Does Silicon Valley care about journalism?

You’d certainly think so, by the way they’ve been talking lately. Yesterday, Google announced its initiative to fund local news by spending “many millions” on what are essentially grants to news orgs.

On Monday we heard how Apple thinks its News+ service would help sustain quality journalism.

And Facebook is, well, trying something or other.

But are they to be trusted? Emily Bell in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Having spent a lot of time with news executives who work for technology companies, I can say there are plenty of people who are knowledgeable about—and care about—journalism in those companies. Many of them are smart and accomplished journalists who have a genuine zeal for improving journalism. But they are relegated to marginal departments. The core of platform companies is software engineering; they are at the core of our business we are not at the core of theirs. Miles away from the ritzy conferences like Newsgeist and the meetings for Facebook Journalism Project, in the central loci of technology businesses, executives generally don’t care that much about journalism. They see it as the Pluto in their solar system—a part of what they do, but rather small and very far away.  They care about journalism in the same way I care about clean water and aircraft safety—deeply and often—but this does not qualify me to be involved in its development.

We’ve been here before, of course. Many times. When the iPad first launched, its original premise was as a way of consuming digital magazines—until said magazines realised there just wasn’t the consumer desire to pay for what they were making. When Facebook was launching its live platform, and more recently its Watch product, it threw money at news orgs in an attempt to fill those services with quality content. After limited success, Facebook has (mostly) given up.

Perhaps more troubling might be what happens if the companies succeed—and become even more powerful as a result.

Uber ’employee’ backs driver’s strikes ahead of IPO

I am an Uber employee and I support the drivers’ strikes.

So begins this “open letter” from an Uber employee—who Medium says has been verified—writing about the driver strikes happening right now.

The timing is no coincidence. Lyft begins trading on the Nasdaq on Friday, Uber will hit the NYSE next week.

The letter begins:

The strikes called on Monday by Rideshare Drivers United (RDU) in Southern California and Gig Workers Rising in San Francisco are a sign of the deep frustration many ride-share drivers feel — and which, amid ongoing conversations with colleagues, it is clear many internal Uber employees share — about the treatment of those workers that provide the services at the core of our business.

It then recommends:

I, therefore, stand with the striking drivers in calling for the implementation of RDU’s Drivers’ Bill of Rights. While ride-share executives continue to receive vast remuneration packages, and internal employees look forward to an IPO windfall at both Uber and Lyft, my sympathetic colleagues and I will not remain silent as drivers are squeezed in order to shore up initial offerings to investors.

To give you an idea of what that means in practice, let me share a screenshot I saw shared on an Uber drivers group on Facebook on Tuesday:

Image may contain: text

Google’s Pichai meeting with Joint Chiefs chairman on Wednesday

Bloomberg’s Mark Bergen has some details ahead of Google boss Sundar Pichai’s meeting with Gen Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It’s expected to take place on Wednesday:

The internet giant extended the invitation after criticism from Dunford about Google’s artificial intelligence work in China, which he said “indirectly benefits the Chinese military.”

Dunford cited an AI lab that Google opened in Beijing in late 2017. Less than two years later, the small office is causing a massive headache for Google, sitting at the locus of a collision between the company’s global ambitions and the U.S. military’s mounting unease over China’s technical might.

Google’s ambitions in China are causing it many headaches it may not feel are worth it, Bergen writes. But then again, the commercial opportunity is enormous.

A huge dinosaur hunt is getting underway

The BBC’s Jonathan Amos writes about a massive dig taking place in Wyoming, led by British researchers:

In this particular part of North Wyoming, the scientists will get access to a unit, or formation, known as the Morrison.

“These were deposited from about 157 million to 145 million years ago,” explained the NHM’s Dr Susannah Maidment.

“The formation has been extensively studied to the south, producing all of your favourite dinosaurs that you could name when you were seven – the likes of Stegosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Brontosaurus and Allosaurus. But we’ll be in the north, which has been much less studied, and which it’s suggested might hold slightly different creatures.

“So we’re hoping to find animals that have never been seen before.”

The new discoveries might fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge about evolution, the team hopes.

Two feuding YouTubers take fight to the streets

A couple of popular German YouTubers, who by all accounts didn’t like each other very much, organised a meet-up for their fans in the same place, at the same time. A mass brawl broke out, Gizmodo writes:

According to Berlin police, about 400 people arrived in support of Bahar Al Amood or ThatsBekir, and a fight erupted between about 50 of the fans. A video of the event that has been spread on YouTube shows two men talking right before a fight breaks out. Reports suggest those men are Bahar Al Amood and ThatsBekir.

Footage of the fighting was uploading, naturally, to YouTube:

The sheer size of followings now will lead to more incidents like this, I fear. Google needs to get on top of this hooliganism.

‘New Zealand’s dealing with its gun problem. When will we?’

What if a change to American gun laws comes not from a tragedy on its own soil, but from one overseas? Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times:

Why can’t leaders in America learn from experience, the way leaders in other countries do? After a massacre in Australia in 1996, the government there took far-reaching action to tighten gun policy. In contrast, every day in America, another hundred people die from gun violence and 300 more are injured — and our president and Congress do nothing.

