©Alan O'Rourke via Flickr
©Alan O’Rourke via Flickr

Happy Birthday Twitter!

Ten years in, and Twitter is at a crossroads.

Twitter has been called many things over the past ten years. Fad was an early name, before Flight 1549 and the Arab Spring anointed it the most direct, truthful news service.

A worrying liability and cautionary tale for the failing unicorns around it are labels that can apply today. The IPO of Twitter was hotly anticipated, and the company opened to sky-high valuations, which have come back down to reality over the past two years. As Mathew Ingram points out in Fortune this week, Twitter can be seen as both a massive success and a huge disappointment at the same time.

The New York Times has gathered the thoughts of several influential Twitter users, most of whom agree that it has been net good, and should continue to be an open, public service. The fact that Twitter the company has to contradict Twitter the service sometimes is a reality of a world where Wall Street expects ever growing returns, and countries expect the ability to control what their citizens can see, hear, or say.

I personally say a fair amount on Twitter, and hope to see it through another ten years or beyond. At a point I’d like to see it be a public utility, going along with the internet in general as a system that bridges our world and can be used for good. If you want to stick with the positive, skip the Microsoft AI story below, where Twitter users can remind us that not everyone on the service is perfect.

The Hogan Verdict

Nick Denton, Gawker

Terry Bollea’s lawyers are slick, underhanded and play right into the stereotypes that have come to be associated with the profession. The Hulk Hogan sex tape scandal – of which no real scandal could rightly be called to exist with that public personality – was never about a clip from a sex tape, purports Gawker founder Nick Denton. Instead, it was a calculated attempt to shut down or shut up a news outlet that had access to even worse tapes of the showman making racist remarks.

I’m not a fan of Gawker, Valleywag, or many of the other sites under their media umbrella. I don’t agree with much of what Nick Denton says, but I still believe that he has been a valuable voice for online news. His insistence on remaining independent, not taking any outside investment until forced to by this lawsuit earlier this year, and the fiercely independent streak of reporting are things that I admire. While it may have many enemies in New York, Silicon Valley, the greater media landscape, literally everywhere, Gawker Media can be a canary in the coal mine for what can happen to other online news sites who dare post stories that famous people don’t like.

Hogan’s defense team originally called for $100 million in damages. The jury awarded them $140 million. The chilling effect that can result from this verdict, which I hope reaches more level heads in appeal, is that organizations who cannot afford to take that kind of hit (I would imagine every news organization out there) will avoid publishing some stories entirely. That is unacceptable, and does in practice what those lawyers can’t do legally: silence voices that displease them.

Angola’s Wikipedia Pirates Are Exposing the Problems With Digital Colonialism

Jason Koebler, Motherboard

Necessity is the mother of invention, and zero-rated internet services lead to free pirate parties. The non-profit in use is understandably unhappy with this secondary use of their service.

Crafty Angolan users of Wikipedia Zero and Facebook Free Basics, services that have met hostility in some countries, and even an outright ban in India, have setup systems where they use Wikimedia Commons to store music, movies, television shows, and anime, much of it copyrighted. They then link those files in private Facebook Groups, making it a bit easier to discover and share files.

The hard part for moderators of Wikipedia and it’s related websites is that, while they do not want to be used as a repository for copyrighted content, a blanket ban on Angola or even Wikipedia Zero users in the country is “Not on the table”. While some of what is being done may not be deemed illegal in Angola itself, the services that are enabling don’t want to be too hard on their users or be viewed as totalitarian, but also want to respect the rights being abridged of those copyright holders.

After racist tweets, Microsoft muzzles teen chat bot Tay

Hope King, CNN Money

Earlier this week, Microsoft launched a chatbot on Twitter that was meant to sound like a regular teenager. What ended up happening – surprising no one who has been on the internet ever – was a chatbot that held racist, sexist, xenophobic and bigoted views. Microsoft too the bot offline after a day to work on it, and deleted most of the offensive Tweets, though DMs weren’t able to be removed that way.

