After Math: The anti-social network


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It’s not been a great week for the world’s most expansive and invasive social site. Besides being temporarily knocked offline on Monday, the platform is hemorrhaging morale, struggling to address its ubiquitous disinformation issues (going so far as to appoint an “independent” content moderation oversight committee), and was the subject of a scathing exposé by the New York Times.

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About 2 hours: It doesn’t happen often but Facebook’s servers have been known to fail from time to time. One of those times was Monday when roughly 50 percent of users in North and South America found themselves unable to log into, or even load, Facebook due to a “routine test” gone sideways.

palmer

$100 million: There are lines that not even Facebook will cross in its pursuit of global social domination, they just haven’t found them yet. When news broke earlier this year that Palmer Luckey, Oculus founder was a secret 4Chan troll, the company didn’t tell him to knock it off or throw him out on his racist ear. No, they tried to get him to back indie presidential candidate Gary Johnson before giving him $100 million to just go away.

asdf50-50: Looks like not even Facebook’s own employees are drinking the Kool-Aid any more. During a recent internal survey, only half of the 29,000 respondents said that FB is making the world a better place (a 19 point drop since the last survey) and 70 percent were proud to work there (a 17 point drop).

bias

58 percent of adult Americans: Facebook’s CYA shenanigans regarding its involvement with Russia’s interference into the 2016 elections haven’t just undermined confidence in the American electoral system. They’ve also illustrated that the algorithms on which social media platforms are built and run shouldn’t be implicitly trusted as well. Nearly six in 10 Americans, according to a recent Pew study, believe that algorithms will never be fully rid of human bias. At least until Skynet comes online and starts designing its own. Then the only bias will be towards killing all humans.

FACEBOOK EARNS

1.5 billion fake accounts: And in classic “day late, dollar short” Facebook fashion, the company announced this week that it has barred more than a billion (yes, with a b) fake accounts over the last six months, well after the damage to society had been done.

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$1 billion: Of course it’s not all fire and brimstone at Facebook. Sometimes the company manages to stop tripping over its own feet just long enough to do some good for the world. Like how it’s facilitated the raising of more than a billion dollars in charitable contributions to a whole slew good causes.

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I communicate with my parents via email… is that weird?

Parents are weird — you love them, but also want them as physically far from you as possible. Until you miss them, or want them to help you with laundry, or want to drink their expensive alcohol, and then you’re back on their couch for a month, and their biological attachment to you prevents them from reporting a home invasion to the police.

I have always been very independent from my parents, and first lived far away from them at 16. I don’t talk to them much, despite my mother occasionally calling me at work — she seems to have a supernatural sense for when my ringtone is on loud in a meeting.

For the most part, our family conversations are via email.

Is that weird?

My colleagues think so, so I polled them on how they speak to their parents. Here were the results:

My colleagues did not treat this scientific poll with the seriousness I requested.

The most common forms of communication were Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, probably because almost everyone — even old people — are on them.

My family does NOT use either Facebook-owned platform to communicate our Ustik family business. I don’t want Mark Zuckerberg reading about how our dog has shit all over my mum’s carpet again, do you?

Apparently we’re the only ones — my colleagues found it weird, and a quick Google search showed many others think the same. For the past few years, industry professionals and analysts have been discussing email in hushed, reverent tones, as if we were already standing over its casket

After thorough research, I can only conclude that where other people see trash, I see treasure. Most of the reasons analysts cited for email’s downfall are actually the features I love most about it.

First, email is relatively slow. It’s the new snail mail. Why email someone when you can just quickly WhatsApp them?

This may be true, but to my parents, and older generations, email is fast. They used to have to write down messages with a pen. And put it in an envelope. And go to the post office… insane.

I’m someone who still resists installing ad-blockers, because I like YouTube ads. I won’t pay for Spotify, because I’m fond of the commercial interruptions that happen every few songs — it reminds me of the radio. While I like some things fast — like food delivery — I like that not everything comes instantly. I’ve removed almost all email notifications from my phone, and only get them when I’m at a desktop, hitting refresh.

What’s wrong with waiting for information, or seeking it out, and not having it constantly bombard your eyeballs? Smell a rose, you know what I mean?

Second, email is not sexy anymore. E — mail. It feels like when someone refers to the internet as cyberspace.

Old. Gross. That’s why it’s for parents… and me. I like clunky things. I still non-ironically buy CDs for goodness sake. Email is practically hipster.

Third, email is not as visual as FaceTime or Snapchat. Or Chat Roulette.

Some people apparently like to look at their parents. I don’t.

Don’t get me wrong, my parents are gorgeous. I mean, how could they not be? *cradles face in hands like Shirley Temple*

But I don’t need to look at them to talk to them.

Of course, you can send photos in emails, but it takes time. You have to take the photo, save the file, attach it to the email… Snore. No, thank you.

Fourth, texting means brevity. It’s short, succinct, and to the point. It’s efficient.

Email is long. Emails have paragraphs and bullet points and attachments.

I got my long-windedness from my parents, which has led me to realize that writing an email to someone is more for the benefit of yourself than for the other person. It’s a bit like when a dictator delivers an address to a small country — I can say what I want and no one can stop me.

Fifth, and finally, many of my colleagues think emailing parents is weird because it’s cold, and business-like.

To that, I tell them I have a British mother and a Catholic father, so receiving a surprise email is probably the most parental affection I’ve ever received.

