28 June 2017

Recode: “Facebook may finally have to compromise its user experience in order to keep growing”

Unlike intent-driven interfaces like YouTube, the News Feed is a passive experience, where it is easier to scroll than to engage. A News Feed consisting of an endless stream of autoplaying pre-roll ads would be an engagement nightmare that would compromise everything the News Feed team holds dear. Lacking the flexibility to compromise, they must give elsewhere. In February, Facebook embraced sound-on autoplay videos, just months before Google and Apple said they were banning these formats on their platforms as unacceptable UX intrusions.

Facebook is stuck between a rock and a hard place. As much as Facebook wants to create a better experience than the mobile web it disdains, the pressure to make these new inventory opportunities big enough and fast enough forces it down a road of increasing UX compromises by publishers who long since fought the war between short-term revenue and long-term user engagement, and too often chose the quarter over the future.

The very real fear for Facebook is that the publisher UX compromises it has watched from afar are not a path it has managed to avoid, but a vision of its future.

Tony Haile

A rather chilling analysis of Facebook’s future prospects, to dampen the enthusiasm about reaching 2 billion monthly users. The core weakness of Facebook’s ad business (a problem shared by its biggest rival, Google) is how little the rapid new growth in the developing world is contributing to revenues compared to the saturated markets of North America. To grow revenues in these lucrative countries, Facebook needs predominantly intensive growth (increasing ARPU, the amount of ad revenue generated per user) instead of the extensive growth (increasing the user base) it has relied upon until now.

27 June 2017

The New Yorker: “Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War”

The level of tension has alarmed experienced hands on both sides. What we have is a situation in which the strong leader of a relatively weak state is acting in opposition to weak leaders of relatively strong states, General Sir Richard Shirreff, the former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, said. And that strong leader is Putin. He is calling the shots at the moment. Shirreff observes that NATO’s withdrawal of military forces from Europe has been answered with incidents of Russian aggression, and with a sizable buildup of forces in the vicinity of the Baltic states, including an aircraft-carrier group dispatched to the North Sea, an expanded deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander-M ballistic missiles, and anti-ship missiles. The Kremlin, for its part, views the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders as itself a provocation, and points to such U.S. measures as the placement of a new ground-based missile-defense system in Deveselu, Romania.

Evan Osnos, David Remnick, Joshua Yaffa

A valid point regarding the increasing tensions between the West and Russia, and one many seem to forget or overlook: for the long term, Russia’s position is getting weaker, with the economy reliant on fossil fuel exports and a leadership unwilling to reform. Putin’s tactic is to act quickly and decisively in the short term, to secure whichever advantage he can.

But I would hardly characterize the confrontation as a New Cold War: back then the two alliances were of relatively equal strength, whereas now the power balance is more asymmetric and less clear, with shifting alliances (like Turkey) and rising regional powers (China and India) that will probably shape the upcoming decades significantly more than Russia – and maybe even the United States. Hopefully the EU can also find a unified voice and become a respected player in the political arena.

26 June 2017

Bloomberg: “Google will Stop Reading your Emails for Gmail Ads”

Ads will continue to appear inside the free version of Gmail, as promoted messages. But instead of scanning a user’s email, the ads will now be targeted with other personal information Google already pulls from sources such as search and YouTube. Ads based on scanned email messages drew lawsuits and some of the most strident criticism the company faced in its early years, but offered marketers a much more targeted way to reach consumers.

Mark Bergen

Good decision, although I suspect it has little to do with Google suddenly caring about privacy, and more with the declining relevance of email as means of personal communication. After all, it the majority of messages now flows through encrypted mobile apps, and not through Google’s servers, it makes little sense to process this trickle of emails, because the gathered data will be less and less relevant for targeting.

