Archive for the ‘technology’ category


Forced to take prime-time nostalgia trips

20.07.2018


‘There’s an old Polish proverb …’ I believe it’s ‘Reality television can’t stop the motorways in Warsaw from getting icy.’

I’ve always known what sort of telly I liked, and often that was at odds with what broadcasters put on. In the 1970s, my tastes weren’t too dissimilar from the general public’s, but as the years went on, they diverged from what New Zealand programmers believed we should watch.
   Shows I liked would prematurely disappear (Dempsey & Makepeace), only to return very late at night a decade later. Some only ever appeared late at night (Hustle), then vanish (in New Zealand, seasons 5 to 8 have never appeared on a terrestrial channel, and they have also never been released on DVD).
   We had a British expat visitor on Wednesday. He arrived here in 2008, and had no idea that TV1 had once been the home of British programming, and TV2 was where the Hollywood stuff went.
   By the late 2000s and early 2010s, I was watching either DVDs or finding a way to get to BBC Iplayer et al, because less and less of what was on offer had any appeal. We had boxed sets of Mission: Impossible, The Persuaders, and others.
   When the country switched to Freeview, I couldn’t be bothered getting a decoder. We were fine with online. Eventually, I did buy a TV set with Freeview, but only because the previous one conked out.
   On Thursday night, it became very apparent just how bad television had become here.
   Every English-language and Te Reo Māori terrestrial channel had unscripted drama, i.e. “reality” shows, or the occasional panel show or real-life event, other than Prime, showing the MacGyver remake.
   Who in the 1980s would have predicted that MacGyver would be the only scripted series on air during prime-time here between 7.30 and 8.30 p.m.?
   I realize the economics of television have changed, and there’s no such thing as a TVNZ drama department any more.
   Shows which might have had the whole country watching would be lucky to pull in a quarter of the audience today.
   But it is a sad reflection that the televised equivalent of the weekly gossip rag is what rates. The effort needed to produce quality drama is expensive, and not enough of us support it.
   I also imagine scripted Hollywood shows are cheaper than British ones, hence what we see on our screens is American—and why some kids these days now speak with American accents. Yet to some New Zealanders, Chinese-language signs on Auckland high streets are a bigger threat to the local culture. Really?
   In this household, we vote with our attention spans—and over the last month that has meant DVDs of Banacek and, in true 50 shades of Grade fashion, The Protectors. Sometimes, you feel it’s 1972 in this house—but at least the telly was better then.

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The EU lands Google with another fine—but will Google change?

19.07.2018


Zain Ali

The EU gets it when it comes to fines. Rather than the paltry US$17 million certain US states’ attorneys-general stung Google with some years ago for hacking Iphones, they’ve now fined the search engine giant €4,340 million, on top of its earlier fine of €2,420 million over anticompetitive behaviour.
   That US$17 million, I mentioned at the time, amounted to a few hours’ income at Google.
   As the EU’s competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager noted on Twitter, ‘Fine of €4,34 bn to @Google for 3 types of illegal restrictions on the use of Android. In this way it has cemented the dominance of its search engine. Denying rivals a chance to innovate and compete on the merits. It’s illegal under EU antitrust rules. @Google now has to stop it’.
   Google forces manufacturers to preinstall Chrome if they want to install Google Play. The EU also notes that virtually all Android devices have Google Search preinstalled, and most users never download competing apps, furthering Google’s dominance of search. Google pays manufacturers and cellphone networks to preinstall the Google search app on their phones, and prevented manufacturers from installing Google apps if their versions of Android were not approved by Google.
   DuckDuckGo, my search engine of choice, welcomed the decision. It noted:

   This last Tweet is particularly damning about Google’s deceptive practices (or, as I call them, ‘business as usual’ for Google):

