Justin O’Beirne on Google Maps Moat

Justin O’Bierne, a cartographer from San Francisco, has a great article about the huge distance between Google Maps, and Apple Maps. Mr. O’Beirne writes a lot about maps, especially online maps. His most recent article centers around buildings. Namely, how is it possible that Google has so many buildings on their maps, even in very small towns?

Gif by Justin O’Beirne

This is something that Google has been adding in the last few years. Mr. O’Beirne notes that Google isn’t just adding addressed places, but they’re adding garages and other structures as well.

Gif by Justin O’Beirne

Not only are they doing that, their buildings are highly detailed..

Image by Justin O’Beirne

He goes on to examine a full range of buildings across the US, that show up as highly detailed models in Google Maps. He also shows that Apple and Bing have nothing even close to this imagery, so what’s going on? How are they doing it?

The answer lay in an old press release, dug up by Mr. O’Beirne. The models are coming from computer vision analysis of Google Earth satellite imagery. So, as summed up in a gif:

Gid by Justin O’Beirne

Not only is Google doing this, but it’s doing it FAST, and much faster than it’s competitors. As Mr. O’Beirne notes:

Just two years after it started adding them, Google already had the majority of buildings in the U.S. And now after five years, it has my rural hometown—an area it still hasn’t Street View’d (after 10+ years of Street View).

Graph by Justin O’Beirne

Finally, Google has also introduced another feature into Maps: Areas of Interest. Area’s of Interest are known by another name is academic research: Commercial Corridors. They’re typically defined by locations with densely packed shops and restaurants. This may seem simple, but it presents a problem to Google: how do you display all of those places on a map without the place names overlapping? If you can’t show all of the businesses, which businesses get picked? How will the user know, at a glance, which areas of the city are areas of interest?

As you can see in this screenshot of my neighborhood, Google has solved this by creating areas of lightly shaded orange.

Not a fancy gif

Justin O’Beirne notes that these areas are not smoothly defined, they seem to be form by conglomerations of actual buildings, and when you zoom in, Google is actually locating where physically the businesses sit in each building.

Also not fance

So how do they do THAT?

Well, this post is very long now so I’ll just show you a couple more gifs that Mr. O’Beirne made:

As Mr. O’Beirne notes:

…so this makes AOIs a byproduct of byproducts:

To sum up: Google made a map of the entire Earth available on Google Maps, and then used computer vision to create detailed models of precisely located buildings. It also sent a car with a camera around the world to all the road’s that it could to give street view imagery, and then analyzed that information for signs and other details. It then combined all of that information to create precisely detailed, located buildings with precisely accurate location information for businesses and areas of interest in cities. As Mr. O’Beirne notes, Google is making data out of data.

And that’s why Google is so far ahead.

Part of this years Cards Against Humanity event: wealth redistribution

Cards Against Humanity has a history of satirical Black Friday promotions. In 2013 they held an “anti-sale” and raised the price by $5. In 2014 they held a “bullshit” sale where their products were removed from their website and replaced by boxes of sterilized bull feces. In 2015 they replaced their online site with a message urging viewers to give Cards Against Humanity $5 and receive nothing in return. The money was divided among Cards Against Humanity team members, and then a site was put up showing what they purchased with the money. In 2016, they asked for money to dig a big hole for no reason, and raised $100,000.They dug a big hole and then they filled it back in again.

This year, the creators announced a campaign called Cards Against Humanity Saves America, in protest of the Trump Administrations. The creators purchased a plot of land along the US-Mexican border to block the creation of a border wall. A $15 donation to the campaign would receive “six surprises” through December.

The first surprise is radical wealth redistribution.

When customers signed up for Cards Against Humanity Saves America they filled out a questionnaire with “with a mix of demographic questions and red herrings”. The team then ranked the respondents. Out of roughly 150,000 people that signed up, 140,000 got nothing, 10,000 got a full refund, and 100 received a check for $1,000.

You can read about the recipients, and more information, here: https://cardsagainsthumanityredistributesyourwealth.com/.

Why it’s hot

While Cards Against Humanity has found it’s share of detractors since blowing up (including the New York Times), it’s clear that they are masters of off beat self promotion.

Google Offsets Entire Energy Need With Renewables

Google announced that they are buying enough offsets to cover their entire energy usage. While they are not using 100% renewable energy for all of their needs, they are paying for the production of an equivalent amount of renewables, specifically wind or solar power.

Google’s Senior Lead, Energy & Infrastructure announced on LinkedIn:

535 MW more wind brings Google over 3 GW worldwide — 2*98 MW with Avangrid in South Dakota, 200 MW with EDF in Iowa, and 138.6 MW with GRDA in Oklahoma — cementing Google as the largest corporate purchaser of renewables on the planet @ 100% renewable in 2017!

This is significant because Google uses a LOT of power. The dirty secret of cloud computing used to be how energy intensive they were. However, in the last few years companies have been working to make their servers more efficient. According to this article in Fortune,

The energy use by data centers only grew 4% between 2010 and 2014. In contrast it grew 90% from 2000 to 2005, and 24% from 2005 to 2010. The report predicts that data center energy use will only grow another 4% between 2014 and 202o.

Why it’s hot:

Hopefully this represents a continuing shift towards renewables. The question is whether the shift is happening fast enough to mitigate the very worst effects of climate change.