Despite my best efforts, my colleagues remain unconvinced.

Conclusion

You know you don’t have a real conclusion when you have to say “conclusion” in your last subhead to let readers know the sweet release of the end is near.

I like emailing my parents. If they say something I don’t like, it’s easier to ignore than a little red “unread” circle on an app, or “lose” in the shuffle of all the email crap I’ve signed up for over the years.

And when I do decide to write to them, I have to sit and think out what I’m going to write. It’s kinda romantic in a way — sitting at the laptop, smoking a cigar in my library of leather-bound books while I sift through Zalando promotional emails.

I guess what I mean by all this is how you communicate with your parents is a measure of how much you love them, and email means you love them the most.

And if you have an issue with that bold claim, you can email me about it.

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The slow corrosion of techno-optimism

Two weeks from now, the Swahilipot Hub, a hackerspace / makerspace / center for techies and artists in Mombasa, Kenya, is hosting a Pwani Innovation Week, “to stimulate the innovation ecosystem in the Pwani Region.” Some of its organizers showed me around Mombasa’s cable landing site some years ago; they’re impressive people. The idea of the Hub and its forthcoming event fills me with unleavened enthusiasm, and optimism … and a bleak realization that it’s been a while since I’ve felt this way about a tech initiative.

What happened? How did we go from predictions that the tech industry would replace the hidebound status quo with a new democratized openness, power to the people, now that we all carry a networked supercomputer in our pocket … to widespread, metastasizing accusations of abuse of power? To cite just a few recent examples: Facebook being associated with genocide and weaponized disinformation; Google with sexual harassment and nonconsensual use of patients’ medical data; and Amazon’s search for a new headquarters called “shameful — it should be illegal” by The Atlantic.

To an extent some of this was inevitable. The more powerful you become, the less publicly acceptable it is to throw your increasing weight around like Amazon has done. I’m sure that to Google, subsuming DeepMind is a natural, inevitable corporate progression, a mere structural reshuffling, and it’s not their fault that the medical providers they’re working with never got explicit consent from their patients to share the provided data. Facebook didn’t know it was going to be a breeding ground for massive disinformation campaigns; it was, and remains, a colossal social experiment in which we are all participating, despite the growing impression that its negatives may outweigh its positives. And at both the individual and corporate levels, as a company grows more powerful, “power corrupts” remains an inescapable truism.

But let’s not kid ourselves. There’s more going on here than mischance and the natural side effects of growth, and this is particularly true for Facebook and Twitter. When we talk about loss of faith in tech, most of the time, I think, we mean loss of faith in social media. It’s true that we don’t want them to become censors. The problem is that they already are, as a side effect, via their algorithms which show posts and tweets with high “engagement” — i.e. how vehemently users respond. The de facto outcome is to amplify outrage, and hence disinformation.

It may well be true, in a neutral environment, that the best answer to bad speech is more speech. The problem is that Facebook and Twitter are anything but neutral environments. Their optimization for “engagement” is a Brobdingnagian thumb on their scales, tilting their playing fields into whole Himalayas of advantages for bad faith, misinformation, disinformation, outrage and hate.

This optimization isn’t even necessary for their businesses to be somewhat successful. In 2014, Twitter had a strict chronological timeline, and recorded a $100 million profit before stock-based compensation — with relatively primitive advertising infrastructure, compared to today. Twitter and Facebook could kill the disinformation problem tomorrow, with ease, by switching from an algorithmic, engagement-based timeline back to a strict chronological one.

Never going to happen, of course. It would hurt their profits and their stock price too much. Just like Google was never going to consider itself bound to DeepMind’s cofounder’s assurance two years ago that “DeepMind operates autonomously from Google.” Just like Amazon was never going to consider whether siphoning money from local governments at its new so-called “co-headquarters” was actually going to be good for its new homes. Because while technology has benefited individuals, enormously, it’s really benefited technology’s megacorporations, and they’re going to follow their incentives, not ours.

Mark Zuckerberg’s latest post begins: “Many of us got into technology because we believe it can be a democratizing force for putting power in people’s hands.” I agree with that statement. Many of us did. But, looking back, were we correct? Is it really what the available evidence show us? Has it, perhaps, put some power in people’s hands — but delivered substantially more to corporations and governments?

I fear that the available evidence seems to confirm, instead, the words of tech philosopher-king Maciej Ceglowski. His most relevant rant begins with a much simpler, punchier phrase: “Technology concentrates power.” Today it seems harder than ever to argue with that.

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More companies are chipping their workers like pets

The trend of blundering into the void of adopting new tech, damn the consequences, full speed ahead, continues this week. The Telegraph tells us about “a number of UK legal and financial firms” are in talks with a chip company to implant their employees with RFID microchips for security purposes.

Ah, security purposes, our favorite road to hell paved with some kind of intentions. Is it like when Facebook took people’s phone numbers for security purposes and handed them to advertisers? Sorry, I’m just a little cynical right now. The report explained the purpose of corporate bosses chipping their workers like a beloved Pekinese is to set restrictions on areas they can access within the companies.

“One prospective client,” The Telegraph wrote, “which cannot be named, is a major financial services firm with “hundreds of thousands of employees.”