   That’s consumer confusion on top of restrictive contracts that promote market dominance and anti-competitive behaviour.
   This is a very petty company, one that shut down Vivaldi’s Adwords account after its CEO gave some interviews about privacy.
   Of course I’m biased, and I make no apology for it—and anyone who has followed my journey on this blog from being a Google fan to a Google-sceptic over the last decade and a half will know just how Google’s own misleading and deceptive conduct helped changed my mind.
   Google’s argument, that many Android manufacturers installed rival apps, clearly fell on deaf ears, and understandably so. While I’m sure Android experts can think up examples, as a regular person who occasionally looks at phones, even those ones with rival apps still ship with the Google ones. In other words, there’s simply more bloat. I’ve yet to see one in this country ship without a Chrome default and Google Play installed, often in such a way that you can’t delete it, and Google Services, without getting your phone rooted.
   I did read this in the Murdoch Press and thought it was a bit of a laugh, but then maybe my own experience isn’t typical:

The impact of any changes mandated by the EU decision on Google’s ability to target ads to users—and to its profitability—is an open question. The two apps targeted in the EU decision, Google’s search and its Chrome browser, are extremely popular in their own right. Consumers are likely to seek them out from an app store even if they weren’t preinstalled on the phone, said Tarun Pathak, an analyst at research firm Counterpoint.

   I just don’t believe they would, and I made it a point to get a phone that would, happily, have neither. By buying a Chinese Android phone, I escape Google’s tracking; by seeking out the Firefox browser, I get to surf the way I want. That choice is going to create competition, something that Google is worried about.
   The Wall Street Journal also states that despite the earlier fine, Google’s shopping rivals said little or nothing has actually happened.
   With all of Google’s misdeeds uncovered on this blog over the years, I’m really not surprised.
   The EU is, at the very least, forcing some to examine just how intrusive Google is. It might soon discover how uncooperative Google can be.

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The decline continues: Facebook pages no longer accept YouTube links

18.07.2018

Many of you know that I no longer use Facebook for my personal stuff. However, there are still work things to do, although I’ve noticed Facebook pages get more and more useless by the day. Here are the stats for my Facebook page:

   Strangely, I can see the stats on a page that’s not even mine, and for which I have no role:

   And now, you can no longer post links to YouTube videos on to pages. Facebook just gets stuck, trying to ‘import’ the link. I’ve tried this from different accounts and had to give up, opting to upload directly into Facebook, which is probably their (unannounced) plan anyway.

   YouTube’s uploading took ages, too. Or, rather, it took ages to find an uploading link. Dailymotion and Vimeo have, by far, superior interfaces.
   Yet, ladies and gentlemen, these are among the top three websites in the world. You truly have to wonder why, in the face of overwhelming evidence of tracking in one case, and privacy breaches in another.
   Facebook had been pretty hopeless as a traffic referrer anyway, and I wouldn’t be surprised if others woke up to the fact it is worsening as a business platform.

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A three-decade time capsule hanging on my door

15.07.2018

There was an Epson bag hanging from the back of my bedroom door, hidden by larger bags. I opened it up to discover brochures from my visit to a computer fair in 1989 (imaginatively titled Computing ’89), and that the bag must have been untouched for decades.
   I’ve no reason to keep its contents (if you want it, message me before Thursday, as the recycling comes the morning after), but I wanted to make some scans of the exhibitors’ catalogue for nostalgia.
   Let’s start with the cover. It’s sponsored by Bits & Bytes. Kiwis over a certain age will remember this as the computer magazine in this country.

