Google annoyances

November 26th, 2014 [link]

I’ve just been updating software on my machine and saw that Google was inviting me to ‘upgrade’ my Google Calendar. So I foolishly clicked to accept the upgrade. Then logged into my calendar to find that the screen is littered with corny jpegs of a birthday cake which indicate, apparently, the birthdays of my ‘friends’. Pissed of by this, I then went looking for a way of turning off this absurd and unwanted ‘feature’. But it turns out that if they are ‘friends’ from Google+ (another turkey btw) then there’s no option to unsubscribe from this toxic calendar feed.

It’s almost enough to force me to use the Apple iCal app.

There must be a way of getting round this idiotic ‘feature’. But I don’t have time to do the necessary research because I’m trying to write. Maybe I should bill Google for the ‘research time’ needed to restore what is a useful product/service to its original condition.

Diplomatic blogging

November 26th, 2014 [link]

Last night I was at the Irish Embassy in London to give a lecture about George Boole, the great Victorian mathematician and the first Professor of Mathematics at my alma mater, University College Cork. It was a gratifyingly packed house, but the most unexpected discovery was that the Ambassador, Dan Mulhall, not only runs a rather good personal blog, but that he is also a Joyce enthusiast. Here, for example, is the text of the lecture on the ‘Cyclops’ chapter in Ulysses that he delivered on Bloomsday at the York Festival of Ideas. It’s pretty good IMHO.

My only complaint is that — like an increasing number of people — he persists in using the term ‘blog’ when in fact he means “blog post “. But I suspect that I am on a losing battle on this. I’m beginning to sound like the pedants of the 1950s who objected to people calling transistor-powered portable radios “transistors”. Sigh.

Chomsky on surveillance

November 24th, 2014 [link]

“Ruthless execution and total arrogance”

November 24th, 2014 [link]

Which just about sums up the Silicon Valley ideology. And, as Sara Haider points out,

Emil Michael can say stupid things at a dinner, and garner exceptional attention because Uber is a $30 billion company in the brightest spotlight. And they’ll be there for a while longer. But the Uber attitude and behavior permeates our entire industry: an industry of new money, enormous power…and little accountability. Silicon Valley often criticizes Wall Street for its culture, and yet here we are. I want to be proud to work in tech, and this week I’m not.

Why social Darwinism is misguided

November 24th, 2014 [link]

Snippet from a thoughtful essay by Patrick Bateson:

At the turn of the 20th century an exiled Russian aristocrat and anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, wrote a classic book called Mutual Aid. He complained that, in the widespread acceptance of Darwin’s ideas, heavy emphasis had been laid on the cleansing role of social conflict and far too little attention given to the remarkable examples of cooperation. Even now, biological knowledge of symbiosis, reciprocity and mutualism has not yet percolated extensively into public discussions of human social behaviour.

As things stand, the appeal to biology is not to the coherent body of scientific thought that does exist but to a confused myth. It is a travesty of Darwinism to suggest that all that matters in social life is conflict. One individual may be more likely to survive because it is better suited to making its way about its environment and not because it is fiercer than others. Individuals may survive better when they join forces with others. By their joint actions they can frequently do things that one individual cannot do. Consequently, those that team up are more likely to survive than those that do not. Above all, social cohesion may become a critical condition for the survival of the society.

Planet of the apps

November 23rd, 2014 [link]

This morning’s Observer column.

You know the problem: you’re sitting there reading an email from a friend on your smartphone or tablet and there is a link in the message to what looks like an interesting website. So you tap on it and the web page begins to load. And then suddenly up pops a dialogue box with text that looks like an escapee from the MySpace museum saying something like: “Hey! Why not download our cool new App?”, an invitation helpfully translated by the wonderful XKCD site as: “Want to visit an incomplete version of our website where you can’t zoom?”

Welcome to appworld. Personally, I blame Steve Jobs. He understood that since smartphones were really small computers then they could also run programs. So he set up the Apple’s app store to make this happen, and in the process ensured that the firm took 30% of everything sold on it.

It was significant also that on the day that Jobs revealed this insight to the world, standing next to him on the stage was John Doerr, one of Silicon Valley’s smartest investors, who was there to announce the setting up of a $100m investment fund for app developers.