World: “Weird Twitter is so weird!” Youtube: “Hold my beer”

All sourced from James McBride’s Medium Article

James McBridge published an interesting and disturbing medium article this week, describing how algorithmic content creation has spawned nightmarish videos that are consumed by children throughout the world.

This is complicated and I am dumb, so I’m going to try and break it down simply, so I can understand it.

  1. Babies, toddlers, and children watch a huge amount of YouTube. Parents rely on branded content to be safe and reliable, so they dont have to police the content their children watch. Kid’s YouTube is a mishmash of nursery rhymes, branded content (“Peppa Pig” videos) and a bunch of other weird stuff, like “Surprise Egg” videos. “Surprise Egg” videos are basically “unboxing” videos, where someone opens kinder eggs and displays what’s inside.
  2. It’s convenient for parents if these videos are lengthy, so their children can watch for extended periods and not worry about finding a new video, so many of these videos are compilations that are chopped together.
  3. The content creation of these videos is driven by “keyword/hashtag association”. If some type of video gets popular, content creators make more and more of that type, and include the keywords in their videos to get seen on search. It seems that there is a recursive loop at play here: algorithms aggregating popular titles, which cause content creators to make content for those titles (whether real or bots) and then repeating. This results in titles such as “Surprise Play Doh Eggs Peppa Pig Stamper Cars Pocoyo Minecraft Smurfs Kinder Play Doh Sparkle Brilho”.
  4. Many of these channels are created by live actors and humans. Many are also animation, and are created by, upvoted, and commented on by bots.
  5. These channels have millions of subscribers.
  6. Side note: full automation does weird stuff, eventually. One example is t-shirts with algorithmically generated slogans. Generate enough slogans and eventually you end up with: 
  7. All of this leads to automatic content being generated and shown to kids that is disturbing and weird. McBride says repeatedly that there is much worse out there, but provides a couple of examples. In one, Peppa Pig goes to the dentist and is “tortured” (McBride’s words) before the video transitions in a softer mishmash of other types of videos. As McBride says:

    What we’re talking about is very young children, effectively from birth, being deliberately targeted with content which will traumatise and disturb them, via networks which are extremely vulnerable to exactly this form of abuse. It’s not about trolls, but about a kind of violence inherent in the combination of digital systems and capitalist incentives. It’s down to that level of the metal.

  8. Here’s some examples of very weird kid’s videos:
    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=fLwi-OLvgGE
    2. https://youtu.be/uXjJdv5fj5k
  9. Ultimately, McBride’s point is not just that YouTube is showing bad videos to children, but that YouTube is complicit in the abuse of children for ad dollars, and that the systems we’re creating are damaging us as a society, but in ways that we hardly understand or can talk about.

From Oysters to Design

From this 99 invisible story.

What do oysters have to do with design?

Well, back up.

Oysters and New York

New York used to be known for it’s incredible abundance of oysters. The native Lanape people ate oysters. Huge oyster beds ringed the harbor. As the city grew, more and people people ate oysters, rich and poor alike. Oysters were farmed, and then eventually overwhelmed by harbor pollution. Oyster farms were shut down due to outbreaks of cholera and typhoid brought on partially from eating oysters from a harbor full of waste.  Eventually, the last oyster farm closed, and the harbor was almost devoid of Oysters

Why oysters? 

These days, there has been a resurgence of interest in oysters. Oyster beds act as buffers and cleaners, both building huge structures that help slow waves and filter them at the same time. Oysters can be a critical element in protecting and assisting our waterways.

Oysters and New York

The destruction of the oyster beds removed a critical ring of protection for New York, and climate change is beginning to make that protection critical. Hurricane Sandy showed that the city needs to take action to protect its citizens from rising sea levels.

Kate Orff, a landscape architect, has helped lead the construction of oyster beds. Her firm, SCAPE, has a plan to rebuild the harbor landscape to be more conducive to oysters, leading to cleaner and calmer water. Her plan, called Living Breakwaters, received $60 million in funding from the government from a design competition staged after Sandy.

Project images from the 99% Invisible article, and originally from SCAPE

From the 99% invisible article:

The plan now is to build a necklace of offshore breakwaters out of large rocks and stones, and seed them with oysters so they grow into reefs.


Much like a natural oyster reef, the Living Breakwaters are designed to  break up dangerous waves before they reach the shore. These will reduce coastal erosion, build beaches, and make storms less dangerous, but they won’t keep flood water out altogether.

As the world comes to grips with the changes created by climate change, this type of integrated environmental thinking will be more and more important. As Gina Wirth of SCAPE says:

“I think our changing world really requires a new approach[.] We need to integrate ecosystem thinking into all of our engineered and infrastructural systems, all of our urban systems.”

As designers, and as citizens, “ecosystem thinking” is an important idea. How do we consider the larger environment as we move through our daily lives, and as we create work for our clients. How do we look beyond the immediate intent and effect of our projects and understand their larger impact? How do we attempt to prevent and mitigate potential harm our projects may be created? How do we responsibly create work that integrates with existing systems, whether environmental or otherwise, in order to create positive and sustainable change?


Is it a bot? There’s a 1/5 chance

Story via TechCrunch

Quartz released a service to score Twitter accounts on their possible “bot-ness”. The tool, called “Probabot” is itself using a tool called Botometer. Botometer is a creation of the Indiana University Network Science Institute (IUNI) and the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research (CNetS).