You can tell this is a product of the 1980s by the typesetting: someone couldn’t be bothered buying the condensed version of ITC Avant Garde Gothic, so they made do with electronically condensing Computers and Communications. In fact, they’re a bit light on condensed fonts, full stop, as they’ve done the same with the lines set in Futura.
   While the practice is still around, the typeface choices mark this one out as a product of its time.
   Inside is a fascinating article on the newfangled CD-ROM being a storage medium. Those cuts of Helvetica and Serifa are very 1980s, pre-desktop publishing. It should be noted that Dr Jerry McFaul remained with the USGS, where he had been since 1974, till his retirement. The fashions are interesting here, as is ITC Fenice letting us know that he’s speaking at the Terrace Regency Hotel, a hotel I have no recollection of whatsoever. I can only tell you that it must have been on the Terrace.
   The other tech speakers have a similar look to the visiting American scientist, all donning suits—something their counterparts in 2018 probably wouldn’t today. In fact, the suit seems to be a thing of the past for a lot of events, and I often feel I’m the oldster when I wear mine.
   The article itself makes a strong case for CD-ROM storage, being more space-saving and better for the environment: it’s interesting to know that the ‘depletion of the ozone layer’ was a concern then, though 30 years later we have been pretty appalling at doing anything about it.



   The second article in the catalogue of any note was on PCGlobe, supplied to the magazine on 5¼-inch diskette.
   Bits & Bytes would have run the catalogue as part of the main magazine, and did a larger run of these inner pages, back in the day when printing was less flexible.
   It’s a fascinating look back at how far we’ve come (on the tech) and how far we haven’t come (on the environment). Next year, we’ll be talking about 1989 as ‘30 years ago,’ yet we live in an age where we’re arguing over Kylie Jenner’s wealth. Progress?

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Posted in design, interests, media, New Zealand, publishing, technology, typography, USA, Wellington | No Comments »


How Silicon Valley and the Soviet Union are alike

07.07.2018


Anton Troynikov’s banner on his Twitter account.

I really enjoy Yakov Smirnoff’s old jokes about the Soviet Union, and the Russian reversal that is often associated with him. In the 21st century, I’ve used the odd one, such as, ‘In Russia, Olympics game you!’ and ‘In America, internet watch you!’. I’m sure I’ve done wittier ones, but I’ve yet to post, ‘In America, president Tweet you!’
   Today on Twitter, Anton Troynikov, while not doing exactly the above, had a bunch of Tweets about how similar the USSR was to Silicon Valley today. Although he’s not pointing out opposites, it’s humour in the same spirit. In Tweeting, he outdid the few modernized Russian reversals I’ve used over the years.

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If you thought Facebook wasn’t creepy enough

01.07.2018

How much creepier can Facebook get? How about a patent filing where signals hidden in TV broadcasts will activate the mic on your phone, the recording sent to Facebook?
   Facebook claims that it might want this patent, but it will never use this technology.
   A bit like how Facebook claims it wouldn’t kick drag kings and queens off its service, or how Facebook claims that you can set your advertising preferences, or how Facebook claims that you can turn off ad preference tracking, or how Facebook claims your computer has malware. Wake up, people, Facebook claims means Facebook lies. Cambridge Analytica has nothing on Facebook.

Oh, if you’re blind, then Facebook are arseholes, too. (Hat tip to Holly Jahangiri.)

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Why you shouldn’t build projects on Google Cloud (or, why are we still having these conversations?)

01.07.2018

This story on Medium, about Google Cloud, is all too familiar to me (hat tip to Donkey). It mirrors my experiences with Google in 2009 and 2013.
   A company monitoring solar plants and wind turbines had Google pull their account twice. The Googlebot falsely claimed there was suspicious activity, with Google threatening to delete their account in three days. If their CFO, whose credit card was linked to the account, hadn’t replied in time, that would have been millions of dollars down the gurgler.
   The company’s warning: don’t build stuff on Google Cloud. Apparently AWS is safer.
   They were very lucky, because Google’s forums are littered with people whose accounts have also been unilaterally terminated, and they were never recovered. Some have lost income streams. Most went through the “proper channels”.
   My experience in helping a friend recover his blog nearly a decade ago showed just how unreliable these channels were, with a Google forum volunteer going out of his way to be obstructive, because you dared question the big G. Most volunteers actually seem offended you questioned Google, such is their adherence to the cult.
   Mind you, I’m still waiting, three years later, for an explanation about why our Amazon Associates’ account, nearly two decades old, was unilaterally deleted. Amazon claimed six months ago that the matter had been ‘escalated’. Still waiting. Google, too, gets back to you initially, but escalation results in nought.
   When things go wrong, US Big Tech doesn’t work, does it? We’ve actively avoided Google for nearly a decade, and began posting warnings about Facebook around that time, too.
   Thank goodness for companies like Zoho: in the 2010s, Indian tech works better, and people take greater responsibility.

