In the News Archive

The case against Google

In other words, it's very likely you love Google, or are at least fond of Google, or hardly think about Google, the same way you hardly think about water systems or traffic lights or any of the other things you rely on every day. Therefore you might have been surprised when headlines began appearing last year suggesting that Google and its fellow tech giants were threatening everything from our economy to democracy itself. Lawmakers have accused Google of creating an automated advertising system so vast and subtle that hardly anyone noticed when Russian saboteurs co-opted it in the last election. Critics say Facebook exploits our addictive impulses and silos us in ideological echo chambers. Amazon’s reach is blamed for spurring a retail meltdown; Apple's economic impact is so profound it can cause market-wide gyrations. These controversies point to the growing anxiety that a small number of technology companies are now such powerful entities that they can destroy entire industries or social norms with just a few lines of computer code. Those four companies, plus Microsoft, make up America's largest sources of aggregated news, advertising, online shopping, digital entertainment and the tools of business and communication. They're also among the world's most valuable firms, with combined annual revenues of more than half a trillion dollars.

The recent focus on technology companies when it comes to corporate power is definitely warranted, but I do find it a little peculiar that it, at the same time, draws attention away from other sectors where giant corporations are possibly doing even more damage to society, like large oil companies and the environment, or the concentration of media companies.

One has to wonder if the recent aggressive focus on tech companies isn't entirely natural.

Why paper jams persist

Late in “Oslo,” J. T. Rogers’s recent play about the negotiation of the Oslo Accords, diplomats are finalizing the document when one of them reports a snag: “It’s stuck in the copy machine and I can’t get it out!” The employees in Mike Judge’s 1999 film “Office Space” grow so frustrated with their jam-prone printer that they destroy it with a baseball bat in a slow-motion montage set to the Geto Boys’ “Still.” (Office workers around the country routinely reënact this scene, posting the results on YouTube.) According to the Wall Street Journal, printers are among the most in-demand objects in “rage rooms,” where people pay to smash things with sledgehammers; Battle Sports, a rage-room facility in Toronto, goes through fifteen a week. Meanwhile, in the song “Paper Jam” John Flansburgh, of the band They Might Be Giants, sees the jam as a stark moral test. “Paper jam / paper jam,” he sings. “It would be so easy to walk away.”

Unsurprisingly, the engineers who specialize in paper jams see them differently. Engineers tend to work in narrow subspecialties, but solving a jam requires knowledge of physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, computer programming, and interface design. “It’s the ultimate challenge,” Ruiz said.

This is such a great read.

Wrong dropdown menu selection led to false missile warning

Around 8:05 a.m., the Hawaii emergency employee initiated the internal test, according to a timeline released by the state. From a drop-down menu on a computer program, he saw two options: "Test missile alert" and "Missile alert". He was supposed to choose the former; as much of the world now knows, he chose the latter, an initiation of a real-life missile alert.

"In this case, the operator selected the wrong menu option," HEMA spokesman Richard Rapoza told The Washington Post on Sunday.

A dropdown menu with just two options. That's incredibly bad user interface design.

Everything is too complicated

It's the very beginning of CES 2018, and the first trickles of gadget news are starting to come out. The flood begins tomorrow as the show floor opens and keynotes and press conferences begin in earnest. It's easy to see the broad themes of the show and the tech industry at large already forming: smart assistants everywhere, sensors and radios in every device you can think of, and an eternal hope that something, anything, will be the reason people will finally upgrade their TVs.

All of that is exciting - I love gadgets and am one of the few crazy people that think CES is incredibly fun! - but I want to take a half-step back before it all begins and point out something obvious: most people have no idea how any of these things work, and are already hopelessly confused by the tech they have.

Shoving a display and garbage software on every single possible household item is simply a really, really dumb idea. Add networking into the mix, and it becomes outright dangerous. People end up with products they have no idea how to use, that quickly become outdated, aren't getting software updates, and quickly become dangerous attack vectors for all sorts of possible criminals.

The article also touches on something else - namely, that even things like smartphones are getting way, way too complicated for most people. I, too, am continuously surprised by how little people around me really know about their smartphone - be it iOS or Android - and what certain things mean or how certain functions work, or that they even have said functions at all. Tech companies are doing a terrible job of exposing users to functionality in a meaningful, understandable way.

