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Friday, June 15, 2018

Professor who summarized the impact of technology on society 30 years ago seems prescient now, in the age of smartphones and social media

Three decades ago, a historian wrote six laws to explain society’s unease with the power and pervasiveness of technology. Though based on historical examples taken from the Cold War, the laws read as a cheat sheet for explaining our era of Facebook, Google, the iPhone and FOMO.

You’ve probably never heard of these principles or their author, Melvin Kranzberg, a professor of the history of technology at Georgia Institute of Technology who died in 1995. 
You’ve probably never heard of these principles or their author, Melvin Kranzberg, a professor of the history of technology at Georgia Institute of Technology who died in 1995
What’s a bigger shame is that most of the innovators today, who are building the services and tools that have upended society, don’t know them, either.
Fortunately, the laws have been passed down by a small group of technologists who say they have profoundly impacted their thinking. The text should serve as a foundation—something like a Hippocratic oath—for all people who build things.
1. ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral’
Prof. Kranzberg’s first law, a seemingly mundane observation, is also his most important. He realized that the impact of a technology depends on its geographic and cultural context, which means it is often good and bad—at the same time.
His example was DDT, a pesticide and probable carcinogen that nonetheless saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in India as a cheap and effective malaria prevention. Today, we can see how one technology, Facebook groups, can serve as a lifeline for parents of children with rare diseases while also radicalizing political extremists.
There is no absolute good or bad here, just how good or bad a technology is in a given context. This points to a problem tech companies are too often reluctant to face: Their enormous power means they have an obligation to try to anticipate the potential impact of anything they produce.
“The dirty little secret of highly accomplished people is what we’ve had to neglect to achieve that,” says Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and one of the creators of the multitouch interface. “To become spectacular at any discipline in technology means you’re not well-equipped to address these questions.”
There are countless examples of this failure from the past year alone, from successful Russian influence campaigns across social media to Tesla’s too-aggressive rollout of autopilot technology.
2. ‘Invention is the mother of necessity.’
Yes, that’s backward from the way you remember it. It means “every technical innovation seems to require additional technical advances in order to make it fully effective,” Prof. Kranzberg wrote.
In our modern world, the invention of the smartphone has led to the necessity for countless other technologies, from phone cases to 5G wireless. Apple’s cure for staring at your phone too much? A smartwatch to glance at 100 times a day. 
3. ‘Technology comes in packages, big and small.
To understand any part of a technological package requires looking at its interaction with and dependency on the rest of it, Prof. Kranzberg wrote—including the human beings essential to how it functions. While innovation destroys jobs, it also creates countless new ones.
Steel, oil and rail were the package of technologies that dominated the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in America, just as the internet, mobile phones and wireless connectivity are transforming the 21st century.
4. ‘Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions.’
“People think technology as an abstraction has some sort of intrinsic power, and it doesn’t,” says historian Robert C. Post, who was Prof. Kranzberg’s friend and colleague. “It has to be motivated by political power or cultural power or something else.”
Recently, representatives in Congress declared their intention to force Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and others to disclose who pays for political ads on their services, bringing them in line with TV, radio and print. These disclosures were absent from internet ad regulation not for any technical reason, but because, in 2006, the Federal Election Commission took a light touch when regulating the new medium.
5. ‘All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant.’

The Cold War led to the buildup of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them anywhere on Earth. That led to the development of a war-proof communication system: the internet. Many related innovations subsequently seeped into every aspect of our lives.
But does that mean we owe the modern world to the existential contest between the U.S. and the former U.S.S.R.? Or was that conflict itself driven by previous technological developments that allowed Hitler to threaten both nations?
6. ‘Technology is a very human activity.’
“Technology is capable of doing great things,” Apple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook said in his 2017 commencement speech at MIT. “But it doesn’t want to do great things—it doesn’t want anything.” The point, Mr. Cook continued, is that despite its power, how we use technology is up to us.
The trick is, because technology generally reaches mass adoption via corporations, those businesses must think of the consequences of their actions as well as how they profit from them. When corporations don’t, regulators, journalists and the public sometimes do it for them.
Mr. Cook sets the tone at Apple, with his penchant for public pronouncements about how the company protects users’ data. Google has recently adopted initiatives such as “inclusive design” checklists to assure that the widest possible audience has tested new services, and antidiscrimination measures to make AI less racist. Facebook now has teams dedicated to privacy, security and safety that review new features and services before they are rolled out.
As Prof. Kranzberg presciently noted at the dawn of the internet age, “Many of our technology-related problems arise because of the unforeseen consequences when apparently benign technologies are employed on a massive scale.”
Write to Christopher Mims at

Melvin Kranzberg in the 1960s. He became a technology historian.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

It looks like Google is readying the Pixelbook to run Windows 10 | Ars Technica

"Google's Pixelbook is some beautiful, well-built hardware, but its use of Chrome OS means that for many people, it will be too limited to be useful. Although Chrome OS is no longer entirely dependent on Web applications—it can also be used to run Android applications, and Linux application support is also in development—the lack of Windows support means that most traditional desktop applications are unusable.

