Tag: MIT Technology Review

Much will have more

Discord screenshot

🧠 How Discord (somewhat accidentally) invented the future of the internet

😶 Parler ‘free speech’ app tops charts in wake of Trump defeat

🤖 ‘Robot soldiers could make up quarter of British army by 2030s’

🇪🇺 Europe is adopting stricter rules on surveillance tech

🏥 NHS data: Can web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee fix it?

Quotation-as-title by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Image from top-linked post.

Even those of a harsh and unyielding nature will endure gentle treatment: no creature is fierce and frightening if it is stroked

Digital garden

🌼 Digital gardens let you cultivate your own little bit of the internet

🙌 The Joys of Being a Stoic

⛏️ Dorset mega henge may be ‘last hurrah’ of stone-age builders

📺 Culture to cheer you up during the second lockdown: part one

🐖 Ubiquitous Medieval Pigs

Quotation-as-title by Seneca. Image from top-linked post.

Friday facilitations

This week, je presente

  1. We Have No Reason to Believe 5G Is Safe (Scientific American) — “The latest cellular technology, 5G, will employ millimeter waves for the first time in addition to microwaves that have been in use for older cellular technologies, 2G through 4G. Given limited reach, 5G will require cell antennas every 100 to 200 meters, exposing many people to millimeter wave radiation… [which are] absorbed within a few millimeters of human skin and in the surface layers of the cornea. Short-term exposure can have adverse physiological effects in the peripheral nervous system, the immune system and the cardiovascular system.”
  2. Situated degree pathways (The Ed Techie) — “[T]he Trukese navigator “begins with an objective rather than a plan. He sets off toward the objective and responds to conditions as they arise in an ad hoc fashion. He utilizes information provided by the wind, the waves, the tide and current, the fauna, the stars, the clouds, the sound of the water on the side of the boat, and he steers accordingly.” This is in contrast to the European navigator who plots a course “and he carries out his voyage by relating his every move to that plan. His effort throughout his voyage is directed to remaining ‘on course’.”
  3. on rms / necessary but not sufficient (p1k3) — “To the extent that free software was about wanting the freedom to hack and freely exchange the fruits of your hacking, this hasn’t gone so badly. It could be better, but I remember the 1990s pretty well and I can tell you that much of the stuff trivially at my disposal now would have blown my tiny mind back then. Sometimes I kind of snap to awareness in the middle of installing some package or including some library in a software project and this rush of gratitude comes over me.”
  4. Screen time is good for you—maybe (MIT Technology Review) — “Przybylski admitted there are some drawbacks to his team’s study: demographic effects, like socioeconomics, are tied to psychological well-being, and he said his team is working to differentiate those effects—along with the self-selection bias introduced when kids and their caregivers report their own screen use. He also said he was working to figure out whether a certain type of screen use was more beneficial than others.”
  5. This Map Lets You Plug in Your Address to See How It’s Changed Over the Past 750 Million Years (Smithsonian Magazine) — “Users can input a specific address or more generalized region, such as a state or country, and then choose a date ranging from zero to 750 million years ago. Currently, the map offers 26 timeline options, traveling back from the present to the Cryogenian Period at intervals of 15 to 150 million years.”
  6. Understanding extinction — humanity has destroyed half the life on Earth (CBC) — “One of the most significant ways we’ve reduced the biomass on the planet is by altering the kind of life our planet supports. One huge decrease and shift was due to the deforestation that’s occurred with our increasing reliance on agriculture. Forests represent more living material than fields of wheat or soybeans.”
  7. Honks vs. Quacks: A Long Chat With the Developers of ‘Untitled Goose Game’ (Vice) — “[L]ike all creative work, this game was made through a series of political decisions. Even if this doesn’t explicitly manifest in the text of the game, there are a bunch of ambient traces of our politics evident throughout it: this is why there are no cops in the game, and why there’s no crown on the postbox.”
  8. What is the Zeroth World, and how can we use it? (Bryan Alexander) — “[T]he idea of a zeroth world is also a critique. The first world idea is inherently self-congratulatory. In response, zeroth sets the first in some shade, causing us to see its flaws and limitations. Like postmodern to modern, or Internet2 to the rest of the internet, it’s a way of helping us move past the status quo.”
  9. It’s not the claim, it’s the frame (Hapgood) — “[A] news-reading strategy where one has to check every fact of a source because the source itself cannot be trusted is neither efficient nor effective. Disinformation is not usually distributed as an entire page of lies…. Even where people fabricate issues, they usually place the lies in a bed of truth.”

