31 July 2014

re/code: “Stories: Google’s Way of Organizing Your Digital Life”

Google+ Photos new stories ready to view

I think of Google Stories like a complex cocktail that someone else is mixing for me: With high-quality ingredients and the right proportions, it’s refreshing and delightful. But when the bartender thinks she knows what I want without asking, there’s a big risk of getting it wrong, which may discourage me from regularly patronizing the same bar.

Katherine Boehret

Earlier this week I got a Google+ notification that I had ‘stories ready to view’. Curious, I clicked through and my first impression was far from delightful. It was quite the opposite: the cover photos for stories were cropped in a horribly ill-suited panorama format that removed most of the subject I had captured, making them next to unrecognizable and stripping them of my original intention. Scrolling down I discovered other cropping failures, for example chopping off people’s heads in group photos. It’s unclear to me how Stories got released in this state; did anyone even check how the algorithm generating stories works in a desktop browser? The least they could do is look for the photo orientation and lay out portrait photos differently that landscape photos – Flickr for example does a very nice job of fitting together different aspect ratios into a beautiful mosaic on their desktop page. While you can customize stories later, the options are extremely limited; why would I waste my time when, no matter what photo I feature on the cover, it will get cropped in a way I can’t control? I guess that’s what you get when you blindingly trust algorithms over human selection…

28 July 2014

Medium: “Number Games”


400,000,000 uses per year, if every user uses it seven days a week on average, means 1,095,890 customers globally. Whereas if each user is using it four times a week, that’s 208 uses per year. That would point to 1,923,077 customers.

(a side note: switching from Hulu to Netflix counts as two sessions. Disconnecting and having to re-connect is two sessions as well. For these numbers, I’m ignoring these situations, but they’re certainly not uncommon, and would inflate the numbers.)

Jon Bell

I saw the ‘Happy Birthday Chromecast’ post last week and I immediately thought: 400 Million uses is pretty weak. Fortunately someone already did the math for me. Unit sales in the range of 1 to 2 Million devices are weak; the number is comparable to Samsung’s yearly tablet sales or the Nook’s, and I don’t think anyone would say those are successful products (except for the companies selling them). Personally I use the app on my iPhone to stream videos on my Sony SmartTV probably 5 to 10 times a week; that’s slightly higher than the average assumed in the calculation here and it would drop the projected sales even lower (not to mention the Chromecast can stream more that just YouTube videos, which should translate to more use). I think many people originally bought the device thanks to the low price and later discovered they could do many of its tricks with their existing gear, so the Chromecast got abandoned bit by bit until many stopped using it altogether.

26 July 2014

Pacific Standard: “Why Americans Are the Weirdest People in the World”

The test that Henrich introduced to the Machiguenga was called the ultimatum game. The rules are simple: in each game there are two players who remain anonymous to each other. The first player is given an amount of money, say $100, and told that he has to offer some of the cash, in an amount of his choosing, to the other subject. The second player can accept or refuse the split. But there’s a hitch: players know that if the recipient refuses the offer, both leave empty-handed. North Americans, who are the most common subjects for such experiments, usually offer a 50-50 split when on the giving end. When on the receiving end, they show an eagerness to punish the other player for uneven splits at their own expense. In short, Americans show the tendency to be equitable with strangers—and to punish those who are not.


When he began to run the game it became immediately clear that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North American. To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money, says Henrich. They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.

Ethan Watters

From a little game experiment to big conclusions on the role played by culture and society in shaping our personality and behavior, often in subtle ways. There is still a really long and winding road ahead before understanding the human mind, what shapes it, what drives it and possibly how to artificially re-make it. This also opens new research areas that have been largely ignored until now by Western sociologists:

24 July 2014

AVC: “Platform Monopolies”

For this is the truth that we are now facing. For all of its democratizing power, the Internet, in its current form, has simply replaced the old boss with a new boss. And these new bosses have market power that, in time, will be vastly larger than that of the old boss.