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As the most experienced long-video Instagrammer, welcome to the club

21.06.2018

It appears my friend Justin was spot on: I probably was part of a test group trialling longer Instagram videos since April.
   Today, Instagram announced that people could upload 10-minute videos, and an hour for those with big followings.
   This news article (hat tip to Cachalot Sang on Twitter) says there’ll be a new app called IGTV, although I’ve always just uploaded mine via regular Instagram. I haven’t cracked nine minutes yet, but I’ve uploaded videos in the high eights. Regular Instagram seemed to balk at doing anything too large. Also bear in mind—arguably from someone who has had more experience of this than anyone in Instagram-land—that these uploads take ages and can sometimes fail.
   Don’t be disappointed if your views are low, since Instagram only counts full views. I have videos still saying they have had zero views, yet I have likes and, in some cases, comments. Not everyone’s going to sit back and watch these in full.
   I had noticed that in the last week, my videos, all of which are over a minute, have successfully uploaded—up from the one in two ratio that I experienced when Instagram first gave me the ability to upload videos longer than one minute in April. No wonder, if the official announcement was made today: they probably began allowing all the big ones through.
   As the one user (that I know of) who has publicly been uploading videos of over a minute for nearly two months, welcome to the club. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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The end of US ’net neutrality: another step toward the corporate internet

11.06.2018

That’s it for ’net neutrality in the US. The FCC has changed the rules, so their ISPs can throttle certain sites’ traffic. They can conceivably charge more for Americans visiting certain websites, too. It’s not a most pessimistic scenario: ISPs have attempted this behaviour before.
   It’s another step in the corporations controlling the internet there. We already have Google biasing itself toward corporate players when it comes to news: never mind that you’re a plucky independent who broke the story, Google News will send that traffic to corporate media.
   The changes in the US will allow ISPs to act like cable providers. I reckon it could give them licence to monitor Americans’ traffic as well, including websites that they mightn’t want others to know they’re watching.
   As Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, puts it: ‘We’re talking about it being just a human right that my ability to communicate with people on the web, to go to websites I want without being spied on is really, really crucial.’
   Of course I have a vested interest in a fair and open internet. But everyone should. Without ’net neutrality, innovators will find it harder to get their creations into the public eye. Small businesses, in particular, will be hurt, because we can’t pay to be in the “fast lane” that ISPs will inevitably create for their favoured corporate partners. In the States, minority and rural communities will likely be hurt.
   And while some might delight that certain websites pushing political viewpoints at odds with their own could be throttled, they also have to remember that this can happen to websites that share their own views. If it’s an independent site, it’s likely that it will face limits.
   The companies that can afford to be in that “fast lane” have benefited from ’net neutrality themselves, but are now pulling the ladder up so others can’t climb it.
   It’s worth remembering that 80 per cent of Americans support ’net neutrality—they are, like us, a largely fair-minded people. However, the FCC is comprised of unelected officials. Their “representatives” in the House and Senate are unlikely, according to articles I’ve read, to support their citizens’ will.
   Here’s more on the subject, at Vox.
   Since China censors its internet, we now have two of the biggest countries online giving their residents a limited form of access to online resources.
   However, China might censor based on politics but its “Great Wall” won’t be as quick to block new websites that do some good in the world. Who knew? China might be better for small businesses trying to get a leg up than the United States.
   This means that real innovation, creations that can gain some prominence online, could take place outside the US where, hopefully, we won’t be subjected to similar corporate agenda. (Nevertheless, our own history, where left and right backed the controversial s. 92A of the Copyright Act, suggests our lawmakers can be malleable when money talks.)
   These innovations mightn’t catch the public’s imagination in quite the same way—the US has historically been important for getting them out there. Today, it got harder for those wonderful start-ups that I got to know over the years. Mix that with the US’s determination to put up trade barriers based on false beliefs about trade balances, we’re in for a less progressive (and I mean that in the vernacular, and not the political sense) ride. “The rest of the world” needs to pull together in this new reality and ensure their subjects still have a fair crack at doing well, breaking through certain parties’ desire to stunt human progress.
   Let Sir Tim have the last word, as he makes the case far more succinctly than I did above: ‘When I invented the web, I didn’t have to ask anyone for permission, and neither did America’s successful internet entrepreneurs when they started their businesses. To reach its full potential, the internet must remain a permissionless space for creativity, innovation and free expression. In today’s world, companies can’t operate without internet, and access to it is controlled by just a few providers. The FCC’s announcements today [in April 2017] suggest they want to step back and allow concentrated market players to pick winners and losers online. Their talk is all about getting more people connected, but what is the point if your ISP only lets you watch the movies they choose, just like the old days of cable?’