Jowan Österlund, founder of chip-implant company Biohax at the center of this deal, told the outlet: “These companies have sensitive documents they are dealing with. [The chips] would allow them to set restrictions for whoever … In a company with 200,000 employees, you can offer this as an opt-in,” said Mr. Österlund. “If you have a 15 percent uptake that is still a huge number of people that won’t require a physical ID pass.”

Never mind that RFID badge cloning is trivial to the point of funsies for hackers (who have been experimenting with hacking biochips for a while), this is about employee efficiency. A further selling point for companies grinding privacy into bottom-line dust is that it’ll save a company money. “As well as restricting access to controlled areas,” The Telegraph said, “microchips can be used by staff to speed up their daily routines. For instance, they could be used to quickly buy food from the canteen, enter the building or access printers at a fastened rate.”

As some readers may recall, this isn’t the first instance of employee chipping in recent news. Last year, American company Three Square Market in Wisconsin made headlines when 80 of its employees got chips implanted. They use the little RFID chips in their hands (the size of a grain of rice, like the one in your cat) to scan themselves into security areas, use computers and vending machines. Interestingly, Three Square sells vending machine “mico markets” but offers a cottage industry in implants (with an angle on their use for “law enforcement solutions“).

Microchip Hand Implant

Yet the first US company to inject workers with tracking chips was a Cincinnati surveillance firm in 2006, which required all employees working in its secure data center to have RFIDs implanted in their triceps. Coming from a spying company, it’s almost like asking if you’d like your Orwell with a little Orwell on top. California in 2007 swiftly moved to block companies from being able to make RFID implants mandatory, as well as blocking the chipping of students in the state.

Don’t get me wrong: becoming a cyborg sounds pretty awesome. It’s a fairly popular pastime for DEF CON attendees who like their hackery edge-play to get a souvenir implant while at the conference. But those people are hackers, and they know what they’re getting into. And I’m just that annoying person worried about normal people not knowing how they can get pwned, and who has a few irritating questions about personal security and privacy.

According to MIT Technology review, the Three Square Market employees said they liked it — the convenience outweighed personal privacy and security concerns, which could include surveillance by higher-ups, or attackers doing a little drive-by data sniffing (when hackers ping your chip to see what’s on it). President of Three Square, Patrick McMullan, told MIT that only some of the info on the chip is encrypted “but he argues that similar personal information could be stolen from his wallet, too.”

Unlike a company ID card, you can’t leave it at home. We might imagine that with all of these privacy and tracking concerns, female employees dealing with harassment would have an extra layer to worry about. MIT only quoted male employees, so that’s worth noting.

The chip-your-workpets trend spreading to the US and UK got its foothold in Sweden where apparently they are much cooler about becoming the Borg than we are. Swedish incubator Epicenter in Stockholm “includes 100 companies and roughly 2,000 workers, began implanting workers in January 2015,” reported LA Times. “Now, about 150 workers have the chips.”

Microchipped Employees

Jowan Osterlund from Biohax Sweden, holds a small microchip implant, similar to those implanted into workers at the Epicenter digital innovation business center

The chief experience officer at Epicenter, Fredric Kaijser, told press: “People ask me, ‘Are you chipped?’ and I say, ‘Yes, why not?’ And they all get excited about privacy issues and what that means and so forth. And for me it’s just a matter of I like to try new things and just see it as more of an enabler and what that would bring into the future.”

Again, I’ll annoy you by pointing out that the evangelists here all seem to be dudes, which isn’t a bad thing. It maybe might suggest no one’s thinking about the inevitable DEF CON talk “Chipped employees: Fun with attack vectors,” or a possible future headline about employee stalking or chip-based discrimination. I mean, we can already imagine the ones where ICE demands the last known doors opened by all employees on the RFID database who happen to be brown.

I’m sure it’s all well and good until someone gets locked out of their own hand. Or the app used to access your hand gets compromised.

Like I said earlier, it’s at the “damn the consequences, full speed ahead” stage.

Images: LPETTET via Getty Images (Xray); Associated Press (Biohax microchip)

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Once again, Facebook has a lot of explaining to do

Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse for Facebook, The New York Times has come out with a bombshell exposé of the company’s tumultuous last two years. That, of course, includes its handling (er, mishandling) of the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal and other controversies, like the lack of transparency around Russian interference on its site leading up to the 2016 US presidential election. The paper says it spoke with more than 50 people, including current and former Facebook employees, who detailed the company’s efforts to contain, deny and deflect negative stories that came its way.

Facebook, what with its questionable “War Room” and all, seemed to be on the right path after apparently keeping things under control during the recent midterm elections in the US. Aside from the 115 accounts it blocked the day before the elections after being tipped off by law enforcement officials, no major incidents of fake news or malicious ads were reported — though at this point it wouldn’t be surprising Facebook came out later and said, “well, actually…” After all, it’s not as if the company has been completely honest about it recent mishaps, as this week’s New York Times report highlights.

2015 WebSummit Day 2 - Enterprise Stage

Alex Stamos, former Chief Security Officer at Facebook

Perhaps the most damaging allegation comes from a Facebook “expert on Russian cyber warfare” who reported to former Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos. The expert claims that top executives at the social media giant, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, knew about Kremlin activity on Facebook since 2016. Facebook disputes this. But, none of those details came out publicly until fall 2017, when the it reported that 126 million Facebook users were exposed to Russian-linked ads, misinformation and fake accounts. That propaganda, as we now know, was intended to create discord among the American people.

