunt, Gulp, Node, Require, React, and Sass—will be any more relevant in the future than elements, frames, layout tables, and spacer images are today.

What will all this look like in the next 20 years?