To assess bot-ness, Probabot “scans accounts on potential axes of botliness, including when they tweet, if the content of their tweets is positive or negative in sentiment, who they tag in their tweets and how often, and who else is in their network.” A 48% bot likelihood score by Botometer indicates a potential bot; a 60% score indicates a likely bot.

While Twitter will only say that roughly 5% of accounts are “fake of spam accounts”, the researchers responsible for Botometer say that “We found that approximately 15% of the users active in the political conversation one month prior to the 2016 election were likely bots… and they were responsible to about one in five such political tweets (nearly 20%).”

Why it’s hot

Twitter’s bot problem is wide spread, from politicians artificially inflating their followings with bots, to suspected political manipulation. Twitter has long been criticized for their lax moderation of the service, from Gamergate doxxing and abuse of journalists and female game developers, to today’s Nazi and alt-right resurgence. This tool shows that there are ways for Twitter to manage this problem, and that Twitter is simply not interested in doing so, for whatever reason.

Spanish Internet Crackdown Pre-Referendum

An interesting breakdown of how to stifle dissent on the Internet from the recent Catalonia referendum from the EFF:

  • Seize top level domains: the Spanish Civil Police seized refendum.cat, as well as a host of associated websites. Associated domains were seized if they were on the .cat TLD, and blocked if they were not.
  • Spain didnt stop with existing websites, but also blocked “any future sites with content related to the referendum, publicized on any social network by a member of the Catalonian Government. This order accelerated the blocking of further websites without any further court order. These apparently included the censorship of non-partisan citizen collectives (e.g. empaperem.cat) and other non-profit organizations (assemblea.catwebdelsi.catalerta.cat), and campaign websites by legal political parties (prenpartit.cat).”
  • Spain obtained a court order blocking a voting app on the Google Play store, as well as any other apps made by the same developer. This order included penalties for mirrors, proxies, or other copies made to circumvent the other.

Why it’s hot: 

This demonstrates the level of government control that exists on the Internet these days. We’re used to thinking of the wild west, and enabling democratic revolutions, but it’s increasingly clear that governments have become much more sophisticated in blocking information sources online. What does this mean for the future of free communication?

The UX tricks of booking.com

Roman Cheplyaka at thenextweb has done an interesting breakdown of the different UX tricks that booking.com utilizes to try and get you to book. 

He outlines four main ways that the site tries to get you to book: different ways of displaying prices, instilling a sense of urgency, creative organization of reviews, and a multi faceted rating system.

Pricing: booking.com tells the user that the price is “the cheapest price you’ve seen for your dates!” Roman Cheplyaka points out that the user hasnt seen any other prices for those dates, so of course it’s the cheapest. booking.com also tries to anchor the user by displaying a number of struck through prices and a lower ultimate price.

Urgency: the site tells users “someone just booked this” and “3 other people looking right now” and “prices might go up, so secure your reservation today” and “only three rooms left!”. All of these are somewhat subjective, for example, what does “just” mean in the statement “someone just booked this?” For the Four Seasons New York it apparently means 3 hours ago.

Reviews: Put the good reviews where the user can see them, and put the bad reviews where the user has to try hard to see them.

Rating system: booking.com provides many different facets for the user to rate the hotel, but then averages those results. As Cheplyaka points out, a good rating for an unrelated facet can then heavily balance out a particularly bad rating for another aspect.

Ultimately, whether or not you decide to use booking.com is up to you, it’s just good to keep in mind the different ways that websites try to get us to book.

Why it’s hot: 

These tactics illustrate how UX practices can be used to mold the users mindset and decision making (whether or not you believe that the user ultimately comes out on top).


Silicon Valley invents something that already exists (again)

Silicon Valley has done it again. “It” meaning appropriate something that already exists and reinvent it in a way that kills local business, and discourages from anyone from interacting with another actual human being ever again.

You may be thinking that this article is about the time that Lyft reinvented the bus, or the time that Soylent reinvented Slimfast, or that Juicero reinvented using your hands to squeeze something. Nope! I’m thinking about the time that “Bodega” reinvented the vending machine.

Bodega is the product of two ex-Googlers, who aim to “make [the] corner store a thing of the past”. The name is a nod to corner stores in parts of New York and LA, and the logo is a cat, a nod to the bodega cat meme.

What does Bodega do?

Bodega sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card. The entire process happens without a person actually manning the “store.”

Your author found a similar device within steps of his desk. It carried spicy Cheetos. The credit card swipe was broken, though.

Some thoughts: 

What’s with the cultural appropriation of the name “bodega”, and why are you so focused on taking the human element out of a neighborhood lynchpin? A friend of mine was recently working on getting a grant to provide Narcan free of charge to bodega owners in Bushwick. How is your vending machine going to serve the same community need?

Why not just work with the bodega owners to streamline and update their inventory management systems to better serve their local customers?

Is this just a vending machine, or is it the above mentioned improved inventory management and delivery system?

What would it be like if Silicon Valley was somehow incented to tackle problems that are larger than unemploying working class people?

After the article FastCo article was published, and Bodega got dragged on social media, the owner responded, saying that they’re “Definitely not [trying to put corner stores out of business]. Challenging the urban corner store is not and has never been our goal” and that “We want to bring commerce to places where commerce currently doesn’t exist. Rather than take away jobs, we hope Bodega will help create them. We see a future where anyone can own and operate a Bodega — delivering relevant items and a great retail experience to places no corner store would ever open.”