“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said in November of 2016, allegedly months after Facebook was already aware of Russia using its site to try to interfere in US elections.

To make matters worse, the company reportedly hired a consulting firm called Definers Public Affairs to do some of its dirty work, including lobbying against lawmaker critics in Washington, D.C. Definers also ran a campaign to discredit anti-Facebook activists by linking them to known Democrat donor George Soros, according to The Times. But the firm didn’t stop there. Some of Definers’ other work, sources told The Times, involved publishing negative stories about Google and Apple on conservative news site NTK Network, an affiliate of Definers Public Affairs.


Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg testified in Congress last September.
Drew Angerer via Getty Images

Facebook’s pettiness, per to the report, went as far as Zuckerberg ordering members of his management team to start using Android smartphones instead of iPhones, after Apple CEO Tim Cook took a jab at Facebook for not protecting its users’ data. “I think the best regulation is no regulation [but] self-regulation,” Cook told MSNBC in an interview last March in response to a question about Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica incident. “However, I think we’re beyond that here.” He added, “I wouldn’t be in this situation.” Sure, Zuckerberg may believe he has the power to make his staff stop using iPhones at his demand, but it seems like his energy could’ve been better spent elsewhere — like actually trying to fix the issues at hand.

Not surprisingly, Facebook is denying many of the allegations from The New York Times’ report. In a blog post, the company said “there are a number of inaccuracies in the story,” including that it knew of Russian activity in the spring of 2016 — though the timeline it provides seems kind of murky. Facebook also claims Zuckerberg “never encouraged our employees and executives” to use Android. “Tim Cook has consistently criticized our business model and Mark has been equally clear he disagrees,” the company said. “So there’s been no need to employ anyone else to do this for us. And we’ve long encouraged our employees and executives to use Android because it is the most popular operating system in the world.”

As far as Definers, in a call with reporters on Thursday, Zuckerberg said he only “learned about this relationship when I read the NYT piece yesterday.” That’s interesting considering what Facebook said in a statement: “Our relationship with Definers was well known by the media — not least because they have on several occasions sent out invitations to hundreds of journalists about important press calls on our behalf.”

Facebook

Facebook says it has ended its contract with Definers, adding that The Times “is wrong to suggest that we ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook’s behalf — or to spread misinformation.” Thing is, it’s not as if The New York Times has a track record of reporting inaccurate stories, whereas Facebook’s recent mishaps have all but exposed its lack of transparency when something goes wrong. And that’s been happening quite often lately.

At this point, it’s going to take a lot for Facebook to gain people’s trust back, especially as more stories like this continue to come out. What the company needs to do is brace itself for regulation, because it clearly can’t be trusted to regulate itself, and lawmakers around the world are starting to agree.

Images: Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images (Alex Stamos); Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images (Facebook app)

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Going to music gigs alone is the best way to do it. Fight me.

Image: vicky leta / mashable

I could be anywhere in the world, but the moment I hear a song from Neko Case’s “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood,” I’m transported back to my friend’s single bed in northern France. The year is 2009, my Erasmus year, and I’m a teaching assistant in a suburban secondary school.

There, I would spend my evenings drinking €3 red wine and listening to the iTunes library of a new American friend (and now, best friend) named Shannon who also happened to be teaching English in the same sleepy French town. It was there, during this year of instructing teenagers how to conjugate, that I realised how intensely personal our relationship with music can be. That’s why, nine years on, I decided I would go to see Neko Case on my own during her European tour. 

Alone is how I go to gigs these days. I wouldn’t have it any other way, to be frank. This going-aloneness is not for want of anyone to go with, but instead because I actually want to be alone to fully enjoy the experience. It took me until my late twenties to discover the wonders of going to concerts alone. The first time was an accident. I’d booked two tickets to see Fleet Foxes at Brixton O2 Academy in the hope I’d be able to entice a friend to accompany me. But, my friends weren’t as enamoured with the dulcet tone of Robin Pecknold’s voice, so that ticket went unused. I ventured down to the gig on my own.

Fleet Foxes perform on sage at O2 Academy Brixton, London on November 26, 2017.

Fleet Foxes perform on sage at O2 Academy Brixton, London on November 26, 2017.

Image: Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I felt nervous and self-conscious when I first arrived. I wondered if people would see me standing friendless in the crowd and think I was some kind of outlier — a thought that I now freely admit was completely preposterous. I shrugged that self-consciousness off when I got inside the venue, had a beer, and told myself to get the hell over it, Rachel, you’re a fully grown woman. In the stalls, I metamorphosed from awkward billy-no-mates to a person reliving past moments that were inextricably tethered to this music. When “The Shrine / An Argument” played, I was reminded of the summer after graduating when I played “Helplessness Blues” on repeat, at full volume. 

That night, during my first solo gig, I realised I have a unique bond with these songs, that I needed to be alone with them. Songs mean different things to different people. But, I now know that my experience of seeing an artist whose music has had an impact on my life is something I need to do alone. Just like visiting an old friend with whom you have a close personal bond, trying to bring a third person into the relationship would dilute the experience, divert my attention to other things.

It is, of course, fun to bring a friend along to a gig. Especially if said friend is as big a fan as you are. My cousin Ellen and I have been to see Beyoncé together twice because we are both diehard superfans and I need someone to scream with. But other times, I’ve taken friends along with me and have caught myself worrying about whether they’re having a good time, worrying if they’re bored, worrying if maybe I shouldn’t have invited them in the first place.  

