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Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘internet

[URBAN NOTE] “Public Works: Libraries Lending Wi-Fi”

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Torontoist’s Peter Goffin reported that public libraries in New York City and Chicago are now lending WiFi hotspots to their clients. This has relevance for Toronto, of course.

Last week, the New York Public Library (NYPL) and Chicago Public Library (CPL) were among 19 winners of a grant competition seeking to fund projects that “strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation.” Both received money for programs that allow library patrons to borrow Wi-Fi hotspot devices in the same way they borrow books—NYPL for its “Check out the Internet” project, which offers free internet services and media literacy education to low-income families; and CPL for “Internet to Go,” a similar program operating in six neighbourhoods where less than 50 per cent of the population has internet access.

NYPL has conducted a survey of people who take advantage of the free internet and computers in libraries around New York. It found that 55 per cent of them did not have internet access at home. And among library internet users whose household income fell below $25,000, 65 per cent were without the web.

So why does this matter? And why is it worth awarding a combined $900,000 to the NYPL and CPL?

Consider this: the internet is the world’s primary means of learning and communication, and a significant venue for social interaction. Several countries have declared internet access a human right, because it facilitates so many other rights, including to free expression, education, peaceful assembly, and access to healthcare. To be without the internet today—when everything from job applications, to apartment listings, to access to social services can be found online—is to ride a horse in the Daytona 500. Those who can’t afford access are doomed to fall behind.

As of 2012, 42 per cent of Canadian households with an income of $30,000 or less lack internet access, compared to 2 per cent of households with an income of at least $94,000. In Toronto, a whopping 80 per cent of public housing units are without a web connection, while just 20 per cent of homes province-wide lack access.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 4, 2014 at 7:18 pm

[FORUM] What do you think of online rating systems?

Two weeks ago, there was an article at Toronto Life, “Why Momofuku’s David Chang thinks Yelp reviews are dumb”, that caught my attention.

David Chang knows his fast food, so it makes sense that he’s signed on as the official Northeastern U.S. “burrito scout” for ESPN blog FiveThirtyEight, which is currently conducting a rigorous, March Madness–style search for the country’s top burrito (and, in the process, examining the relative reliability of crowdsourced recommendations versus other sources of data). Chang recently spoke with the site about his personal views on user-generated restaurant reviews, particularly those on Yelp. To put it concisely, he’s not a fan. Here’s what he had to say:

I’m just going to come out and say: Most of the Yelp reviews are wrong. They just are. Yelp is great for finding information if you forgot the address of a place. [...] But for the most part, no chef is going to take a Yelper’s review seriously, even though they might read them.

The problem with Yelpers, according to Chang? They take everything way too personally, and usually don’t know what they’re talking about.

The best analogy I can give is fantasy sports or lawn-chair stockbrokers. For the most part, unless you’re really studying the stats and you’re a former football player or baseball player and know the industry inside and out, it’s most likely that your insights aren’t that great.

My reaction, as expressed in the comments, was critical. Chang’s argument leaves no space for well-informed amateur critiques, or for informed readers, and additionally seems to verge on making the fallacious argument that everyone is making one-star reviews based on a single thing that doesn’t work for them.

What say you all?

Written by Randy McDonald

June 23, 2014 at 4:00 am

[NEWS] Some Monday links

  • Al Jazeera notes anti-black racism in Morocco, attacks on Christians in border areas of Kenya, and the ways in which the crackdown on Somali crime in Nairobi is hitting Somali businesses.
  • Bloomberg notes that Ethiopian migrants trying to enter Saudi Arabia are being persecuted on their trip by Yemeni criminal gangs, in much the same way that Eritreans trying to get into Israel are persecuted by Sinai gangs.
  • BusinessWeek argues that tacky gifts at the 911 gift shop sell because people want them, notes that South Koreans like shopping online internationally to get bargains, notes the growing presence of the Taliban in Karachi, and observes the rise of Chinese fashions.
  • MacLean’s comments on the growing tendency of Italian young adults to stay at home, comments on the return of Sarah McLachlan, looks at the phenomenon of doctoral students who don’t go into academia, and notes that Pakistan’s independent Geo TV is nearing shutdown by state harassment and assassination attempts.
  • Wired observes innovative ways to deal with online harassment and notes a new method for interplanetary communication–at least to the moon–that is as fast as a good home Internet connection.