25 June 2017

Un nou set de povestiri de la Aliette de Bodard

in Bucharest, Romania

De‑a lungul timpului, am strâns pe Kindle mai multe povestiri, dar am tot amânat să le citesc pentru că de la o vreme mi‑am pierdut apetitul pentru spațiul restrâns al acestora, preferând romanele cu construcția lor mai consistentă. Dar într‑o pauză în care nu mă atrăgea nimic altceva, am decis să trec prin cele patru povestiri de Aliette de Bodard – o decizie de obicei bună, pentru că ea reușește să insufle viață și personalitate chiar în puține tușe, să lase impresia că fiecare dintre ele e semnificativă, chiar dacă la o scară mică. Diferența de stil se simte cu atât mai puternic după colecția disparată The Martians și ale ei personaje șterse.

A Salvaging of Ghosts

Un nou fragment din ciclul Xuya, povestea redă un aspect puțin cunoscut până acum: navele-minte eșuează uneori în spațiile exotice prin care se deplasează între lumi, lăsând în urmă epave pline de rămășițe umane comprimate în pietre prețioase de forțele colosale. În jurul lor se adună echipaje umane care își riscă viața încercând să recupereze aceste rămășițe, care obțin un preț bun de la colecționari. Povestea o urmărește pe Thuy, una dintre scufundătoare, obsedată de misiunea de a recupera ce‑a mai rămas din fiica ei. Ca în multe alte ocazii, nucleul povestirii sunt relațiile familiale, aici durerea și dorul pierderii unei fiice, alături de necesitatea de a accepta moartea și de a merge mai departe.

Nota mea: 4.0

disponibilă online pe site‑ul Beneath Ceaseless Skies

24 June 2017

Scientific American: “Why String Theory is still Not Even Wrong”

Horgan: Do you still think string theory is “not even wrong”?

Woit: Yes. My book on the subject was written in 2003-4 and I think that its point of view about string theory has been vindicated by what has happened since then. Experimental results from the Large Hadron Collider show no evidence of the extra dimensions or supersymmetry that string theorists had argued for as "predictions" of string theory.  The internal problems of the theory are even more serious after another decade of research. These include the complexity, ugliness and lack of explanatory power of models designed to connect string theory with known phenomena, as well as the continuing failure to come up with a consistent formulation of the theory.

John Horgan

I am aware that my personal opinion is irrelevant in science, but I have always felt that string theory is not the right path to the grand unification theory, despite its popular support among physicists. In recent years, the theory has been more frequently criticized for the lack of experimental confirmation, as in the meantime experiments have confirmed other big theoretical predictions like the Higgs boson and gravitational waves, and none have been able to disprove aspects of general relativity so far. It’s possible string theory needs more time and more complex experiments to show confirmation – or maybe physicists should start focusing on other theories that may prove closer to reality.

23 June 2017

The Guardian: “Is it too late to save Hong Kong from Beijing’s authoritarian grasp?”

Today, though, in the 20th year after the handover, this Sino-British arrangement is charitably described as limping along on life support. Many believe it is in danger of collapsing altogether, even as a pretence. As China has grown richer and more powerful, it has also become less patient and less willing to sacrifice control. In Hong Kong, meanwhile, the idea of “one country, two systems” has been riven by the sudden upsurge of enthusiasm for autonomy. Beijing has found itself confronted by increasingly disaffected and radicalised youths, who are as unwilling to compromise over democracy and civil liberties as China is itself.

For its part, Britain – Hong Kong’s old colonial master – has been reluctant to publicly criticise Beijing, as it eagerly courts Chinese business and investment. Chris Patten, the Conservative peer and last colonial governor of the city, recently said: I feel very strongly that we let down the parents of this generation of democracy activists. I think it would be a tragedy if we let down these kids as well.

There is no single narrative to explain how Hong Kong’s situation has become so troubled. Yet one cannot understand the city’s present state of permanent crisis without reckoning with a simple fact: the mainland is no longer dependent on Hong Kong. In reality, the reverse may be true. The impact of this fact is not solely economic or political; it is also psychological, transforming the way mainlanders and Hong Kongers conceive of themselves.