In fairness, liberals have often been unhelpful, broadcasting their own ignorance about the firearms they propose to regulate, or speaking blithely of banning guns or of “gun control” in ways that drive responsible gun owners into the arms of the N.R.A. I suggest dropping references to “gun control” and instead speaking of “gun safety.”

Now, the gun lobby in the US will of course point out that New Zealand is a very different place.

But then, in some respects, it isn’t: it has a strong, gun-loving community of people who like to hunt and shoot as a hobby. There is a continued sense of concern around government overreach and “political correctness”. And, there are long-standing tensions between the country’s indigenous and the colonising Europeans.

And yet, NZ PM Jacinda Adhern makes this look straightforward. Bloomberg:

New Zealand will ban military style semi-automatics and assault rifles and establish a nationwide buyback of the weapons in the wake of a terrorist attack on two mosques that left 50 people dead.

The ban takes immediate effect to prevent the stockpiling of weapons while the legislation is being drafted, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters Thursday.

“I strongly believe that the vast majority of legitimate gun owners in New Zealand will understand that these moves are in the national interest, and will take these changes in their stride,” she said in a statement.

WSJ reportedly on board with Apple’s news subscription service

Mike Isaac at the New York Times:

The Wall Street Journal plans to join a new paid subscription news service run by Apple, according to two people familiar with the plans, as other publishers chafe at the terms that the Silicon Valley company is demanding of its partners.

The report goes on to reiterate what was previously reported: the NYT and Washington Post are not interested.

The WSJ’s involvement is a little surprising to me. Apple’s “Netflix for news” is being seen as a way for publications to find new paying customers. But for big news brands with an already-healthy base of paid-up readers, getting into bed with Apple might cannibalise that subscription revenue.

The WSJ perhaps sees this as a way to gain extra income from casual business readers who might not stump up the cash for full access. If that’s the case, it will be interesting to see if the WSJ on Apple is as content-full as it is on the WSJ’s own site and app.

We’ll find out on Monday.

Robot picks out the right mug and then hangs it on a rack (it’s harder than it sounds, alright?)

And now for the latest installment of “teaching robots to pick stuff up”—a long-running, perhaps even never-ending, series.

At MIT, a breakthrough in the quest to teach a robotic arm how to identify a mug, pick it up, and place it on a nearby mug rack.

Researchers worked out how, by reducing the number of data points the machine required for its decision making, they could greatly reduce the amount of time it takes to “teach” a robot how to pick up as wide an array of mugs* as possible.

From Technology Review’s The Algorithm newsletter:

Unlike previous techniques that require hundreds or even thousands of examples for a robot to learn to pick up a mug it has never seen before, this approach requires only a few dozen. The researchers were able to train the neural network on 60 scenes of mugs and 60 scenes of shoes to reach a similar level of performance. When the system initially failed to pick up high heels because there were none in the data set, they quickly fixed the problem by adding a few labeled scenes of high heels to the data.

Here it goes:


(*How many designs of mug can there be in the world?)

Google leads gaming down a perilous path

My take, for BBC News, on Google’s Stadia, a streaming-only gaming platform.

Briefly, I think both gamers and games-makers will be cautious of this idea. Not buying a console and each game sounds great, but the cost of paying for such high-speed internet would probably wipe out any savings made.

And the subscription model – if it indeed ends up being one – could lead to developers having to bastardize their ideas in order to maximise income. My conclusion:

The ad-laden, endorphin-pumping, lootbox-peddling mobile gaming industry might be considered the canary in a very miserable coal-mine, here. Paying for a games consoles, and the games on it, may not be such a bad thing after all.

Ricky Gervais on the increased velocity of “outrage”

Ricky Gervais is doing the media rounds at the moment to promote his new Netflix show, After Life.

I binged it on a recent flight to Canada. Like most of his post-Office* work, it’s… decent enough. Emotional moments are too heavily signposted early on, but delivered so tenderly that you don’t care when they arrive.

And in one episode he offers a charming take on the importance of local newspapers to a community. “They’re not for reading,” his character, a reporter, says. “They’re for being in.”

Anyway. Speaking to the New York Times, Gervais had this to say about the modern outrage cycle:

Twenty years ago, if you saw something on TV that offended you and you wanted to let someone know, you would’ve had to get a pen and paper and write, “Dear BBC, I’m bothered.” But you didn’t do it because it was too much trouble. Now with Twitter, you can just go, “[Expletive] you!” to a comedian who’s offended you. Then a journalist will see that and say, “So-and-so said a thing and people are furious.” No. The rest of us don’t give a [expletive] and wouldn’t have heard about it if it hadn’t been made a headline. Everything is exaggerated.

The most frustrating example of this I can think of from the past year was the “row” over the video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s teenage dancing. “Conservatives are offended”, read headlines based on, quite literally, one anonymous tweet.

While we’re talking about Ricky Gervais, I did greatly enjoy this part of his recent Netflix comedy special, in which he talks about how people behave on Twitter when it comes to becoming irate at posts that have nothing to do with them:

*(or rather, post-Derek, surely one of the most underrated programmes ever shown on British television)