Archive for September 2017

Too many white cars make fake news


A photo taken in Wellington with a test car I had for Lucire. White cars aren’t the over-represented colour in New Zealand: guess from this photo what is.

A friend of mine put me on to this Fairfax Press Stuff article, entitled ‘Silly Car Question #16: Why are there so many white cars?’. It’s a silly question all right, because I haven’t noticed this phenomenon in New Zealand at all, and if any colour is over-represented, it’s the silver–grey tones. It seems like “fake news”, and if you read on, then there’s more to support that assertion.
   ‘It’s because every second car imported from Asia is white – literally. Latest research tells us that 48 per cent of all vehicles manufactured in Asia, particularly Japan, are painted white.’ (My friend, of Chinese descent, summarized jokingly, ‘It’s our fault,’ and my thought was, ‘Not again.’)
   Let’s break this one sentence down. The author says that we source a lot of our used cars from Japan, hence this 48 per cent figure is reflected in the New Zealand fleet. But you only need to ask yourself a simple question here: how many of those white cars made in Japan (or Korea, or India, or Thailand) stay in those countries to become used imports to New Zealand? These nations are net exporters of cars, so whatever trickles on to the Japanese home market will be a smaller percentage of that 48. How many are white—we don’t have that statistic, but, as I noted, it’s certainly not reflected in the cars on our roads. Now, if we’re talking Tahiti, where there are a lot of white cars, then that’s another story—and that is likely to do with white reflecting light in a hot climate. As this is a foreign-owned newspaper group, then perhaps the author does not live in New Zealand, or if he does, maybe he hangs around taxi ranks a lot.
   Let’s go a bit further: ‘Statistics gathered by Axalta Coating Sytems, a leading global supplier of liquid and powder coatings, showed that worldwide 37 per cent of all new vehicles built during 2016 were painted white, which was up two percentage points on 2015’ and ‘All this leads to the next obvious question: why are all these cars painted white? / It may be because that’s what the manufacturers want.’
   From what I can tell, this article was cobbled together from two sets of statistics. A bit of research wouldn’t have been remiss. However, it is a sign of the times, and even we’re guilty of taking a release at face value to get news out. But the result on Stuff just doesn’t make much sense.
   James Newburrie, a car enthusiast and IT security specialist, has a far more reasonable answer to the high number of silver (and dull-coloured, which includes white) cars, which he gave me permission to quote in May 2016:

Car colours are fairly well correlated with consumer confidence. In an environment where consumer confidence is high, regular cars are likely to be available in all sorts of bright and lurid colours (purple, green, yellow, etc). As consumer confidence tanks, people start to think more about resale value and they chose more “universal” colours (the kind of colours no one hates: Silver, conservative blues, etc).
   Cars directed at young people tend to be cheaper and maintain strong colours throughout the cycle – but to keep costs down they tend to stay around red, black, white, blue and silver, perhaps with one “girly” colour if it is a small car. Cars directed to financially secure people as second cars, like sports cars for instance, tend to be more vibrantly coloured, because your buying into the dream.
   So, in the 1950s while the economy was good, people bought cars in bright colours with lots of colours, the oil crisis comes along and they go to white and beige, the 80s come along and we all vomit from car colours, the recession we had to have leads to boredom, then everything is awesome again and you can buy a metallic purple Falcon, or a metallic orange commodore – then the great recession and we’re all bored to death again.
   Consumer confidence probably is just starting to recover now. If history is any indication, there will be a point where people just go “oh screw worrying” and then they will see that other people aren’t worried anymore and they’ll say “screw worrying” etc … and we will snap back.

   Follow that up with what car dealers are now selling, and bingo, you might have a serviceable article.

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Welcome to Vivaldi


Earlier this week, I installed Vivaldi browser, and decided to make it my default after reading CEO Jon von Tetzchner’s blog post about the potentially corrupt practice of suspending his company’s Adwords campaign after he was critical of Google.
   I have resisted browsers made from Chromium because I was never sure how much went back to Google, but seeing von Tetzchner’s honest blog post about Google’s alleged misdeed made me think that Vivaldi would likely look after my interests as a netizen.
   It wasn’t the only reason, mind. Firefox, and before that, Cyberfox (a 64-bit Firefox that had been my default for quite some time) had begun eating memory on my computer. The memory leak would still happen after I got rid of many extensions, and even on safe mode, Firefox took up a lot more space than I expected. Firefox had been having issues with certain ads from some networks for months, too, resulting in script errors.
   It didn’t take much time for Firefox to chew through 6 Gbyte, freezing other programs that I relied on, and crashing Windows altogether. It happened right after I installed a Crucial SSD that I bought from Atech Computers on Cuba Street, but fortunately I didn’t blame it on the new gadget. Logic prevailed and I discovered the culprit, though an upgrade to Universal Media Server didn’t help either: 6.7 is poorer than 6.5, confusing video files for JPEGs and forgetting what had been recently played. (Like Windows 10, which regularly forgets settings, modern software seems to have a memory poorer than its users.)
   A screen shot of the Windows 10 Task Manager shows just how much memory Firefox ate in around 10 minutes, whereas at this point Vivaldi had been on for quite some time.

