In the News Archive

EU Parliament calls for longer lifetime for products

"We must reinstate the reparability of all products put on the market," said Parliament's rapporteur Pascal Durand MEP: "We have to make sure that batteries are no longer glued into a product, but are screwed in so that we do not have to throw away a phone when the battery breaks down. We need to make sure that consumers are aware of how long the products last and how they can be repaired".

Parliament wants to promote a longer product lifespan, in particular by tackling programmed obsolescence for tangible goods and for software.

This is a very noble goal, but I am afraid that in many product segments, this ship has sailed. Does anybody honestly expect, for instance, smartphone makers to go back to screwed cases and removable batteries? I would love if they did, but I just don't see it happening.

What Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods really means

There is something horrible about this little video. Why do the inhabitants of this suburban home require a recipe for pasta from a jar? Why can't they turn the lights down using their hands? If the ad were an episode of "Black Mirror", they would be clones living in a laboratory, attempting to follow the patterns of an outside world they've never seen. And yet the ad is not fantastical but descriptive. It's unsettling because it's an accurate portrayal of our new mail-order way of life, which Amazon has spent the past twenty-two years creating.

Eventually, governments all over the world will have to ask themselves the question: how big and powerful will we let corporations become? The more powerful they get, and the bigger and bigger the role of money in Washington DC and Brussels, the more I believe we have already reached the point where it's time to start breaking up some of the most powerful corporations - like the oil giants, like Apple, like Google, like Amazon, and so on.

These companies play such a huge role in the core foundations and functioning of our societies, that we have to start taking steps to break them up. We've done it before, and we need to start thinking about doing it again.

Corporations exist to serve society - not the other way around. If, due to their sheer size and power, they become a liability, they have outlived their usefulness.

PR are not your friends – they will lie to your face

While these are a couple of very specific examples, they are part of a wider industry trend that is woefully underdiscussed. As an industry, we have become overly accepting of this idea that it's okay for PR to actively lie to consumers if it will help their products sell better or be more positively received. PR dishonesty is considered par for the course.

We see this all over the technology industry. People take whatever a company PR person or some manager says as truth, without a single shred of critical thinking. This is quite dangerous, and reminds me of people blindly believing everything some political bigshot says as truth.

The threat of increasing reliance on closed, foreign code

Like many other countries, The Netherlands uses a chip card for paying and using public transport, and while there's been a number of issues regarding its security, privacy, and stability, it won't be going anywhere any time soon. Just today, the various companies announced a new initiative where Android users can use their smartphones instead of their chip cards to pay for and use public transport.

The new initiative, jointly developed by the various companies operating our public transport system and our carriers, is Android-only, because Apple "does not allow it to work, on a technical level", and even then, it's only available on two of our three major carriers for now.

This got me thinking about something we rarely talk about: the increasing reliance on external platforms for vital societal infrastructure. While this is a test for now, it's easy to see how the eventual phasing out of the chip cards - already labelled as "outdated" by the companies involved - will mean we have to rely on platforms beyond society's control for vital societal infrastructure. Chip cards for public transport or banks or whatever are a major expense, and there's a clear economic incentive to eliminate them and rely on e.g. smartphones instead.

As we increasingly outsource access to vital societal infrastructure to foreign, external corporations, we have to start asking ourselves what this actually means. Things like public transport, payments, taxes, and so on, are absolutely critical to the functioning of our society, and to me, it seems like a terrible idea to restrict access to them to platforms beyond our own control.

Can you imagine what happens if an update to an application required to access public transport gets denied by Apple? What if the tool for paying your taxes gets banned from the Play Store days before the tax deadline? What if a crucial payment application is removed from the App Store? Imagine the immense, irreparable damage this could do to a society in mere hours.

If these systems - for whatever reason - break down today, we can hold our politicians accountable, because they bear the responsibility for these systems. During the introduction of our current public transport chip card and its early growing pains, our parliament demanded swift action from the responsible minister (secretary in American parlance). Since the private companies responsible for the chip card system took part in a tender process with strict demands, guidelines, rules, and possible consequences for failure to deliver, said companies could and can be held accountable by the government. This covers the entire technological stack, from the cards themselves up to the control systems that run everything.

