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Links and Notes – Week 18, 2020

But first, some housekeeping… I apologise for the lack of recent updates. My RSI returned recently and the spring weather has been so pleasant that I’ve spent almost every sunlit hour in the garden reading, far away from my computer and the internet. But good news for the blog: England’s grey and pleasant clouds have returned. So here I am.

Jack Dorsey’s fight to survive as (part time) Twitter CEO. Vanity Fair.

Twitter is no longer just a technology company. It is used by world leaders to wage war and local governments to warn of shutdowns. It’s used by politicians to announce they are running for office, to declare they are suspending their campaigns, and to endorse other candidates. It’s where news breaks and journalists find sources. Where Trump pulls the levers of chaos and controls what will consume the nightly news or the morning headlines. During the spread of the coronavirus, it has been an invaluable place to share minute-by-minute mortality and epidemiology statistics from around the globe. Over time, Twitter has become less of a social network and more of a public utility. And yet Dorsey insists it does not need a full-time CEO.

A look at the users of /r/DataHoarder who like to archive and hoard often strange digital data. Ars Technica.

During this current COVID-19-induced finanical crisis why is Warren Buffet radio silent? Vanity Fair.

No words of optimism. No high-profile investments in troubled companies that could surely use his endorsement at this difficult time.
As for what he thought Buffett was doing, Ackman said he suspected his mentor was quietly putting his $125 billion in cash to work buying stocks. He was keeping a low profile to make sure the stocks stayed cheap while he is buying. “After he invests that $100 billion and change,” Ackman says, “he’ll let everybody know.”

Ophthalmologist’s are trying to create a contact lense which tracks blood sugar levels. Medical Xpress. “Chemicals on the contact lens bind with glucose and trigger an electrical current change…” Full paper here. I wonder how far away we are from fairly-smart contact lenses? We’ve had smart glasses via Google Glass, but they were just that tad too bulky. Contact lenses would make sense. Though I imagine they’ll never be able to be especially versatile due to the size contraints. I doubt they’ll be able to do much more than a current Apple Watch does.

The manuals for the new Air Force One will cost $84 million. The Hill. Total price estimate: $5.3 billion. Remarkable cost for just one aircraft.

400-year-old English mill is making flour again. Food & Wine. It previously just made flour for its tourists. Thanks to COVID-19 those tourists are gone now, so it’s making flour again full-time.

The Apple Era

I realised something today. The world is riddled with complicated questions with even more complicated answers. And it can feel crippling at times. But when it comes to computers, phones, smart watches, smart headphones and tablets there’s a simple answer to the question of what to buy: Apple.

We’re living in the Apple era. The Apple brand is universal and unparalleled. Their output is by far the most innovative and beautiful. They’re so dominant that its rivals often seem laughable in comparison. And whilst in certain details they aren’t always the best, on the whole they are.

In fact I’m struggling to think of a single comparative company in history. All the ones that come to mind dominated through monopoly, isolation or acquirement of rivals, not through technical brilliance.

I’m no Apple cultist (half my blog posts feel like they’re moans about the minutiae of Apple’s latest ‘failings’) and I say all this not to gush. But I say it simply because it’s nice not to have to waste time and thought about the subject of what brand to buy. 9 times out of 10 – if I can afford it – Apple is the answer. So I’m free to spend my brain power elsewhere on unsolved issues like the perfect ratio of cheese to cracker.

Author Ben Schott on COVID-19 and New York City

If it’s too soon to know the meaning of the French Revolution, it’s too soon to know the meaning of Covid-19. But since we still greet sneezes with the 14th-century Black Death prayer ‘Bless you’, it’s possible a few new norms will emerge. Some predict the decline of business travel, others the demise of handshakes. It seems more likely that every household will, from this day hence, maintain a dusty supply of hand sanitiser, paper masks, and emergency loo-rolls. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll remember just how truly essential our essential workers are. #

‘Corbynism Will Outlast Jeremy Corbyn’

Corbyn’s personality was always lacking. He wasn’t unlikeable, but was also not likeable either. And now he’s finally no longer leader of the Labour party. His slow, drawn-out political death has been completed. But Tom McTague in the Atlantic argues that Corbyn’s ideas will outlive the man himself, much in the same way Barry Goldwater did in the 1960’s on the American right with his brand of more radical conservatism ‘that would culminate in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory’:

Sanders and Corbyn fancied themselves to be the new Reagans (or Margaret Thatchers) in terms of the imprint they would leave on their countries, but were not up to the task. The question to haunt the conservative right is, what happens if these two historically peculiar leaders aren’t the Reagans of their movements, but the Goldwaters? And what happens if—or when—the left finally finds its Reagan?” #

[Corbyn has been replaced by Keir Starmer. Want to acquaint yourself with him? The Spectator has a good piece.]