But that may be changing due to indications that Google is adding Windows support to its hardware. Earlier this year, changes made to the Pixelbook's firmware indicated that Google is working on a mode called AltOS that would allow switching between Chrome OS and an "alternative OS," in some kind of dual-boot configuration. A couple candidates for that alternative OS are Google's own Fuchsia and, of course, Windows.

Recent changes suggest that it is indeed Windows that Google is aiming for. The Pixelbook's firmware is being updated to address issues picked up in Microsoft's hardware compatibility tests. The modifications make reference to the Windows Hardware Certification Kit (WHCK) and the Windows Hardware Lab Kit (HLK). The HLK is Microsoft's test framework that validates all manner of driver and firmware behavior to ensure that hardware is compatible with Windows 10. The WHCK is the corresponding set of tests for Windows 8.1.

Fixing issues picked up by the HLK not only means that the Pixelbook's Windows compatibility is improving, it also opens the door to Google getting the hardware certified by Microsoft as being suitable for Redmond's operating systems. Of course, the firmware is not the only part of this equation; Google would also have to ensure there's a suitable set of drivers to go with it. And there are no guarantees that Google will actually ship this firmware: presently, most of the AltOS work is being done in its own separate branch, and it's possible that it will never be merged into the main firmware branch."

It looks like Google is readying the Pixelbook to run Windows 10 | Ars Technica

How to make a smart home for $200

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Opinion | A Present-Day Bull Connor - The New York Times

"By Charles Blow

"Last week Donald Trump proposed pardoning Muhammad Ali, even though Ali’s conviction for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War had been already overturned.

The hypocrisy of lauding a deceased boxer who protested while simultaneously trashing living football players who protest seems completely lost on Trump.

At the time of his conscientious objection, Ali asked why should he go fight in Vietnam “while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” As Ali put it, “The real enemy of my people is here.”

You see, people like Trump venerate black civil rights activists only in retrospect, after their agitation has ceased, often after they are dead, when they are no longer a threat to the status quo, when their true history is rendered in hagiography. Trump and people like him then disparage contemporary activists, as Trump has repeatedly done to Black Lives Matter and protesting athletes.

Earlier this year in the White House, Trump signed a proclamation for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and lauded him for his choice to “courageously stand up for civil rights of African-Americans.”

That is precisely what Colin Kaepernick and the N.F.L. players are doing, and they are condemned for it just like King was. In 1966, Gallup found that nearly two-thirds of Americans held an unfavorable view of him.

King wrote in his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail”:

“You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Again, this is what the players are doing.

Trump said of the players, “I am going to ask all of those people to recommend to me — because that’s what they’re protesting — people that they think were unfairly treated by the justice system.” But you can’t be pardoned if you’re dead, if you’ve either been killed by the system or the system fails to convict your killer.

Trump already knows these cases, but rather than show any sympathy for the dead, he simply cheers for more police, more police pressure, and more police brutality.

During the campaign, Trump traveled to Sanford, Fla., where Trayvon Martin had been killed by George Zimmerman. Trump never mentioned Martin, but said: “African-Americans are living in hell and are living — in, in the inner cities, I mean, they’re living in hell. You walk to the store for a loaf of bread, you get shot.”

Well, that’s eerily similar to what happened to Martin: The unarmed teen was returning from a store with candy and a drink when Zimmerman shot and killed him.

In August 2016, Trump traveled to West Bend, Wis., 40 minutes north of Milwaukee, which had just seen protests over the killing of another black man, Sylville K. Smith. Trump never mentioned Smith’s name or the case, but instead focused his anger on the “violence, riots and destruction” of the protesters, condemning the “rush to judgment with false facts and narratives — whether in Ferguson or in Baltimore,” and declaring, “The war on our police must end.”

The Republican National Convention, where Trump officially became the party’s nominee, was held in Cleveland, just 10 minutes away from where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by the police. Trump didn’t mention Rice or his case, but instead promised to “restore law and order.” As the civil rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “Black people know what white people mean when they say ‘law and order.’ ” The book, “This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer” quotes her as saying, “America is substituting cries of law and order for plain respect for blacks as blacks.”

That’s Trump. He sees demands for black equality as an attack on white privilege; he sees any disdain for white supremacy as a disdain for white people. For Trump, American greatness has a hue.

So pardon me if I roll my eyes at him saying of Ali: “He was not very popular then. Certainly his memory is very popular now.”

Yes Trump, they hated Ali the way you hate Kaepernick.