Fred Wilson

The Internet is a continuous revolution for businesses and our personal lives, its size and network effects enabling a new class of fast-growing, global monopolies, from Amazon to to (maybe) Uber. The upside: because the entry barriers are low and things are evolving so fast in the new digital economy, competitors can emerge and grow just as fast.

23 July 2014

The Official Motorola Blog: “Now You Can Unlock Your Moto X with a Digital Tattoo”

Made of super thin, flexible materials, based on VivaLnk’s eSkinTM technology, each digital tattoo is designed to unlock your phone with just a touch of your Moto X to the tattoo, no passwords required. The nickel-sized tattoo is adhesive, lasts for five days, and is made to stay on through showering, swimming, and vigorous activities like jogging. And it’s beautiful—with a shimmering, intricate design.

The Official Motorola Blog

It’s always exciting to see technology imagined by science-fiction authors come to life, but… I’m pretty sure it’s just as fast to unlock your phone with a fingerprint scanner (if not faster). Bonus: you don’t need to replace fingerprints every five days!

22 July 2014

What’s new in Chrome 36

I’m a little late with this article, as the stable version was already released last week, but if you’re interested, here are the significant updates in this version of . An important change around the security model of extensions is being added on Windows, in order to limit the incidents of browser settings highjacking. With this new Settings API implemented, extensions that change the behavior of the new tab page and search provider will be clearly labeled in the browser settings screen, so that users can easily identify and disable them. Chrome 37 settings controlled by third-party extensionOther minor user-facing changes include:

21 July 2014

The New York Times: “Transit Cards to Replace Cash on Kenyan Minibuses Are a Hard Sell”

The other day, Hitler’s driver, a short, chatty guy named Nicholas, was breaking about five laws at once: talking on his phone, running red lights, pumping Rihanna way too loud, not wearing a seatbelt, and cutting off other cars. Nicholas preferred that his last name not be revealed, lest he face consequences for his merciless style of dispatching with traffic.

The idea to use technology to tackle the matatu problem started on a rainy day a couple of years ago when some executives at Google were staring out their plate-glass windows at the matatus stacked up on Uhuru Highway, watching passengers pay double for a ride (matatus always jack up fares on rainy days). The Google executives said, What about a transit card?

Google provided the technology for free, with one condition: Everyone who wants a new BebaPay card (“beba” means “carry” in Swahili) must sign up for Gmail, the company’s free and ubiquitous email service.

Jeffrey Gettleman

A couple thoughts on this:

  • It’s tempting to think that technology can solve all the world’s problems, but the reality on the ground is a little more complicated. Fighting corruption is never as easy as passing laws from the top government, it requires convincing and educating regular people, driving change from the bottom up, giving them alternatives. In this case, the police officers taking bribes have no incentive to stop doing it, they aren’t going to support a new system that takes away their illicit source of easy cash.
  • matatus always jack up fares on rainy days – sounds familiar? This is how a completely deregulated transportation market looks like, and the tech world is still rooting for Uber to create one everywhere.
  • I guess that’s one way to artificially pump up Gmail – and by association Google+ – usage numbers…

Uber, the Amazon of personal transportation?

In its relentless drive for the ‘next big thing’, Silicon Valley discovered a new area of every-day life to disrupt through technology: personal transportation, and the agents of change this time around are Uber, Lyft and other start-ups focused on ride-sharing. I must admit from the start I am far from an expert on the subject; my closest encounter (if you can call it that) with Uber was a couple of months ago, when I checked on their site how much would a ride with Uber from the airport to Paris cost. It turned out it was basically identical to the standard taxi fare, around 50 €, so I immediately discarded the idea. What’s the point of new competition if not to drive prices down or to improve quality of service? Overall I was satisfied with my previous taxi rides from CDG airport, so I saw little reason to try out Uber for the same price. But everywhere around the world the idea is stirring up on one side excitement at the new model of transportation and the prospect of large returns on investment, on the other fierce resistance from existing providers and regulators. So what is the big deal actually?

