Notebook

Can’t have it both ways

The brilliant Ed Luce on the damage Trump is doing to American democracy:

“The limits to what Mr Trump can do lie not within himself but in the reactions of other people. So far, too many elected Republicans have acquiesced with the fraudulent postal ballot line, which makes no logical sense. The Republican party gained or held seats in many of the swing states that are in question. Many Republicans celebrating their wins are thus simultaneously questioning the ballots that pushed them over the finishing line. They cannot have it both ways.”

I disagree with Ed on that last point. The Republicans have shown us, time and time again, they can very much have it both ways. That’s what makes this whole farce so very alarming.

Bird of the Year 2020

“I’m not sure what kind of person could do it, but I like to assume that it’s somebody who just really loved native birds.”

— Laura Keown, spokeswoman for New Zealand’s Bird of the Year competition, on discovery of a rigged vote. The winner was the kiwi pukupuku. Or was it…?

Writing tool

I’m a sucker for any piece of software or hardware that promotes distraction-free writing. This appeared on my feed today:

Astrohaus’s Freewrite Traveler

“The Freewrite Traveler is a portable writing tool that looks like a miniature laptop but removes all internet-related writing distractions. It comes with writing software and only enough Wi-Fi access to back up documents.”

The premise is terrific — a little keyboard and attached screen that allows writing and nothing else. Sadly, it’s $600, a price so absurd I can’t believe its makers bothered to bring it to market. That’s not close to the sum of its parts, nor the quality of its IP. And besides, in solving one problem with writing — distractions — it abandons another: comfort. The keyboard is 60% size, meaning it does away with the arrow keys, and bunches your fingers together space smaller than the average laptop. The small keyboard means you must use shortcuts to shift your cursor around the document, an unnecessary hassle for anyone who knows writing is as much about tweaking as it is typing.

And besides, I’ve long maintained the key to a good writing machine isn’t necessarily in removing all unrelated functionality. Like many people, I’m often wowed at how productive I can be when on a flight — though I’m convinced that’s due to shit internet rather than no internet. It’s there if I need to look something up, a single solitary fact, but it’s an internet stripped of its addictive richness of video, images and chatter.

I want a device that allows me to set strict parameters — such as typing only, throttled/text only internet — that can only be changed when I restart the machine.

Work rate

“She’s done more than a story a day, on average, and stories with her byline have accounted for hundreds of millions of page views this year alone. That’s more than anyone else at The Times.”

— Ben Smith, the New York Times’s media columnist, writing about Maggie Haberman. Something tells me there’s plenty of reporting on Trump to come yet…

Gummed up

In Derry, N.H., a bit of hand sanitizer briefly gummed up a ballot reader on Election Day.

— via the New York Time’s election live blog, following an election day free of any significant technological hiccups, unless you count the fact we still don’t know who won.

Humans win this round

Walmart has ended its experiment with a shelf-scanning robot it had tried out in around 500 stores. The Bossa Nova Robotics machine crawled down the aisles and logged price tag details, stocking and so on. From the Wall Street Journal:

Walmart ended the partnership because it found different, sometimes simpler solutions that proved just as useful, said people familiar with the situation. As more shoppers flock to online delivery and pickup because of Covid-19 concerns, Walmart has more workers walking the aisles frequently to collect online orders, gleaning new data on inventory problems, said some of these people. The retailer is pursuing ways to use those workers to monitor product amounts and locations, as well as other automation technology, according to the people familiar with the situation.

It may be tempting to paint this as a setback for robotics in the grocery space — but I’d caution against that. The Bossa Nova machine — which I saw for myself at a Walmart in Bentonville, Arkanas — was an inelegant solution. It was slow, stopped dead at the mere sign of interruption, and was, to put it simply, just in the way — whether for customers walking around, or human workers trying to get at the shelves.

Robotics in groceries means rethinking the store itself, not designing robots to replicate human behaviour. Here’s a much more likely scenario from Massachusetts-based Alphabot, which is also working with Walmart:

Pre-election nerves

A cyberattack in Louisana, targeting small government offices, in the weeks leading up to the election:

The situation in Louisiana follows a similar case in Washington state, according to a cybersecurity consultant familiar with the matter, where hackers infected some government offices with a type of malware known for deploying ransomware, which locks up systems and demands payment to regain access.

A troubling pattern, though one that likely has little do with the election. The disgracefully outdated infrastructure found in government IT across the US (and indeed most of the world) has been to blame for largely untargeted attacks taking down public sector networks. Last year, I reported on a crippling attack on Baltimore.

But that’s not to say this story, and others like it, shouldn’t add to our concerns about the integrity of this upcoming election. The discussion around security usually focuses on the voting machines themselves. But experts will tell you the concern lies with access to voter databases. A ransomware attack could mean heavy disruption. It wouldn’t change votes, it would just slow down an already overburdened system. Targeted or not, the end result is the same.