[LINK] “The Online Life of Elliot Rodger”

Jay Caspian Kang writes at the New Yorker about how we can find out things about anyone–like, say, Elliot Rodgers, perpetrator of the recent Isla Vista killings–very quickly indeed. We can find out a lot.

Elliot Rodger was not mentioned in any of these reports. By now, we have watched his YouTube videos, read the posts he left on PUAHate, a forum dedicated to hating pickup artists, seen the screenshots of the comments he allegedly left on bodybuilding sites, and read his lengthy manifesto. Like James Holmes, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and Adam Lanza before him, Rodger’s life has been reverse-engineered through the images and words that he posted online. This seems to be the preferred method of discussing mass killers these days. Once the videos, Facebook photos, and tweets have surfaced, the game of associations begins. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, every single thing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev posted online was scrutinized by the media. When it finally came time to put him on the cover of a magazine, Rolling Stone chose an Instagram selfie. Before his name was released to the public, a cursory Google search of Tamerlan Tsarnaev brought up only a YouTube page and an article about his boxing career. On April 19th, the day the public learned the names of the Tsarnaev brothers, CNN, CBS, NBC, and countless other news sources ran stories about Tamerlan, the boxer. After James Holmes went on his own shooting spree in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, the media, spurred on by amateur Internet sleuths, found Holmes’s scant online presence in the form of an online-dating profile and a video of a younger Holmes giving a lecture at a science camp in San Diego. That video became the subject of analysis, including a Salon piece titled “What does the James Holmes video tell us?” It examined everything from Holmes’s choice of clothes to his general affect to his habit of making eye contact, all to speculate on when Holmes might have turned into a killer.

It wasn’t always this easy to create a profile. Before Cho Seung-Hui went on his own shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, in 2007, he mailed a package containing video, photographs, and writings to NBC News, which broadcast excerpts of the horrific portfolio on its newscast. Rodger didn’t need to bother with the postage fee or with the editorial decisions of a news outlet to project himself onto the public consciousness. We found it all, and we shared it.

The Internet, in fact, not only found Elliot Rodger but almost managed to find him in time. A few days before the killings, a user on Reddit’s “cringe” forum submitted a video of Rodger expressing the deep misogyny that has disturbed the country. On Thursday, May 22nd, another user, named Dave Kawamoto, watched the video and wrote, “If this isn’t a troll, then I bet we find out this guy is a serial killer. I’m getting a strong Patrick Bateman vibe from him.” Since news of the shooting broke, Kawamoto’s comment has been “upvoted” (Reddit’s method of showing approval) more than three thousand times. Kawamoto told me over e-mail that when he first saw Rodger’s video he assumed that it was the work of an Internet troll who was trying to get an odd, dark laugh. But after looking through Rodger’s YouTube profile, Kawamoto saw other videos in which Rodger did nothing but drive around and listen to music. “One of the songs was Katrina and the Waves ‘Walking on Sunshine’ which, other than the general banality of Rodger’s gripes as well as his entitlement and materialism, was probably what prompted my comparison to American Psycho protagonist/antagonist Patrick Bateman,” Kawamoto wrote.

Written by Randy McDonald

June 3, 2014 at 1:59 am

[LINK] “This Is How You Stream Netflix to the Moon”

Wired‘s Klint Finley describes the advent of a new high-speed communications system that would let people on Earth connect to computers on the Moon at a very high speed.

Traditionally, NASA has used radio frequencies to communicate with spaceships, satellites, and rovers, but that’s rather slow. Plus, the further a contraption gets from earth, the more power–and the bigger the dish–it needs to send a signal. That’s why NASA’s most distant probe, Voyager 1, requires a 70-meter antenna to be heard. Optical connections are much faster, but they’ve been limited by things like varying lighting conditions, cloudy skies, and atmospheric interference.

So, in order to quickly send signals across the approximately 250,000 miles between earth and NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory, Stevens and his team built a completely new optical communication system, with new transmitters as well as receivers, drawing on techniques used in past projects. “People in the space business have long known that laser communications has a lot of potential benefits including higher data rates and smaller space terminals,” Stevens says. “NASA has been pursuing parts of the technology for several decades.”

On the transmission side, the team used four telescopes to beam information coded as pulses of infrared light into space. Each of the four signals travels separately, and though each will encounter interference, this four-pronged approach improves the odds that at least one signal will make it to the receiver.

When a signal arrives, it’s focused into an optical fiber similar to what’s used in high-speed internet connections such as Google Fiber. Then it’s amplified and is converted into electrical pulses that carry the data transmission. Less than one billionth of a watt will be received of the original 40-watt signal, but that’s still about 10 times the signal strength required for error-free communication.