He also acknowledged that they might not have done enough homework on the name, saying that despite “speaking to New Yorkers, branding people, and even running some survey work asking about the name and any potential offense it might cause […] it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people”.

Why it’s hot

As a woman behind me in line for 29rooms described the Fyre Festival, this was a “disaster in branding”. It shows the importance of getting out of your bubble and talking to people to accurately understand the needs and desires of your audience.

Also, is the work you’re doing worthwhile? Can we push ourselves to make work for clients that is deep and meaningful and works with communities to empower and support them, and not seeking to undercut or replace meaningful parts of people’s lives with empty and pointless solutions?

Some Hot INternet CoNtEnt about Bodega:


Using inaudible voice commands to exploit voice assistants

Researchers in the US and China have figured out a subtle exploit to voice assistants: using frequencies above the range of human hearing (above 20 KhZ) to activate voice assistants and have them execute commands. This could allow an attacker to direct the phone to a site loaded with malware, or any perform any other voice activated action.

It seems like this exploit has a fairly simple solution: just disallow voice commands above 20KhZ. So why haven’t their makers fixed this issue? Fastco posits a couple of interesting theories:

The first is that voice assistants actually need ultrasonics just to hear people well, compared to analyzing a voice without those high frequencies. “Keep in mind that the voice analyzing software might need every bit of ‘hint’ in your voice to create its understanding,” says Amit of filtering out the highest frequencies in our voice systems. “So there might be a negative effect that lowers the comprehension score of the whole system.” Even though people don’t need ultrasonics to hear other people, maybe our computers rely upon them as a crutch.


The second is that some companies are already exploiting ultrasonics for their own UX, including phone-to-gadget communication. Most notably, Amazon’s Dash Button pairs with the phone at frequencies reported to be around 18kHz, and Google’s Chromecast uses ultrasonic pairing, too. To the end user, that imperceptible pairing creates a magical experience that consumers have come to expect in the modern age of electronics (“How’s it work? Who cares, it’s magic!”). But because we can’t hear these mechanisms at work, we also can’t tell when they’ve gone wrong, or when they’ve been hijacked. They’re designed to be invisible. It’s the equivalent to driving a car with a silent engine. If the timing belt breaks, you might only realize it when the car inevitably stops and the engine is ruined.

This brings up the trade off between utility and security. The recent Equifax breach is another indication that these breaches commonplace, and to be expected. But if nothing is safe, how do we manage and encourage safer practices? Interestingly, the FTC sued Wyndham Hotels in 2015 for a data breach. While the FTC settled the suit with an agreement that Wyndham institute a comprehensive security program, it does bring up the question as to whether this could be an avenue in the future.

Why it’s hot:

Ultimately, the question is how we encourage Silicon Valley companies, and companies beyond the valley to consider the larger effects of their products. Digital companies have existed in somewhat of a grey area, where a large portion of the population and the government does not understand the specifics of the underlying infrastructure and technology. They are lauded for “disruption” (hashtag hot take), but it’s clear that the disruption comes at the price of lax safety regulations. How do we force companies to consider the larger impacts of their actions?


“URLs are UI”

Image of URL printed in local paper from Scott Hanselman’s post “URLs are UI”


There are layers to this digital design methodology, man.

“URLs are UI” Jacob Nielsen said that back in 1999, when Google only had <1% of search volume.

18 years later, have you considered your URLs? This message is specifically for everyone who does not work in SEO: People still have to interact with URLs.

Maybe you tried to share something but couldnt get a direct URL? Maybe you were on Facebook, and were confused about how to copy a direct link to a photo, because photos are overlays for some reason? Maybe, as a commenter on Mr. Hanselman’s post points out, you wanted to buy something on Amazon. Maybe you wanted to buy:

Creative Hobbies® Synthetic Chalkboard With Unfinished Wood Frame, 4 x 6 Inch -Pack of 6 Chalkboards

How would you get there?



So just think about your URLs.

Maybe your URLs could be something like the example that Mr. Hanselman uses in his article:

I love Stack Overflow’s URLs. Here’s an example: https://stackoverflow.com/users/6380/scott-hanselman

The only thing that matters there is the 6380. Try it https://stackoverflow.com/users/6380 or https://stackoverflow.com/users/6380/fancy-pants also works. SO will even support this! http://stackoverflow.com/u/6380.

Genius. Why? Because they decided it matters.

Here’s another

https://stackoverflow.com/questions/701030/whats-the-significance-of-oct-12-1999 again, the text after the ID doesn’t matter. https://stackoverflow.com/questions/701030/

This is a great model for URLs where you want a to use a unique ID but the text/title in the URL may change. I use this for my podcasts so https://hanselminutes.com/587/brandon-bouier-on-the-defense-digital-service-and-deploying-code-in-a-war-zone is the same as https://hanselminutes.com/587.

Why it’s hot

There’s lots of moving pieces when it comes to designing digital experiences. Sometimes the smaller ones get overlooked because the big sexy crunchy ones are all, THERE, but it’s important to remember the small persistent pieces that need love and attention too. Like URLs.

Article, and image from Scott Hanselman’s “URLs are UI”


Google Glass’ Surprising Second Act

Since Glass’ initial flop, Google has been quietly refining the product with a new customer base: factory workers.

Today, Google announced that the new and improved version, named Glass Enterprise Edition, is available to businesses via “our network of expert partners”.