Reading some of the many recent articles on the subject, I can see there is much to be improved about taxi services in many cities, anything from ordering and paying online to rating your experience to more efficient allocation of cars during peak hours. But these are all problems that can be solved with current technology, as long as the taxi companies are willing to invest and embrace change. There are some examples right here in Bucharest: many taxi providers released smartphone apps for iOS, Android and Windows Phone where customers can order a car, have it pick them up in a matter of minutes, and track the costs live while travelling to the destination. Cars are fitted with cheap Android tablets with GPS systems and customized apps to route drivers to the nearest client. There’s no payment system built into the apps, but that’s mainly because people around here still prefer cash to cards and other more exotic payment options are not available. The prices are also pretty low compared to the Western market, so I very much doubt we will see Uber trying to ‘disrupt’ this market anytime soon.

20 July 2014

Dan Doboș - Abația

in Deva, Romania

Dan Dobos - AbatiaLa zeci de generații în viitor, omenirea s‑a răspândit în Galaxie după ce Ultima Confruntare a pârjolit Pământul natal. Sub conducerea Împăratului, sectoarele trăiesc o epocă de aur, cetățenii lor dedicându‑se liber artelor și distracției, în timp ce pe sutele de Lumi Agricole populații de clone controlate de o credință falsă muncesc pentru a le oferi hrana. Pe vechiul cămin mai rămân doar Abația, singurii care dețin rețeta formării de noi Lumi Agricole, și hoardele de barbari, urmașii mutanți ai supraviețuitorilor conflagrațiilor nucleare de la sfârșitul secolului XXI. Dar undeva pe o planetă ținută secret, Imperiul a descoperit prima rasă extraterestră, zeții, a căror organizare în stupi conduși de mătci i‑ar face perfecți pentru a înlocui monopolul Abației asupra Lumilor Agricole și a aduce procesul sub controlul Împăratului. Din păcate manipularea genetică este o artă demult uitată, rezervată Abației, așa că Bela VII își trimite unul din quinți, Rimio de Vassur, să descopere secretele lor pentru a le aplica zeților. Iar în alt sector, unde fratele Isidor este însărcinat să livreze federației Sagittarius o nouă Lume Agricolă, interferențele guvernatorului Crey riscă să derapeze procesul delicat al genezei religiei și să aducă pedeapsa Abației asupra lui.

Primul meu contact cu Abația a fost dezamăgitor, căci primul capitol, în care Rim sosește la Abație și îi forțează mâna Abatelui ca să fie acceptat ca ucenic, mi s‑a părut prost scris, cu dialoguri stângace și criptice care m‑au iritat la culme. Dar cum m‑am obișnuit să fac un efort să termin fiecare carte pe care o încep (altfel 1Q84 n‑ar fi avut nici o șansă), am perseverat și în curând am început să descopăr și părți bune, sau cel puțin acceptabile. Peste tot cartea este descrisă ca o versiune românească a Dune și sunt multe aspecte care susțin această comparație. În afară de organizarea aparent feudală a Imperiului, o paralelă clară este ceea ce în Dune se numește „monopolul apei”: așa cum acolo fiecare organizație deținea secretul unui aspect al tehnologiei, culminând cu monopolul suprem asupra mirodeniei, aici avem două forțe care se opun, fiecare controlând un element esențial pentru supraviețuirea omenirii. Instituția Imperială controlează călătoriile interplanetare prin monopolul asupra australului, unicul combustibil care poate propulsa navele cu viteze superioare luminii, iar Abația este singura care poate crea noi Lumi Agricole, sursele de hrană pentru miliardele de oameni obișnuiți de secole cu o viață de huzur. În termeni Dune, Abația e un hibrid între talentul Tleilaxu de a folosi ingineria genetică și clonarea pentru a reproduce la nesfârșit aceleași tipuri umane în aceleași scopuri, și ingineria psihologică a Bene Gesserit care însămânțează credințe incipiente pe oriunde trec. Evident, orice monopol atrage competiția, așa că conflictul se naște natural din încercarea unora de a sparge monopolul, de a‑i găsi punctele slabe și de a le exploata. Rămâne de văzut care dintre cele două forțe are de asemenea capacitatea și voința de a distruge sursa propriei puteri, care în Dune este semnul suprem al controlului.

