5 Intriguing Things: Tuesday, 2/25

Facebook in the developing world, how the last animal died, technodystopian fiction, Iceland's data havens, and the School for Poetic Computation.
Lake Perris (Alexis Madrigal)

Hi friends. I make it a rule not to spam this list with my stories. However, rules are made to be broken. I wrote a piece about the saga of California's water and culture. It's the most ambitious story I've ever attempted. I hope you read it.

Now back to the show.


1. The mechanics of locking the developing world into Facebook

"The other thing it needed to understand, above and beyond the networks, were the devices themselves. Facebook bought up a slew of obscure handsets from Amazon–devices running older versions of Android, feature phones, all sorts of crazy devices that you just don’t see here in the United States. It began handing these out to it engineers, and one point, even mulled over taking away their iPhones. That didn’t fly.

"'Our initial plan was to say you’re not going to use your primary phone, but this was going to be over Christmas and we realized that wasn’t going to make us very popular,' laughs Srinivasan. 'So what we did instead was ask them to use them and come back and file reports.'

"They found all sorts of ways to deliver a lower-bandwidth experience in the main app. When possible, Facebook’s mobile app offloads code fetching to WiFi. It began delivering different resolution images based on the device–there’s no point in serving up a high resolution image to a low resolution screen. It went to a different image format as well, WebP, a newer file type that lets developers use smaller images. 'What we’ve seen is 20- to 30-percent reduction in bytes for the same quality of images,' says Wang. The app also began doing things like letting users know it was seeing network problems, and offering them the option of trying again–instead of just continually trying to communicate with a tower and sucking out precious battery life. That’s vitally important when you’re serving areas that are often off the grid and have to pay per juice up."


2. How the last died.

"The Great Auk was a large flightless bird that lived on remote islands across the North Atlantic. In 1844, a group of Scottish fishermen captured the last Great Auk in the British Isles. They kept the bird tied up for three days until an ominous storm arose. Believing the bird was a witch responsible for their predicament, the men clubbed it to death...

"The Dusky Seaside Sparrow lived in the marshes of Merritt Island, Florida, until it was threatened by the development of the Kennedy Space Center. The last four surviving birds, all male, were moved to Discovery Island in Disney World for a hybrid breeding programme. The effort was a failure, and in 1987 the final surviving member, an elderly male named Orange, passed away in the Magic Kingdom."


3. The four trademarks of recent technodystopian fiction, with examples from Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario

"1. The use of Corporate Speak, where key nouns are capitalized to create the impression that the characters’ lives could also exist in marketing brochures. ('He [Leonard] was perfectly fulfilled in his White Room, and joyous in his Life Plan, which was to heal clients-in-pain.')

"2. Parodies of TV shows, videogames, and/or the Internet (A literary-historical device known as the Brazen Head becomes a retroactive parody of Wikipedia, spewing out any information requested of it in a hip manner.)

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