The new version has an improved processor, a better camera, and can be clipped on to safety glasses. Companies are using Glass as a productivity tool. For example, Boeing mechanics have replaced their clunky instruction manuals with Glass, significantly streamlining the process of performing maintenance on a jet engine. At AGCO, an agricultural machinery manufacturer, Glass has reduced machinery production time by 25% and inspection time by 30%.

Why is this significant?

If AR has found a foothold in the business world, it may eventually become more and more normal in our every day lives.

Google’s post on medium

Wired article

NBA Jam Oral History

Is there anything I love more than histories of video games or online communities? Not sure. Anyway, this NBA Jam Oral History is GREAT and I recommend you read it.



Blocks and Beacons


Blocks is a new VR creation tool from Google. It seems like a pretty neat and intuitive way to create VR spaces. It’s for both Vive and Oculus and it’s free. The software allows you to create simple objects, scale and manipulate them, and snap them together into larger shapes. All of the shapes share a low poly aesthetic that’s ideal for smartphones. You can easily also make your creations available to others under a creative common license.

The New Republic Is All Like: TEENS?! On the INTERNET?!

I was going to post some boring stuff about a cyber security tool that will probably destroy the world (according to the NYTimes), but chose the article about teens and tumblr instead.

It’s pretty “stupid adult peeks into fetid writhing mass of teen culture, is surprised to find some things of worth”, but I love deep looks into online culture. The article is both the pinnacle of cringe-y adult misunderstanding:

Lilley is tall and lanky, with dark brown curly hair. Greenfield is shorter, with glasses and honey-brown hair. They both wore plain polo shirts. Summer had just ended, and there was a pool in the backyard, but they were quite pale. After studying their mannerisms and hearing Lilley’s repeated allusions to Greenfield’s math skills and superior memory—he was briefly a mechatronics engineering major—I determined they were nerds. They were witty and warm and very smart, and I liked them immediately, but they were total nerds. It surprised me, because nerds are often defined by an inability to read social interactions and respond in a way that makes them cool, confident—relatable. So I gently asked Greenfield how he was able to make these minute social observations that hinge on complex emotions being expressed in subtle facial expressions when, perhaps, this was not his strong suit in real life. His answer: internet research.

As well as a demonstrate of how kids are growing up with an innate understanding of digital marketing:

The outrage clicks were so powerful, Lilley and Greenfield decided to experiment with “negative attention.” Haters are more loyal than fans, so they promoted the bad hacks. The worst hacks brought in thousands of followers, and that’s how Lifehackable built the bulk of its audience. “Tom knew what was happening, and so then he was more incentivized to actually not do his job right,” Lilley said. “And in sucking, he succeeded.”

And later

Lilley was disgusted by the thought of “trying to build a personal brand by sacrificing your content.”

It’s great and you should read it.



Reality Winner and dots

A security contractor named Reality Winner was arrested this week for leaking documents about the Russian election hack to The Intercept.

Her arrest set off a conversation about journalism and op-sec, or operational security.

Reality Winner made a number of mistakes, but in particular she was outed by the specific printer that she used to print and carry out the documents.

A security firm contacted by BoingBoing said:

The document leaked by the Intercept was from a printer with model number 54, serial number 29535218. The document was printed on May 9, 2017 at 6:20. The NSA almost certainly has a record of who used the printer at that time.

The situation is similar to how Vice outed the location of John McAfee, by publishing JPEG photographs of him with the EXIF GPS coordinates still hidden in the file. Or it’s how PDFs are often redacted by adding a black bar on top of image, leaving the underlying contents still in the file for people to read, such as in this NYTime accident with a Snowden document. Or how opening a Microsoft Office document, then accidentally saving it, leaves fingerprints identifying you behind, as repeatedly happened with the Wikileaks election leaks. These sorts of failures are common with leaks. To fix this yellow-dot problem, use a black-and-white printer, black-and-white scanner, or convert to black-and-white with an image editor.

I thought this was an interesting look at how far digital traces can be used to identify us, and if you’re leaking something, just remember to remove all the metadata.

link: https://boingboing.net/2017/06/06/reality-winner-was-outed-by-in.html

Are algorithms dumbing down culture?

Link: The Rise of Auto-Complete Culture, And Why We Should Resist

Upfront I will say this: I really dislike this article, but I can’t quite put into words why, so I wanted to share it with you all and talk about it.

The premise of the article is that algorithms are sanding down the edges of our language and our individuality through things like auto complete messages, suggested responses, and Google’s AI drawing project.

There’s also a bit of Jaron Lanier angst about selling our data and becoming the product.

The core of the argument seems to be this:

Well, future generations of thinking humans care. Consider how scientists found that the average literate person’s vocabulary has shrunk over the last two centuries, after analyzing unique words used in books since 1800. In exchange for awesome technologies like television, text messaging, and an app called “Yo” that let you type a single word (and raised $1.5 million for it), we slowly handed over the ways we can express how we feel and what we think.

And what he is scared of is this:

What really scares me about the rise of aggregated, averaged, auto-completed culture isn’t just that I feel it chipping away at my own vocabulary, but I fear it will will teach young people how to speak via an anonymous algorithm before they can develop their own splendid, flawed voices, before they can invent new words, and new forms of self-expression, that will enrich our culture and progress as a society.


It sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? Google is coming for our artists! But I want you to think of your favorite author or artist who bucked social norms to herald a new era of human expression and meaning. Now imagine that, instead of creating the most impactful work of their career, they phoned it in that afternoon with an auto-completed sentiment.