Howard W French

I haven’t quite kept up-to-date with the politics of Hong Kong, but this seems like a good overview of an increasingly tense situation. I think it also underlines a couple of long-term trends in global politics that few people like to acknowledge: how the power of Great Britain diminished, slowly becoming irrelevant despite their illusions of grandeur. More significantly, the changing power dynamic between authoritarian Beijing and Hong Kong reflects what we should expect in the coming years from a bolder, more assertive China. As the global economy is increasingly reliant on globalization and Chinese manufacturing, it’s not impossible to imagine a future Chinese hegemony, dominating markets by sheer size and imposing their interests on smaller economic partners and satellite states.

20 June 2017

Lefsetz Letter: “Katy Perry’s Failure”

We’re evolving. But Perry decided to live in the past. It won’t be long before there are no albums, just a continuous stream of product, driven by hit singles. And if you do have an album, you release the hit at the same damn time, to get all the additional streams. Think how stupid this is, putting out a teaser and building momentum for a sales event that doesn’t matter. At least, unlike in the last century, you can buy and stream the single, there is remuneration, but today you strike when the iron is hot. The new paradigm is instant release, with the hype coming AFTER the project is available. And that makes sense, you want to reap all that revenue. What does being number one on the “Billboard” chart give you… BRAGGING RIGHTS IN A SCHOOL THE FANS ARE NOT GOING TO!

Bob Lefsetz

Just like TV, music listening habits are changing rapidly towards streaming, and the music business and artists need to quickly adapt to new ways to generate revenue and catch the public’s attention. As if we needed further validation of this trend, earlier this month Taylor Swift re-released her back-catalog on Spotify, after removing it from most streaming services three years ago.

19 June 2017

Vanity Fair: “The Inside Story of the Kushner-Bannon Civil War”

As everyone knows, the president himself is inordinately engaged with cable news, and his roots as an entertainer lie in reality television. And it may be that reality TV has lessons to offer. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a co-creator of the Lifetime series UnReal, told me that she found Trump to be eerily similar to her UnReal antihero, Quinn King, the female producer of a Bachelor-type reality show, Everlasting. Like King, Trump has a knack for expressing shocking sentiments that others may recoil from, Shapiro told me. And, like all great reality-TV personalities, Trump and many of his staff are “sound-bite machines” who share certain qualities: megalomania, a delusion of grandeur, a willingness to say anything, and little regard for what anyone else thinks: “They are this functionally dysfunctional ramshackle group of people who have come together through their own extremes.” Shapiro is currently preparing the third season of her show, and I asked her the secret to maintaining interest season after season. She said, “A rotating cast of characters always helps.”

Hate-watching is a key element of reality television: viewers get a surge of superiority and catharsis when watching characters they do not respect but in some strange way are drawn to. “It’s incredibly satisfying to hate-watch [Trump]”, Shapiro said—and the same goes for watching members of his staff. Senior West Wing aides, like the president himself, exhibit a trait that is essential for a successful reality-TV show: they are largely unself-aware, not fully realizing “how they are perceived, because they will keep stumbling into the same mess over and over again, and they are really easy to place in a cast of characters”, said UnReal’s Shapiro. They are, in part, reliable caricatures of themselves.

Sarah Ellison

While not particularly now, this analogy between the Trump administration and reality TV works remarkably well; it would be fairly entertaining if the fate of the world would not hang in the balance.

Fix slow start for Windows touch keyboard on laptops

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, two years ago I bought a new laptop and upgraded to Windows 10. Ever since, I’ve had a small, but annoying issue with the Windows touch keyboard: every time I wanted to launch it manually, I had to click two-three times on the taskbar button to get it to start. Since the laptop comes with a physical keyboard, it never bothered me except on the rare occasions when I wanted to insert some emoticon in my conversations. Curiously enough, I’ve never had the same problem on my Windows tablet, which is much less powerful in terms of memory and processor speed and where I use the touch keyboard much more often.

17 June 2017

Nautilus: “The Not-So-Fine Tuning of the Universe”

Astrophysicists have discussed fine-tuning so much that many people take it as a given that our universe is preternaturally fit for complex structures. Even skeptics of the multiverse accept fine-tuning; they simply think it must have some other explanation. But in fact the fine-tuning has never been rigorously demonstrated. We do not really know what laws of physics are necessary for the development of astrophysical structures, which are in turn necessary for the development of life. Recent work on stellar evolution, nuclear astrophysics, and structure formation suggest that the case for fine-tuning is less compelling than previously thought. A wide variety of possible universes could support life. Our universe is not as special as it might seem.