Close race for Prop 22

Keep a close eye on the vote for Prop 22, the gig economy’s fight to keep its workers as contractors. It’s arguably more interesting here, in deep blue California, than the presidential contest. Latest polling, via San Jose Mercury News:

The poll found that 46% of likely voters said they would vote yes [pro Uber/gig economy cos] on the measure, while 42% said they would vote no and 12% said they were undecided. In a sign that the blitz of ad spending is having at least some impact, a mid-September poll on the measure found only 39% of voters on the yes side and 36% in opposition, with a quarter undecided. Republicans are more likely to support Prop 22, while Democrats are more likely to reject it. And while voters in most regions of the state support it, the poll shows the measure trailing by 20 points in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It needs 50% to pass. The spending blitz — $200m for the “yes” campaign, versus $20m for “no” — should see it home, if precedent is to go by. The five previous mega-money battles in the state all followed the cash’s wishes. The limited polling we have suggests the Yes campaign has been picking up many of the undecideds in the past couple of weeks. Via Ballotpedia:

(With apologies if that looks bad on mobile)

But, there are nerves at Uber over the wording on the ballot. For less informed voters, it may be the first description they’ll see — and it paints an ugly picture. It reads: “EXEMPTS APP-BASED TRANSPORTATION AND DELIVERY COMPANIES FROM PROVIDING EMPLOYEE BENEFITS TO CERTAIN DRIVERS.”

Linktree

TechCrunch reports $10.7m in Series A funding for Linktree, a company that exists partly due to Facebook’s infuriating disrespect for the open web.

Linktree allows users to set up a simple, mobile-friendly list of links to their various personal spaces on the web, be it social network, personal website, YouTube channel, merchandise shop, whatever. It’s a smart response to the likes of Instagram refusing to allow links to the outside web to be efficiently shared within its posts. It also serves as as a useful buffer for sending users to places not necessarily endorsed by the networks they’re communicating on. TikTok, for instance, is much more comfortable with TikTok > Linktree > OnlyFans than a direct link.

Eight million users, the company says — a modest start but one that will grow. Obvious but delicate monetisation awaits (they’ve already started a $6 per month “pro” plan). Linktree isn’t alone in the space. Carrd, a competitor, tilts more towards business-creative. Its CEO, “AJ”, summed up the model nicely in an interview with the Verge: “I just need a site with links to all my crap.”

I like this attitude. I think it points to a trend among newer internet users to using a spread of online tools and destinations, rather than flocking to one and giving it immense power.

‘Sense of significance’

“While debunking or fact-checking are valuable, they aren’t going to move someone who feels a sense of significance through absorbing and promoting esoteric but baseless theories.”

Travis View, host of QAnon Anonymous podcast, speaking to NYT’s Charlie Warzel

This is the heart of the matter when it comes to conspiracy theories and today’s distrust in media.

Two forces at play. Number one: the sense of belonging in our isolated world is a powerful force, whether it’s flat earthers, QAnon fanatics, angry “gamergaters”, whoever. Many of these people would have previously gravitated towards sports or other interest-based communities — they’re now instead finding their social needs fulfilled (in a flawed sense) by conspiratorial groups. The social web has driven “fandom” to dark places.

Number two: Once the collective filter is in place — “the media is lying to you” — every fact presented can be written off incredibly easily. Experts become the “Deep State”, opposition protests become Soros-funded. These people don’t lose touch with reality, they just put a filter on it that strengthens their own position. Whenever the media makes a genuine mistake, as can happen, the assuredness becomes even more entrenched.

DoorDash Superstar

DoorDash has invested in Burma Bites, a spin-off from Burma Superstar, the much-loved Bay Area mini chain. From SFChronicle’s Justin Phillips:

DoorDash declined to specify how much money it is investing in Burma Bites, but Georgie Thomas, head of regional merchant partnerships at the San Francisco delivery company, said in an email that COVID-19 “has accelerated the need for merchants” to establish their online presence in the Bay Area. Thomas said investing in Burma Bites is a way for the company to take its mission of increasing delivery sales for restaurants during the pandemic one step further.

It’s the latest move from DoorDash to put down some more brick and mortar roots — this follows opening its own grocery dark stores, and setting up a dark kitchen down near its HQ in Redwood City.

High risk

Early on in the pandemic I wrote a piece that described Amazon as America’s new Red Cross. A story I came across today underlines that point. How many other ecommerce players make the news when deliveries are slow? From CBS LA:

Residents in two Ventura County cities say their Amazon Prime service has suddenly become sluggishly slow without explanation.

Rosalinda Rodriguez of Moorpark is paralyzed from the chest down. Though she uses a wheelchair to get around, she relies on delivery services like Amazon for convenience and safety.

“I am at high risk if I do contract coronavirus because I do have a spinal cord injury,” Rodriguez said.

She pays $119 a year for an Amazon Prime membership so she can get her orders in one to two days. But about a month ago, her amazon deliveries suddenly slowed.

“So now if I try to place an order it will take anywhere from seven to 10 days,” she said.

There was a time when “seven to 10 days” was something of an ecommerce miracle. Now, anything beyond one or two days, and Amazon is held up as putting people’s health — life! — at risk. Amazon wouldn’t tell CBS LA why deliveries had slowed, but did say it was seeking to increase capacity in the area.