   It mirrors the experience I once had with Chrome, which handled memory and web pages so poorly that I began calling it the ‘“Aw, snap!” browser’ because of its regular crashes. The same problem that cemented my use of Firefox (and Waterfox and Cyberfox) has now happened to Firefox, forcing me to look for an alternative.
   First indications are that Vivaldi is a well made product, with a built-in screen-shooting feature and notes. There are some things that are harder to get to, such as a menu where I can customize which cookies should be blocked (I like living in a YouTube-comment-less world; I feel my IQ is preserved as a result), but overall I’ve managed to get myself the right extensions to mimic what I used to do on Firefox. I’ve also switched off the Google phishing and malware protection setting, for obvious reasons, blocked a bunch of cookies from dodgy big US tech firms (Google among them), and done the ad opt-outs.
   It might be marginally quicker, though if I was just interested in speed, Blaze beats Vivaldi and Firefox hands-down, and has a smaller memory footprint. However, a browser is not just for pleasure for me; if it were, then maybe this blog post would have been about another browser altogether. I’ve downloaded Blaze for my phone, and I’ll try it out soon.
   I wonder if this is a longer-term change. I remember beginning surfing on Netscape 1, and if I recall correctly, 1·2 had just come out so I actually began browsing in colour. Netscape stayed good till 4·7, and 6 was bloatware and truly awful. I switched to Internet Explorer 5 at this point, before moving to Maxthon (when it had an IE core, but its own interface). Firefox had issues back then with typography, preventing me from switching, but as it matured to v. 3, I went over and wasn’t disappointed. Chrome also had typographic issues for a long time.
   I invested a lot of time troubleshooting Firefox with the devs over the years, so I don’t make this move lightly. But there comes a point when a piece of software becomes impractical to keep. Firefox hadn’t changed much on the surface yet when it forces two hard resets a day, you have to make a hard call.
   If it weren’t for von Tetzchner’s blog post, I mightn’t have made the decision to use his company’s browser quite so readily. But it is a good product, even at v. 1·11. Vivaldi has obviously invested into making a decent browser from day one, and it’s not just for technologists and power users, which some seem to think. The fact it works better than Firefox should automatically make it appealing to the bulk of users, and if its CEO isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade when it comes to Google, the general public should be impressed.
   But, as we’ve seen, an honourable stand doesn’t always mean success: Duck Duck Go hasn’t overtaken an increasingly suspect Google, and people still flock to Facebook for social networking despite that platform’s privacy gaffes and unanswered questions about its forced downloads. I only hope that Vivaldi stays the course because the public deserves a product that hasn’t come from a morally questionable source.

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After years, the tech press catches on about Facebook’s inflated user numbers


In 2014, I began warning that Facebook’s user numbers were false, and I also began saying that at some point, the site would boast more people than there were online users on Earth. (In fact, I said this very thing again earlier this week, ironically on a friend’s Facebook, above.)
   I couldn’t see how the site could cite more than one thousand million users, given that by that point, the majority of the “users” I saw on the site joining my groups were bots. I made the warning again last year.
   Now that Facebook has done something about the bots, or at least put mechanisms in place where we can identify them more readily, I’ve been seeing falls in user numbers in groups.
   Finally, in 2017, the tech press catches on, even though if in 2014 you could find over 250 bots a night, you should have been suspicious of any user numbers Facebook was claiming.
   Marketwatch notes:

   Recently, Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser was intrigued by a trade publication study in Australia that said Facebook FB, +0.80% was claiming to reach 1.7 million more 16- to 39-year olds than actually existed in the country, according to Australian census data.
   In reproducing the study for the U.S., Wieser said Facebook’s Ads Manager claims it can potentially reach 41 million 18- to 24-year-olds, 60 million 25- to 34-year-olds, and 61 million 35- to 49-year-olds. The problem arises when Wieser pulls up U.S. Census data from a year ago, showing 31 million 18- to 24-year-olds, 45 million 25- to 34-year-olds, and 61 million 35- to 49-year-olds.