The satellite had its own transmitter, which was able to send the data signal back to earth at an even faster speed: 622 megabits per second. That’s faster than most home internet connections, though not quite as speedy as the one-gigabit speeds you get with something like Google Fiber.

Written by Randy McDonald

June 2, 2014 at 7:58 pm

[LINK] Two links on the decline of the homepage

The apparent decline in visits to the homepages of sites, triggered by people heading directly to the pages hosting articles, was analyzed at The Atlantic by Derek Thompson.

The New York Times lost 80 million homepage visitors—half the traffic to the nytimes.com page—in two years.

[. . .]

If the clicks aren’t coming from homepages, where are they coming from? Facebook, Twitter, social media, and the mix of email and chat services summed up as “dark social” (dark, because it’s hard for publishers to trace). [. . .]

News publishers lost the homepage firehose, and gained a social media flood. This social flood corresponds with the emergence of another powerful piece of technology: audience analytics software that tells digital publishers what people are reading, and how long they’re reading it, with greater specificity than ever.

One theory is that the rise of twin technological forces—the social flood and the age of analytics—will (a) make the news more about readers; and (b) make news organizations more like each other.

Why should the death of homepages give rise to news that’s more about readers? Because homepages reflect the values of institutions, and Facebook and Twitter reflect the interest of individual readers. These digital grazers have shown again and again that they aren’t interested in hard news, but rather entertainment, self-help, awe, and outrage dressed up news. Digitally native publishers are pretty good at pumping this kind of stuff out. Hence quizzes, hence animals, hence 51 Photos That Show Women Fighting Sexism Awesomely. Even serious publishing companies know that self-help and entertainment often outperform outstanding reporting.

It’s also the subject of discussion at Marginal Revolution.

I would put it this way: the fewer people use RSS, the better content providers can allow RSS to be. There is less fear of cannibalization, and more hope that easy RSS access will help a post go viral through Facebook and other social media.

When a blog is linked to the reputations of its producers, rather than to advertising revenue, the home page remains all the more important. That is who you are, and many people realize that, even if they are not reading you at the moment. I call those “shadow readers.” For MR, I have long thought that the value of shadow readers is quite high. (“Tyler and Alex are still writing that blog — great stuff, right? I don’t get to look at it every day [read: hardly at all]. Why don’t we have them in for a talk?”) In other words, a shadow reader is someone who hardly reads the blog at all, but has a not totally inaccurate model of what the blog is about. For Vox or the NYT the value of a shadow reader is lower, although shadow readers still may talk up those sites to potential real readers. For companies which run lots of events, such as The Atlantic, the value of shadow readers may be high because it helps make them focal even without the daily eyeballs.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 23, 2014 at 8:06 pm

[LINK] “Being gay in Pakistan: Where anti-gay serial killers are applauded”

Via Towleroad I came across Naila Inayat’s Global Post article talking about the issues facing non-heterosexuals in Pakistan. They’re severe, existential even.

Sitting at a coffee shop in a posh Lahore neighborhood, two young men hold a heated debate over the serial killer caught killing gay men in their city last month.

“Gay rights are human rights,” says one, arguing that gays have the right to live openly here. This is Pakistan, the other countered. “It is best to let these things stay unsaid, and underground – it’s not okay in this society.” It’s a debate so fundamental that it might, at this point, sound hackneyed to a Western audience — yet in Pakistan it’s rare to hear such openness even in a private discussion.

In late April, a young man named Muhammed Ejaz confessed to killing three gay men over the past two months because he wanted to send a warning about the “evils” of homosexuality.

The 28-year-old paramedic from Lahore said he had lured his victims through a gay social networking site manjam.com and killed them following a sexual encounter in their own homes.

Ejaz, a father of two, said his hatred against gays springs from his being abused by an older man when he was 10.

“I have hated them ever since that happened to me,” he said in an interview from his prison cell aired on Samaa TV. “By killing these men, I wanted to warn them to stay away from this evil of homosexuality.”

In Pakistan, where homosexuality is illegal, these killings have set off panic in the already closeted gay community.

“I deactivated my account initially after the news of the killing broke on social media because I was scared that the killer Ejaz will be portrayed as a hero locally,” says 31-year-old Amir Shah from Lahore, who belongs to the popular manjam.com site. “You’ll find many people who would buy into his philosophy that homosexuality is an evil.”

