Wednesday 2 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

”We have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts.”

  • Harold Macmillan, speech in Strasbourg, 1950.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven: Moonlight Sonata, guitar arrangement. Played by Eric Henderson.


Making a modern webcam from the Apple iSight

I have an Apple iSight webcam, which I can’t bear to discard — even though it’s now very primitive (640×480 pixels) — because it’s such a beautiful object. But Max Braun had a better idea:

Why don’t we just put a whole computer running Linux in there? The Raspberry Pi Zero fits the iSight’s dimensions almost perfectly and, incredibly, it costs only $5.

So he did (plus some other bits and pieces)!

The result…

Lovely bit of geekery.

How to thrive in the gig-economy: hang your smartphone from a tree

When I first read this Bloomberg report I checked that it wasn’t a leftover from April 1st.

A strange phenomenon has emerged near Inc. delivery stations and Whole Foods stores in the Chicago suburbs: smartphones dangling from trees. Contract delivery drivers are putting them there to get a jump on rivals seeking orders, according to people familiar with the matter.

Someone places several devices in a tree located close to the station where deliveries originate. Drivers in on the plot then sync their own phones with the ones in the tree and wait nearby for an order pickup. The reason for the odd placement, according to experts and people with direct knowledge of Amazon’s operations, is to take advantage of the handsets’ proximity to the station, combined with software that constantly monitors Amazon’s dispatch network, to get a split-second jump on competing drivers.

That drivers resort to such extreme methods is emblematic of the ferocious competition for work in a pandemic-ravaged U.S. economy suffering from double-digit unemployment. Much the way milliseconds can mean millions to hedge funds using robotraders, a smartphone perched in a tree can be the key to getting a $15 delivery route before someone else.

The piece even has a photograph showing phones belonging to mobile delivery drivers hanging from a tree outside a Whole Foods store in Evanston, Illinois, on Aug. 29. {Whole Foods is owned by Amazon.]

HT to Cory Doctorow, who first spotted it.

Lunchtime: the latest Coronavirus logistical nightmare

If you have to go back to the office, and it’s in a high-rise office block, here’ a tip: bring a packed lunch. Just like you did at school.

Wired has a fascinating piece about the logistical nightmares that await returnees to these establishments.

In the before times, even the most decrepit lift systems were designed so that 12 per cent of people working in an office can arrive in a five minute window, and that the entire population of a given office could get to their respective floors (if they queued together in the lobby) within around 40 minutes. More efficient lift systems can cut that wait time in half, and on paper, it should be even quicker if you factor in that only 50 per cent of the workforce can come back to the office at any given time.

But since the coronavirus pandemic, companies can’t ram a dozen people into each elevator to speed up the time it takes from the lobby to high floors. Bigger lifts can fit four people while still respecting social distancing, and smaller cabs are restricted to two. Most companies have put stickers on each corner to indicate where people can stand, sometimes requesting for them to face the wall while they travel. Even if companies figure out how to efficiently stagger people’s working days to avoid a pile-up at 9am or at 5.30pm, they have no solution to the worst time of the day for lifts: lunchtime.

If 50 per cent of people in an office that relies on lifts decide to take their lunch between 12 and 2pm, it would take up to two and a half hours to get everyone back in their seats again, says Julian Olley, director of vertical transportation at consultancy Arup. And that’s if everything goes according to plan.

“They will create a bottleneck,” he says. “In that two hour period people want to go and come back again. That is irrespective of big financial services [companies] having canteens.”

One of the really fascinating things about this virus is the way its effects and implications creep into everything.

My university department is on three floors. It has a lift, but I never use it. Phew!

From the Leading-edge Uselessness department…

“These ‘anti-procrastination’ smart glasses use AI to monitor what you look at all day”.

The Verge reports

The difficulty of staying focused in an age of distractions is one of those annoyingly accurate cliches. (I checked my phone three times just writing this paragraph.) But a startup named Auctify has what it claims is the solution: smart glasses that use AI to monitor what you’re looking at and nudge you to pay attention. Depending on your worldview, it’s the product of your dreams or a productivity-hacking nightmare.

The glasses are called Specs, and they launch today on Indiegogo. The premise is simple: a camera built into the frame of Specs uses machine learning to identify what you’re looking at, whether that’s a laptop, book, or a fellow human being. It records this data and sends it to a connected app where users can take action in a number of ways.

