Recently I recommended that you check out Google Photos if you have not done so already. Like Gmail, it’s a way to store huge quantities of digital material and leave its management to someone else. (I promise, later we’ll get into the privacy tradeoffs involved.) And much more than Gmail, it offers big-data tools that can arrange and transform your information/photos in ways difficult or impossible to do by yourself.
For instance: I mentioned that Google Photos had, on its own, merged three smart-phone snapshots of a scene at Oxford into one panorama view. Several people wrote in to say: Let’s see the originals! So here goes.
First, in its full-frame entirety, a smartphone snapshot of one side of the entry quad at The Queen’s College, Oxford.
Then two almost-identical shots of the other side, both in full frame. First this:
The point is that without my doing anything more than saving all three shots to a Google drive, the system recognized them as overlapping parts of a whole and stitched them together into a high-rez, level-horizon, panorama version, looking like this (and at larger scale here):
Even when zooming in on the composite shot as far as possible, I still can’t find a pixellated boundary where the shots were brought together.
We all say in our blase way: Yeah yeah there’s increasing power of big-data systems. At least for me, seeing how it worked on my own information dramatized these effects. To be clear, this was with three quick, casual phone-shots taken over a few-second span. The result isn’t anything fancy, but it’s different from what I could have done myself.
And, as I say, we’ll get to the surveillance-state ramifications soon.
Actually, why not now. Here’s one reader response:
In the vein of the glass being neither half-full nor half-empty, but having a leak, that [big-data] magic means just as much that a computer can figure-out where you have been and when based on the photos you take, making it that much easier for a human being with access to that computer to know where you have gone and when.
The photo taker providing in essence CCTV of their movements. At least though unlike CCTV (and of course all that magical facial recognition) if the photo taker stops taking/posting the photos the intelligence stream stops.
Two quick updates on themes I’ve mentioned over the years.
Hit: Google Photos. You may well already have started using this service — some 100 million people have done so since its debut early this year. If you haven’t, by all means check it out. It is the closest thing I’ve had to the feeling of magic in online life in a very long while.
This review a few months ago, by Casey Newton in The Verge, gives you the main idea. The title, “How Google solved our photo backup nightmare,” covers one main feature. Just as Gmail long ago became the place where it was easiest and most efficient to store, arrange, retrieve, and otherwise handle electronic messages, Google Photos finally seem as if it can be the answer for the ever-mounting volume of digital images. Yes, I’m aware that Google is making use of the vast raw data users entrust to it. Newton’s piece, and another in Vergeby Ryan Gantz, explain why they think (as I do) that the tradeoff is worthwhile.
Beyond the storage-dump aspect is the application of big-data in ways that are sometimes creepy but more often useful and even astonishing. This past summer I took a few camera-phone snapshots at The Queen’s College in Oxford, where my wife and I were married long ago. The next time I logged into Google Photos, it had, unbidden, aligned and assembled the patches into the composite panorama you see above, or here. Pictures you take in the modern geo-tagging age it can of course match to locations. But based on images alone it has gone through and grouped old photos by location — giving me, for instance, a collection of pictures taken in Duluth, Minnesota in 2002, or another from Shanghai a few years later.
As Gantz says:
The service delights by offering me presents. As photos upload, Google Photos is processing old pictures I’ve forgotten about, including images that I’ve assumed were unremarkable or superfluous, and assembling them into collages, animations, and experiences that I wasn’t aware I wanted. “Assistant” offers me its creations and politely asks if I want to dismiss them or add them to my library. Like an opening of Timehop, these little creations can be surprising and lovely.
It’s hard to appreciate this feature until you experience it. I keep eagerly checking Google Photos notifications on my phone, excited about what Assistant has crafted from my digital trail. I find animations of my children playing on the grass, a collage of my wife giggling, a trip to Austin rendered as a slide show.
Let me emphasize the “hard to appreciate until you’ve seen it” point. For instance, here is a GIF animation of a visit to the Southern Tier brewery near Chautauqua in August, which Google Photos auto-created from a set of phone snapshots.
Judge for yourself, but certainly give it a try.
Miss: Livescribe Pen. I’ll try to make this concise, because I’m writing to amend the record rather than to beat up on anyone.
Starting six years ago, I have in this space frequently sung the praises of the Livescribe pen. When it appeared, Livescribe was another seemingly magical step forward: it matched notes you made in a special notebook, with audio recordings it was making at the same time. Later on, you could simply click on the notes you’d made — during an interview, at a lecture, in a language lesson — and hear that exact part of the recording played back.
The system indeed worked like magic — when it worked. But over the years, I have come to mistrust successive Livescribe models because in the real world, for me, they simply failed too often.
