“The most wonderful time of the year”

Merry Christmas, everyone!

The competitive business of recruiting pro Santas
“It’s incredibly demanding work,” says Ferrell. “If you’re at a big mall, you might see upwards of 3k kids per day. And with each one, you get 3-5 pictures. You’re looking at 10k bright flashes per day. When you get off, you can hardly see.” […]

In the line of duty, Ferrell has been sneezed on, vomited on, peed on — “everything that can come out” of a child has ended up in his lap. One Christmas, a 6-year-old headbutted him and split his eyebrow open, speckling his white fur lapel with blood. He now carries 3 extra suits for back-up.

Noerr Programs Santa University

most-wonderful-time-of-1

Merry Christmas cards give wrong message about alcohol, experts warn
Henry Cole is widely credited with creating the first commercial Christmas card, depicting a scene showing people drinking, in 1843. In 1980, an analysis of greetings cards revealed themes that suggested getting drunk is a natural and desirable element of celebrations and that drunkenness is humorous, enjoyable and harmless.

Instabrag humbug: why I’m giving up social media for Christmas
We went there just before Christmas last year. A great place to tweet #Christmasmagic from, without doubt, but unfortunately when we arrived, it rained so much it made Brexit look like a spa day. We were surrounded by cold, damp, bored kids. For three solid, awful days. Thing is, you’d never know that if you’re a Facebook fan/friend of mine. I lied, OK? I just wanted my life to look good, all right? I was only ever after the dopamine hit of the Likes. I’m only in this for the Likes. In the digital age, the only place we ever go on family holidays now is the Like District.

12-year-old’s Christmas list demonstrates heartbreaking awareness of family’s financial predicament
“A new controller would be great too, but honestly, the one I have isn’t that bad.”

Less talk, more thinking

Two recent articles, from within different contexts but with the same unconventional conclusion: most political debates are pointless and serve just to reinforce division and animosity.

Against debate
The confident assertion of a clear statement beats caution and caveats. Experiments tell us that people often mistake overconfidence for competence thereby selecting for it and against actual ability. Debates favour articulate overconfident posh folk who in fact know nothing – which is why we got into this mess.

Resolved: Debate is stupid
People — yes, even you — do not make decisions on an entirely rational basis. An audience is more easily won over with a one-liner that inspires applause or laughter than a five-minute explanation of a complicated phenomenon. A false statistic repeated confidently will be more convincing than a truth stated haltingly by some guy you’ve never heard of.

And here’s another article that I think is related. It’s from Slate and wants to be about how Twitter is finally proving itself to be a useful, benevolent platform for debate, with historians acting as fact-checkers and context-providers. I’m not so sure.

Viral history Twitter threads: 2018 was the year historians embraced the platform.
Historians used the Twitter thread to add context and accuracy to the news cycle in 2018. Here’s how they did it.

I’m growing more and more disillusioned with Twitter, and social media in general. Yes, these longer sets of tweets can provide ‘explanations of complicated phenomena’, and are interesting to read. But are we really saying that Twitter, with its average tweet length of about 50 characters, can overcome those problems with political debates, highlighted above? Or are they just preaching to the converted?

How many tweets have you seen that have included the words, “Oh yeah, you’re right, I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

Just Go+

The planned demise of Google+ isn’t going according to plan, it seems.

Google+ is shutting down sooner than expected
On Monday (Dec. 10), the company revealed that a security flaw could have exposed profile information such as names, email addresses, jobs, and ages of 52.5 million Google+ users without their permission in November. The Alphabet-owned company now says it will close down the main Google+ platform by April 2019, four months earlier than planned.

Well, at least they tried. Anyone remember this, from 2011?

Google takes buzz saw to Buzz, other appendages
“Changing the world takes focus on the future, and honesty about the past,” wrote Google VP for products Bradley Horowitz in a blog post on Friday. “We learned a lot from products like Buzz, and are putting that learning to work every day in our vision for products like Google+.”

By “honesty”, we can only assume that Horowitz means that Buzz – beset with a host of privacy problems from its inception – honestly never caught on.

What’s the rush?

Pinch and a punch for the first of the month, and all that. But doesn’t Christmas seem to start earlier and earlier each year?

