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?

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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.

What happens to Huawei without Google

AndroidCentral’s Andrew Martonik with an insightful break down of what will happen to Huawei if, as is currently the case, it cannot work with Google:

Many companies have tried to make Android devices without the Play Store, and while there are a number of success stories across the technology space in general, there’s nothing but a long line of failures when it comes to smartphones. It simply isn’t reasonable in 2019 for any company to launch a phone outside of China without Google services and expect it to actually sell. It can have the best cameras, hardware, specs and core operating system we’ve ever seen, but unless it has Google’s apps, and crucially the Play Store, effectively zero people will be interested in buying it. I’m sure Huawei can (and does) make a fine phone with all of its own services — but if it intends to compete in a market filled with 100% of phones having access to Google services and the Play Store, it has to have them as well.

It almost goes without saying that this is terrible news for Google as well. Huawei is the fastest growing smartphone maker in the world – shipments are up 50%, year-on-year, at a time when the overall market is in decline. Google wants to be on those phones.

The ‘China is the real issue’ argument

“While people are concerned with the size and power of tech companies, there’s also a concern in the United States with the size and power of Chinese companies, and the realization that those companies are not going to be broken up.”

— Sheryl Sandberg, speaking to CNBC

Where Sandberg will struggle with this is that Facebook might end up arguing against its future self. The company’s newest initiatives (payments being the biggest) come straight from the playbook of WeChat, the Chinese platform that makes accusations that Facebook is a “monopoly” look laughable.

Meanwhile, the fastest growing social media app of the past year in the US has been TikTok, a company now owned by China’s Bytedance. Millions of teens are obsessed with it, and political content is starting to make its mark. Where will the accountability come from? I can’t imagine Congress will be too successful in tempting Chinese executives to hearings.

CNBC: Facebook finding it harder to hire

CNBC reports:

Among top schools, such as Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and Ivy League universities, Facebook’s acceptance rate for full-time positions offered to new graduates has fallen from an average of 85% for the 2017-2018 school year to between 35% and 55% as of December, according to former Facebook recruiters. The biggest decline came from Carnegie Mellon University, where the acceptance rate for new recruits dropped to 35%.

I spoke to some activist Facebook investors recently. Their big fear isn’t that the current scandals pose an immediate threat to Facebook’s profits, or that they won’t be able curtail some of the platform’s biggest problems. It’s that while the firm is busy solving those issues, and trying to restore the company’s tattered reputation, it’ll be falling behind on whatever comes next.

There can be several warning signs. Not being able to hire key talent is one such canary in the coal mine.