Which is how we got to where we are now – awash with smartphone and tablet apps, more than 90% of which are crap…

Read on

What gets found in translation

November 23rd, 2014 [link]

The New York Times has a nice obituary of the writer Raleigh Trevelyan, who died the other day and came from a long and distinguished British family. One of his ancestors was Thomas Macaulay. The obit contains this lovely snippet:

Mr. Trevelyan’s accounts of his forebears’ role in British history covered well-known historic episodes as well as obscure ones that were telling about imperial rule.

He recounted, for example, a 400-mile journey across the south of India by Thomas Babington Macaulay, the historian and former secretary of war, traveling “on men’s shoulders.” The bearers kept up a chant, which Macaulay presumed to be “extemporaneous eulogies,” but which he later learned were something else.

Roughly translated, Mr. Trevelyan wrote, the bearers sang, “There is a fat hog, a great fat hog/How heavy he is, hum-hum/Shake him, shake him well.”

Which reminds me of the Lone Ranger, one of the comic-book heroes of my early childhood. He was always accompanied, you may recall, by his loyal native American companion-cum-servant, Tonto, whose stock response to anything the Ranger said was “Ke-mo sa-bee”, which of course I interpreted as “yes, boss” or words to that effect — an impression later reinforced by studio assertions that it meant “faithful friend” (radio series) or “trusty scout” (television series) in the language of his tribe.

Imagine my delight, therefore, to meet a guy years ago who had studied the matter and claimed that “ke-mo sa-bee” actually translates as “horseshit”.

As the Italians say, even if it isn’t true, it ought to be.

Digital capitalism, red in tooth and claw

November 23rd, 2014 [link]

My Observer comment piece about Uber & Co.

The real lesson of the Uber exposé, though, is that it’s time to discard the rose-tinted spectacles with which we have hitherto viewed these Silicon Valley outfits. For too long, they have been allowed to trade fraudulently on the afterglow of the hippie libertarianism that supposedly infected the early days of the personal computer industry. The billionaire geeks who currently run the giant internet companies may look and talk like a new species of entrepreneur but it would be more prudent to view them as John D Rockefellers in hoodies.

And the economic philosophy that’s embedded in this new digital capitalism is neoliberalism red in tooth and claw, which is why they minimise the number of “ordinary” (ie non-geek) workers on their payrolls, outsource everything they can, despise trade unions, view regulators as barriers to “innovation” and are outraged by the temerity of European institutions that seek to curb their freedoms of action.

There’s a geopolitical angle to this too…

Read on

If you’re interested in the impact of digital capitalism, then the place to go is the work of Dan Schiller, particularly his new book, Digital Depression: Information Technology and Economic Crisis. If you’re pushed for time, here’s a useful short interview with him about the book, and an informative review by Richard Hill.

Bobbie Johnson has a terrific essay on Medium about why we are so steamed up about Uber. People use it because of its convenience, even though they are also aware of its disruptive impact on things we supposedly value.

The dick-swinging, the gluttony, the not-quite-lies and the full-on bullshit… All of these things, and in particular the spectacular combination of all of these things, are enough to dislike a company, and even to hate it. But it’s incredibly popular, too, because, man, if people vote with their feet — or in this case their fingers — then they keep voting, again and again, for Uber.

And that, in the end, is the real reason so many people hate Uber: Because whatever we do, we can’t stop ourselves from making it bigger and more successful and more terrifying and more necessary. Uber makes everything so easy, which means it shows us who, and what, we really are. It shows us how, whatever objections we might say we hold, we don’t actually care very much at all. We have our beliefs, our morals, our instincts. We have our dislike of douchebags, our mistrust of bad behavior. We have all that. But in the end, it turns out that if something’s 10 percent cheaper and 5 percent faster, we’ll give it all up quicker than we can order a sandwich.

Quote of the day

November 23rd, 2014 [link]

“Man is born free, but he is everywhere in cubicles.”

Nikil Saval, author of an interesting book on the history of workplace design.

Seven rules for good interface design

November 20th, 2014 [link]

I like this essay by Erik D. Kennedy. The rules are:

  • Light comes from the sky
  • Black and white first
  • Double your whitespace
  • Learn the methods of overlaying text on images
  • Make text pop— and un-pop
  • Only use good fonts
  • Steal like an artist

It’s work in progress, so he will be adding to it as time goes on.