Of course, it’s not the bot, but the users we should fear. Microsoft trained it’s bot to use public Twitter info including tweets directed toward it to learn how to talk, and it did exactly that. After we make working AI, maybe we can make working people.

iCloud scammer pleads guilty to stealing celebrity nudes

Joey Davidson, Techno Buffalo

Remember two years ago when someone allegedly hacked into the iCloud accounts of dozens of celebrities, mainly women, and stole nude or otherwise compromising photos of them? The event, dubbed “The Fappening” by certain parts of the internet, turns out to have been almost two years in the making, with perpetrator Ryan Collins using social engineering techniques since late 2012 to gain access to accounts to pilfer for his collection.

While Collins pleaded to one count of unauthorized access via the sometimes useful Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, he has not admitted to most of the cases, or to disseminating the photos that he did have copies of. It just happens to be a coincidence that the photos in his possession were leaked shortly after he obtained them.

Low Battery via Flickr CC by Martin Abbeglen
Low Battery via Flickr CC by Martin Abbeglen

Closing Apps to Save Your Battery Only Makes Things Worse

David Pierce, Wired

Under one of those things that I didn’t think of but makes sense when explained, David Pierce describes the general five states that an app can take on (launched, active, inactive, background, and suspended) and how that affects battery performance. Turns out that the developers of our pocket supercomputers put a lot of thought and effort into developing smart algorithms that manage battery life, and our attempts to meddle are potentially making it worse.

Long story short: constantly closing apps (of which you’re likely to open again anyway, as most users keep to about five active apps) uses up more energy than letting your intelligent phone figure out how to allocate memory to them. Restarting those ups takes up even more energy, and thus the cycle continues. Plus, are you sure that your phone isn’t using a process from that app when you cancel it?

Apple’s Brief Hits the FBI With a Withering Fact Check

Kim Zetter, Wired

The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understandingJustice Louis Brandeis

Apple’s latest brief in the iPhone case involving the FBI and the San Bernadino shooter explains it to the feds as though they are children who don’t understand technology, which by now they must truly believe. A walkthrough of Apple software is part of the argument, contrasting assertions of selective syncing and encryption of non-synced data with the technical realities of the software, much of which can be checked by anyone with iCloud and an iPhone. Apple’s lawyers also dig into many of the cases that the government is using in defense of prosecution of the 1789 All Writs Act, stating that they have nothing to do with that act, their case, or the technology behind it.

As Edward Snowden himself tweeted:

Why Are We Fighting the Crypto Wars Again?

Steven Levy, Backchannel

Author Steven Levy, who wrote a seminal book on Cryptography and it’s purpsose, Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government Saving Privacy in the Digital Age, is back at it. He questions why it’s taken so long to recognize Whitfield Diffie and Martin E. Hellman, as the A.M. Turing Awards finally have, granting them the award 40 years after they first published their public key cryptography system that changed the world of computing for the better, leading to an internet where more trust could be placed between two parties unknown to one another, such as a product vendor and consumer. This paved the way for ecommerce and almost all interactions that take place on the internet to this day.

Levy has to bring his argument back, as the issue has never truly gone away: along with demands for privacy and security for ourselves, we demand the ability to break the privacy and security of bad actors, however we define them. The Clipper Chip and Skipjack Algorithm were defeated not only for this hypocrisy, but mainly for the demonstration that a tool that purports to have an entrance that only “the good guys” can access cannot be guaranteed to keep other third parties out.

Bonus: If you want to get an understanding of how public key cryptography works, check out this video by Brit Cruise via Khan Academy.

Facebook is eating the world

Emily Bell, Columbia Journalism Review

Marc Andreessen is famous, among many other accomplishments, for the phrase “Software is eating the world.” Emily Bell it pointing out the fact that not all software is equal, and highly leveraged software companies have even more ravenous appetites than others. When services like Facebook and Google offer up their own content distribution networks like Instant Articles and AMP respectively, the question isn’t just what we gain by using those services, but what we lose, whether we use them or not.

