Smartphones might be making our skulls develop spikes

Zaria Gorvett, writing for BBC Future, on how a “curious spiky growth” on the back of the head, once a rare condition, is becoming increasingly common:

What the scientists found was striking. The spike was far more prevalent than they had expected, and also a lot more common in the youngest age group: one in four people aged 18-30 had the growth.

Why could this be? And should we be concerned?

Shahar thinks the spike explosion is down to modern technology, particularly our recent obsession with smartphones and tablets. As we hunch over them, we crane our necks and hold our heads forward. This is problematic, because the average head weighs around 10 pounds (4.5 kg) – about as much as a large watermelon.

Really puts a whole new meaning to the phrase “we saw a spike in user engagement”, doesn’t it?

Spielberg’s new TV show can only be watched after midnight

As people like to say these days: I am totally here for this. Steven Spielberg is working on a horror series for a curious new streaming platform called Quibi, and it will involve a particularly creative twist, Variety reports:

[Spielberg] wanted viewers to only be able to watch the program after midnight. Given that phones can track where it is at the moment — and keep tabs on when the sun rises and sets in its area — Katzenberg and Whitman challenged their engineers to come up with an idea for how to view the show when it’s spooky out.

The result: A clock will appear on phones, ticking down until sun sets in wherever that user is, until it’s completely gone. Then the clock starts ticking again to when the sun comes back up — and the show will disappear until the next night.

That’s… awesome? Really excited to see what he does with the idea. Quibi is due to launch next year, and is taking a different approach to production. Here’s how Variety describes it:

Short for “quick bites,” Quibi has raised $1 billion from investors for an April 2020 launch, with more funding to come, and is hoping to trigger a “third generation of film narrative,” following movies and TV. But don’t call it short form, Katzenberg said.

“What Quibi is doing, it’s not really short form,” he said. “We’re putting those sciences together. Chapters or act breaks that are 7 to 10 minutes long. They are specifically shot to be watched on the go. If you’re 25-35 years old, you get up and you’re on [a smartphone] for over five hours.”

I’m not sold on that as a separate service, but good luck to them, if only to see this post-midnight idea play out.

Getting back in when you’re locked out of WeChat

Even the BBC’s China correspondent — already a closely watched man, you’d imagine — was left more than a little unsettled by his latest experience with the Chinese surveillance state.

In this piece, Stephen McDonell details how, after posting, without captions, some pictures of a demonstration marking the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he was locked out of WeChat:

[W]hen I tried to log back in, a new message appeared: “This WeChat account has been suspected of spreading malicious rumours and has been temporarily blocked…”

That part isn’t surprising, to a point. What sends a bit of a chill, though, is what he has to do a day later in order to get back onto the service:

I was given time to try and log in again the next day after my penalty had been served.

When I did I had to push “agree and unblock” under the stated reason of “spread malicious rumours”.

So this rumour-monger clicked on “agree”.

Then came a stage I was not prepared for. “Faceprint is required for security purposes,” it said.

I was instructed to hold my phone up – to “face front camera straight on” – looking directly at the image of a human head. Then told to “Read numbers aloud in Mandarin Chinese”.

Not a database you’d want to be on.

What’s also concerning, at a time when we think about the power and reach of tech firms, is McDonnell’s point that he had little option but to go through the steps — it’s very difficult to live in China without using the app.

The Guardian on Google’s ‘white-collar sweatshop’

The Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong continues to stand up for the hidden tech working class, with a revealing piece about the contractors being used to power Google’s AI. She writes:

“It’s smoke and mirrors if anything,” said a current Google employee who, as with the others quoted in this story, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. “Artificial intelligence is not that artificial; it’s human beings that are doing the work.”

There’s a name for this: Ghost Work. I’m just working my way through a (so far) terrific book about it.

Craig Newmark on The MarkUp

The MarkUp, a tech publication mostly funded by Craig Newmark of Craigslist fame, has had a rocky start – its acclaimed editor Julia Angwin said a month ago that she was forced out, and criticised a change of mission at the publication which pledged to use data-driven journalism to hold tech firms accountable. Five more editorial staff followed her.

Today, Craig Newmark announced that Sue Gardner and Jeff Larson – the other two founders – had departed:

Coincidentally, I was at Newmark’s house today. I was there to interview him about his philanthropic efforts to save “the immune system” of democracy, as he puts it. (Journalism, in other words).

That interview will be on the BBC in various forms in due course, but here’s what he said about The MarkUp.

This evening, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Angwin is in talks to take over now that Gardner and Larson are out.

The Verge: Why the hell is the ‘race to 5G’ even a race?