One year on, with several solo gigs now under my belt, I went to see Neko Case unaccompanied. As she sang “Hold On, Hold On” my eyes welled up with tears as my mind travelled back in time to that year in France. It was a moving, lovely night. 

Neko Case performs at The Barbican on November 8, 2018 in London.

Neko Case performs at The Barbican on November 8, 2018 in London.

Image: Robin Little/Redferns

I am not alone in my aloneness, of course. A lot of other people are in possession of the knowledge that going solo to a gig is a wonderful thing. 

“Whenever I go to a show it is because the music is very personal and meaningful to me.”

Freelance filmmaker Jeremiah Warren says he often goes by himself because he’s attending a show “for the music not for human interaction. “

“Whenever I go to a show it is because the music is very personal and meaningful to me,” says Warren, who loves people and socialising, but also enjoys spending time alone and being able to experience something all by himself. “I heard Sigur Rós during their 2016 tour and it was one of the most emotional and spiritual experiences I’d had in a long time. I think it would have been a distraction if a friend had been there.”

The one exception, he says, is “going with a significant other” which he feels is distinctly different to bringing a friend along for company. 

Just like Warren, many solo-show-goers say it’s not really a conscious choice to go it alone. Joe Garbow, who works in communications, started going to gigs alone when he was a teenager. He says it’s not necessarily a conscious decision to not invite others who might be interested, but instead a case of “if I decide I want to go, I’m going.”

“Going alone you are fully immersed in the performance, free to get crushed on the front row, and lost in the sway of the crowd.”

He went to see The Streets on his own after a friend dropped out at the last minute. “Going alone you are fully immersed in the performance, free to get crushed on the front row, and lost in the sway of the crowd or stand at the side with some personal space,” Garbow tells me. “Bringing a friend, even if they are fellow fans, you somehow feel responsible for the quality of the show. If it doesn’t meet expectations, your musical prowess takes a knock,” he adds. 

I can totally relate to this feeling. I’ve found myself constantly turning my head to check on a friend’s enjoyment of the gig, and interjecting with comments like “oh, this is my favourite song” in a bid to make them see the significance of a moment. 

James Olliver, who works in PR, flew solo when he went to see Jake Bugg play when he was visiting Berlin and had “an amazing experience.” “None of the others I was travelling with fancied it so I decided to head over by myself,” says Olliver. “Barring getting slightly lost on the Berlin metro, it was great and I found myself chatting with more people than I would normally during a gig. Would definitely recommend it!”

Whether you want to chat to fellow gig-goers, or just be alone with the music, going to a gig alone is something everyone should do at least once in their lifetime. If you have a personal connection to a particular song or musician, give yourself the gift of flying solo. You won’t regret it. 

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After Math: They're on the move


ASSOCIATED PRESS

With the president’s made up migrant caravan crisis having mysteriously vanished now that the midterms are over, it’s time to take a look at the other movers and shakers from the industry this week. Volkswagen announced the development of a $23k Tesla rival, China has developed security cameras can now ID people by their gait, and Google’s built a computer model to guess which restaurants will give you the runs.

China Gait Recognition

165 feet: Everybody walks in their own weirdly wonderful way. Unfortunately, China’s state surveillance system can now spot you because of that gait from more than 150 feet, even if your face is obscured. So the next time you see someone walking through downtown Beijing like they’re fleeing a sandworm, this is probably why (though maybe get to higher ground too, just to be safe).

nethernopes

20 years of lie: Nice, some guy in the Netherlands wants a court to declare his 69-year-old self as 49-years-old so he can have better luck on Tinder. Which will totally work right up until the moment that he insists they go to dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon at Golden Corral so he can be home in time for Matlock.

asdf

30 percent more food poisoning: It’s not easy being a health inspector (yes, even Hugo has got it rough) but there’s some help on the horizon from Google. The search giant has developed an algorithm that can spot incidents of food poisoning by cross-referencing a user’s search for terms like “diarrhea” against their cached location data. During trials in Las Vegas and Chicago, the model identified unsafe food conditions 52 percent of the time, compared with just 22 percent of routine inspections in those cities.

birds

£1 plus 20p per minute: That’s how much Bird’s new UK pilot program will rent street scooters for. Unfortunately, the zippy contraptions will only be made available along a single path in east London’s Olympic Park.

fleet

20,000 e-bikes: Speaking of alternative transportation, Paris announced this week that it will unleash an armada of electric bicycles upon its city streets in a large-scale effort to help reduce traffic and counteract climate change. Users will be able to rent a bike for 40 euros a month.

Germany Earns Volkswagen

$23,000: Volkswagen just fired a shot across Tesla’s bow, announcing this week that it has begun development on a Model 3 competitor that will likely cost a whopping $12,000 less than Tesla’s offering when it goes on sale sometime after 2020.

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Mattereum, perhaps the world’s weirdest and most daring startup, intends to own literally everything

How’s this for eyebrow-raising? In London, for the last year and a half, a team of lawyers, cryptographers, software engineers, and/or former military consultants have been brewing a bizarre and/or brilliant plan for a bridge between the blockchain and the real world — a system whose success is directly proportional to the extent to which it achieves legal title over every physical object in the world.

