Notebook

Steve Allen speaks to Jack Kerouac

One of the more bizarre interview formats. Did Kerouac enjoy this? I doubt it — he looks extremely uncomfortable. But great to watch.

Update: Oh, looks like he wrote about this experience in Big Sur.

“(remembering that awful time only a year earlier when I had to rehearse my reading of prose a third time under the hot lights of the Steve Allen Show in the Burbank studio, one hundred technicians waiting for me to start reading, Steve Allen watching me expectant as he plunks the piano, I sit there on the dunce’s stool and refuse to read a word or open my mouth, “I dont have to R E H E A R S E for God’s sake Steve! ” — “But go ahead, we just wanta get the tone of your voice, just this last time, I’ll let you off the dress rehearsal” and I sit there sweating not saying a word for a whole minute as everybody watches, finally I say, “No I cant do it, ” and I go across the street to get drunk) (but surprising everybody the night of the show by doing my job of reading just fine, which surprises the producers and so they take me out with a Hollywood starlet who turns out to be a big bore trying to read me her poetry and wont talk love because in Hollywood man love is for sale)”

Coronavirus in the Bay Area is on the up (among white people)

Black and brown people were worst hit during the first coronavirus waves in the Bay Area. But, the Chronicle reports, things seem to be balancing out:

“The trend is emerging weeks after counties began easing restrictions in many places, including reopening indoor dining and increasing capacity at gyms and places of worship. That prompted many residents to let their guard down and expand their social bubbles, county health officials said.”

That’s one theory. Here’s another:

“The participation in testing sites is declining,” [Omar Carrera, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Canal Alliance] said. “People don’t want to get tested for multiple reasons — misinformation, lack of trust. The economic burden is so big that people feel, ‘Because I have no symptoms, I don’t have the need to go get tested. Because if I get tested and I’m positive, I’m not going to be able to work for two weeks. I might even lose my job.’

Entering court

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Striking work from Hong Kong-based photographer Tommy Walker. Pictured is Agnes Chow, one of three opposition activists due to be sentenced early next month over their role in anti-government protests in June last year. Chow was charged with taking part in an unauthorised assembly, in breach of the region’s controversial national security law. “If I get sent to prison, it will be the first time ever for me,” she wrote on her Facebook page, according to the South China Morning Post. “However, compared to a lot of my friends, I know I am shouldering very little. I will try to handle this bravely.”

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.