How long before we see Santa in July? Consult Quartz’s Christmas Creep Calculator™
Quartz has fed the latest data into its Christmas Creep Calculator™, which for years has harnessed cutting-edge artificial intelligence, sophisticated machine learning, and the “Add Trendline” function in Microsoft Excel to project the path of the Christmas shopping season creeping ever earlier in the calendar. Behold:

whats-the-rush-2

In short, 2130. And they have a Mariah Carey calculator now, too.

Is this headlong rush into the festive season symptomatic of our culture speeding up more generally? This piece from the Verge thinks so.

Time is different now
There was an Olympics this year. Black Panther, too. If that surprises you to remember — as it surprises me — that’s because so much else has happened since. (“Everything happens so much,” wrote the Twitter account @horse_ebooks in the summer of 2012, which is as good a motto for these days as any.) Things are speeding up, or at least they seem to be.

I wonder, though. Maybe we’re just getting bored quicker, and more keen to move on to the next thing on the conveyor belt, and the next, and the next.

 

View this post on Instagram

Let's get this over with #bah

A post shared by Terry Madeley (@terrymadeley) on

Online ‘truth decay’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we doing the right thing?

As a parent of teenagers, I worry about this topic a lot.

What do we actually know about the risks of screen time and digital media?
The lumping of everything digital into a monolith is a framing that makes Oxford Internet Institute psychologist Andrew Przybylski groan. “We don’t talk about food time,” he points out. “We don’t talk about paper time. But we do talk about screen time.” […]

The new series of papers includes a look at childhood screen use and ADHD, the effects of media multitasking on attention, and the link between violent video games and aggression. The separate papers are a good reminder that these are really separate issues; even if screen time ends up being problematic in one area, it doesn’t mean it can’t have a positive effect in another.

Nothing’s ever straightfoward, is it? Like its conclusion, for instance.

So, is digital media a concern for developing minds? There’s no simple answer, in part because the uses of media are too varied for the question to really be coherent. And, while some research results seem robust, the catalogue of open questions is dizzying. Answering some of those questions needs not just a leap in research quality, but, argues Przybylski, a reframing of the question away from the way we think about tobacco and toward the way we think about information: “What are the most effective strategies parents can employ to empower young people to be proactive and critical users of technology?”

Others have firmly made up their minds, however.

A dark consensus about screens and kids begins to emerge in Silicon Valley
For longtime tech leaders, watching how the tools they built affect their children has felt like a reckoning on their life and work. Among those is Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company. He is also the founder of GeekDad.com. “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine,” Mr. Anderson said of screens.

Technologists building these products and writers observing the tech revolution were naïve, he said. “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

Is Instagram doing enough to stop bullying?

Instagram are rolling out some new mechanisms to reduce bullying, including comment filters and a new camera effect to promote kindness.

New tools to limit bullying and spread kindness on Instagram
While the majority of photos shared on Instagram are positive and bring people joy, occasionally a photo is shared that is unkind or unwelcome. We are now using machine learning technology to proactively detect bullying in photos and their captions and send them to our Community Operations team to review.

But is it enough? As a parent of teenagers (or for anyone really), this article from The Atlantic makes for depressing reading.

Teens are being bullied ‘constantly’ on Instagram
Teenagers have always been cruel to one another. But Instagram provides a uniquely powerful set of tools to do so. The velocity and size of the distribution mechanism allow rude comments or harassing images to go viral within hours. Like Twitter, Instagram makes it easy to set up new, anonymous profiles, which can be used specifically for trolling. Most importantly, many interactions on the app are hidden from the watchful eyes of parents and teachers, many of whom don’t understand the platform’s intricacies. […]

Sometimes teens, many of whom run several Instagram accounts, will take an old page with a high amount of followers and transform it into a hate page to turn it against someone they don’t like. “One girl took a former meme page that was over 15,000 followers, took screencaps from my Story, and Photoshopped my nose bigger and posted it, tagging me being like, ‘Hey guys, this is my new account,’” Annie said. “I had to send a formal cease and desist. I went to one of those lawyer websites and just filled it out. Then she did the same thing to my friend.” […]

Aside from hate pages, teens say most bullying takes place over direct message, Instagram Stories, or in the comments section of friends’ photos. “Instagram won’t delete a person’s account unless it’s clear bullying on their main feed,” said Hadley, a 14-year-old, “and, like, no one is going to do that. It’s over DM and in comment sections.”