   Facebook’s response:

In a statement, a Facebook spokeswoman said that its estimates “are based on a number of factors, including Facebook user behaviors, user demographics, location data from devices, and other factors.”
   “They are not designed to match population or census estimates,” Facebook said.

   That’s right, Facebook’s numbers are not designed to match population estimates.
   Then what on earth are they designed to match?
   This is the tip of the iceberg, because the fact the site is so overrun with bots that Facebook does nothing about could be connected to why thousands are being falsely accused of malware, and why the site regularly loses basic functions for certain users (e.g. being able to like or comment). If bots are taking up all these resources, and there must be plenty given that the user numbers are so far from reality, then where does that leave legitimate users?
   I say these problems have been going on for years, but good on Mr Wieser for blowing the lid on the made-up figures, and to Wallace Witkowski of Marketwatch for covering it finally.

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Google collects more enemies—we haven’t been critical enough of it


My complaints about Google over the years—and the battles I’ve had with them between 2009 and 2014—are a matter of record on this blog. It appears that Google has been making enemies who are much more important than me, and in this blog post I don’t mean the European Union, who found that the big G had been abusing its monopoly powers by giving its own properties priority placement in its own search results. (The EU, incidentally, had the balls to fine Google €2,420 million, or 2·5 per cent of Google’s revenues, unlike various US states’ attorneys-general a few years ago, who hit them with a $17 million bill, or four hours’ income for Google.)
   It’s Jon von Tetzchner, the co-founder and CEO of Vivaldi, who blogged on Monday how Google hasn’t been able to ‘resist the misuse of power.’
   Von Tetzchner was formerly at Opera, so he has had a lot of time in the tech world. Opera has been around longer than Google, and it was the first browser to incorporate Google search.
   As you’ve read over the years, I’ve reported on Google’s privacy breaches, its false accusations of malware on our sites, its favouring big sites over little ones in News, and (second-hand) the hacking of Iphones to gather user data. Google tax-dodging, meanwhile, has been reported elsewhere.
   It appears Google suspended Vivaldi’s Adwords campaigns without warning, and the timing is very suspicious.
   Right after von Tetzchner’s thoughts on Google’s data-gathering were published in Wired, all of Vivaldi’s Google Adwords campaigns were suspended, and Google’s explanations were vague, unreasonable and contradictory.
   Recently there were also revelations that Google had pressured a think-tank to fire someone critical of the company, according to The New York Times. Barry Lynn, ousted from the New America Foundation for praising the EU’s fine, accused the Foundation for placing Google’s money (it donates millions) ahead of its own integrity. Google denies the charge. He’s since set up Citizens Against Monopoly.
   It’s taken over half a decade for certain quarters to wake up to some of the things I’ve been warning people about. Not that long ago, the press was still praising Google Plus as a Facebook-killer, something I noted from the beginning would be a bad idea. It seems the EU’s courage in fining Google has been the turning point in forcing some to open their eyes. Until then, people were all too willing to drink the Google Kool-Aid.
   And we should be aware of what powerful companies like Google are doing.
   Two decades ago, my colleague Wally Olins wrote Trading Identities: Why Countries and Companies Are Taking on Each Other’s Roles. There, he noted that corporations were adopting behaviours of nations and vice versa. Companies needed to get more involved in social responsibility as they became more powerful. We are in an era where there are powerful companies that exert massive influences over our lives, yet they are so dominant that they don’t really care whether they are seen as a caring player or not. Google clearly doesn’t in its pettiness over allegedly targeting Vivaldi, and Facebook doesn’t as it gathers data and falsely accuses its own users of having malware on their machines.
   On September 1, my colleague Euan Semple wrote, ‘As tools and services provided by companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon become key parts of the infrastructure of our lives they, and their respective Chief Executives, exert increasing influence on society.
   ‘How we see ourselves individually and collectively is shaped by their products. Our ability to do things is in our hands but their control. How we educate ourselves and understand the world is steered by them. How we stay healthy, get from one place to another, and even feed and clothe ourselves is each day more dependent on them.
   ‘We used to rely on our governments to ensure the provision of these critical aspects of our lives. Our governments are out of their depth and floundering.
   ‘Are we transitioning from the nation state to some other way of maintaining and supporting our societies? How do we feel about this? Is it inevitable? Could we stop it even if we wanted?’
   The last paragraph takes us beyond the scope of this blog post, but we should be as critical of these companies as we are of our (and others’) governments, and, the European Commission excepting, I don’t think we’re taking their actions quite seriously enough.

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Posted in branding, business, culture, internet, marketing, media, social responsibility, technology, USA | 1 Comment »