19 July 2014

The Economist explains: “Why the first world war wasn’t really”

The first action of this first global conflict involved a young officer whose name may be familiar to some readers. On May 28th 1754 a small group of soldiers from the British colony of Virginia, under the command of a man called George Washington, engaged a group of French troops who were interloping from New France (i.e. Canada) into territory the British considered theirs. Instead of peacefully repelling them as he had been instructed, Washington ended up killing several of them, including their commanding officer. This campaign in North America then continued, with both sides in alliance with local Indian nations, until, two years later, Britain’s ally Prussia attacked the small German state of Saxony, bringing Saxony’s ally Austria, and thus Austria’s ally France (and therefore France’s enemy and Prussia’s ally, Britain), into the conflict. It is a sequence of events eerily similar to the way that in 1914 an attack by Germany’s ally Austria on the small Balkan state of Serbia brought in Serbia’s ally Russia, which then threatened Germany, which then declared war on both Russia and Russia’s ally France. G.C.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. Or is it the 260th anniversary?

The participants of the Seven Years' War
All the participants of the Seven Years’ War:
  • Great Britain, Prussia, Portugal, with allies (blue)
  • France, Spain, Austria, Russia, Sweden with allies (green)

13 July 2014

Peter F. Hamilton - If at First…

in Bucharest, Romania

Peter F. Hamilton - If at first...În Anglia la sfârșitul anilor 2000, detectivului‑șef David Lanson îi este repartizat cazul Jenson, o simplă intrare prin efracție în laboratoarele de cercetare Richmond aparținând corporației Orthanics. Deși ceilalți detectivi îi râd fără rezerve în nas suspectului care susține că fondatorul firmei, Marcus Orthew, construiește o mașină a timpului și el încerca doar să descopere unde anume, David ia povestea asta ceva mai în serios și decide să verifice cealaltă locație posibilă.

Deși ideea este promițătoare, foarte similară cu romanul Replay, cu deosebirea că Peter F. Hamilton încearcă să ofere o explicație plauzibilă pentru revenirea în trecut a conștiinței, rezultatul este dezamăgitor. Relatată din perspectiva lui David Lanson, stilul povestirii e invadat de cinismul acestuia de polițist care a văzut prea multe și nu mai speră decât la o retragere liniștită, și excesiv de laconic. Finalul, deși logic, este mult prea abrupt, lăsând impresia că am citit doar o schiță care urma să fie dezvoltată sau inclusă în ceva de mai mare amploare. Dacă totuși vă interesează, este disponibilă gratis pe Amazon.

If at first you don’t succeed, then skydiving definitely isn’t for you. Steven Wright
Nota mea: 2.5

Aliette de Bodard - Heaven Under Earth

in Bucharest, Romania

Pe colonia Noul Zhongguo, lipsa cronică de femei a constrâns societatea tradiționalistă chineză să adopte un compromis ieșit din comun: băieții care nu trec examenele de admitere în corpul birocraților guvernamentali trec printr‑o operație hormonală în urma căreia devin caihe, substitut de femei și soții devotate pentru cei care s‑au calificat. Într‑o astfel de familie, Prima Consoartă Liang Pao are parte de o surpriză de proporții la întoarcerea soțului său, când acesta coboară din litieră cu o femeie adevărată și o prezintă drept următoarea sa soție. Pus într‑o situație fără precedent, Liang Pao descoperă fără să vrea senzații demult uitate, stârnite de apropierea unei femei, punându‑le în balanță cu datoria sa față de cămin, și se întreabă, așa cum n‑a făcut niciodată până acum, dacă e fericit.