Wait. Let me explain. Their name is Mattereum, and they are not Bond villains seeking to conquer the planet. Rather, they are trying to bridge the gap between programmable blockchain “smart contracts” and actual legal contracts. As you might imagine, that gap consists of an almost infinitely knotty tangle of legal precedents, gray areas, and jurisdictions.

Mattereum has came up with a remarkable way to sever this Gordian knot. A legal concept universal across almost all jurisdictions is that assets have owners, who can decide (within legal limits) how to dispose of them. If registrars of the Mattereum network are granted legal title over assets, the thinking goes, they can then establish on-chain smart contracts with which physical assets can be programmatically bought, sold, rented, assigned, and partitioned — and use their ownership of these assets to resolve disputes and enforce those resolutions.

That all sounds pretty abstract. Let’s talk about some real-world examples. Their flagship object right now is a Stradivarius violin valued at $9 million. Assigning legal title over that violin to one of Mattereum’s registrars (say, Mattereum itself) which then licenses control via a set of smart contracts (say, on the Ethereum blockchain) means the violin instantly becomes not just a physical asset but a digital one, which can now be programmatically tokenized and sold to multiple investors — and also means that other contractual restrictions regarding its use can be required and enforced, such as that it be played for the public X times a year in Y countries, rather than locked perpetually into a vault.

Similarly, artists could sell their work to consortiums of investors with the enforceable requirement that their art be displayed in galleries open to the public for at least 25% of every year, built-in digital interfaces for galleries and museums to book that time, income percentages allocated for foundations and to the artist themselves, and so forth. And, of course, in passing, the art’s provenance is maintained, too.

Could you do all this already, via a whole lot of legal paperwork followed by a whole lot of glacially-paced lawsuits when disputes inevitably arose? Sure. But to quote their summary white paper (PDF), which is very worth reading:

Clichés like “data is the new oil” conceal a fundamental truth: efficient discovery of availability and price radically changes the value of assets. Auctions on eBay gave value to enormous seas of illiquid assets … Some classes of illiquid assets, such as idle cars and briefly empty flats, found markets through Uber and Airbnb, liberating billions in value … the pattern is very clear: assets with a proper digital interface and history are more valuable than assets without them.

Mattereum boasts an impressive team led by Vinay Gupta, the mad-or-visionary-depending-on-who-you-talk-to global resilience guru turned Ethereum launch coordinator turned CEO, and including Ian Grigg, inventor of the Ricardian contract. And, of course, a lawyer or three. Obviously whole clouds of question marks still hover around them, notably regarding just how these smart contracts will intersect with the existing legal world(s), and how to establish trust in asset registrars to not abuse their legal title, or neglect their responsibilities — a trust which will need to rival or exceed that which accountholders have in banks.

But, like Ethereum itself, this is still a wildly ambitious, genuinely innovative, and deeply weird project; that’s much to admire. Restructuring the concept of physical asset ownership to include programmatic contracts may seem like a subtle change, but it’s one which could conceivably have massive structural repercussions and unlock enormous amounts of currently untapped potential. It’s early baby-iterative-steps yet, of course, with a panoply of pitfalls on all sides; but it’s big and bold and hopeful, and it just might do a lot of good.

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Three challenges facing blockchain technology

Nearly five years ago, Overstock.com became the first major retailer to accept bitcoin as a form of payment. It now accepts many top cryptocurrencies. As a member of the senior executive team and board of directors at Overstock.com, I had a front-row seat to those decisions.

It didn’t take long for the Overstock team to realize that bitcoin’s underlying blockchain technology held great promise beyond cryptocurrencies. We also knew that for blockchain technology to reach its full potential, the startup companies advancing its use would need both financial and human capital support.

Overstock set up a venture capital blockchain incubator, Medici Ventures, to do just that.

We believe blockchain technology will eventually impact many industries. We are already involved in promising developments in areas like capital markets, money transmission and banking, voting, supply chain, property and self-sovereign identity. But there is still a long way to go before blockchain technology can realize its true potential.

Here are the three most important challenges facing more widespread adoption of blockchain technology right now.

Finding good enterprise-level blockchain software developers

The world has become so reliant on computers, to the point where virtually every company now has need for software development. In this environment, where demand grows exponentially, good software development talent is hard to find. Game-changing talent is rarer still.

Because blockchain is a new field of technology, there are fewer talented enterprise-level software developers who understand it well. Those who do can practically write their own tickets. While this is an enviable position for them, it limits many companies from developing engaging and transformative blockchain-based applications.

Let’s remember that we are in the early days of blockchain.

At Medici Ventures, we provide regular internal training to help our software developers climb this important learning curve. In this training — which we do in educational presentations which sometimes include accelerated coursework — our teams often present discoveries made when developing on one project, with the hope that the solutions may benefit those working on other projects. This approach lets us cross-pollinate our industries and our disciplines, so creative development and innovation become rising tides rather than isolated spikes.

The time spent learning is well worth it; it is why many of our portfolio companies rely not just on our venture capital, but also our human capital. Until there is a regular pipeline of well-qualified blockchain developers, the shortage of great talent will continue to be a struggle for the advancement of the technology.

Avoiding the temptation of regulation

Like many of their voting constituents, Congress and state legislatures are just becoming aware of blockchain. In some ways, this is good news: Political engagement will increase awareness and interest for utilizing blockchain technology and help drive adoption of these new ideas. Unfortunately, it also brings the temptation of regulation to an emerging market.