If we move to a world where applications for iOS and Android are the only way to access crucial government-provided services, this system of accountability breaks down, because while the application itself would be part of the tender process, meaning its creator would be accountable, the platforms it runs on would not - i.e., only a part of the stack is covered. In other words, if Google or Apple decides to reject an update or remove an application - they are not accountable for the consequences in the same way a party to a government tender would be. The system of accountability breaks down.

Of course, even today this system of accountability isn't perfect, but it is a vital path for recourse in case private companies fail to deliver. I'm sure not every one of you even agrees the above is a problem at all - especially Americans have a more positive view of corporate services compared to government services (not entirely unreasonable if you look at the state of US government services today). In countries like The Netherlands, though, despite our constant whining about every one of these services, they actually rank among the very best in the world.

I am genuinely worried about the increasing reliance on - especially - technology companies without them actually being part of the system of accountability. The fact that we might, one day, be required to rely on black boxes like iOS devices, Microsoft computers, or Google Play Services-enabled Android phones to access vital government services is a threat to our society and the functioning of our democracy. With access to things like public transport, money, and all that come with those, locked to closed-source platforms, we, the people, will have zero control over the pillars of our own societies.

What can we do to address this? I believe we need to take aggressive steps - at the EU-level - to demand full public access to the source code that underpins the platforms that are vital to the functioning of our society. We, the people, have the right to know how these systems work, what they do, and how secure they really are. As computers and phones become the only way to access and use crucial government services, they must be fully 100% open source.

We as The Netherlands are irrelevant and would never be able to make such demands stick, but the EU is one of the most powerful economic blocks in the world. If you want access to the wealthy 450 million customers in the European Union (figure excludes the UK), your software must be open source so that we can ensure the security and stability of our infrastructure. If you do not comply, you will be denied access to this huge economic block. Most of you will probably balk at this suggestion, but I truly believe it is the only way to guarantee the security and stability of vital government services we rely on every single day.

We should not rely on closed-source, foreign code for our government services. It's time the European Union starts thinking about how to address this threat.

Which tech giant would you drop?

Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Alphabet, the parent company of Google, are not just the largest technology companies in the world. As I've argued repeatedly in my column, they are also becoming the most powerful companies of any kind, essentially inescapable for any consumer or business that wants to participate in the modern world. But which of the Frightful Five is most unavoidable? I ponder the question in my column this week.

But what about you? If an evil monarch forced you to choose, in what order would you give up these inescapable giants of tech?

Such a simple list for me: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft. I don't use Apple products, and Amazon isn't a thing in The Netherlands so I don't use any of its products either. I do use Facebook to keep in touch with some people abroad, but that could easily be replaced by other tools. Dumping Google would mean replacing my Android phone with something else, which isn't a big deal, and while losing Google Search and Gmail would be a far bigger problem, those, too, can be overcome. YouTube is a very big deal to me - I use it every day - so I would have to learn to do without.

Surprising to some, perhaps, Microsoft would be hardest for me to ditch, because Microsoft Office is quite important to how I earn my living. OpenOffice or LibreOffice or whatever it's called is fine if the people around you also use it, but since my entire industry is 100% Office, I can't make such a switch. Windows, too, is important to me, because it's the desktop operating system I hate the least, and quite important to me gaming-wise.

This is definitely an interesting exercise!

Steve Ballmer serves up a fascinating data trove

On Tuesday, Mr. Ballmer plans to make public a database and a report that he and a small army of economists, professors and other professionals have been assembling as part of a stealth start-up over the last three years called USAFacts. The database is perhaps the first nonpartisan effort to create a fully integrated look at revenue and spending across federal, state and local governments.

Want to know how many police officers are employed in various parts of the country and compare that against crime rates? Want to know how much revenue is brought in from parking tickets and the cost to collect? Want to know what percentage of Americans suffer from diagnosed depression and how much the government spends on it? That’s in there. You can slice the numbers in all sorts of ways.