This strikes me as a pretty poorly argued and thinly supported argument. He’s picked three examples and cited one random statistic. Also, he appears to only be addressing the Western, English speaking world. Also, famous convention-bucking-artists are famous convention bucking artists because they buck convention!

However, I’m interested in what you guys think: is the rise of algorithms smoothing out the world around us? Do you think that snapchat, instagram, twitter, texting, facebook, email and all of the other new ways we communicate are shrinking the way we express ourselves, or expanding it?

I apologize for yet another dry sauce hot sauce. To make up for it, here’s a Vine classic (RIP Vine).


Learning to fly by crashing



One way to think of flying (or driving or walking or any other form of motion) is that success is simply a continual failure to crash. From this perspective, the most effective way of learning how to fly is by getting a lot of experience crashing so that you know exactly what to avoid, and once you can reliably avoid crashing, you by definition know how to fly. Simple, right? We tend not to learn this way, however, because crashing has consequences that are usually quite bad for both robots and people.

The CMU roboticists wanted to see if there are any benefits to using the crash approach instead of the not crash approach, so they sucked it up and let an AR Drone 2.0 loose in 20 different indoor environments, racking up 11,500 collisions over the course of 40 hours of flying time. As the researchers point out, “since the hulls of the drone are cheap and easy to replace, the cost of catastrophic failure is negligible.” Each collision is random, with the drone starting at a random location in the space and then flying slowly forward until it runs into something. After it does, it goes back to its starting point, and chooses a new direction. Assuming it survives, of course.


Why it’s hot:

  • Watch the video. The drone navigating its way through the hallway is uncanny.
  • Novel approaches. Maybe instead of avoiding the problem, you embrace the problem and see where it gets you.

AI Pilot Defeats Human Pilot [September ’16]

ALPHA, running on a Raspberry Pi, defeated USAF Colonel Gene Lee in a combat air simulator back in September of last year. Link.

This is interesting both for what it says about the technological advances of weaponry, and the different types of AI.

As weaponry, this brings to mind fleets of AI driven planes built without the need for life support systems or any of the limitations of the human body informed by extremely high flying drone AWACs while robot soldiers roll through the terrain below.

As AI, this highlights the various types of AI and their strengths and weaknesses.

ALPHA runs using fuzzy logic. Fuzzy logic assigns degrees of truth to problems and uses their degrees of truth to inform decisions. This is basically a series of IF/THEN statements (Wikipedia’s example: IF (TEMPERATURE = HOT) THEN (COOLING = HIGH)). Specifically, ALPHA uses genetic fuzzy logic, which means that the program evolves it’s solutions. Basically, it runs a series of IF/THEN problems, evaluates each solution for fitness, selects the fittest, and runs those chains again. The problem with all of this is that you need someone to sit down and encode exactly what all of these variables mean and how to interpret them. This AI only learns within a very specific set of parameters.

Then there’s the type of AI that powered AlphaGo. It’s just easier to quote Wikipedia here:

AlphaGo’s algorithm uses a Monte Carlo tree search to find its moves based on knowledge previously “learned” by machine learning, specifically by an artificial neural network (a deep learning method) by extensive training, both from human and computer play.

As an idiot, what I understand of this is that instead of a specific chain of instructions that are evaluated for fitness, this AI has a knowledge bank of thousands of games of Go, with all of the moves evaluated for relative fitness and then applied to the game at hand through playing out every possible scenario within the learning archive and then achieving the move that statistcally led to the best result.

I think.


Anyway, this is hot and nerdy why?

Robot wars

Deeper understanding of the artificial intelligence’s that will increasingly control much of the world around us.

How to ruin a popular product

How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet

This article from 2012 was kicking around Twitter this week, because reasons. It’s an interesting dissection of how Flickr went from innovative and popular to old and forgotten.

Quickly, some quotes that show how it went wrong:

Onerous integration requirements without the necessary resources:

Because Flickr wasn’t as profitable as some of the other bigger properties, like Yahoo Mail or Yahoo Sports, it wasn’t given the resources that were dedicated to other products. That meant it had to spend its resources on integration, rather than innovation. Which made it harder to attract new users, which meant it couldn’t make as much money, which meant (full circle) it didn’t get more resources. And so it goes.


As a result of being resource-starved, Flickr quit planting the anchors it needed to climb ever higher. It missed the boat on local, on real time, on mobile, and even ultimately on social—the field it pioneered. And so, it never became the Flickr of video; YouTube snagged that ring. It never became the Flickr of people, which was of course Facebook. It remained the Flickr of photos. At least, until Instagram came along.

Business goals didnt exactly mesh with user goals

“That is the reason we bought Flickr—not the community. We didn’t give a shit about that. The theory behind buying Flickr was not to increase social connections, it was to monetize the image index. It was totally not about social communities or social networking. It was certainly nothing to do with the users.”

And again

The first community problems became evident when Yahoo decided all existing Flickr users would need a Yahoo account to log in. That switchover occurred in 2007, and was part of the CorpDev integration process to establish a single sign on. Flickr set it to go live on the Ides of March.


From Yahoo’s perspective, there was no choice but to revamp the login. For one, Flickr had grown internationally, and it had to localize to comply with local laws. Yahoo already had tools to solve this, because it had already expanded into other countries. It offered a ready-made solution.