Google+, we hardly knew ye

I admit, I did use this for a while, but I’m as surprised as others to learn that Google+ made it this far. ( I still miss Google Reader.)

The death of Google+ is imminent, says Google
Google’s decision follows the Wall Street Journal’s revelation. also published on Oct. 8, that the company exposed hundreds of thousands of Google+ users’ data earlier this year, and opted to keep it a secret:

A software glitch in the social site gave outside developers potential access to private Google+ profile data between 2015 and March 2018, when internal investigators discovered and fixed the issue, according to the documents and people briefed on the incident. A memo reviewed by the Journal prepared by Google’s legal and policy staff and shared with senior executives warned that disclosing the incident would likely trigger “immediate regulatory interest” and invite comparisons to Facebook’s leak of user information to data firm Cambridge Analytica.

That doesn’t make them look good, does it? But then, should we be surprised anymore?

Read books, not status updates

Another example of social media turning what should be a relaxing activity into a competitive sport, it seems.

Goodreads and the crushing weight of literary FOMO
Every few days or weeks, just when I started feeling positive about my biblio advancements, one of these messages would come across the transom: “Updates from…” Upon opening it, I’d find out that someone who I knew had a full-time job and active social life had finished two novels in the time it’d taken me to get through the jacket blurbs on David Sedaris’ latest essay collection. Deflation followed.

I know it’s just a light-hearted bit of filler from Wired which I shouldn’t take seriously, but surely we’re mature enough to stop comparing ourselves to others all the time? It’s a book, not a race.

There is such a thing as emoji research now

I still can’t bring myself to join in with this, but there you go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Academics gathered to share emoji research, and it was 🔥
Wijeratne had been working on separate research relating to word-sense disambiguation, a field of computational linguistics that looks at how words take on multiple meanings. The use of jumped out as a brand new problem. “They were using the gas pump emoji to refer to marijuana,” says Wijeratne. “As soon as I saw this new meaning associated with the emoji, I thought, what about emoji-sense disambiguation?”

That moment caused Wijeratne to redirected his PhD research toward emoji. This week, he put together the first interdisciplinary academic conference on emoji in research.

[…]

Now, researchers are beginning to turn more seriously toward those research questions. On Monday, linguist Gretchen Mcculloch presented a theory of emoji as beat gestures—the equivalent of gesticulating to add emphasis—rather than a language in themselves. “Letters let us write words, emoji let us write gestures,” she says. Eric Goldman, a legal scholar at Santa Clara University’s School of Law, discussed a forthcoming paper on emoji and the law, which highlights the potential for emoji to create misunderstanding in legal contexts—including high profile cases, like the Silk Road case.

Running low on memory?

Speaking of the perils of social media, here’s something else we might be able to blame it for.

How social media is hurting your memory
Each day, hundreds of millions of people document and share their experiences on social media, from packed parties to the most intimate family moments. Social platforms let us stay in touch with friends and forge new relationships like never before, but those increases in communication and social connection may come at a cost. In a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers showed that those who documented and shared their experiences on social media formed less precise memories of those events.

I’m very suspicious of that, though. This xkcd post puts the reasons why better than I can.

The piece concludes by almost contradicting itself.

The researchers concluded that the likely culprit of the memory deficit was not purely social media, because even taking photos or writing experiential notes without publishing them showed the same effects. Just interrupting the experience didn’t seem to hurt, because those who were instructed to reflect on a TED talk internally without writing retained as much information as those who watched it normally. Instead, it was the act of externalizing their experience — that is, reproducing it in any form — that seemed to make them lose something of the original experience.

I suppose leading with that conclusion might have made for a less attention-grabbing headline?

But perhaps our devices more generally might be good for our memory.

Old memories, accidentally trapped in amber by our digital devices
Designer and typographer Marcin Wichary started a thread on Twitter yesterday about “UIs that accidentally amass memories” with the initial example of the “Preferred Networks” listing of all the wifi networks his computer had ever joined, “unexpected reminders of business trips, vacations, accidental detours, once frequented and now closed cafés”.