Bitcoin could cost us our clean-energy future

The total energy use of this web of hardware is huge - an estimated 31 terawatt-hours per year. More than 150 individual countries in the world consume less energy annually. And that power-hungry network is currently increasing its energy use every day by about 450 gigawatt-hours, roughly the same amount of electricity the entire country of Haiti uses in a year.

In just a few months from now, at bitcoin's current growth rate, the electricity demanded by the cryptocurrency network will start to outstrip what's available, requiring new energy-generating plants. And with the climate conscious racing to replace fossil fuel-base plants with renewable energy sources, new stress on the grid means more facilities using dirty technologies. By July 2019, the bitcoin network will require more electricity than the entire United States currently uses. By February 2020, it will use as much electricity as the entire world does today.

This is an unsustainable trajectory. It simply can't continue.

Not only is bitcoin tulips, but it's also incredibly bad for our planet. These energy numbers are insanity.

How brands secretly buy their way into website stories

People involved with the payoffs are extremely reluctant to discuss them, but four contributing writers to prominent publications including Mashable, Inc, Business Insider, and Entrepreneur told me they have personally accepted payments in exchange for weaving promotional references to brands into their work on those sites. Two of the writers acknowledged they have taken part in the scheme for years, on behalf of many brands.

One of them, a contributor to Fast Company and other outlets who asked not to be identified by name, described how he had inserted references to a well-known startup that offers email marketing software into multiple online articles, in Fast Company and elsewhere, on behalf of a marketing agency he declined to name. To make the references seem natural, he said, he often links to case studies and how-to guides published by the startup on its own site. Other times, he’ll just praise a certain aspect of the company’s business to support a point in an otherwise unrelated story. (As of press time, Fast Company had not responded to a request for comment.)

This is hardly surprising to anyone who has spent a decent amount of time on the web. I can confirm, however, that I've never partaken in anything like this, and the occasional request of this nature goes straight into my spam folder.

‘Break up Google and Facebook if you ever want innovation’

If the tech industry wants another wave of innovation to match the PC or the internet, Google and Facebook must be broken up, journalist and film producer Jonathan Taplin told an audience at University College London's Faculty of Law this week.

He was speaking at an event titled Crisis in Copyright Policy: How the digital monopolies have cornered culture and what it means for all of us, where he credited the clampers put on Bell then IBM for helping to create the PC industry and the internet.

There's quite a few other companies I'd add to those two.

Modern tech product reviews are flawed

Khoi Vinh on why 24 hour or even weeklong reviews are dumb:

However I've come to believe that there's at least one thing wrong with this whole notion of product reviews - and with smartphone revirews in particular - and that's that by and large they’re only ever interested in these phones when they're brand new.

When an iPhone debuts it's literally at the very peak of its powers. All the software that it runs has been optimized for that particular model, and as a result everything seems to run incredibly smoothly.

As time goes on though, as newer versions of the operating system roll out, as there are more and more demands put on the phone, it inevitably gets slower and less performant. A case in point: I'm upgrading to this iPhone X from a three-year old iPhone 6 Plus and for at least the last year, and especially over the last three months, it has struggled mightily to perform simple tasks like launching the camera, fetching email, even basic typing. People who have recently had the misfortune of having to use my phone tell me almost instantly, "Your phone sucks."

You could argue that three years is an unrealistically long time to expect a smartphone to be able to keep up with the rapidly changing - and almost exponentially increasing - demands that we as users put on these devices. Personally, I would argue the opposite, that these things should be built to last at least three years, if for no other reason than as a society we shouldn't be throwing these devices away so quickly.

This is, of course, the reason behind the odd embargo strategy Apple employed regarding the iPhone X - if you only give people an hour or at best, 24 hours, to review a device, people will still be in the honeymoon phase of owning a product, where you're still rationalising spending €1200 for a phone (or any other high price for any other product, for that matter). Choice-supportive bias is a real thing, and each and every one of us experiences it. During this period, initial flaws aren't as apparent, and long-term flaws or flaws that only pop up in specific situations aren't yet taken into account. It makes the product appear better than it really is.