‘Why the internet didn’t break’

A nice little explanation of why the internet was always going to be just fine during the COVID-19 crisis despite the massive spike in demand.

But the main takeaway from the article is that there could be 42 million Americans without broadband. And that’s not good enough:

Three weeks ago, everyone’s point of reference for high-speed broadband networks was the one-way delivery of video services such as Netflix. Henceforth, broadband will be recognized for what it is: a critical two-way connection that can no longer be considered a luxury. #

‘They Were Opposed To Government Surveillance. Then The Coronavirus Pandemic Began.’

Good follow up read in BuzzFeed.News in the same vein of the Maciej Cegłowski article I linked to yesterday.

Is the coronavirus the kind of emergency that requires setting aside otherwise sacrosanct commitments to privacy and civil liberties? Or like the 9/11 attacks before it, does it mark a moment in which panicked Americans will accept new erosions on their freedoms, only to regret it when the immediate danger recedes?

Many countries have already taken creepy steps:

In South Korea, the government is mapping the movements of COVID-19 patients using data from mobile carriers, credit card companies, and the Institute of Public Health and Environment. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the country’s internal security agency to tap into a previously undisclosed cache of cellphone data to trace the movements of infected persons in that country and in the West Bank. And in the Indian state of Karnataka, the government is requiring people in lockdown to send it selfies every hour to prove they are staying home.

But the real question is less about what elements of digital privacy we as a society are willing to trade in right now to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and more about wether we’ll ever get them back.

The article ends with this:

Sanchez worried that the coronavirus, like the war on terror, is an open-ended threat with no clear end — inviting opportunities for those surveillance measures to be abused long after the threat has passed. In the same week that he spoke, the US Senate voted to extend until June the FBI’s expanded powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, originally passed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks 19 years ago.

I think it’s safe to presume that anything we lose will never be returned.

Links and Notes – Week 13, 2020

Music streaming has actually decreased since coronavirus has increased around the world. Hypebeast. I find this fascinating and unexpected. I myself listen to most of my music whilst at home, prefering podcasts whilst commuting and exercising. But maybe commuting is when most people listen to music?

Is it OK to go for a walk? New York Times. Yes! Well, for now. Italy recently put a stop outside exercise as they grow more and more desperate.

Maciej Cegłowski, creator of Pinboard and usually an advocate for digital privacy rights, argues that compromising some of them to save lives during the COVID-19 crisis is worth the trade-off. Idle Words. I personally disagree (the death rate isn’t high enough and governments these days are looking for any little excuse to totally lock down the internet) but he makes a lot of good points.

What happens when a city gives its citizens $500 a month, no questions asked? The New Republic.

YouTube videos will default to standard definition now. But you can still manually chose HD quality. Bloomberg.

Edgar Wright (director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) on life in quarantine London. Vulture.

Victims of domestic abuse are in for an even worse time than usual as households around the world enter lockdown. Time.

[Gallery] Beautiful libraries from around the world. Colossal.


I was glad this week to see that grocy, ‘a web-based self-hosted groceries & household management solution’ was near the top of Pinboard’s most-bookmarked list. Ever since the COVID-19 crisis has begun I’ve done my very best to ensure I don’t waste any food (something I’m sadly not usually too good at). I’m yet to try grocy as it seems a little overkill for my needs and fridge. But whenever I buy food at the moment I add the various products ‘use-by’ date to a text file so I can ensure nothing gets wasted.