This is exactly the kind of thing technology should be used for in a democracy: to provide (relatively) easy insight into otherwise incredibly obtuse and splintered government data. Well done.

Evidence robots are winning the race for American jobs

Who is winning the race for jobs between robots and humans? Last year, two leading economists described a future in which humans come out ahead. But now they’ve declared a different winner: the robots.

The industry most affected by automation is manufacturing. For every robot per thousand workers, up to six workers lost their jobs and wages fell by as much as three-fourths of a percent, according to a new paper by the economists, Daron Acemoglu of M.I.T. and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University. It appears to be the first study to quantify large, direct, negative effects of robots.

These effects are only "negative" effects because of the way our society currently works. Nobody is going to stop automation, but automation is going to make our capitalist systems wholly and deeply untenable. Those countries who recognise and adapt to this fact the earliest, will be the ones coming out on top once the dust settles.

Countries that look backwards and thereby artificially stunt their economic growth by investing in wholly outdated and destructive industries... Well. Good luck.

Remember Zip disks? These election departments do

You may recall that a couple of years ago we ran a piece talking about how Ada County, the most populous county in Idaho, was desperately looking for Zip disks and drives to help keep its aging voting machines running.

As it turns out, Ada County isn't alone. Apparently a lot of counties are in the same boat.

Once, while buying a PowerMac G4 from someone (factory-equipped with an internal Zip drive), I stumbled upon his huge collection of external Zip drives and disks, which he promptly handed over as a gift. Other than playing with them out of idle curiosity, I never used them for anything.

Instead of disposing of them years later, I guess I should've sent those 15 or so external Zip drives and 30-odd disks as emergency foreign aid to America. Underfunding democracy seems like a terrible idea.

They used to last 50 years

Now refrigerators last 8-10 years, if you are fortunate. How in the world have our appliances regressed so much in the past few decades? I've bought and sold refrigerators and freezers from the 1950s that still work perfectly fine. I've come across washers and dryers from the 1960s and 1970s that were still working like the day they were made. Now, many appliances break and need servicing within 2-3 years and, overall, new appliances last 1/3 to 1/4 as long as appliances built decades ago. They break more frequently, and sooner, than ever before. They rust and deteriorate much quicker than in the past. Why is this happening, and what's really going on? I've been wrestling over these questions for years while selling thousands of appliances, and more recently, working with used appliance sellers and repair techs all across the country. The following is what I've discovered.

This is something we've all instinctively known, but Ryan Finlay goes into detail as to what, exactly, are the causes. The article's from 2015, but I stumbled on it today on Twitter, and I thought it was a great, informative read.

7 earth-size planets identified in orbit around a dwarf star

Not just one, but seven Earth-size planets that could potentially harbor life have been identified orbiting a tiny star not too far away, offering the first realistic opportunity to search for biological signs of alien life outside of the solar system.

The planets orbit a dwarf star named Trappist-1, about 40 light years, or about 235 trillion miles, from Earth. That is quite close, and by happy accident, the orientation of the orbits of the seven planets allows them to be studied in great detail.

One or more of the exoplanets - planets around stars other than the sun - in this new system could be at the right temperature to be awash in oceans of water, astronomers said, based on the distance of the planets from the dwarf star.

Science is awesome.

Library Hand, the neat penmanship style for card catalogs

In September 1885, a bunch of librarians spent four days holed up in scenic Lake George, just over 200 miles north of New York City. In the presence of such library-world luminaries as Melvil Dewey - the well-organized chap whose Dewey Decimal System keeps shelves orderly to this day - they discussed a range of issues, from the significance of the term "bookworm" to the question of whether libraries ought to have a separate reference-room for ladies.

They then turned their attention to another crucial issue: handwriting. As libraries acquired more books, card catalogs needed to expand fast in order to keep track of them. Though the newly invented typewriter was beginning to take hold, it took time and effort to teach the art of "machine writing." Librarians still had to handwrite their catalog cards. And this was causing problems.