As it turns out, stars are remarkably stable entities. Their structure adjusts automatically to burn nuclear fuel at exactly the right rate required to support themselves against the crush of their own gravity. If the nuclear reaction rates are higher, stars will burn their nuclear fuel at a lower central temperature, but otherwise they will not be so different. In fact, our universe has an example of this type of behavior. Deuterium nuclei can combine with protons to form helium nuclei through the action of the strong force. The cross section for this reaction, which quantifies the probability of its occurrence, is quadrillions of times larger than for ordinary hydrogen fusion. Nonetheless, stars in our universe burn their deuterium in a relatively uneventful manner. The stellar core has an operating temperature of 1 million kelvins, compared to the 15 million kelvins required to burn hydrogen under ordinary conditions. These deuterium-burning stars have cooler centers and are somewhat larger than the sun, but are otherwise unremarkable.

Fred Adams

From the beginning of civilization, there’s been a long trend in scientific thought moving from the assumption that we humans find ourselves in special place in the world to proofs to the contrary (and to the fact that the world is much larger than we previously imagined). At first the Earth was believed to be the center of the solar system; then it was discovered that the Sun was just one of billions of stars in a relatively unremarkable corner of the Milky Way; and that our galaxy itself is small and insignificant compared to the vastness of the Universe. With this study, it looks like the final bastion of anthropocentrism, that out universe is somehow specially tuned for the emergence of life, is eroding, and there are multiple configurations which permit similar universes to evolve, even if the life there would be barely recognizable to us.

The Los Angeles Review of Books: “America, America”

One of the most alarming aspects of the rise of Trump is (or should have been) his embrace of the Orwellian lie. This also cannot be normalized with a comforting “all politicians lie.” Of course they do. Lying is not telling the truth, or shaping a version of events with the intent to deceive. These things happen. Jimmy Carter promised he would “never lie to us.” Great. Nixon told so many lies it’s amazing he could keep track of them. But we are not talking about garden variety lying here — we are talking about the totalitarian lie: lies told, repeatedly, loudly and insistently, in direct confrontation with the indisputable truth. Lies purposefully designed to undermine the very capacity to make truth claims. Orwell was right to warn of this. But here we are.

Having spent three-quarters of a century fretting about enemies abroad, we have never fully processed a lesson of history: that great civilizations almost invariably collapse from within. We are Athens, we are Rome — we are, more than anything, Paris in the 1930s, another society divided against itself, living in what one historian described as “the age of unreason”. France then boasted the mightiest army on the continent, but the country was so hollowed out it simply collapsed when placed under stress, leading to defeat, occupation, humiliation. “Better Hitler than Blum”, many on the French right muttered, faced with the prospect of a Jewish Prime Minister — is “better Putin than Hillary” the 21st century equivalent?

Jonathan Kirshner

Great essay about the state of the United States after the election of Donald Trump and the likely consequences for the international order. It’s hard to share all the memorable quotes (I gathered 10 of them), so I encourage you to read the full article.

13 June 2017

The Verge: “iPad Pro 10.5 review: overkill”

Now that we know that the 10.5-inch iPad Pro is an impressive device and that we further know that iOS 11 is going to radically change how you use it, let’s get back to that value equation I mentioned earlier. Basically, should you buy it? The iPad Pro 10.5 presents a conundrum: it is a stupendous device that I firmly believe most people shouldn’t buy just yet.

To me, if you’re going to spend $650 on a computer, it should almost surely be your main computer. And if you’re going to make the iPad Pro your main computer, you should probably get more than 64GB of storage and you should also probably get a keyboard to go with it (to say nothing of the Apple Pencil). It hits the $1,000 mark very quickly.

Dieter Bohn

I must admit I am tempted by the new 10.5 inch iPad, but there are two major things keeping me away. First on the list is software: as a photographer I need solid editing and workflow software. On the desktop I have Lightroom for that, but on the ‘mobile’ iPad Lightroom doesn’t offer the same set of features yet and I don’t trust Creative Cloud to keep my library in sync. Not to mention that I would need to buy a dedicated card reader to import the RAW files from the camera.