I’ve moved from Safari to Firefox. I have 16GB of RAM on my MacBook Pro but I was still getting ‘no application memory’ warnings thanks to Safari eating too much RAM all the time. Also Safari kept on hanging on my increasingly-old Mac mini. So I thought I’d give Firefox a go for the first time in a long time and I like it. It’s no where near as beautiful as Safari. But it feels light and my open-tab addicton doesn’t seem to bog it down like it did with Safari. Also, the cloud syncing features of Safari I like are now on Firefox. You can sync all data (including browser extensions), see open tabs on other devices, and ‘send’ tabs to other devices, which is nice.

I also abandoned another Apple product this week: iCloud Drive. Because if one of my macOS devices wasn’t restarted for a while iCloud Drive would just stop syncing properly. It was always a risk trusting an Apple cloud product (not exactly their strong suit) and sadly it was a risk that didn’t pay off this time. I’ve now moved to Resilio Sync. It doesn’t offer any cloud backup features, instead – as the name implies – it just syncs files between computers. So I let Arq and Backblaze handle the cloud backup side. But so far I like it. If you need to access your files on your phone a lot then I wouldn’t reccomend it because the app is poor, confusing and slow. But luckily it’s not a feature I need so I’ll happily keep on using it for the time being.

China wants to create a whole new goverment-controlled internet

At the gathering, held at the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency that establishes common global standards for technologies, they presented a simple PowerPoint. It didn’t bother with much detail on how this new network would work, or what specific problem it was solving. Instead, it was peppered with images of futuristic technologies, from life-size holograms to self-driving cars.

The idea was to illustrate that the current internet is a relic that has reached the limits of its technical prowess. It was time, Huawei proposed, for a new global network with a top-down design, and the Chinese should be the ones to build it. #

This is scary:

China is already in the process of building a credit-scoring system for its population, based on online and offline behaviour and past “misdemeanours”, the delegation member noted. “So if somebody’s social credit score dipped below a certain amount because they were posting on social media too much, you could actually prevent that phone from connecting to the network.”

Note: the Finanical Times’ paywall and website is awful. They even inject this when you copy and paste something:

Please use the sharing tools found via the share button at the top or side of articles. Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy. Email [email protected] to buy additional rights. Subscribers may share up to 10 or 20 articles per month using the gift article service. More information can be found at https://www.ft.com/tour.

So I’ve linked to a cached copy of the article. But if want you can read it at its original URL here.

‘DJI Won the Drone Wars, and Now It’s Paying the Price’

[DJI CEO, Frank Wang] is perhaps the most private tech CEO of them all, shunning all but a handful of media requests over his 14 years as DJI’s boss and figurehead. He stoodup a planned interview for this story twice, leaving his representatives to apologize and explain that they just never quite know what the man will do. In fact, the rumor going around DJI’s press office is that Wang might not speak to a reporter ever again. […] Wang once threatened to dock the pay of a public-relations executive because Wang had received too much attention in the media.

[…] DJI’s hiring standards are famously strict… Those who seem engineering-focused enough eventually face a hands-on challenge: soldering drone components together. Until recently, even potential sales and marketing hires were asked to complete this task. The tests don’t stop once an employee is hired. DJI has become infamous for its competitive atmosphere. The company separates workers into groups and challenges them to come up with rival takes on a new product. The winning group gets the glory of seeing its ideas come to market; the losers must help make that happen. Employees are often asked to judge one another in surveys and to rate the performance of other departments. This data is then used to help decide salaries. #

The article ends a little abruptly, but it’s still worth your time.

Symptom of COVID-19 may be loss of smell

“Almost everybody who is hospitalized has this same story,” said Dr. Marco Metra, chief of the cardiology department at the main hospital in Brescia, where 700 of 1,200 inpatients have the coronavirus. “You ask about the patient’s wife or husband. And the patient says, ‘My wife has just lost her smell and taste but otherwise she is well.’ So she is likely infected, and she is spreading it with a very mild form.” […]

Hendrik Streeck, a German virologist from the University of Bonn who went from house to house in the country’s Heinsberg district to interview coronavirus patients, has said in interviews that at least two-thirds of the more than 100 he talked to with mild disease reported experiencing loss of smell and taste lasting several days. #

A UK Health Minister Nadine Dorries who had COVID-19 tweeted about not being able to smell or taste too.

More coverage.