Fascinating story - and funny how I was taught something very close to Library Hand cursive script (the one from A Library Primer listed in the article) when I was a kid.

Cipher war: to crack ancient script, linguists turn to machines

Though we now have thousands of examples of these symbols, we have very little idea what they mean. Over a century after Cunningham's discovery, the seals remain undeciphered, their messages lost to us. Are they the letters of an ancient language? Or are they just religious, familial, or political symbols? Those hotly contested questions have sparked infighting among scholars and exacerbated cultural rivalries over who can claim the script as their heritage. But new work from researchers using sophisticated algorithms, machine learning, and even cognitive science are finally helping push us to the edge of cracking the Indus script.

The Indus Valley Civilization and the mysteries that surround it are deeply fascinating. It was contemporary to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, yet we know relatively little about it. It honestly blows my mind that computers can now be used to decipher its ancient script, which may give us a lot of insight into this civilisation.

Like in programming, language is key.

Google recalls staff to US after Trump immigration order

Alphabet Inc.'s Google delivered a sharp message to staff travelling overseas who may be impacted by a new executive order on immigration from President Donald Trump: Get back to the U.S. now.

Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai slammed Trump's move in a note to employees Friday, telling them that more than 100 company staff are affected by the order.

The Trump regime's measures also impact the visa program for, among other long-time US allies, The Netherlands. Did anyone tell the Trump regime that it's a very bad idea to make it harder for your third largest investor to, uh, actually invest? Are these men really that dumb?

Interesting to note, though, that Google had to be actually impacted by the Trump regime before it spoke up (only in an internal memo, but still). Meanwhile, Elon Musk is kissing the ground Trump walks on, and Tim Cook, CEO of the most arrogantly and smugly (supposedly) liberal tech company is meeting with Trump, Trump's daughter (...?) and other Republican leaders. From other tech giants who always touted the liberal horn of equality and progressiveness - a deafening, but quite revealing, silence.

So far, it seems like the tech industry leaders are opting for appeasement instead of resistance to the Trump regime's corruption, conflicts of interest, racism, war on science, and Christian extremism. I would be disappointed if it wasn't so utterly predictable to anyone who wasn't blinded by the fake smiles, hollow promises, and empty praise of equality, science, and progressive ideals.

They still have time to be remembered as people who stood up for those that need it the most. I'm afraid, though, we will remember them as spineless cowards, hiding behind shareholders while the free world crumbles to dust.

I hope it'll be worth it.

Trump administration declares war on science

Trump and his murder of Republican Christian extremists have declared war on science.

The US Department of Agriculture has banned scientists and other employees in its main research division from publicly sharing everything from the summaries of scientific papers to USDA-branded tweets as it starts to adjust to life under the Trump administration, BuzzFeed News has learned.

According to an email sent Monday morning and obtained by BuzzFeed News, the department told staff - including some 2,000 scientists - at the agency's main in-house research arm, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), to stop communicating with the public about taxpayer-funded work.

And:

The Trump administration has instituted a media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency and barred staff from awarding any new contracts or grants.

Emails sent to EPA staff since President Donald Trump's inauguration on Friday and reviewed by The Associated Press detailed the specific prohibitions banning press releases, blog updates or posts to the agency's social media accounts.

Don't tell me I didn't warn you.

Yes, science is political

Over the past few weeks, we've gotten notes from Verge Science readers wondering why news from the incoming Trump administration has seeped into our science coverage. I wasn't surprised: it's tempting to believe that science is apolitical. But science and politics are plainly related: science is the pursuit of knowledge, knowledge is power, and power is politics.

The scientific method consists of generating a hypothesis, attempting to disprove the hypothesis through testing, and accumulating those tests to come up with shared knowledge. And that method also contains ideology: our observed, shared world is the real world. This ideology even has a name: empiricism. An incoming president who clearly picks and chooses facts to suit his own version of the world changes the relationship between science and culture, in potentially destructive ways.