This is why, back when I still did reviews for OSNews, I had my own rule of using a product for at least four weeks before publishing a review. This gave me enough time to get over this initial phase, and made sure I had a more levelheaded look at the whole thing. We don't do many reviews anymore - I have to buy everything myself, and I'm not rich - so it's not an issue at this point, but even if companies were to approach us today for reviews, I would still ask for that four week period, and if they were to object - sorry, but no review.

This is, of course, what the major publications should've done. Nobody forced The Verge or whomever else to publish a review within 24 hours. The initial embargo rush is important for the bottom-line, I get that, but it still feels rather suspicious. What can you really learn about a product in just 24 hours? Can you really declare something "the best damn product Apple ever made" after using it for less than a day? At what point does writing most of the review in advance before you even receive the product in the first place, peppering it with a few paragraphs inspired by the 24 hours, cross into utter dishonesty?

By reviewing products in a day or less, popular tech media is really doing readers and consumers a huge disservice, only further strengthening the idea that the tech press is often nothing but an extension of a company's PR department. This erodes credibility, and in turn hurts those among the media who do take their time to properly review a product.

It's okay to not rush writing a review to meet some asinine embargo. It's okay to not ask "how high?" when a company tells you to jump. It's okay to publish a review a week or even a month after an embargo has been lifted. It's okay to not post unboxing videos of non-retail boxes.

It's okay to, sometimes, just say no.

After a tax crackdown, Apple found a new shelter for its profits

Five months after Mr. Cook's testimony, Irish officials began to crack down on the tax structure Apple had exploited. So the iPhone maker went hunting for another place to park its profits, newly leaked records show. With help from law firms that specialize in offshore tax shelters, the company canvassed multiple jurisdictions before settling on the small island of Jersey, which typically does not tax corporate income.

Apple has accumulated more than $128 billion in profits offshore, and probably much more, that is untaxed by the United States and hardly touched by any other country. Nearly all of that was made over the past decade.

Apple is the largest company in the world, so they're the big target - but tons of other companies engage in the same shady activities.

Every euro or dollar Apple, Google, and Facebook dodge in taxes is a euro or dollar regular folk like you and I have to pay instead. These companies make use of all the facilities and infrastructure paid for by our tax euros and dollars, but then turn around and stab society in the back by extracting vast sums of wealth from it without paying their fair share of taxes. It's exactly this reason why the divide between rich and poor is growing exponentially, which in turn is destabilising our communities because it becomes ever clearer that the Tim Cooks and Mark Zuckerbergs of this world get to live under a different set of rules than you and I.

I am lucky to live in an incredibly solid welfare state, where, while exceptions exist, we take care of each other (interestingly enough, The Netherlands is also one of the biggest shady tax havens in the world). A welfare state is built upon the concept of the strongest shoulders carrying the heaviest burdens, and the knowledge that Joe Billionaire is capable of paying more into the system than Jane Minimum Wage. When this system of trust breaks down - as it clearly is at risk of - our society breaks down. The fact that Tim Cook et al. have the gall to claim their 0.0002% tax rate is "fair" just rubs more salt in the wounds of any regular person who dutifully pays her or his 20-40% taxes every year.

Sadly, any meaningful change to the tax codes of the US and the EU will be blocked through the corruption and bribery Apple, Google, Facebook, and so on engage in on a daily basis. Unless we break these giants up into small companies that aren't 'too big to fail', our societies will grow ever more at their mercy.

When man meets metal: rise of the transhumans

Earlier this year I went to an event in Austin, Texas, billed as a sneak preview of the evolution of our species. The #Bdyhax Conference, which took place in a downtown exhibition complex, promised a front-row insight into the coming "singularity" - that nirvana foretold by science fiction in which biology and technology would fuse and revolutionise human capability and experience.

The headline acts of the conference were mostly bodyhackers - DIY experimenters who, in their basements and garages, seek to enhance their own flesh and blood with biometric implants and cognitive enablers. These brave pioneers were extending their senses, overcoming physical limitation, Dan-Daring themselves and the rest of us into the future.

This will only get more advanced as the years go by. For now, actual technological augmentations and implants are mostly reserved for people who actually need them - things like prosthetic legs or a pacemaker - but eventually, we'll start to develop augmentations to enhance the senses or abilities of the human body for people who are otherwise healthy.

Your body, your rules, but scary nonetheless.