One of the things that we lose is control over production, display, and delivery of media. We’re increasingly living in filter bubbles that dictate what new ideas we see. We might not always want to see views that differ from our own, but it’s valuable for forming new opinions. When large companies can decide what things get displayed to who, the value of the open and free internet diminishes, where we trade convenience for the complexity that disparate voices would otherwise offer.

Don’t Post About Me on Social Media, Children Say

KJ Dell’Antonia, The New York Times

The first kids born during the social media age are coming of age themselves now, and many have problems with how freely their parents share about them. This is the first generation who will collectively grapple with how much sharing is good or not when digital media grants us a near endless perfect recall, which may not always be a good thing. Maybe they’ve got a point, knowing how much the detritus of digital personae affect our lives these days. According to the study linked in the article, three times as many children as parents were concerned with limits on what is posted publicly. And you say that your kids overshare online too much.

Georgie Wood, for Wired
Georgie Wood, for Wired

Google’s AI Wins Pivotal Second Game in Match With Go Grandmaster

Cade Metz, Wired

Widely seen as a test of the growth of deep learning and neural networks in artificial intelligence, even more than Watson’s defeat of Ken Jennings on Jeopardy! five years ago, Google’s AlphaGo has defeated Lee Sedol in the second of their five scheduled matches. At this point it looks that the tournament may only go to the third game, which Sedol would need to win, along with the last two games, to defeat the computer.

The rise of the machines may start with defeat at complex board games, but is moving toward purpose-driven artificial intelligences that will manage our lives. I’m confident that we will see a wide range of applications rise from this new thinking machine, allowing advancements in technology and science that will improve a wide spectrum of deficiencies in our lives. When they finally take complete control and subjugate us to endless Go death matches though, we may regret this moment.

Wired Keeps Calling Trump ‘Someone With Tiny Hands’ Due to a Chrome Extension Error

Matt Novak, Gizmodo

Chalk it up to a contributor’s testing of browser tools for another article, or a joke gone awry. It’s believed that a Chrome extension is the cause of misprinted articles in the online publication that had “someone with tiny hands” in place of mentions of Donald Trump.

The real thought here is how the reality of what we do online can be distorted to the point that we don’t even notice it, and where those that should be keeping better watch (like the editors at Wired who ostensibly didn’t proof these articles) don’t notice either. The danger is in being unable to tell when we’re getting a filtered truth, whether purposeful or through neglect, with no fallback or safeguards to confirm when it’s even happening.

Props to Lisa Melegari for this find. Suggest a story here!

Machine-Learning Algorithm Aims to Identify Terrorists Using the V Signs They Make

Technology Review

It’s becoming even easier to identify people by different elements that might have been nondescript in the past. It was disconcerting when a Google Glass developer demonstrated an app that could identify people by the clothing that they are photographed in based on images loaded to their public Facebook profiles. Now a team at the University of Jordan has claimed a method to fingerprint people based on the shapes of their hands while making the V victory symbol that has a macabre significance to terrorists posing with victims. Granted, you can’t identify a person with them (the masks hinder that), but tracking individuals across photos, places, and time, is a bit easier using information that they widely distribute.

FCC to propose monthly broadband subsidy for the poor

Amar Toor, The Verge

The Federal Communications Commission is proposing a subsidy for low-income families for broadband internet connections, to the tune of $9.25/month. While I can’t say that pays the bills anywhere that I’m aware of, or even comes close, it could potentially get more people online. The nice thing here is that they are tacitly agreeing to the conceit that an internet connection is now a valuable and necessary part of living in modern society.

I’ve Had a Cyberstalker Since I Was 12

Roni Jacobson, Medium

Some of the things that the author discusses in this article are cringeworthy, and as she says in her subtitle, the odd part is that she didn’t see this as more serious. Read to see a firsthand account of wading through the complexities of stalking laws, especially when it comes to cyberstalking, which is on the rise but still lags behind a bit. The hope is that investigative journalism like this will help shine a spotlight on the issue, and help bring smarter, more up to date laws in place.