Several other people chimed in with their own examples…the Bluetooth pairings list, the Reminders app, the list of alarms, saved places in mapping apps, AIM/iChat status message log, chat apps not used for years, the Gmail drafts folder, etc.

Reading about those examples makes me (almost) regret being such a tidy person who regularly deletes, wipes and reinstalls everything…

Looking forward in anger

Zoe Williams at the Guardian tries to understand where all the anger is coming from these days. Does anger always have an economic basis? Is social media to blame? Can it be a force for good? There’s certainly a lot of it about.

Why are we living in an age of anger – is it because of the 50-year rage cycle?
There was the mean note left on the car of a disabled woman (“I witnessed you and your young able-bodied daughter … walk towards the precinct with no sign of disability”); the crazed dyspepsia of the woman whose driveway was blocked briefly by paramedics while they tried to save someone’s life. Last week, Highways England felt moved to launch a campaign against road rage, spurred by 3,446 recorded instances in a year of motorists driving straight through roadworks. Violent crime has not gone up – well, it has, but this is thought mainly to reflect better reporting practices – but violent fantasies are ablaze. Political discourse is drenched in rage. The things people want to do to Diane Abbott and Luciana Berger make my eyes pop out of my head.

I’m not really convinced by the theories that suggest these things are cyclical. The dates of these suggested 40 to 60 year ‘Kondratiev waves’ of high and low economic growth, that tie in to periods of stagnation, unrest and anger, feel a little forced. I’m going to continue to blame Trump. And social media.

Social media has given us a way to transmute that anger from the workplace – which often we do not have the power to change – to every other area of life. You can go on Mumsnet to get angry with other people’s lazy husbands and interfering mother-in-laws; Twitter to find comradeship in fury about politics and punctuation; Facebook for rage-offs about people who shouted at a baby on a train or left their dog in a hot car. These social forums “enable hysterical contagion”, says Balick, but that does not mean it is always unproductive. The example he uses of a groundswell of infectious anger that became a movement is the Arab spring, but you could point to petitions websites such as 38 Degrees and Avaaz or crowdfunded justice projects. Most broad, collaborative calls for change begin with a story that enrages people.

Yes, ok, fair enough.

Mobile media minefield

The Guardian’s technology ‘agony aunt’ responding to a parent who has a problem with her 14-year-old son’s use of social media.

How can I control my child’s social media use?
The government recognises the risks of being online, but still hasn’t implemented roughly half the recommendations in Dr Tanya Byron’s report, Safer Children in a Digital World, released 10 years ago. And as she has just pointed out at the NSPCC, Instagram, SnapChat and WhatsApp didn’t even exist in 2008.

[…]

If you take these routes, you may be in for an extended game of Whac-A-Mole. It would be better to work towards a negotiated social solution, rather than a technological one.

It’s a minefield all right. We prefer the ‘negotiated social solution’ with our young teenagers, and we make sure as a family we’re all aware of the latest e-safety issues. We try our best to create an open atmosphere at home, rather than anything too heavy-handed, so that they can share with us any concerns they may have with anything they might see or read.

And here’s that NSPCC update from Tanya Byron.

Ten years since the Byron Review – Are children safer in the digital world?
This document reviews the 38 recommendations made in the Byron Review “Safer Children in a Digital World” and discusses how these were implemented. It also considers the influence of political change and online developments in the past decade, in order to contextualise the changes we’re trying to bring about to keep children and young people safe online in 2018.

Modern romance?

Who’d want to be young, these days? It’s far too confusing.

Instagram handles have replaced phone numbers
And while it may seem like handing out your phone number is a much more of a privacy concern than a social media handle, it’s worth noting the amount of highly personal information the latter conveys. Unlike a number, your Instagram profile is often attached to your first and last name, and exists in relation to your various other social media accounts. It has countless photos of you, your friends, and gives a stranger a distinctively personal look into your life. What’s more, unlike a phone number, it can’t be faked to appease an aggressively pushy creep.

And then, if you want to make a go of it, there’s this.