Effective protest often only works when it is disruptive and discomforting. If everyone likes your protest, you’re doing it wrong. That’s how we know these players are doing it right: They are showing that Trump is a present-day Bull Connor.

Last week Trump commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, who had been sentenced to life in 1996 for nonviolent drug offenses. Her case was worthy, but it can’t erase the fact that Trump’s Justice Department is actively working to reinvigorate the racially skewed war on drugs.

Trump is using these pardons of black people to play to their celebrity petitioners. But he is also using them as a marketing tactic rather than a statement of principle, to shift focus from predacious systems to personal symbols.

In doing so, he hopes to win personal praise while leaving fully intact, or even strengthening, policies that negatively impact black communities."

Opinion | A Present-Day Bull Connor - The New York Times

Apple's Airpods Are an Omen The company’s slick, wireless earbuds work great, but they foreshadow startling changes to the social fabric. - The Atlantic

"... After acclimating to the AirPods, I began wondering if the role earbuds play in contemporary, technological life has been profoundly underestimated. The best way to understand a technology is sometimes to remove it and go without; only then does its function become palpable. You notice this when your car breaks down and you have to take transit to work, or when you leave your phone at home and can’t check in with work or family, or when a service outage takes out the internet, and Netflix along with it...."

Are Apple AirPods Any Good? - The Atlantic

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Has The Google Pixelbook Reached Parity With The 13-inch MacBook Pro?

”The Google Pixelbook can now take on the venerable MacBook Pro on pretty much any metric. Is it good enough to win over MacBook users and go mainstream? Read on.
Here is the pricing and configs I’ll use for comparison purposes. (Note that I own and use both laptops.):
–The late-2017 Google Pixelbook is seeing discounts now that are constant enough over time that it qualifies to be characterized as a sub-$80o laptop (starting price) despite its list price of $999. The entry-level model comes with: 1.2-GHz Intel Core i5-7Y57 (7th Generation) 8GB of memory, and 128GB of storage.
–The mid-2017 13-inch MacBook ProIt’s listed at $1,299 but is typically sold at major retailers with hefty discounts so its real-world starting price is often about $1,100 — or less. The entry-level model is equipped with a 7th Generation Intel Core i5 (base speed of 2.3 GHz), 8GB of memory, and 128GB of storage (and no Touch Bar).
Pixelbook: The 12.3-inch Google Pixelbook falls somewhere between the HP Spectre 13 and 12-inch MacBook. Like those laptops, it is pushing the boundaries of extreme portability. The Pixelbook’s thinness (a tablet-like 0.4-inches) and weight (2.4 pounds) make it a totable wonder. Despite this, the all-aluminum chassis feels very solid/durable.
The Pixelbook also has a 360-degree hinge and its touchscreen can fold into various modes including tablet, tent, and stand.
MacBook Pro: The 13.3-inch MacBook Pro isn’t as light — at just over 3 pounds. But the MBP makes more efficient use of its real estate (frame/chassis) than the Pixelbook, i.e., the display bezels are narrower and the depth (at 8.36 inches) is actually less than the Pixelbook (8.7 inches). That said, the MBP is slightly wider and significantly thicker (0.59 inch) than the Google laptop. (See photo below).
Winner: No winner in this category. The Pixelbook is jaw-droppingly thin, totable, and sturdy with good weight distribution. But the MacBook Pro is a more efficient design.
As of early June 2018, both laptops have Intel 7th Generation processors. Neither uses the latest quad-core 8th Gen chips that populate other thin-and-light laptops like the Dell XPS 13, HP Spectre 13, and 13-inch Razer Blade Stealth. Apple uses a 15-watt Intel Core i5 processor (on the entry-level 13-inch model that I’m using) while Google uses a very-low-power Core i5 Y series 4.5 watt chip (on my config).
Pixelbook: More wattage typically means better performance. But not in this case. The Pixelbook is incredibly fast in day to day use with no lag. I’ve put it to the test running lots of Chrome tabs, a photo editing app, social media apps, and Microsoft Word. (See Pixelbook raw benchmark performance here and here. And the MacBook Pro 13 without Touch Bar benchmark performance here and here.)
The Pixelbook’s snappy performance is related to the efficiency of the Chrome OS. I also have a 2016 HP Chromebook 13 with an Intel 6th Gen Y series processor that is fast. You’re just not going to get that level of performance on a Windows 10 ultraportable or 12-inch MacBook that use very-low-power Intel Y series processors. I have used 12-inch MacBooks extensively (and owned a couple) and am now using a 2017 Windows 10 ultraportable with a Y series processor. There’s really no comparison, i.e., Google Chrome OS is just plain fast.
MacBook Pro: the entry-level MacBook Pro can lag a bit in some more performance-intensive applications and I do see the spinning color wheel (aka, spinning beach ball) with the 128GB SSD. By the way, I never see the spinning color wheel on my 15-inch MacBook Pro (mid-2017).
Winner: Pixelbook. While the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro isn’t a slouch, it doesn’t feel as fast as the Chromebook. The Chrome OS running on top of the Pixelbook screams (at least for what I do, which is pretty much the same things I do on the MBP 13). 