You couldn’t make this stuff up.

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Tuesday 4 February, 2020

Newton’s notebook

The young Isaac Newton was a painstaking recorder of his expenditure, probably because he was relatively poor. This is one of his early notebooks, where he records his expenditure on frivolous ‘sweetmeats’ — as sugary treats were then called.

This particular notebook is included in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s current (and fascinating) Feast and Fast: the Art of Food in Europe 1500-1800 exhibition.

Surprise, surprise! There are lots of scammers on Airbnb

Good Vice investigation reveals what a lot of people already know:

The stories quickly started to fall into easily discernible categories. Scammers all over the world, it seems, have figured how best to game the Airbnb platform: by engaging in bait and switches; charging guests for fake damages; persuading people to pay outside the Airbnb app; and, when all else fails, engaging in clumsy or threatening demands for five-star reviews to hide the evidence of what they’ve done. (Or, in some cases, a combination of several of these scams.)

The article has an interesting list of the ways people (hosts as well as guests) can be scammed. And, to be fair, Airbnb seems to be willing to accept some responsibility for the bad stuff that goes on on their platform. In that sense, it provides a welcome contrast to Facebook.

Talk, don’t fly

One predictable consequence of Corona. “Zoom Video Stock Soars as Coronavirus Travel Bans Boost Focus on Videoconferencing.”


Towards another Facebook Presidential election

Four reasons that make Frederic Filloux believe that we are heading towards another American Presidential Election swayed by Facebook.

  1. Mark Zuckerberg’s stubbornness in exonerating political advertising from any fact-checking process. In short: any false statement showing up in a newsfeed can be debunked by either Facebook team or any TPFC (third-party fact-checking) it relies on and taken down. But if the same statement appears in a paid-political ad, it is allowed to stay (unless it points to previously debunked fake news).
  2. There is no change of Facebook’s core principle, which is to reward emotion, and incendiary statements — a principle that clearly favors right-wing rhetoric (starting with Donald Trump). Facebook never considers altering its algorithm to spotlight high qualityand more even-keeled content. The reason is that it brings less engagement, which is at the core of Facebook’s economics.
  3. Unlike 2016, this time, Facebook has a vested interest in seeing Democrats lose. Whoever the nominee be, he or she will go after Facebook, at least with severe regulation and at worse with an attempt to break the companies’ holdings up.
  4. Trump digital campaign is running on full throttle compared to Democrats’. In the exact same scenario as 2016, the Trump campaign is spending heavily on social media and runs 3x more ads than Pete Buttigieg and 7x more than Elizabeth Warren, who is following Hillary Clinton’s path: in 2016, while Trump was flooding voters with 6 million different ads, HRC ran only 66,000 different versions of its message. Toyda, the numbers are staggering: according to a detailed investigation published last week by the Guardian, the Trump campaign spent $19.4m on 218,100 different Facebook ads in 2019, which were seen between 633m and 1.3bn times.


Climate models are running hot — and nobody knows why.

Fascinating Bloomberg report. It’s not just one model, but lots of the major ones. They’re starting to predict much higher temperatures. And at the moment, there’s no consensus in the climate-research community about why this is happening. Is it just a quirk of these very complex models? Or the result of interactions that nobody’s understood? It’s a bit like the problem of inexplicable machine-learning systems. Only more worrying.

The so-called ‘sharing economy’

Lovely comment from the inestimable Dave Pell:

It’s long been described as the sharing economy. But, of course, there is little real sharing going on. The gig economy is just another way to pay people to give you a ride or rent you a room or bring you a meal. Even if the sharing economy is really the on-demand economy, does it represent a new, more worker-friendly, more altruistic version of the working life? The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller wonders: Is The Gig Economy Working? “The American workplace is both a seat of national identity and a site of chronic upheaval and shame. The industry that drove America’s rise in the nineteenth century was often inhumane. The twentieth-century corrective—a corporate workplace of rules, hierarchies, collective bargaining, triplicate forms—brought its own unfairnesses. Gigging reflects the endlessly personalizable values of our own era, but its social effects, untried by time, remain uncertain.” In a perfect version of the sharing economy, I would summarize Heller’s findings and deliver them to you in easily digestable, bite-sized chunks. But once you see the rates I charge, I have a feeling you’ll want to try Task Rabbit.