David Scovetta via Twitter
David Scovetta via Twitter

Amazon just removed encryption from the software powering Kindles, phones, and tablets

Patrick Howell O’Neill, The Daily Dot

All major tech coverage the past few weeks has been on Apple’s fight with the Feds over encryption on devices. Google has backed Apple. Facebook has backed Apple. Even Microsoft has finally backed Apple. Apparently Amazon wnats to think different, removing personal encryption from Fire OS 5. Apparently customers weren’t using it, so they decided to just drop it from the newest version, rather than keep in a useful feature and enabling it by default or putting a tutorial on the device for how easy it is to actually use.

Daily Accounts of a Muggle I.T. Guy working at Hogwarts


I wish I had the creativity of some people. There’s a (currently anonymous) Tumblr account entitled “The Setup Wizard” in which a Muggle IT Professional hired by Hogwarts keeps a daily log of what he’s working on. This is a great melding of a popular fiction series and the drudgery of IT. Or maybe it’s real. It’s that engrossing.

Spotify is using 50,000 anonymous hipsters to find your next favorite song

Adam Pasick, Quartz

It’s just like Jaron Lanier predicted! Spotify is touting a new “algorithmic way to discover new music”, which is cool tech, but still boils down to unpaid contributions by users. The Fresh Finds Playlists that are being given prime real estate on Spotify are built around crawling music blogs for new artists, looking at top users who are playing those artists, then finding what other new things those users are playing, becoming a new siren on taste.

In his most recent book, ‘Who Owns the Future’, Jaron Lanier discusses the fact that these super smart algorithms are really based around data gathered by real people. People who are not getting payment or recognition for the work that they are doing for these large companies. If Spotify is really thinking of entering the record label business, this data would prove insanely useful. After all, Netflix found success in building shows around the viewing habits of their users, and there’s no reason to think that Spotify wouldn’t do the same. Eventually a recognition system for the humans that are the real power of big data and deep learning will have to be put in place, or the value of that data will continue to climb to a point that users with the help of third-party analytics firms will demand payment for their finite resources.

Sad Togepi

Niantic Has Cancelled Their GDC Presentation on Pokémon GO to Focus on the Beta Test and Launch

Jeffrey McDonell, Gamenesia

I bought the Pokemon New 3DS this weekend, fired up Pokemon Blue after several years away from the franchise, and was reminded of the blend of simple gameplay and complex structure and rule systems that made it popular. Like many, I thought that the trailer for Pokemon Go was a bit over the top, but I’m still excited by the first mobile phone Pokemon game that I’m willing to overlook that.

It looks like we’ll have to wait a bit longer for more information, as the development team behind the new game have pulled out of the Game Developers Conference set to take place in a few weeks. The reasoning given is to focus the time non-stop on development of the game, which was set to be out in a beta that has also been delayed. Niantic and Nintendo, my phone is ready when you are.

Do you wish your code could be more pictographic? Emojicode to the rescue!

Props to Lisa Melegari for this find. Suggest a story here!

I spent the last 6 months planning my online death

Caroline Sinders, Fusion

Most people don’t yet consider what happens to their digital selves after they die. Now that a sizable percentage of the world population is on Facebook, a platform that has been around for ten years and will necessarily start hosting more and more dead users over time, this consideration is going to have to be made more frequently.

Caroline Sinders researched the ways that many companies do – but mainly don’t – have systems in place for data ownership after the passing of a user. She looked into the many ways that exist informally to handle this gap in coverage, and finally decided to create a digital will, which she created to allow her sister to access all accounts and what she wanted done with them if she died. Digital or not, this is not a bad idea of a document that everyone should create if just to make handling of basic tasks around death (the electric bill was in their name and I never got the notice that it was overdue!) easier to handle, making the passing less of a burden.

Fusion did a whole series on the future of death this week that’s worth checking out.