09 June 2017

Wired: “Even Elon Musk may not be able to make an Electric Truck work”

If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, it’s Musk. But unless he has a radical bit of battery technology squirreled away, even he may not be able to deliver a long-haul truck capable of displacing the diesel burners roaming America’s highways. That’s the key finding of a paper by a pair of Carnegie Mellon University researchers, who found a battery-powered semi would be limited to a 300-mile range, cost a fortune, and offer limited cargo capacities because of the weight and volume of the technology required to keep it moving down the road.

The challenge is on par in difficulty level with electric airplanes, said Venkat Viswanathan, who conducted the research with colleague Shashank Sripad. The peer-reviewed study, previewed to Wired, will be published in the American Chemical Society’s ACS Energy Letters within a few weeks.

Eric Adams

Newsflash for Silicon Valley: electric trucks have been invented decades ago, they’re call railways!

08 June 2017

Privacy News: “Apple Safari’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention can not prevent tracking”

Furthermore, whereas Apple’s approach to tracking scripts with Safari is welcomed - it would be incredibly naïve to believe that this technology can stop online tracking and here is why. Blocking third party scripts (no matter how intelligently) is addressing a problem from 2008 – it does little to address the problems we face in 2017 and beyond. You see, the adtech industry started to move away from third party technologies some time ago in an attempt to circumvent changes to the European ePrivacy Directive (2002/58/EC) in 2009 which outlawed the use of third party tracking technologies without consent. Those who seek to exploit our privacy and track our online behaviour came up with a number of solutions to circumvent the law including server side tracking - and there-in lies the biggest problem for Apple’s new claims.

What many people do not understand is that the servers we connect to for information on the web, are perfectly capable of communicating with other servers and sharing your fingerprint along with information relating to the web pages you requested from them. So even if a third party script may not be able to be loaded in the new version of Safari, there is nothing to stop a script on the web server itself from gathering the same information, packaging it up and sending it off to the very same third party without you being able to do anything to stop it or your browser ever being aware of it. They can even use client side (browser based javascripts) to send very detailed information back to their own server and then forward that to the third parties (information such as where you moved your mouse, how long you looked at a particular web page, the unique way your sound card or graphic card works and much more).

In fact, it is highly probable that Apple’s new approach to tracking will only accelerate a move to these server side technologies from those who have yet to use them.

Alexander Hanff

Interesting perspective on Apple’s new privacy initiative: instead of improving privacy and curbing excessive use of tracking, it just tips the balance in favor of other, more refined forms of tracking. In particular Facebook and Google could benefit, since their behavioral data comes predominately from logged in users on their platforms. Smaller players in advertising have little chance of competing with their scale advantage. And so the concentration of power in Silicon Valley continues.

06 June 2017

SBA Research: “Block Me If You Can–A Large-Scale Study of Tracker-Blocking Tools”

AdBlock Plus is by far the most popular ad blocker, and our findings show that AdBlock Plus blocked the least amount of advertising-related, third-party requests of all tracker-blocking extensions in our measurements. The blocking behavior of AdBlock Plus can be attributed to its acceptable ads program (discussed in Section 3)which resulted in an overall decrease by 4% of blocked advertisements in our measurements. Table 6 details our findings: the majority of browser extensions, e.g., completely block googleads.g.doubleclick.net, while Adblock Plus still allows it to be included in about 1.5% of pages through HTTP and 13.7% of pages through HTTPS.

Furthermore, our measurements highlight an important issue: a number of browser extensions fail to effectively block social widgets (e.g., Facebook’s “Like” button or Twitter’s button) from tracking users. Disconnect fails to block requests originating from Twitter’s social widgets in our measurements. uBlock Origin, with the community driven EasyPrivacy rules, fails to significantly impact tracking by major social networks such as Facebook or Twitter. PrivacyBadger is the only extension to completely block third-party requests to https://www.facebook.com (see Table 6) but does not block all requests to Twitter.