What nobody told me about the Netherlands

Some years ago, already working in 'active transport', and seeking to deepen my understanding around urban design, I took the opportunity to take a family holiday for a week in the Netherlands. Among many many reactions to the experience, one big one I experienced was simply surprise that nobody had told me about most of the amazing things I'd see.

I've been meaning simply to write a list of these amazing things for years now. Unfortunately I'm not all that sure that there is any way to convey the 'amazingness' to those who haven't visited.

The Netherlands is one of the most - if not the most - densely populated western countries, which forced urban planners to get creative. Growing up and living in The Netherlands it's easy to take for granted just how good we are at traffic and urban design. That is, until you take a trip abroad to pretty much any other country - even our beloved neighbours like Germany or Belgium - and realise just how terrible everyone else is at properly segmenting and protecting cyclists and pedestrians, even in densely populated and tightly packed cities.

Urban design is a fascinating subject, and once you start paying attention to it here in The Netherlands, you'll discover an endless array of affordances to protect cyclists, pedestrians, and cars (yes!), while also creating neighbourhoods that usually have only one entry/exit point for cars so they can't be used for through traffic, all designed with the goal of corralling cars away from where people actually live.

I often wonder - will this make The Netherlands a haven for self-driving cars, or a hell?

Germany publishes ethical guidelines for self-driving cars

Some light weekend reading: ethical guidelines for self-driving cars, as proposed by an ethics commission of the German government.

The technological developments are forcing government and society to reflect on the emerging changes. The decision that has to be taken is whether the licensing of automated driving systems is ethically justifiable or possibly even imperative. If these systems are licensed - and it is already apparent that this is happening at international level - everything hinges on the conditions in which they are used and the way in which they are designed. At the fundamental level, it all comes down to the following question. How much dependence on technologically complex systems - which in the future will be based on artificial intelligence, possibly with machine learning capabilities - are we willing to accept in order to achieve, in return, more safety, mobility and convenience? What precautions need to be taken to ensure controllability, transparency and data autonomy? What technological development guidelines are required to ensure that we do not blur the contours of a human society that places individuals, their freedom of development, their physical and intellectual integrity and their entitlement to social respect at the heart of its legal regime?

Cars are legalised murder weapons, and the car is probably one of the deadliest inventions of mankind. Self-driving cars, therefore, open up a whole Pandora's box oef ethical dilemmas, and it only makes sense for governments and lawmakers to start addressing these.

Beyond the ethics related to life and death, though, there are also simpler, more banal ethical considerations. What if, in the hunger for more profits, a car maker makes a deal with McDonalds, and tweaks its self-driving car software just a tad bit so that it drives customers past McDonalds more often, even if it increases total travel time? What if a car maker makes similar deals with major chains like Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods, so that smaller chains or independent stores don't even show up when you say "take me to the nearest place that sells X"? Is that something we should allow?

Should we even allow self-driving car software to be closed-source to begin with? Again - cars are legal murder weapons, and do we really trust car manufacturers enough not to cut corners when developing self-driving car software to meet deadlines or due to bad management or underpaid developers? Shouldn't all this development and all this code be out there for the world to see?

Interesting times ahead.

How “fake news” could get even worse

No. Mr Astley did not rework his song. An artist called Mario Klingemann did, using clever software. The video is a particularly obvious example of generated media, which uses quick and basic techniques. More sophisticated technology is on the verge of being able to generate credible video and audio of anyone saying anything. This is down to progress in an artificial intelligence (AI) technique called machine learning, which allows for the generation of imagery and audio. One particular set-up, known as a generative adversarial network (GAN), works by setting a piece of software (the generative network) to make repeated attempts to create images that look real, while a separate piece of software (the adversarial network) is set up in opposition. The adversary looks at the generated images and judges whether they are "real", which is measured by similarity to those in the generative software's training database. In trying to fool the adversary, the generative software learns from its errors. Generated images currently require vast computing power, and only work at low resolution. For now.

People aren't even intelligent enough to spot obviously fake nonsense written stories, and those were enough to have an impact on the US elections. The current US president managed to "win" the elections by spouting an endless barrage of obvious lies, and the entire Brexit campaign was built on a web of obvious deceit and dishonesty.

Now imagine adding fake video into the mix where anyone can be made to say anything.

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.