Image of hugelkultur bed via Sid

Friday fermentations

I boiled the internet and this was what remained:

  • I Quit Social Media for a Year and Nothing Magical Happened (Josh C. Simmons) — “A lot of social media related aspects of my life are different now – I’m not sure they’re better, they’re just different, but I can confidently say that I prefer this normal to last year’s. There’s a bit of rain with all of the sunshine. I don’t see myself ever going back to social media. I don’t see the point of it, and after leaving for a while, and getting a good outside look, it seems like an abusive relationship – millions of workers generating data for tech-giants to crunch through and make money off of. I think that we tend to forget how we were getting along pretty well before social media – not everything was idyllic and better, but it was fine.”
  • Face recognition, bad people and bad data (Benedict Evans) — “My favourite example of what can go wrong here comes from a project for recognising cancer in photos of skin. The obvious problem is that you might not have an appropriate distribution of samples of skin in different tones. But another problem that can arise is that dermatologists tend to put rulers in the photo of cancer, for scale – so if all the examples of ‘cancer’ have a ruler and all the examples of ‘not-cancer’ do not, that might be a lot more statistically prominent than those small blemishes. You inadvertently built a ruler-recogniser instead of a cancer-recogniser.”
  • Would the Internet Be Healthier Without ‘Like’ Counts? (WIRED) ⁠— “Online, value is quantifiable. The worth of a person, idea, movement, meme, or tweet is often based on a tally of actions: likes, retweets, shares, followers, views, replies, claps, and swipes-up, among others. Each is an individual action. Together, though, they take on outsized meaning. A YouTube video with 100,000 views seems more valuable than one with 10, even though views—like nearly every form of online engagement—can be easily bought. It’s a paradoxical love affair. And it’s far from an accident.”
  • Are Platforms Commons? (On The Horizon) — “[W]hat if ecosystems were constructed so that they were governed by the participants, rather by the hypercapitalist strivings of the platform owners — such as Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook — or the heavy-handed regulators? Is there a middle ground where the needs of the end user and those building, marketing, and shipping products and services can be balanced, and a fair share of the profits are distributed not just through common carrier laws but by the shared economics of a commons, and where the platform orchestrator gets a fair share, as well?”
  • Depression and anxiety threatened to kill my career. So I came clean about it (The Guardian) — “To my surprise, far from rejecting me, students stayed after class to tell me how sorry they were. They left condolence cards in my mailbox and sent emails to let me know they were praying for my family. They stopped by my office to check on me. Up to that point, I’d been so caught up in my despair that it never occurred to me that I might be worthy of concern and support. Being accepted despite my flaws touched me in ways that are hard to express.”
  • Absolute scale corrupts absolutely (apenwarr) — “Here’s what we’ve lost sight of, in a world where everything is Internet scale: most interactions should not be Internet scale. Most instances of most programs should be restricted to a small set of obviously trusted people. All those people, in all those foreign countries, should not be invited to read Equifax’s PII database in Argentina, no matter how stupid the password was. They shouldn’t even be able to connect to the database. They shouldn’t be able to see that it exists. It shouldn’t, in short, be on the Internet.”
  • The Automation Charade (Logic magazine) — “The problem is that the emphasis on technological factors alone, as though “disruptive innovation” comes from nowhere or is as natural as a cool breeze, casts an air of blameless inevitability over something that has deep roots in class conflict. The phrase “robots are taking our jobs” gives technology agency it doesn’t (yet?) possess, whereas “capitalists are making targeted investments in robots designed to weaken and replace human workers so they can get even richer” is less catchy but more accurate.”
  • The ambitious plan to reinvent how websites get their names (MIT Technology Review) — “The system would be based on blockchain technology, meaning it would be software that runs on a widely distributed network of computers. In theory, it would have no single point of failure and depend on no human-run organization that could be corrupted or co-opted.”
  • O whatever God or whatever ancestor that wins in the next life (The Main Event) — “And it begins to dawn on you that the stories were all myths and the epics were all narrated by the villains and the history books were written to rewrite the histories and that so much of what you thought defined excellence merely concealed grift.”
  • A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked (The Atlantic) — “In other words, people’s subjective experience of a decision—what Libet’s study seemed to suggest was just an illusion—appeared to match the actual moment their brains showed them making a decision.”