Good point, well made by The Verge’s Nilay Patel. Why do people refer to the development and proliferation of 5G as a “race”?

[T]he stakes of this supposed race are wholly unclear. What happens if we win, besides telecom execs getting slightly richer? More importantly, what are the drawbacks to coming in second, or even third? Where is the list of specific negative outcomes of China building a 5G network a month, a year, or even five years before the United States? I’ve never seen it, and I keep asking about it.

Patel argues, convincingly, that the race is a construct – a way to create an atmosphere of urgency that means legislation is passed quicky, infrastructure is installed immediately, and consumers are charged as soon as possible:

This race is imaginary bullshit. It’s being foisted on us by huge telecom companies that know internet access is fundamentally a commodity and want something new to sell at high prices instead of competing to improve service and lower prices on the networks they have. After all, the United States “won” the “race” for LTE, but it bears repeating: our LTE networks are among the slowest in the world, and our prices among the highest. What did winning that race accomplish for the millions of people across the country that still can’t get a reliable LTE signal?

Judith Kerr, 1923-2019

Image result for the tiger who came to tea

My memories of Judith Kerr’s enchanting work are vivid. For a time, in our house, the tiger came to tea every day.

It was the first book I was able to read from start-to-finish unprompted, unassisted, and—this blew my mind—in my own head. Like so many around the world, The Tiger Who Came To Tea was the starting point for a lifetime of reading and writing.

May Judith rest in peace, and may her books ignite children’s imaginations forever.

Rise of Uber = dramatic decline in wheelchair accessibility

The SF Examiner’s Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez reports on a dramatic drop in the number of on-demand trips taken by wheelchair users in San Francisco — based on how many trips are subsidised by the city (which isn’t a perfect data source, but a solid starting point).

By on-demand, the report means any impromptu trip. In the past, that meant a taxi. Now, it means Uber or Lyft—except, it doesn’t:

In 2013 there were roughly 1,400 monthly subsidized wheelchair-ramp taxi rides, but by 2018 that number dropped to roughly 500 monthly requests. That’s not because there were fewer wheelchair users, or because those wheelchair users requested fewer rides, according to SFMTA. There simply weren’t enough taxi drivers available anymore after the rise of Uber and Lyft, with people left stranded.

The ride-share services have launched a few initiatives to solve the issue, the article notes, but legislators are now pushing for more transparency. They want to know how long people with wheelchairs have to wait to get an Uber/Lyft when compared to “normal” trip wait times.

The now more robust “wheelchair accessible vehicle” program, a partnership between Uber and MV Transportation, a national paratransit provider, is “still in its early stages,” however, “and it is not yet clear whether availability and response times are consistent enough, and comparable enough to service provided in nonaccessible vehicles, for riders who use wheelchairs to depend on it.”

EA shows off incredible hair render demo

EA has shown off a remarkable montage demonstrating the company’s advancements in realistically rendering hair within its game engine, Frostbite.

It instructed developers to work on “hair shading, scattering, smoothness and volume”, according to this piece on BBC News.

Here’s the result:

Wonderful. We’ve certainly come a long way since the early days of Fifa, when even the voluminous locks of David Seaman were rendered with all the subtlety of a mulleted lego figure:

Now that Frostbite has such extraordinary hair capabilities, may I suggest a classic team of great barnets in Fifa 20?

Image result for carlos valderrama

Affordable life isn’t a ‘gift’ to be applauded

On the one hand, Robert Smith’s choice to pay off the student debt of those in Morehouse College’s Class of 2019 is a remarkable act of generosity.

But, writes the New York Times Editorial Board, what it mostly does is act as a reminder of the massive failings that have led to today’s vast income inequalities, particularly in the US.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on online fundraising platform GoFundMe, the NYT writes:

The substitution of philanthropy for public policy is most glaring in the realm of health care, where it has become appallingly common for Americans to beg friends and strangers for the money necessary to pay for treatment. The fund-raising website GoFundMe estimates that it hosts about 250,000 fund-raisers for medical expenses each year. Over the past nine years, the site has processed about $5 billion in donations — about a third of which went toward medical expenses. The site’s chief executive has said that GoFundMe wasn’t developed as a substitute for health insurance, and he regrets the necessity. “We shouldn’t be the solution to a complex set of systemic problems,” he said. “They should be solved by the government working properly.”

I interviewed Rob Solomon, the chief executive of GoFundMe, earlier this year. He told me:

I wish GoFundMe didn’t need to be around to solve problems that shouldn’t exist. Everyone should have access to health care. I would love for there never to be another medical campaign on GoFundMe. But that’s not the reality we live in.