Battery life: 
PixelBook: 41 watt-hour battery (WHr) rated by Google at up to 10 hours.
MacBook Pro 13: 54.5 WHr battery rated by Apple up to 10 hours.
Both the MacBook Pro and Pixelbook have good battery life. My daily routine involves “productivity” (aka, MS Office work), light photo editing, video watching, social apps, music listening, web-based research etc.  Best case: The Pixelbook, with intermittent use throughout the day (totaling 4-5 hours each day), has lasted for two days without needing a recharge (per the activity described above). The MacBook Pro is in the same ballpark. 
Worst case: Constant use with processor-intensive tasks, and — like any device — you’ll see a remarkable drop in battery life. Only a few hours for both the Pixelbook and MacBook Pro. 
(One obvious but easy way to extend battery life a lot: turn down the screen brightness.)
Winner: Pixelbook (but not by much). Chrome OS is really a mobile OS running on a laptop and better suited for conserving battery power.
Pixelbook: The Pixelbook has a 12.3-inch 2,400-by-1,600 (235 ppi) touchscreen. The display is bright and beautiful. Of course, “beautiful” is subjective and very unscientific. But my impression nonetheless. That said, NotebookCheck said the Pixelbook display has some “drawbacks” (see NotebookCheck paragraph under the heading of “ display”). I did not notice the drawbacks (such as backlight distribution and response times). 
MacBook Pro: The MacBook has 13.3-inch 2,560-by-1,600 Retina display (227 ppi). Apple is really good at making sure its displays are the best. The MacBook Pro DCI P3 (color gamut) rating is very high (good). And nits(brightness) is very high too.
Winner: MacBook Pro 13. The MBP wins for color gamut and brightness. Display technology is a religion for Apple and it shows.
Both the Pixelbook and MacBook Pro have two USB Type C ports. The MBP supports Thunderbolt 3 and the Pixelbook supports 4K display output.
Winner: Neither stands out.
This is the bottom line for consumers. It means a decently configured system at a reasonable price with good quality.

June 10, 2018 
Google Pixelbook, which is a high-end Chromebook.
Winner: Pixelbook. It lists at $999 but priced regularly below that (Google is consistently discounting the Pixelbook to prices as low as $749.)
Note that the MacBook Pro config I’m using can be had (discounted) for as little as $999, depending on the timing and the retailer. If you can find one on sale for that price (at places like Best Buy and B&H Photo), that closes the gap a lot.
Overall Winner: Pixelbook (with a qualifier). A great convertible design, good performance, good battery life, and a beautiful display.
Qualifier: The Chrome OS won’t run some popular applications. As I said above, though it now runs Microsoft Office and Microsoft OneDrive, Office is not quite the full-blown version you get on Windows. And while you can run things like Photoshop Express and Adobe Photoshop Light
room CC (and more Photoshop apps are available on the web), the full PhotoShop application isn’t available. Of course, applications like iTunes aren’t available, though there are workarounds, as Google spells out here.
But the fact is, Chrome is moving rapidly in the other direction: more and more popular apps are available and you can also run Android apps. So, it’s fast approaching parity with the Mac and Windows. And the fact that it runs Android apps is leg-up on both Windows and the Mac.
I really like the ChromeBook platform now because it’s secure, stable, easy to use, and self-maintains. And Chrome OS is more like mobile operating systems such as Android and iOS — a refreshingly clean break from the old, creaky DOS/Windows/Mac platforms.
Biometrics: Both the Pixelbook and low-cost MacBook Pro are missing fingerprint readers and facial recognition. (Though you get a fingerprint reader on the $1,799 MBP 13 with Touch Bar.)
Keyboard: With the goal of keeping the comparison as concise as possible, I left out the keyboard comparison. That said, I found no glaring problems with the keyboards/trackpads on either laptop. Both laptops’ keyboards/trackpads are excellent. That said, the MacBook Pro has a Butterfly keyboard, which has limited travel and the tactile feedback can be less than satisfying for some users. I may be in the minority but I like the MBP’s Butterfly keyboard.
Audio: The MacBook Pro 13 wins handily on audio. But that doesn’t mean the Pixelbook’s audio is bad. It’s tinnier than the MBP’s but acceptable.
12-inch MacBook: Some readers may believe it’s better to compare the 12.3-inch Pixelbook to the 12-inch MacBook. To be honest, it never entered my mind to compare the Pixelbook to the 12-inch MacBook. The MB 12 is really in a class by itself and performance and keyboard size, for example, don’t really compare.