I get concerned when regulators and legislators get a whiff of any kind of technological development because they are tempted to regulate it. When U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) chair Jay Clayton stated that he considered all initial coin offerings (ICOs) to be securities rather than commodities, and therefore subject to his organization’s regulation, Clayton brought an ICO boom to a screeching halt. While Chairman Clayton and others at the SEC have subsequently modified that stance, this regulatory tendency to fear what is new is dangerous.

The interconnectedness of the world means its adoption will probably take root and bloom quickly.

Technology — and the advancement of blockchain — should not be regulated. In the 1990s, when the internet’s potential was becoming evident, legislators opted not to regulate it. That bipartisan decision led to the open-market creation of the much-lauded “information superhighway” and the power of the internet today.

Certainly, there will be use cases that may require regulation as blockchain applications develop and proliferate. But the growth of blockchain technology will be best nurtured when it is free and unfettered from regulation.

Reaching critical mass

Cryptocurrencies and digital wallets built on blockchain are great uses of the technology. In order for cryptocurrencies to proliferate in use and stabilize in price, and for digital wallets to get widespread adoption, consumers need to spend cryptocurrencies more and merchants need to accept them. A great example of this working the right way is Colu, an exciting new company I recently saw in action when I was in Tel Aviv, Israel. Colu is a digital wallet that uses blockchain technology to create local currencies. People simply download the app, add money and shop locally. The app highlights local establishments and makes shopping convenient. And it is dazzling people in Tel Aviv!

The same can be said of other blockchain-based applications like secure remote digital voting. West Virginia recently became the first state to allow overseas citizens to vote remotely using a blockchain-driven app. The West Virginia program was tested in the May primary and was used in this November’s general election.

We’ll know blockchain technology has become mainstream when we are no longer talking about it.

Some critics have been quick to disparage real efforts to create digital voting with strictly theoretical worries. In reality, the rollout in West Virginia is a very focused solution to a specific issue: low overseas voter participation. The current system is broken. A blockchain-driven digital voting app is a clear solution. Anyone but critics of progress should eagerly support West Virginia’s efforts until there is an actual reason to worry.

Once any blockchain application is embraced in sufficient numbers by both the using and accepting sides, the impressive software will become an invaluable and ubiquitous tool. More widespread adoption of blockchain’s most beneficial use cases will trigger network effects that will multiply the benefits.

Let’s remember that we are in the early days of blockchain. Many industry observers seem to be in a rush to declare blockchain a mainstream technology. As enthusiastic as I am in my support of blockchain, I would not yet call it mainstream. The interconnectedness of the world means its adoption will probably take root and bloom quickly. We’ll know blockchain technology has become mainstream when we are no longer talking about it, but we are simply using it in everyday ways.

I am thrilled to see digital purchases made and remote votes cast in elections with this game-changing technology. As developers, investors and companies continue to focus on using and advancing blockchain, we will see that finding good enterprise-level blockchain software developers, letting blockchain grow free from unnecessary regulation and achieving critical mass use are the next important steps in the growth and adoption of this world-changing technology.

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The best weapon in 'Just Cause 4' is Mother Nature

Just Cause 4 arrives at the end of a busy season of open world games. Fortunately, the series has always done things differently the likes of Assassin’s Creed, Read Dead Redemption, Far Cry and the rest. It’s the game that coaxes you into causing destruction and explosions, offering a shamelessly hard-boiled physics playground for you cut loose inside. During a lengthy playtime session last week with what appears to be very close to the final game, Just Cause 4 begs to be live-streamed, clipped and shared on Twitch, Twitter, Reddit, Discord and everywhere else.

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A force of nature. That’s how the team describes both the new elemental forces (tornadoes in four different kinds), and Rico Rodriguez and his super-powered grappling hook. The plot revolves around Rodriguez fighting against a military faction and discovering what happened to his absent dad. Said father is also responsible for the weather manipulating tech that leads to four different tornado climates and biomes to go with them. I got to toy with JC4‘s vanilla flavored tornado in the grasslands, but the full game will also throw in thunder, sand and snowstorms.

Mother Nature is one of two showcase stars in Just Cause 4.

“The extreme weather, it impacts this world you’re in,” noted Senior Game Designer, Robert Meyer. The Apex engine, built new for JC4, “embraces it”. He doesn’t just mean that it tears up everything in its path — which it does. If you scale a mountain or building high enough, you can you typically pinpoint the destructive column of air on the horizon. It’s equal parts reassuring and terrifying. It’s that far away, but it’s there. Always.

Just Cause 4

Aside from the grappling hook, which works like momentum-generating Spider-Man-esque webswing, Rodriguez isn’t lacking for transport options. You can still commandeer cars, boats, helicopters and planes, which are thankfully easy to drive and even land. I immediately grabbed a lightweight plane and headed towards said natural disaster.

A few minutes later, I flew straight into the tornado, It chewed me out and spat me back out, now aboard a flaming plane carcass.