Georg Merzdovnik, Markus Huber, Damjan Buhov, Nick Nikiforakis, Sebastian Neuner, Martin Schmiedecker, Edgar Weippl

Interesting study about the effectiveness of various ad- or tracker-blockers on the web. I’m not particularly surprised by the results: although the most popular, AdBlock Plus is the least effective blocker, while lesser used alternatives like Ghostery or uBlock have a much better success rate. At the same time, these extensions use less system resources than AdBlock Plus, so it’s hard not to recommend them more widely. Fortunately, in the past months they have released versions for Microsoft Edge as well, so they are available for all the major browsers. I am currently trying out uBlock Origin on Edge, while on Chrome I have been using Ghostery for at least a year.

04 June 2017

Astronomy & Astrophysics: “Gliese 710 will pass the Sun even closer”

Using data from the Gaia mission we obtained results that are ten times more accurate than from HIP2 catalogue, and the closest approaching clone passes the Sun at a distance as close as 2702 AU. 90% of clones will pass the Sun between 8250 and 19038 AU from the Sun. The estimated most probable minimum distance is more than four times smaller than for nominal solution based on HIP2 data. Figure 2 shows how the diameter of the clone cloud has changed due to Gaia data. The new radius represents less then 10% of the old one based on HIP2. This shows the precision of Gaia observations. If we look at uncertainties of astrometric parameters, we see that they are 5 to 20 per cent of those from Hipparcos, and we must remember that they are from only one year of Gaia observations.

Much closer star passage described in this paper results in an observable comet stream containing 35 times the number of comets in comparison to results derived from Hipparcos data (after population rescaling). When we take into account the expected real population of the Oort Cloud (1011) this means that Gliese 710 will trigger an observable cometary shower with a mean density of approximately ten comets per year, lasting for 3−4 Myr. Moreover, comets arriving during the first 0.6 Myr after the stellar passage (those triggered directly towards the Sun) will be concentrated near the star anti-perihelion direction (black dots and black part of the histogram). The remainder of observable comets will be highly dispersed over large regions of the celestial sphere.

Filip Berski & Piotr A. Dybczyński

A million and a half years from now, the Solar System will experience an extremely close encounter with another star, Gliese 710. Assuming there will still be some form of consciousness around here to witness the event, it should be quite a show – and also increased collision danger for every object in the system for the next couple of million years. It would be a good opportunity to study another star in detail, to send probes to orbit it, and maybe even a ‘human’ colony. If interstellar travel is as taxing at it currently appears, I could imagine a very long-lived civilization taking advantage of close stellar passages to establish outposts around other stars and spread throughout the galaxy, albeit at a glacial pace.

Nerdist: “The Oral History of Star Trek: TNG’s Best Episode: ‘The Inner Light’”

This week, one of the greatest Star Trek episodes of all time celebrates its 25th anniversary. On June 1st, 1992, a fifth season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called The Inner Light hit the airwaves, and instantly became one of the most beloved episodes of the series. In fact, as the years have gone on, The Inner Light has become hailed as one of the greatest episodes of any Star Trek series ever, not just TNG, and that’s saying a lot for an episode that features no space battles, no familiar alien bad guys, no time travel, nor any other Trekkie hallmarks.

Gendel elaborated further on the sequel idea, saying to an extent, this was like an interactive video game, but they had to be played by real people. So at the last minute they discovered that they could send a small amount of their people into space, and that’s when they send a group of scientists in suspended animation. So Picard discovers them, and to him, he sees his wife Eline among them. But to her, she’s like who the hell are you??

Eric Diaz

I agree that this was one of the best episodes in Star Trek history – and it became so good precisely because it focused on the human aspect of space exploration and of Captain Picard, putting the usual sci-fi action and vocabulary in the background. And in doing so it showed particular depth and complexity. But I don’t think the sequel idea is any good: the episode works so well because it puts Picard (and the viewer) face-to-face with the life he could have had if he had remained on Earth instead of joining Starfleet. It’s almost a fantasy, a dream, and to confront it so bluntly with reality would spoil its charm and impact.