The ideology behind the gig economy

Jia Tolentino has a very good piece in the New Yorker about the ideology that underpins the gig economy. The piece opens with the story of Mary, a Lyft driver in Chicago who kept accepting rides even though she was nine months pregnant – and even kept going when her contractions began!

In the end, it ended well. Mary had a customer who only needed a short ride, so she was able to drive herself to hospital after dropping him off. Once there, she gave birth to a baby girl — who appears on the company blog wearing a “Little Miss Lyft” onesie.

The point of the company blog post is to laud the spirit of workers like Mary. But, writes Tolentino,

It does require a fairly dystopian strain of doublethink for a company to celebrate how hard and how constantly its employees must work to make a living, given that these companies are themselves setting the terms. And yet this type of faux-inspirational tale has been appearing more lately, both in corporate advertising and in the news. Fiverr, an online freelance marketplace that promotes itself as being for “the lean entrepreneur”—as its name suggests, services advertised on Fiverr can be purchased for as low as five dollars—recently attracted ire for an ad campaign called “In Doers We Trust.” One ad, prominently displayed on some New York City subway cars, features a woman staring at the camera with a look of blank determination. “You eat a coffee for lunch,” the ad proclaims. “You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”

Quite so. Lyft drivers in Chicago earn about $11 per trip.

Perhaps, as Lyft suggests, Mary kept accepting riders while experiencing contractions because “she was still a week away from her due date,” or “she didn’t believe she was going into labor yet.” Or maybe Mary kept accepting riders because the gig economy has further normalized the circumstances in which earning an extra eleven dollars can feel more important than seeking out the urgent medical care that these quasi-employers do not sponsor. In the other version of Mary’s story, she’s an unprotected worker in precarious circumstances.

Spot on.

Uber’s surrender in China: lesson for Brexiteers

This morning’s Observer column:

The big news last week was that Uber, the California-based ride-hailing company, threw in the towel in China. It announced that its Chinese rival, Didi Chuxing, would acquire all of the assets of UberChina – including its brand, business operations and data. In return, Uber gets a stake in Didi Chuxing worth £5.3bn.

Why is this significant? How long have you got?

Read on

How big is the ‘sharing’ economy?

A poll by Time says 44 percent of U.S. adults who are Internet users have participated in it, and 22 percent have offered goods or services.


  • 22 percent of U.S. adults have participated in ride-sharing (or ride-booking), with 10 percent driving for Uber, Lyft or Sidecar (which is getting out of the business).
  • 19 percent have been involved with services such as Airbnb, with 10 percent opening up their homes to host strangers.
  • 17 percent have participated in the service economy, using platforms such as TaskRabbit, and 11 percent have provided services.
  • 14 percent have participated in the car-sharing economy, using Zipcar and similar services.
  • 11 percent have participated in the food and goods-delivery economy, using Instacart, Caviar or PostMates.

The survey, which polled 3,000 people in late November, also found that 61 percent of the drivers/deliverers/errand-runners are male, 55 percent are members of a racial/ethnic minority, 51 percent are between the ages of 18 and 34, and 41 percent live in an urban area.


The billionth Uber ride

This from Uber:

Marvin and Ara just made our day. Their £5 London uberX ride together on Christmas Eve from London Fields, Hackney to Hoxton in Ara’s blue Honda Insight Hybrid was the billionth Uber trip.

One billion. That’s a whole lot of riders and drivers sharing the road, special moments, and celebrations together. Certainly far more than we ever imagined when we got started in San Francisco five and a half years ago.

This holiday season, we’re feeling grateful and festive crossing this milestone as we close out the year. For riding their way into our history books, we’re putting one year’s worth of free rides in rider Marvin’s stocking and our driver-partner Ara will be taking a vacation on us to the Uber city of his choice.

To celebrate the community where this special trip took place, we are also making a donation to Hackney Pirates—a charity serving the neighborhood where the billionth trip started. Hackney Pirates develops the literacy, confidence, and perseverance of young people aged 9-12 across the borough of Hackney, so that they are set up for success both in school and beyond.

The concierge economy is up and running.