Friday fidgetings

These things popped into my consciousness this week:

  • Soon, satellites will be able to watch you everywhere all the time (MIT Technology Review) — “Some of the most radical developments in Earth observation involve not traditional photography but rather radar sensing and hyperspectral images, which capture electromagnetic wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. Clouds can hide the ground in visible light, but satellites can penetrate them using synthetic aperture radar, which emits a signal that bounces off the sensed object and back to the satellite. It can determine the height of an object down to a millimeter.”
  • The lesson from the ruins of Notre Dame: don’t rely on billionaires (The Guardian) — “They have banked the publicity, while dreaming up small print that didn’t exist in the spring. As another charity executive, Célia Vérot, said: “It’s a voluntary donation, so the companies are waiting for the government’s vision to see what precisely they want to fund.” It’s as if the vast project of rebuilding a 12th-century masterpiece was a breakfast buffet from which one could pick and choose.”
  • Does It Stick? (Hapgood) — “But you see something that I often have trouble explaining to others — with the right habits you find students start sounding like entirely different people. They start being, in some ways, very different people. Less reactive, more reflective, more curious. If the habits stick, rather than decay, that effect can cumulative, because the students have done that most powerful of things — they have learned how to learn. And the impact of that can change a person’s life.”
  • The Last Days of John Allen Chau (Outside) — “In the fall of 2018, the 26-year-old American missionary traveled to a remote speck of sand and jungle in the Indian Ocean, attempting to convert one of the planet’s last uncontacted tribes to Christianity. The islanders killed him, and Chau was pilloried around the world as a deluded Christian supremacist who deserved to die. Alex Perry pieces together the life and death of a young adventurer driven to extremes by unshakable faith.”
  • Human magnetism (Aeon) — “Even Charles Darwin added his two cents on these topics, claiming that ‘some part of the brain is specialised for the function of direction’. If such a mechanism did exist in our ancestors, could it have been muted – phased out with the advancement of consciousness and communication, the onset of civilisation, the invention of artificial means such as the compass and, ultimately, technologies such as GPS?”
  • How can we help the hikikomori to leave their rooms? (Aeon) — “If these anxieties are keeping people inside their homes, what’s prompting them to retreat there in the first place? One answer could be school phobia. The survey revealed that hikikomori are more likely to have dropped out of education. The transition from high school to college appeared especially harsh.”
  • 3-day weekends could make people happier and more productive (Business Insider) — “There might not be an immediate change in productivity with the introduction of a four-day workweek, but with less time to kill at work, employees may procrastinate less (though there would always be those who try to take advantage).”
  • Does the Mystery of Stonehenge Involve Pig Fat? (Atlas Obscura) — “New research says the megaliths may have been dragged to the site with the help of lard.”
  • In praise of the things that cost nothing (The Guardian) — “There is plenty to enjoy that is free in a world where it seems everything has a cost.”

Image via Poorly Drawn Lines

Friday frustrations

I couldn’t help but notice these things this week:

  • Don’t ask forgiveness, radiate intent (Elizabeth Ayer) ⁠— “I certainly don’t need a reputation as being underhanded or an organizational problem. Especially as a repeat behavior, signalling builds me a track record of openness and predictability, even as I take risks or push boundaries.”
  • When will we have flying cars? Maybe sooner than you think. (MIT Technology Review) — “An automated air traffic management system in constant communication with every flying car could route them to prevent collisions, with human operators on the ground ready to take over by remote control in an emergency. Still, existing laws and public fears mean there’ll probably have to be pilots at least for a while, even if only as a backup to an autonomous system.”
  • For Smart Animals, Octopuses Are Very Weird (The Atlantic) — “Unencumbered by a shell, cephalopods became flexible in both body and mind… They could move faster, expand into new habitats, insinuate their arms into crevices in search of prey.”
  • Cannabidiol in Anxiety and Sleep: A Large Case Series. (PubMed) — “The final sample consisted of 72 adults presenting with primary concerns of anxiety (n = 47) or poor sleep (n = 25). Anxiety scores decreased within the first month in 57 patients (79.2%) and remained decreased during the study duration. Sleep scores improved within the first month in 48 patients (66.7%) but fluctuated over time. In this chart review, CBD was well tolerated in all but 3 patients.”
  • 22 Lessons I’m Still Learning at 82 (Coach George Raveling) — “We must always fill ourselves with more questions than answers. You should never retire your mind. After you retire mentally, then you are just taking up residence in society. I do not ever just want to be a resident of society. I want to be a contributor to our communities.”
  • How Boris Johnson’s “model bus hobby” non sequitur manipulated the public discourse and his search results (BoingBoing) — “Remember, any time a politician deliberately acts like an idiot in public, there’s a good chance that they’re doing it deliberately, and even if they’re not, public idiocy can be very useful indeed.”
  • It’s not that we’ve failed to rein in Facebook and Google. We’ve not even tried. (The Guardian) — “Surveillance capitalism is not the same as digital technology. It is an economic logic that has hijacked the digital for its own purposes. The logic of surveillance capitalism begins with unilaterally claiming private human experience as free raw material for production and sales.”
  • Choose Boring Technology (Dan McKinley) — “The nice thing about boringness (so constrained) is that the capabilities of these things are well understood. But more importantly, their failure modes are well understood.”
  • What makes a good excuse? A Cambridge philosopher may have the answer (University of Cambridge) — “Intentions are plans for action. To say that your intention was morally adequate is to say that your plan for action was morally sound. So when you make an excuse, you plead that your plan for action was morally fine – it’s just that something went awry in putting it into practice.”
  • Your Focus Is Priceless. Stop Giving It Away. (Forge) — “To virtually everyone who isn’t you, your focus is a commodity. It is being amassed, collected, repackaged and sold en masse. This makes your attention extremely valuable in aggregate. Collectively, audiences are worth a whole lot. But individually, your attention and my attention don’t mean anything to the eyeball aggregators. It’s a drop in their growing ocean. It’s essentially nothing.”

Image via @EffinBirds

There’s no viagra for enlightenment

This quotation from the enigmatic Russell Brand seemed appropriate for the subject of today’s article: the impact of so-called ‘deepfakes’ on everything from porn to politics.

First, what exactly are ‘deepfakes’? Mark Wilson explains in an article for Fast Company:

In early 2018, [an anonymous Reddit user named Deepfakes] uploaded a machine learning model that could swap one person’s face for another face in any video. Within weeks, low-fi celebrity-swapped porn ran rampant across the web. Reddit soon banned Deepfakes, but the technology had already taken root across the web–and sometimes the quality was more convincing. Everyday people showed that they could do a better job adding Princess Leia’s face to The Force Awakens than the Hollywood special effects studio Industrial Light and Magic did. Deepfakes had suddenly made it possible for anyone to master complex machine learning; you just needed the time to collect enough photographs of a person to train the model. You dragged these images into a folder, and the tool handled the convincing forgery from there.

Mark Wilson

As you’d expect, deepfakes bring up huge ethical issues, as Jessica Lindsay reports for Metro. It’s a classic case of our laws not being able to keep up with what’s technologically possible:

With the advent of deepfake porn, the possibilities have expanded even further, with people who have never starred in adult films looking as though they’re doing sexual acts on camera.

Experts have warned that these videos enable all sorts of bad things to happen, from paedophilia to fabricated revenge porn.


This can be done to make a fake speech to misrepresent a politician’s views, or to create porn videos featuring people who did not star in them.

Jessica Lindsay

It’s not just video, either, with Google’s AI now able to translate speech from one language to another and keep the same voice. Karen Hao embeds examples in an article for MIT Technology Review demonstrating where this is all headed.