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It’s not a rumour: longer Instagram videos are already here

08.06.2018

I see the media (led by the Murdoch Press) have been reporting that Instagram plans to let people upload videos of an hour long. It’s a ‘rumour’ at the moment, apparently.
   As those of you who follow this blog know, I’ve been able to upload videos exceeding one minute since April, and one theory that Justin Bgoni, who’s the bursar at my Alma Mater, St Mark’s Church School, advanced when I mentioned it to him was that I must be part of a trial.
   That makes perfect sense and it shouldn’t be a surprise that someone with a great financial mind like Justin’s would conclude this. He says: we’re in New Zealand, it’s a small country, and there are probably 10,000 people who have been given the capability in advance. Soon, he theorized weeks ago, Instagram will roll it out to the general public. I think he’s right.
   I’ve so far fielded two questions from strangers on how I do this, and I tell them the truth: I’ve just been able to, and I was as surprised as anyone else.
   I don’t claim to have ‘special super power’ like this user does—and when I visited his Instagram, he doesn’t have a single video over a minute, so goodness knows what he’s talking about. (Having said that, I do like a lot of his uploads.) If you’re uploading 10 one-minute videos into a single post, that doesn’t count: almost anyone can do that, and it doesn’t take special powers, just patience.
   There is a limit for me, however. I’ve attempted four times to upload a 9′3″ video to Instagram, and have failed each time, so we can conclude that that’s too long. However, I have managed 8′37″ as of today, so the present maximum length on Instagram must be between the two times.
   I haven’t discovered too much more since I last posted on this topic, other than enjoying the freedom of having the greater length. (Instagram’s probably noted that, which is why the rumours have begun surfacing.) Engagement is still rather low on the long videos, for starters. Instagram only (rightly) counts full views, so there are videos with likes but 0 views recorded.
   It’s nice, once again, to be ahead of the ball when it comes to these technologies, just as I have been with Google and Facebook. The exception here is that it’s been a positive feature rather than the usual negative ones, though I realize that since it’s Instagram, it comes with a load of Facebook-linked privacy issues. Just today it fired through another alcohol ad despite my having turned them off in my settings, again underlining Facebook’s blatant dishonesty.
   Yet here I am, still using one of their services despite having mostly de-Facebooked (and de-Googled years before that). Like millions of others, I’m still a sucker because I continue to use a service they own.

Speaking of the Murdoch Press and Google, we (at work) actually deal with the former when it comes to advertising. Let that sink in for a moment: I trust Murdochs more than I trust Google when it comes to our users’ privacy. That’s saying something.

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