Noise cancelling for cars is a no-brainer

We’re all familiar with noise cancelling headphones. I’ve got some that I use for transatlantic trips, and they’re great for minimising any repeating background noise.

Twenty years ago, when I was studying A-Level Physics, I was also building a new PC. I realised that, if I placed a microphone inside the computer case, and fed that into the audio input on the soundcard, I could use software to invert the sound wave and thus virtually eliminate fan noise. It worked a treat.

It doesn’t surprise me, therefore, to find that BOSE, best known for its headphones, are offering car manufacturers something similar with “road noise control”:

With accelerometers, multiple microphones, and algorithms, it’s much more complicated than what I rigged up in my bedroom as a teenager. But the principle remains the same.

Source: The Next Web

"To go wrong in one's own way is better than to go right in someone else's."

(Fyodor Dostoevsky)

Location data in old tweets

What use are old tweets? Do you look back through them? If not, then they’re only useful to others, who are able to data mine you using a new toold:

The tool, called LPAuditor (short for Location Privacy Auditor), exploits what the researchers call an “invasive policy” Twitter deployed after it introduced the ability to tag tweets with a location in 2009. For years, users who chose to geotag tweets with any location, even something as geographically broad as “New York City,” also automatically gave their precise GPS coordinates. Users wouldn’t see the coordinates displayed on Twitter. Nor would their followers. But the GPS information would still be included in the tweet’s metadata and accessible through Twitter’s API.

I deleted around 77,500 tweets in 2017 for exactly this kind of reason.

Source: WIRED

Remembering the past through photos

A few weeks ago, I bought a Google Assistant-powered smart display and put it in our kitchen in place of the DAB radio. It has the added bonus of cycling through all of my Google Photos, which stretch back as far as when my wife and I were married, 15 years ago.

This part of its functionality makes it, of course, just a cloud-powered digital photo frame. But I think it’s possible to underestimate the power that these things have. About an hour before composing this post, for example, my wife took a photo of a photo(!) that appeared on the display showing me on the beach with our two children when they were very small.

An article by Giuliana Mazzoni in The Conversation points out that our ability to whip out a smartphone at any given moment and take a photo changes our relationship to the past:

We use smart phones and new technologies as memory repositories. This is nothing new – humans have always used external devices as an aid when acquiring knowledge and remembering.

[…]

Nowadays we tend to commit very little to memory – we entrust a huge amount to the cloud. Not only is it almost unheard of to recite poems, even the most personal events are generally recorded on our cellphones. Rather than remembering what we ate at someone’s wedding, we scroll back to look at all the images we took of the food.

Mazzoni points out that this can be problematic, as memory is important for learning. However, there may be a “silver lining”:

Even if some studies claim that all this makes us more stupid, what happens is actually shifting skills from purely being able to remember to being able to manage the way we remember more efficiently. This is called metacognition, and it is an overarching skill that is also essential for students – for example when planning what and how to study. There is also substantial and reliable evidence that external memories, selfies included, can help individuals with memory impairments.

But while photos can in some instances help people to remember, the quality of the memories may be limited. We may remember what something looked like more clearly, but this could be at the expense of other types of information. One study showed that while photos could help people remember what they saw during some event, they reduced their memory of what was said.

She goes on to discuss the impact that viewing many photos from your past has on a malleable sense of self:

Research shows that we often create false memories about the past. We do this in order to maintain the identity that we want to have over time – and avoid conflicting narratives about who we are. So if you have always been rather soft and kind – but through some significant life experience decide you are tough – you may dig up memories of being aggressive in the past or even completely make them up.

I’m not so sure that it’s a good thing to tell yourself the wrong story about who you are. For example, although I grew up in, and identified with, a macho ex-mining town environment, I’ve become happier by realising that my identify is separate to that.

I suppose it’s a bit different for me, as most of the photos I’m looking at are of me with my children and/or my wife. However, I still have to tell myself a story of who I am as a husband and a father, so in many ways it’s the same.

All in all, I love the fact that we can take photos anywhere and at any time. We may need to evolve social norms around the most appropriate ways of capturing images in crowded situations, but that’s separate to the very great benefit which I believe they bring us.

Source: The Conversation

Acoustic mirrors

On the beach at Druridge Bay in Northumberland, near where I live, there are large blocks in various intervals. These hulking pieces of concrete, now half-submerged, were deployed on seafronts up and down England to prevent the enemy successfully landing tanks during the Second World War.

I was fascinated to find out that these aren’t the only concrete blocks that protected Britain. BBC News reports that ‘acoustic mirrors’ were installed for a very specific purpose:

More than 100 years ago acoustic mirrors along the coast of England were built with the intention of using them to detect the sound of approaching German zeppelins.

The concave concrete structures were designed to pick up sound waves from enemy aircraft, making it possible to predict their flight trajectory, giving enough time for ground forces to be alerted to defend the towns and cities of Britain.

Some of these, which vary in size, still exist, and have been photographed by Joe Pettet-Smith.

The reason most of us haven’t heard of them is that the technology improved so quickly. Pettet-Smith comments:

The sound mirror experiment, this idea of having a chain of concrete structures facing the Channel using sound to detect the flight trajectory of enemy aircraft, was just that – an experiment. They tried many different sizes and designs before the project was scrapped when radar was introduced.

The science was solid, but aircraft kept getting faster and quieter, which made them obsolete.

Fascinating. The historian (and technologist) within me loves this.