Deși conflictul emoțional e descris subtil, cu atenția la detaliu obișnuită la Aliette de Bodard, am avut impresia că povestirii îi lipsește ceva, și anume motivul pentru care colonia are în componență atât de puține femei. Aș putea evident specula că este o consecință a preferinței chineze pentru moștenitori masculini, dusă la extrem de coloniști, dar aș fi preferat ca textul în sine să conțină o explicație sau o aluzie, oricât de departe de subiect ar fi. În forma curentă pare o soluție excesiv de elaborată – schimbarea sexului pentru majoritatea populației și fertilizarea artificială constituie o investiție masivă de fonduri și tehnologie – la o problemă care poate s‑ar fi putut soluționa mult mai simplu, de exemplu prin varierea procentului de nou-născuți în favoarea fetelor pentru câteva generații până la echilibrarea raportului între sexe.

Nota mea: 3.5

disponibilă online pe site‑ul Electric Velocipede

12 July 2014

The New York Times: “For Email Newsletters, a Death Greatly Exaggerated”

You got mail, baby!

Here at the Media Equation, we pride ourselves on keeping our readers abreast of the newest technologies and approaches in reaching audiences. So it gives us great pleasure to reveal a radical publishing technology that is catching on in news media companies big and small. Ladies and gentlemen, behold: email.

Email newsletters, an old-school artifact of the web that was supposed to die along with dial-up connections, are not only still around, but very much on the march.

David Carr

Personally, I don’t find this surprising at all. Along with the reasons listed in the article, email has one major advantage over most other forms of online interaction: it’s cross-platform, meaning you can communicate – and send newsletters – with anyone that has an address, regardless of their provider. Today’s social networks and chat services are all closed platforms; if you’re on , you can’t send messages to a friend with a account; Whatsapp users cannot talk to iMessage users and so on. Email is a relic alright, of a time when the web was more open, and I am glad this relic will still be around to remind us of that.

09 July 2014

Fast Company: “Understanding Facebook’s Lost Generation of Teens”

She trailed off. I asked her what happened after that. If you got cooler, or something. No, it’s not like that. It’s more like--you know who your friends are, so how is Facebook going to help with that?

Mikolaj Jan Piskorski is not a teen. He might just be the exact opposite of a teen, which is a professor at Harvard Business School. Nonetheless, he and Brandi Jacobsen would have a lot to talk about, because they agree on many things, particularly regarding Facebook and what it can and cannot do. In a new book called A Social Strategy: How We Profit from Social Media, Piskorski analyzed many datasets from many companies, Facebook included. The big insight he takes from looking at Facebook’s data is that, the more friends a user has, the less active he or she is. As people amass friends, the type of content they post becomes more generic, less personal (which explains Facebook’s sudden embrace of news media). The problem isn’t that parents, siblings, and teachers are on Facebook. It’s not even that everyone is on Facebook. It’s that Facebook makes it too easy to suddenly be someone’s “friend”. In high school, you know who your friends are: They’re right there. Or as Piskorski told me, Of course teenagers hate Facebook and find it useless. In high school, you see your friends everyday!

Ryan Bradley

For each article predicting the imminent death of , there is a study directly contradicting this conclusion:

08 July 2014

Google’s World Cup extended OneBox

Google’s search results have long experimented with providing answers directly in so-called Universal search results, and more recently Knowledge Graph, instead of sending people to other sites to look for that information. It was only natural to use the technology for major world-wide events like the FIFA World Cup, but I was surprised to discover the amount of information displayed. Just last week I searched for the results of the game between USA and Belgium on my iPhone and saw the enhanced card containing basically everything you needed to know about the game: from the final score and the stadium where it was played to the player lineup for both teams, match stats and a detailed timeline of the highlights, and even a short video clip (curiously the image and video link are missing in the desktop search results). It’s an impressive showcase of the technology, but it also highlights some if its limitations: when I entered a similar query, this time using SUA (the Romanian abbreviation) instead of USA, the results were very plain, just a couple of links, far from the rich display presented in the first case. The system should be able to understand that ‘SUA’ and ‘USA’ are the same thing (or at least with very high likelihood) and display a similar summary of the game, especially since also owns good translation technology.