The results aren’t perfect, but you can sort of hear how Google’s translator was able to retain the voice and tone of the original speaker. It can do this because it converts audio input directly to audio output without any intermediary steps. In contrast, traditional translational systems convert audio into text, translate the text, and then resynthesize the audio, losing the characteristics of the original voice along the way.

Karen Hao

The impact on democracy could be quite shocking, with the ability to create video and audio that feels real but is actually completely fake.

However, as Mike Caulfield notes, the technology doesn’t even have to be that sophisticated to create something that can be used in a political attack.

There’s a video going around that purportedly shows Nancy Pelosi drunk or unwell, answering a question about Trump in a slow and slurred way. It turns out that it is slowed down, and that the original video shows her quite engaged and articulate.


In musical production there is a technique called double-tracking, and it’s not a perfect metaphor for what’s going on here but it’s instructive. In double tracking you record one part — a vocal or solo — and then you record that part again, with slight variations in timing and tone. Because the two tracks are close, they are perceived as a single track. Because they are different though, the track is “widened” feeling deeper, richer. The trick is for them to be different enough that it widens the track but similar enough that they blend.

Mike Caulfield

This is where blockchain could actually be a useful technology. Caulfield often talks about the importance of ‘going back to the source’ — in other words, checking the provenance of what it is you’re reading, watching, or listening. There’s potential here for checking that something is actually the original document/video/audio.

Ultimately, however, people believe what they want to believe. If they want to believe Donald Trump is an idiot, they’ll read and share things showing him in a negative light. It doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not.

Also check out:

Friday fabrications

These things made me sit up and take notice:

Image via xkcd

Where memes come from

In my TEDx talk six years ago, I explained how the understanding and remixing of memes was a great way to develop digital literacies. At that time, they were beginning to be used in advertisements. Now, as we saw with Brexit and the most recent US Presidential election, they’ve become weaponised.

This article in the MIT Technology Review references one of my favourite websites, knowyourmeme.com, which tracks the origin and influence of various memes across the web. Researchers have taken 700,000 images from this site and used an algorithm to track their spread and development. In addition, they gathered 100 million images from other sources.

Spotting visually similar images is relatively straightforward with a technique known as perceptual hashing, or pHashing. This uses an algorithm to convert an image into a set of vectors that describe it in numbers. Visually similar images have similar sets of vectors or pHashes.

The team let their algorithm loose on a database of over 100 million images gathered from communities known to generate memes, such as Reddit and its subgroup The_Donald, Twitter, 4chan’s politically incorrect forum known as /pol/, and a relatively new social network called Gab that was set up to accommodate users who had been banned from other communities.

Whereas some things ‘go viral’ by accident and catch the original author(s) off-guard, some communities are very good at making memes that spread quickly.

Two relatively small communities stand out as being particularly effective at spreading memes. “We find that /pol/ substantially influences the meme ecosystem by posting a large number of memes, while The Donald is the most efficient community in pushing memes to both fringe and mainstream Web communities,” say Stringhini and co.

They also point out that “/pol/ and Gab share hateful and racist memes at a higher rate than mainstream communities,” including large numbers of anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi memes.

Seemingly neutral memes can also be “weaponized” by mixing them with other messages. For example, the “Pepe the Frog” meme has been used in this way to create politically active, racist, and anti-Semitic messages.

It turns out that, just like in evolutionary biology, creating a large number of variants is likely to lead to an optimal solution for a given environment.

The researchers, who have made their technique available to others to promote further analysis, are even able to throw light on the question of why some memes spread widely while others quickly die away. “One of the key components to ensuring they are disseminated is ensuring that new ‘offspring’ are continuously produced,” they say.

That immediately suggests a strategy for anybody wanting to become more influential: set up a meme factory that produces large numbers of variants of other memes. Every now and again, this process is bound to produce a hit.

For any evolutionary biologist, that may sound familiar. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a process that treats pHashes like genomes and allows them to evolve through mutation, reproduction, and selection.

As the article states, right now it’s humans creating these memes. However, it won’t be long until we have machines doing this automatically. After all, it’s been five years since the controversy about the algorithmically-created “Keep Calm and…” t-shirts for sale on Amazon.

It’s an interesting space to watch, particularly for those interested in digital literacies (and democracy).

Source: MIT Technology Review

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