Gay people in Pakistan can’t go to gay clubs: They don’t exist. Many say the internet was the best thing that ever happened to the community — until now.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 22, 2014 at 8:20 pm

[BLOG] Some Monday links

  • blogTO has a visual history of the Toronto Islands up.
  • Centauri Dreams looks at GU Piscium b and Beta Pictoris b.
  • The Dragon’s Tales links to a paper examining two concepts for theoretical nuclear fusion-fueled space drives, one using additional coolant and one not.
  • Eastern Approaches examines the disastrous floods in the former Yugoslavia.
  • Joe. My. God. reports on a study suggesting church attendance is exaggerated by traditional self-reporting methods.
  • Language Log notes the success in the digitization of ancient Persian manuscripts, including of a bilingual Persian/Gujarati Zoroastrian text.
  • Registan notes the influence of the Internet and social media in reshaping Islam in Uzbekistan.
  • Savage Minds features a post by Nick Seaver talking about the ways in which anthropology can get involved with computer-mediated processes, like the algorithms which recommend tunes.
  • Towleroad examines Dolly Parton as a gay icon.
  • Window on Eurasia notes Russian academic disinterest in Ukrainian culture and covers the Crimean Tatars’ commemoration of their deportation in the context of Russian occupation.

[BLOG] Some Friday links

  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to one paper examining the search for exomoons and links to another looking for very widely-separated exoplanets.
  • Far Outliers’ Joel shows some unusual Japanese words.
  • The Financial Times‘ The World blog notes, in the context of recent riots, that Vietnam is an important player in global supply chains.
  • Joe. My. God. notes the opening of a museum in New York City dedicated to the September 11th terrorist attacks. Broadside Blog’s Caitlin Kelly can’t bear to visit.
  • Language Hat notes the new Russian laws banning profanity.
  • At his blog, Peter Watts discusses his experience speaking at a conference about the origins of revenge.
  • The Planetary Society Blog’s Emily Lakdawalla notes that comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, target of the ESA’s Rosetta probe, is now growing a coma.
  • Towleroad notes that the Centers for Disease Control in the United States have released guidelines for the use of truvada to prevent HIV infections.
  • The Transit Toronto blog notes that there’s a TTC subway car ravaged by Godzilla down on Yonge Street.
  • The Volokh Conspiracy deals with the complex copyright case of a man who killed himself after a nasty divorce and whose ex-wife is trying to remove his writings critical of her from the Internet.

[LINK] “The pdf graveyards can only expect an increase in their undead populations”

Steven Poole’s opinion piece in The Guardian about the rather large number of PDF-format documents which never get read somewhat misses the point. Open document standards are nice, sure, but could it be that many of these documents aren’t expected to be read by many people, or read off the Internet (as opposed to as an E-mail attachment)?

What does the kind of email attachment you choose to send say about you? Are you an apologetic corporate slave, a hippie freedom fighter, or a paranoid hacker? We don’t often give much thought to the various kinds of electronic file types that zip around the internet, except when they annoyingly fail to open on our computers. But embedded in them are all sorts of political and economic choices.

File types are not generally thought of, for instance, as making much difference to global progress and the smooth accumulation of human knowledge. But could it be that the humble pdf is hurting democracy? That is the question posed by Alex Hern, after a World Bank report noted sadly that few of its research papers (offered as pdfs on its site) are downloaded much, and nearly a third have never been downloaded at all.

The pdf, or portable document format, was invented by Adobe to solve a real problem – how to make an electronic document incorporating text and images that looked the same on any operating system. But the problem is that it’s hard to get the data back out of a pdf and use it. Text is usually searchable – the World Bank report itself notes that Google indexes pdfs to count citations of articles – but there’s no chance of scraping the underlying data from embedded charts and graphs. Condemn public research to that format and you end up with what White House open data project fellow Nathaniel Manning mournfully calls “PDF graveyards”.

Poor pdfs. On this argument, electronic file types are an ecosystem freed from the pressures of natural selection, in which unfit species don’t die out but keep shambling around like data-hoarding zombies. But I’m not sure we should all abandon the pdf just yet. It’s true that it is a lovably clunky relic of the days when everyone thought “desktop publishing” was the future. (I for one have never felt less athletic than when struggling to make Adobe “Acrobat” fill in a simple pdf form.) But what is the alternative?

Written by Randy McDonald

May 12, 2014 at 8:34 pm


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