There were a host of additional problems, missed opportunities and missed chances.

Why should we care?

  1. RIP Flickr
  2. This is a great demonstration of the conflicting demands of business, stakeholder and user and how it can work out poorly when business and stakeholder needs are put first.

Every Noise At Once

This is basically the coolest fucking thing I’ve seen in a minute. It’s an algorithmically generated list of all of the genres on spotify, and you can click on the genre to listen to an example and you can click to see a plot of the artists within that genre. The website explains it:

This is an ongoing attempt at an algorithmically-generated, readability-adjusted scatter-plot of the musical genre-space, based on data tracked and analyzed for 1524 genres by Spotify. The calibration is fuzzy, but in general down is more organic, up is more mechanical and electric; left is denser and more atmospheric, right is spikier and bouncier.

Click anything to hear an example of what it sounds like.


Remove United (Plus: Burger Brand Does Thing!)

Remove United is a Chrome extension that will remove United Airlines from your flight search results.

I think it’s interesting because it’s digitally assisted boycott. It’s empowering the consumer to change their habits to ultimately affect the bottom line of a corporation. There’s a million habit forming/breaking applications out there, but I think it’s cool that this one is specifically for boycotting.


Burg Brand Does Thing

Google appeared to stymie a marketing stunt on Wednesday by Burger King, which had introduced a television ad intended to prompt voice-activated Google devices to describe its burgers.

A video from a Burger King marketing agency showed the plan in action: “You’re watching a 15-second Burger King ad, which is unfortunately not enough time to explain all the fresh ingredients in the Whopper sandwich,” the actor in the commercial said. “But I got an idea. O.K. Google, what is the Whopper burger?”

Prompted by the phrase “O.K. Google,” the Google Home device beside the TV in the video lit up, searched the phrase on Wikipedia and stated the ingredients.


Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/12/business/burger-king-tv-ad-google-home.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=1

SpaceX successfully launches and lands used rocket

Link: The Verge

Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars in order to create a “back up” of human civilization that could continue to live independently if Earth were to become uninhabitable. In order to do so, he needs to put at least a million people on Mars.

The problem is that space flight is incredibly expensive. In order to bring down the cost of space flight, Musk wants to reuse rockets. As he points out, plane flight would be incredibly expensive if we threw away the plane each time that we flew. However, planes have a long lifetime of flights, making the cost of building and buying them economical. As so with rockets.

In order to do that, Musk had to figure out how to keep his rockets and not ditch them into the ocean, as happened previously. SpaceX’s rockets have been successfully landing on their own for a couple years now, and just yesterday they landed a rocket that had already been used.

This is a huge milestone for Musk, and could be a huge milestone for all humans on earth.

If you’re interested in SpaceX, I strongly suggest the mammoth Wait, But Why post on Musk and the company (link). Wait, But Why also released the post as audio, in case you want to work and listen (link).

Uber’s got those real real problems. Plus, nukes!

This happened a while ago, but I haven’t seen a post about it here yet.

Uber is a in a wee bit of trouble.

Basically, Google is suing Uber for stealing plans to a key component of their self-driving car. How did Google find this out? A supplier accidentally attached machine drawings of Uber’s LiDAR circuit to an email he sent someone at Google. The circuit board looked suspiciously like Google’s own.

They did some checking into it, and found:

We found that six weeks before his resignation this former employee, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo’s various hardware systems, including designs of Waymo’s LiDAR and circuit board. To gain access to Waymo’s design server, Mr. Levandowski searched for and installed specialized software onto his company-issued laptop. Once inside, he downloaded 9.7 GB of Waymo’s highly confidential files and trade secrets, including blueprints, design files and testing documentation. Then he connected an external drive to the laptop. Mr. Levandowski then wiped and reformatted the laptop in an attempt to erase forensic fingerprints.


Beyond Mr. Levandowki’s actions, we discovered that other former Waymo employees, now at Otto and Uber, downloaded additional highly confidential information pertaining to our custom-built LiDAR including supplier lists, manufacturing details and statements of work with highly technical information.


There has been some additional speculation that Levandowski orchestrated this whole thing from the beginning, colluding with someone at Uber at steal the plans, start Otto, and have Otto be acquired by Uber.

You can find more information about that here.

Uber going under could have huge effects on Silicon Valley, the self driving car market, and the entire set of ride sharing apps.

Also! Nuclear Bombs! A whole bunch of classified footage of nuclear tests from the mid 20th century have been released on Youtube.

The U.S. conducted 210 atmospheric nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962, with multiple cameras capturing each event at around 2,400 frames per second. But in the decades since, around 10,000 of these films sat idle, scattered across the country in high-security vaults. Not only were they gathering dust, the film material itself was slowly decomposing, bringing the data they contained to the brink of being lost forever.

For the past five years, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) weapon physicist Greg Spriggs and a crack team of film experts, archivists and software developers have been on a mission to hunt down, scan, reanalyze and declassify these decomposing films. The goals are to preserve the films’ content before it’s lost forever, and provide better data to the post-testing-era scientists who use computer codes to help certify that the aging U.S. nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure and effective. To date, the team has located around 6,500 of the estimated 10,000 films created during atmospheric testing. Around 4,200 films have been scanned, 400 to 500 have been reanalyzed and around 750 have been declassified. An initial set of these declassified films — tests conducted by LLNL — were published today in an LLNL YouTube playlist(link is external).