Source: BBC News

Unpopular opinions on personal productivity

Before Christmas, I stumbled upon an interesting Twitter thread. It was started by Andrew Chen, General Partner at a16z, who asked:

What is your least popular but deeply held opinion on personal productivity?

He replied to his own tweet to get things started, commenting:

Being super organized is a bad thing. Means there’s no room for serendipity, deep thought, can make you overly passive on other peoples’ use of your time, as opposed to being focused on outbound. (Sorry to all my super Type A friends)

I’d definitely agree with that. Some of the others in the thread that I agree with are:

  • 9hour workdays are a byproduct of the industrial age. Personal productivity takes a deep fall after grinding on work for 5hours. Office hours kill personal time and productivity (@lpuchii)
  • Going on a run in the middle of the workday (@envarli)
  • Use pen and paper for scribbling notes (@uneeb123)
  • No one else has my job nor are they me, so I can’t simply follow the prescriptions of others. To be more productive, I need to look for new ideas and test. What works for someone else may be antithetical to my work. (@bguenther)
  • Great ideas rarely come from brainstorming sessions. It comes from pondering over a problem for a significant amount of time and coupling it with lots of experiments (@rajathkedi)

As ever, about half-way down the lengthy thread, it devolves into general productivity advice rather than ‘unpopular opinions’. Still worth a browse!

Source: Andrew Chen (Twitter)

Confusing tech questions

Today is the first day of the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, in Las Vegas. Each year, tech companies showcase their latest offerings and concepts. Nilay Patel, Editor-in-Chief for The Verge, comments that, increasingly, the tech industry is built on a number of assumptions about consumers and human behaviour:

[T]hink of the tech industry as being built on an ever-increasing number of assumptions: that you know what a computer is, that saying “enter your Wi-Fi password” means something to you, that you understand what an app is, that you have the desire to manage your Bluetooth device list, that you’ll figure out what USB-C dongles you need, and on and on.

Lately, the tech industry is starting to make these assumptions faster than anyone can be expected to keep up. And after waves of privacy-related scandals in tech, the misconceptions and confusion about how things works are both greater and more reasonable than ever.

I think this is spot-on. At Mozilla, and now at Moodle, I spend a good deal of my time among people who are more technically-minded than me. And, in turn, I’m more technically-minded than the general population. So what’s ‘obvious’ or ‘easy’ to developers feels like magic to the man or woman on the street.

Patel keeps track of the questions his friends and family ask him, and has listed them in the post. The number one thing he says that everyone is talking about is how people assume their phones are listening to them, and then serving up advertising based on that. They don’t get that that Facebook (and other platforms) use multiple data points to make inferences.

I’ll not reproduce his list here, but here are three questions which I, too, get a lot from friends and family:

“How do I make sure deleting photos from my iPhone won’t delete them from my computer?”

“How do I keep track of what my kid is watching on YouTube?”

“Why do I need to make another username and password?”

As I was discussing with the MoodleNet team just yesterday, there’s a difference between treating users as ‘stupid’ (which they’re not) and ensuring that they don’t have to think too much when they’re using your product.

Source: The Verge (via Orbital Operations)

"You can’t get much done in life if you only work on the days when you feel good.”

(Jerry West)

Creativity as an ongoing experiment

It’s hard not to be inspired by the career of the Icelandic artist Björk. She really does seem to be single-minded and determined to express herself however she chooses.

This interview with her in The Creative Independent is from 2017 but was brought to my attention recently in their (excellent) newsletter. On being asked whether it’s OK to ever abandon a project, Björk replies:

If there isn’t the next step, and it doesn’t feel right, there will definitely be times where I don’t do it. But in my mind, I don’t look at it that way. It’s more like maybe it could happen in 10 years time. Maybe it could happen in 50 years time. That’s the next step. Or somebody else will take it, somebody else will look at it, and it will inspire them to write a poem. I look at it more like that, like it’s something that I don’t own.

[…]

The minute your expectations harden or crystallize, you jinx it. I’m not saying I can always do this, but if I can stay more in the moment and be grateful for every step of the way, then because I’m not expecting anything, nothing was ever abandoned.

Creativity isn’t something that can be forced, she says:

It’s like, the moments that I’ve gone to an island, and I’m supposed to write a whole album in a month, I could never, ever do that. I write one song a month, or two months, whatever happens… If there is a happy period or if there’s a sad period, or I have all the time in the world or no time in the world, it’s just something that’s kind of a bubbling underneath.

Perhaps my favourite part of the interview, however, is where Björk says that she likes leaving things open for growth and new possibilities:

I like things when they’re not completely finished. I like it when albums come out. Maybe it’s got something to do with being in bands. We spent too long… There were at least one or two albums we made all the songs too perfect, and then we overcooked it in the studio, and then we go and play them live and they’re kind of dead. I think there’s something in me, like an instinct, that doesn’t want the final, cooked version on the album. I want to leave ends open or other versions, which is probably why I end up still having people do remixes, and when I play them live, I feel different and the songs can grow.

Well worth reading in full, especially at this time of the year when everything seems full of new possibilities!

Source: The Creative Independent (via their newsletter)

Image by Maddie

Murmurations

Starlings where I live in Northumberland, England, also swarm like this, but not in so many numbers.

I love the way that we give interesting names to groups of animals English (e.g. a ‘murder’ of crows). There’s a whole list of them on Wikipedia.

Source: The Atlantic