In attempt number two, I leapt from my plane and readied my wingsuit (which is still a joy to almost-fly in), gliding around the tornado as it pulled (wrenched?) me ever-closer to the epicenter. (There’s no eye of the storm that I could spot, so it’s pretty much windy destruction in all directions.) With some savvy parachute deployment, you can use the tornado to hurl yourself up into the sky. Even if vehicles are shredded, Rico is relatively impervious to the wind itself — suspension of disbelief is mandatory in this game. And you really shouldn’t care — that’s never been what Just Cause is about. And after too many tantrums over Witcher 3‘s Geralt dying from a three-meter fall, this is my preferred in-game damage threshold

That’s not to say there’s no grounding in reality here. It’s more that game has been made to ensure that it’s playable, and repeatable — Rico can take a lot of damage, and walk away from collisions and explosions that normal humans shouldn’t be able to. But, that means you’re willing to put him in weirder scenarios, and commit to often hare-brained attack plans against enemy military bases. “There is a logic and a system [to the tornadoes] — even the thunderstorms. We looked into real weather systems and thought, ‘How can we match the reality of this in-game?’.” noted Meyer. “And at the same time, how about gamers? What can they do with this?” In JC4, headwinds will slow your character down, while a tailwind will get him to your destination that little bit faster.

While the Just Cause series was never steeped in realism, its worlds are detailed and populated, and its physics rules work the way they should — albeit with some artistic license. It’s not as well realized as GTA’s world but did I look at the whole island as a physics sandbox? Yes, there are so many dynamic objects parts to meddle in and experiment with. (My tip: Test out the new grappling hook at the island’s theme park.)

That brings me to the second star: Rico’s grappling hook. In the last game, players could interconnect objects, buildings and even people, chaining them, pulling them and generally causing trouble, explosions and the rest.

Just Cause 4 substantially upgrades the hook, which can still do all that, but also can attach balloons to send objects into the air, and also booster rockets (which were a separate item in the series’ predecessor) which can be tagged to objects.

I have fewer anecdotes than I hoped for from my hands-on time, simply because getting all these functions and parameters to work as you envision takes time.

Now, you switch between these functions through three different load-outs, but they’re all initiated and ‘released’ through the same mixture of trigger buttons. It goes deeper, and slightly more complicated than that. Each of these tools (grapple, balloon and booster) can be modified in slight (or extreme) ways. These range from prescribed heights of your air-lift balloons to burn-out boosters that explode when exhausted. Even the grappling function can be beefed up with higher tensile strength and a ‘pulse’ finisher that repels the two objects when they come together.

I have fewer anecdotes than I hoped for from my hands-on time, simply because getting all these functions and parameters to work as you envision takes time. The creative freedom is vast and exciting, but the learning curve is a rough one, especially when you’re offered the keys to the toy store. I played half my time with the full loadout of features and add-ons for the grappling hook. Fortunately, in the actual game, features will be tiered. As you progress, you’ll unlock the balloon function, and earn subsequent mods as you deepen your relationships with fellow rebel fighters.

In its defense, the menu where you customize everything is logical and well laid-out, there’s just a high chance that the grappling hook you thought you were making (and the actualities) will be completely different, and that truck you’re trying to lift is going to explode in your face.

Just Cause 4

Just Cause 4 introduces an entirely new facet to the series, Frontlines, which has you joining the revolutionary fighters to claim territory. It feels like it’ll have a more crucial effect on your playthrough versus, say, choosing Athens over Sparta in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. While red and blue are interchangeable for that mercenary, Just Cause’s Rodriguez has picked his side. Frontlines will follow you throughout the game, as you liberate areas of the map, recruit more rebels, and participate at key struggles.

Liberating an area will make for easier travel across regions, and (judging from what I saw) are likely to open up those crucial grappling hook upgrades. Seeing two teams battling along borders — usually including deployed turrets, rocket launchers and worse — was nearly always enough to interrupt my journey towards primary quests. I just wanted to help out. That said, it’s not the kind of in-game feature easily grasped from a few hours of play.

Given what players were capable of doing with 2015’s Just Cause 3, once you get to grips with the hook tool, it’s possible for anyone to go crazy with impressive results in this sequel. Add in what high-level players can accomplish with far more limited physics tools in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and I’m expecting big things. With the boom in game streaming and sharing since JC3 launched, Just Cause 4 is perfectly placed to capitalize on shared clips of ridiculous destruction.

Just Cause 3 had a rough launch, reviewers and gamers criticized rough bugs and some major loading speed issues — especially on consoles. The team had hit a wall with its Avalanche game engine and Just Cause 4 arrives on the new Apex engine, custom-built, and ready for all the tornadoes and grand-scale destruction.

New engine aside, my concern remains how well this runs on my PS4, or your Xbox One. I don’t know the answer, as we were playing on pre-release builds running on powerful PCs. To series fans, it might not matter. A lot of us know if Just Cause 4 is the kind of game we’d enjoy already. While there’s a narrative here, Rigo Rodriguez is likeable and entertaining, and characters return from the series, I’m not on the edge of my seat to see what happens to them. Frontlines, likewise, adds an extra layer to the game, but my early impressions are that it doesn’t feel hugely crucial to the feel of core game. As I parachute into a base, leaping from a truck that’s floated above the complex on a handful of balloons, outgunned and outnumbered, it’s the least of my worries.

Just Cause 4 launches on PS4, Xbox One and PC on December 4th.

Mat once failed an audition to be the Milkybar Kid, an advert creation that pushed white chocolate on gluttonous British children. Two decades later, having repressed that early rejection, he moved to Japan, learned the language, earned his black belt in Judo and returned to UK, and soon joined Engadget’s European team. After a few years leading Engadget’s coverage from Japan, reporting on high-tech toilets and robot restaurants as Senior Editor, he now heads up our UK bureau in London.


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