Social media addicts have a new way to propose with this engagement phone case
Once you propose, you’ll either have a memory you and your future spouse will want to look fondly on for years to come (and post all over Facebook at every opportunity, along with your future baby photos, meals, vacations and blurry sunsets) or a spectacularly masochistic play-by-play of the moment your heart was broken.

I’m glad I’m old (-fashioned?).

Pernicious Facebook

There’s a Pernicious Anaemia page on Facebook, but not an actual Pernicious Facebook page. Perhaps I should start one. I’m sure George Soros would give me a like.

George Soros: Facebook and Google a menace to society
“Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment,” said the Hungarian-American businessman, according to a transcript of his speech. “This is particularly nefarious because social media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it. This has far-reaching adverse consequences on the functioning of democracy, particularly on the integrity of elections.”

There’s more from him on his webpage. (I’m guessing he doesn’t have a Facebook page.)

George Soros: Remarks delivered at the World Economic Forum
Something very harmful and maybe irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age. Not just distraction or addiction; social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy. The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called “the freedom of mind.” There is a possibility that once lost, people who grow up in the digital age will have difficulty in regaining it. This may have far-reaching political consequences. People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated.

You wouldn’t think those in charge of these social media companies would agree, but perhaps they do?

‘Never get high on your own supply’ – why social media bosses don’t use social media
“It’s possible that in 20 years we’ll look back at the current generation of children and say: ‘Look, they are socially different from every other generation of humans that came before and as a result this is a huge problem and maybe we need to regulate these behaviours.’ Or perhaps we’ll look back and say: ‘I don’t know what the fuss was – I’m not sure why we were so concerned.’ Until we have some evidence, until there’s something that seems tangible, I think it’s going to be very hard to get people en masse to change how they behave.”

Ambivalent, to say the least.

Emoji-nation

Emoji-nation by Nastya Nudnik
It became quite common to express our feelings with little Emoji’s, telling if we’re happy, sad, bored or hungry. Playing with this truth, Ukrainian artist Nastya Nudnik created the series ‘Emoji-nation’, putting computer elements which represent the modern life and historical fine arts in correlation.

Spinning like lonely stars indeed

Grant Smithies is lost in cyber-space
Here, my friends, is an addiction of the worst possible kind: A scourge on polite society that wastes the body and fries the brain. While seemingly harmless, social media is powerfully habit-forming. Within no time, the user becomes hopelessly hooked on gossip, recycled jokes and pop culture detritus, and begins to crave daily doses of dot-camaraderie with their online “friends” or “followers”. Rather than seeking flesh-and-blood interactions in the physical world, they spin like lonely stars through a vast digital galaxy swirling with trivia, wondering how they might best contribute to the communal pool of inanity.

Oh cheer up #ffs!

If composers had Facebook: Mozart's profile

Mozart on Facebook

"Statistically, people who’ve ‘liked’ Mozart on Facebook have a higher IQ. It got us thinking… what would Mozart ‘like’ on Facebook? And what would his profile look like?! On the tenth anniversary of the social network’s launch, we’ve imagined what the composer might have posted online throughout his life."

http://www.classicfm.com/composers/mozart/guides/mozart-facebook-profile/

I loved that they painted Beethoven as a needy youngster in that. We (I) always picture Mozart being the young buck and Beethoven the grumpy old man, but of course it wasn’t like that, chronologically.

Alone together

Saving the lost art of conversation
Her methods are contagious; once you start noticing what Turkle notices, you can’t stop. It’s a beautiful day, and we walk past boutiques, restaurants, and packed sidewalk cafés. The data are everywhere: The pair of high-school-age girls walking down Boylston Street, silent, typing. The table of brunchers ignoring their mimosas (and one another) in favor of their screens. The kid in the stroller playing with an iPad. The sea of humans who are, on this sparkling Saturday, living up to Turkle’s lament—they seem to be, indeed, alone together.

Nothing lasts forever

A great line in here about how kids think of Facebook in the same way as we do about Linked In.

Why teens are tiring of Facebook
Facebook has become a social network that’s often too complicated, too risky, and, above all, too overrun by parents to give teens the type of digital freedom they crave.

And on we go.