  • Google FIFA World Cup One Box USA vs Belgium on mobile
  • Google FIFA World Cup One Box SUA vs Belgium on mobile

06 July 2014

Tad Williams - The Dirty Streets of Heaven

in Bucharest, Romania

Tad Williams - The Dirty Streets of HeavenPe străzile orașului californian San Judas, pe lângă forfota de zi cu zi a locuitorilor se duce pe ascuns o luptă mult mai veche și încrâncenată: cea dintre Bine și Rău pentru soarta sufletelor acestora. În corpuri umane, îngeri și demoni își desfășoară forțele, așteptând chemarea la judecata recenților decedați. Acolo, în fața unui Înger al Judecății, un demon va juca rolul de procuror, înfierând păcatele sufletului din fața lor, iar îngerul pe cel de apărător, încercând să scape acuzatul de pedeapsa eternă, asigurându‑i măcar o sentință temporară în Purgatoriu, dacă nu ridicarea imediată la Cer. În această lume la granița dintre fericirea atemporală a Orașului Celest și tentațiile umane trăiește Bobby Dollar, un înger-avocat cu un trecut cel puțin interesant, alături de amicii săi angelici. Apariția unui nou recrut, Haraheliel pe numele lui de înger, dar poreclit instant Clarence, stârnește amuzament în barul lor preferat, La Busole, dar și suspiciuni că este trimis de Sus să spioneze practicile puțin convenționale ale îngerilor întrupați. Dar asta nu e nimic pe lângă scandalul de proporții biblice care se declanșează atunci când Bobby ajunge la scena sinuciderii unui faimos magnat, Edward Lynes Walker, și sufletul acestuia lipsește! – un eveniment fără precedent în istoria plină de conflict a Lumii Celeilalte. La nici o zi mai târziu, demonul procuror repartizat cazului este găsit torturat și mort, iar Bobby se trezește dintr‑o dată în mijlocul unui complot obscur și periculos, fără știe în cine se poate încrede, chiar dacă formal sunt de partea lui a baricadei.

04 July 2014

as days pass by: “Facebook and the button of happiness”

There is an undercurrent of fatalism in some of the responses to publication of this study. “Man, if you expect Facebook to do anything other than shove a live rattlesnake up your arse in pursuit of profit, you’re a naive child.” I don’t agree with that. We should expect more, demand more, hope for more from those who act as custodians of our data. Whether the law requires it or not. (European data protection laws are considerably more constraining than those in the US, in my opinion correctly, but acting only just as decently as the law requires is the minimum requirement, and we should ask for better.) But I honestly don’t see the difference between what Facebook did and what Target did. Yes, someone with depression could be adversely affected (perhaps very severely) by Facebook making their main channel of friendly communication be markedly less friendly. But consider if the pregnant woman who hadn’t told her father had had a miscarriage, and then received a book of baby milk vouchers in the mail.

Stuart Langridge

In case you didn’t hear about it, recently published a research paper based on careful manipulation of the newsfeed in order to investigate how the mood of the stories in the feed influences the emotions of users. And with it unleashed a seemingly endless wave of outrage on the internet. Personally I don’t see much reason to revolt; in our current media culture, we are exposed to high levels of manipulation in the news on a daily basis, constantly affecting our opinions about politics, science and a number of other subjects. The fact that our emotions are influenced by what people close to us are experiencing is just a sign of human empathy – people would likely react the same way if they found out about the sad or happy events through other channels, out of Facebook’s reach. So I largely agree with the article linked above, with one exception: I wouldn't be as eager to use the ‘happiness button’ as the author seems to be.