"To be taught to read - what is the use of that, if you know not whether what you read is false or true? To be taught to write or to speak - but what is the use of speaking, if you have nothing to say? To be taught to think - nay, what is the use of being able to think, if you have nothing to think of? But to be taught to see is to gain word and thought at once, and both true."

Tomorrow, in a mirror, darkly.

Tesla’s Autosteer lowered crash rate by almost 40%

The administration's analysis of Autosteer was more positive about its capabilities. After analyzing mileage and airbag deployment data for Model S and Model X cars equipped with Autopilot, the NHTSA concluded that "the Tesla vehicles' crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation."

Wait, you mean to tell me a computer who doesn't get sleepy or distracted and doesn't need to pee is better at keeping an eye on the road than a human?

Say it isn't so.

Clearing out the app stores: government censorship made easier

There's a new form of digital censorship sweeping the globe, and it could be the start of something devastating.

In the last few weeks, the Chinese government compelled Apple to remove New York Times apps from the Chinese version of the App Store. Then the Russian government had Apple and Google pull the app for LinkedIn, the professional social network, after the network declined to relocate its data on Russian citizens to servers in that country. Finally, last week, a Chinese regulator asked app stores operating in the countryto register with the government, an apparent precursor to wider restrictions on app marketplaces.

These moves may sound incremental, and perhaps not immediately alarming. China has been restricting the web forever, and Russia is no bastion of free speech. So what's so dangerous about blocking apps?

Here's the thing: It's a more effective form of censorship.

It's almost like an operating system where you can't install applications not approved by its manufacturer is a really, really dumb idea.

World war three, by mistake

Every technology embodies the values of the age in which it was created. When the atomic bomb was being developed in the mid-nineteen-forties, the destruction of cities and the deliberate targeting of civilians was just another military tactic. It was championed as a means to victory. The Geneva Conventions later classified those practices as war crimes - and yet nuclear weapons have no other real use. They threaten and endanger noncombatants for the sake of deterrence. Conventional weapons can now be employed to destroy every kind of military target, and twenty-first-century warfare puts an emphasis on precision strikes, cyberweapons, and minimizing civilian casualties. As a technology, nuclear weapons have become obsolete. What worries me most isn’t the possibility of a cyberattack, a technical glitch, or a misunderstanding starting a nuclear war sometime next week. My greatest concern is the lack of public awareness about this existential threat, the absence of a vigorous public debate about the nuclear-war plans of Russia and the United States, the silent consent to the roughly fifteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world. These machines have been carefully and ingeniously designed to kill us. Complacency increases the odds that, some day, they will. The “Titanic Effect” is a term used by software designers to explain how things can quietly go wrong in a complex technological system: the safer you assume the system to be, the more dangerous it is becoming.

Donald Trump, the next president of the United States and commander-in-chief of the most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world, said in a tweet this week: "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes". He also told a TV host "let there be an arms race".

In response to these remarks by the next president of the United States and commander-in-chief of the most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world, Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation and supreme commander-in-chief of the other most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world, said "We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defence systems".

Sleep tight, and merry Christmas.

Google, Apple, Uber will not help build a muslim registry

In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, Google, Apple, and Uber clarified their positions on President-elect Donald Trump's comments about a possible Muslim registry. "In relation to the hypothetical of whether we would ever help build a 'muslim registry' - we haven't been asked, of course we wouldn't do this and we are glad - from all that we’ve read - that the proposal doesn't seem to be on the table," a spokesperson for Google told BuzzFeed News in an email.

BuzzFeed News asked all three companies whether they would help build or provide data for a Muslim registry. An Apple spokesperson said: "We think people should be treated the same no matter how they worship, what they look like, who they love. We haven't been asked and we would oppose such an effort."

I'm glad major technology companies are promising not to aid in Trump with this fascist campaign promise. That being said - these very same companies couldn't wait to butter up to Trump during a meeting this week, so I'm not sure how much faith I have in these promises. A repatriation tax cut would probably be enough to make them change their minds.