I’ve watched a few of them, and this is one of the most scary:

Information wants to be free-okay that sent me down a brief rabbit hole. Here’s where that phrase came from.


Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?


Super super long article (40min+ read) that talks about the importance of dealing with AI responsibly.

The article references the “nudging” theory, wherein whoever controls data streams can use those data streams to “nudge” users towards behaviors that they find more acceptable. Examples range from simple manipulation of search results to the Chinese “Citizen Score” initiative.

The article posits that as more and more of our lives are known by algorithms, the less responsibility and autonomy we have. This results in a totalitarianism, where all of our actions are controlled via a feedback loop between our digital selves and big data algorithms.

A summary, from the article:

In summary, it can be said that we are now at a crossroads (see Fig. 2). Big data, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and behavioral economics are shaping our society—for better or worse. If such widespread technologies are not compatible with our society’s core values, sooner or later they will cause extensive damage. They could lead to an automated society with totalitarian features. In the worst case, a centralized artificial intelligence would control what we know, what we think and how we act. We are at the historic moment, where we have to decide on the right path—a path that allows us all to benefit from the digital revolution.

And a following set of proposals for regulation:

Therefore, we urge to adhere to the following fundamental principles:

1. to increasingly decentralize the function of information systems;

2. to support informational self-determination and participation;

3. to improve transparency in order to achieve greater trust;

4. to reduce the distortion and pollution of information;

5. to enable user-controlled information filters;

6. to support social and economic diversity;

7. to improve interoperability and collaborative opportunities;

8. to create digital assistants and coordination tools;

9. to support collective intelligence, and

10. to promote responsible behavior of citizens in the digital world through digital literacy and enlightenment.

Why this is hot:

  • We discussed the problems with Big Data a couple weeks ago, I think this illustrates many of the problems well
  • Mo’ data, mo’ problems!

This is a very rushed Hot Sauce, for a very long article, but I strongly urge you to read all of it yourself.

Net Art Anthology


Set up

  1. A lot of the Internet looks the same these days. Big image up top with button and CTA, three icons below with associated text describing features. Card layout with left side sort for shopping, etc. etc.
  2. A lot of what we do is brand focused, we are, after all, in the business of advertising and marketing products and companies.
  3. The Internet has…smoothed out. It is not the anonymous free-for-all that it used to seem*.

The Sauce

Anyway, my hot sauce this week isn’t really any of those things. It’s the Net Art Anthology from Rhizome.

Why the sauce is hot

  • It’s not any of the things that I talked about in set up
    • I think it’s valuable to look at forms and uses of the Internet that are outside our everyday, as a way to provide perspective, expand how we think about the Internet, and continually re-think what we do and why we do it.
      • The Anthology is structured differently than most standard web pages, and (to me) is a refreshing change from standard templates
      • The pieces within the Anthology approach the Internet differently than today’s conventional view, and propose new ideas about how to use a new medium
        • The Web Stalker was an artist-made browser that challenged the emerging conventions of the new medium of the web. Released at a time when Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer competed for dominance, it critiqued these commercial browsers for encouraging passive, restrictive modes of browsing.” [Text from Anthology website]
        • Russian artist Alexei Shulgin’s Form Art (1997), which used HTML buttons and boxes as the raw material for monochromatic compositions, is at first glance a purely formal study of certain aspects of HTML. But it was also absurd: Form Art transformed the most bureaucratic, functional, and unloved aspects of the web into aesthetic, ludic elements.” [Text from Anthology website]
        • FloodNet was a conceptual artwork and a tool for online collective action. Developed by the collective Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT), it took the form of a Java applet that allowed users to send useless requests or personalized messages to a remote web server in a coordinated fashion, thereby slowing it down and filling its error logs with words of protest and gibberish—a kind of virtual sit-in.” [Text from Anthology website]

PS: As of 2004, the New York Times declared that Net Art Is Dead, so don’t go making Net Art. It’s dead.

*But, in some ways, it is? You have hordes of twitter eggs screaming racial epithets at anyone who disagrees with them about video games, or Trump, or just simply screaming because they don’t like women, people of color, or anyone else. You have an army of Russian sock puppets who may or may not have besieged the American Internet in order to swing the election towards Trump. You have endless news article comments, posted via Facebook accounts with real names attached, that yell and scream, and use the term “libtard”. No one seems to be able to do anything about any of these problems.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Chosun Truck: Autonomous Driving in Euro Truck Simulator 2

ChosunTruck is an autonomous driving solution for Euro Truck Simulator 2. Recently, autonomous driving technology has become a big issue and we have studied the technology related to this. It is being developed in a simulator environment called Euro Truck Simulator 2 to study it with vehicles. Because this simulator provides a good test environment that is similar to the real road, we chose it.

Link: https://github.com/bethesirius/ChosunTruck

Why it’s hot:
  • Autonomous transportation is continually improving, and could significantly alter our world
  • A good reminder that solutions can be found in unexpected places
  • It’s all on Github! You can dig into it and start programming your own autonomous vehicle

Edit: Bonus

I stumbled on this explanation of how a web page actually gets sent to you. It’s a good refresher for anyone who might be unclear. Also, I’m a little fascinated by physical infrastructure, and this is a good reminder of all of the actual stuff that goes into serving you a webpage near instantaneously.

Further bonus:

How do people actually think that the Internet works? Mapping people’s conceptions of the Internet in drawings: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinkelly/sets/72157613562011932/with/30718761285/