A pen would suddenly and unobtrusively turn itself off during an interview, so that when it was over I saw that I had captured the first 10 minutes of discussion but not the next hour. The first time this happened, I thought it was bad luck. By the fourth time, I’d lost faith. Other sessions recorded all the way through — but then proved to be corrupted and unreadable. With the plain old cheapo Olympus and Sony digital recorders I’d used before, I lacked the fancy features but had never lost information. After another data loss about a year ago, I (regretfully) stopped using Livescribe and switched back to the humble pocket recorders.
My friends at Livescribe tell me that my problems represent an unfortunate outlier experience. Maybe so. But many of my journalist friends say that they’ve had problems like mine.
The Livescribe company was recently taken over by a Swedish firm. I wish everyone there the best, and I wish for a reliable version of this pen. If you’re using one, especially if you tried it on my suggestion, I hope that it’s holding up well for you. But having repeatedly gone on record saying that I used it, I wanted to close the loop by explaining why I don’t any more.
The president has been intervening in the process of producing a border wall, on behalf of a favored firm.
Updated at 10:20 a.m. ET on May 25, 2019.
Many of the tales of controversy to emerge from the Trump administration have been abstract, or complicated, or murky. Whenever anyone warns about destruction of “norms,” the conversation quickly becomes speculative—the harms are theoretical, vague, and in the future.
This makes new Washington Post reporting about President Donald Trump’s border wall especially valuable. The Post writes about how Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security to award a contract for building a wall at the southern U.S. border to a North Dakota company headed by a leading Republican donor.
The story demonstrates the shortcomings of Trump’s attempt to bring private-sector techniques into government. It shows his tendency toward cronyism, his failures as a negotiator, and the ease with which a fairly primitive attention campaign can sway him. At heart, though, what it really exemplifies is Trump’s insistence on placing performative gestures over actual efficacy. And it is a concrete example—almost literally—of how the president’s violations of norms weaken the country and waste taxpayer money.
University libraries around the world are seeing precipitous declines in the use of the books on their shelves.
When Yale recently decided to relocate three-quarters of the books in its undergraduate library to create more study space, the students loudly protested. In a passionate op-ed in the Yale Daily News, one student accused the university librarian—who oversees 15 million books in Yale’s extensive library system—of failing to “understand the crucial relationship of books to education.” A sit-in, or rather a “browse-in,” was held in Bass Library to show the administration how college students still value the presence of books. Eventually the number of volumes that would remain was expanded, at the cost of reducing the number of proposed additional seats in a busy central location.
Little-noticed in this minor skirmish over the future of the library was a much bigger story about the changing relationship between college students and books. Buried in a slide deck about circulation statistics from Yale’s library was an unsettling fact: There has been a 64 percent decline in the number of books checked out by undergraduates from Bass Library over the past decade.
In 16th- and 17th-century Europe, physicians, butchers, and executioners alike hawked the salutary effects of Axungia hominis.
One night in 1731, Cornelia de Bandi burst into flames. When the 62-year-old Italian countess was found the next morning, her head and torso had been reduced to ash and grease.
Only her arms and legs remained intact. After examining what was left of her body, a local physician concluded, in a report cited years later, that the conflagration “was caused in her entrails” by the variety of combustible materials to be found there, including alcohol and fat, “an oily liquid ... of an easily combustible nature.” An early instance of what would come to be known as “spontaneous human combustion,” de Bandi was one of many cases later studied by the French agronomist Pierre-Aimé Lair. If there was a common denominator to these otherwise unexplained phenomena, Lair concluded, it was the fact that most of them involved corpulent older women with a penchant for drink, thus combining fat and alcohol in a literally explosive mix. In addition to the fuel that excess body fat provided, which was rendered even more combustible when “penetrated by alcoholic substances,” surplus fat was said to create higher levels of hydrogen, making the body especially flammable. Lair concluded:
The human brain can’t contend with the vastness of online shopping.
In theory, Amazon is a site meant to serve the needs of humans. The mega-retailer’s boundless inventory gives people easy access to household supplies and other everyday products that are rarely fun to shop for. Most people probably aren’t eager to buy clothes hangers, for instance. They just want to have hangers when they need them.
But when you type hangers into Amazon’s search box, the mega-retailer delivers “over 200,000” options. On the first page of results, half are nearly identical velvet hangers, and most of the rest are nearly identical plastic. They don’t vary much by price, and almost all of the listings in the first few pages of results have hundreds or thousands of reviews that average out to ratings between four and five stars. Even if you have very specific hanger needs and preferences, there’s no obvious choice. There are just choices.
An ancient faith is disappearing from the lands in which it first took root. At stake is not just a religious community, but the fate of pluralism in the region.
he call came in 2014, shortly after Easter. Four years earlier, Catrin Almako’s family had applied for special visas to the United States. Catrin’s husband, Evan, had cut hair for the U.S. military during the early years of its occupation of Iraq. Now a staffer from the International Organization for Migration was on the phone. “Are you ready?” he asked. The family had been assigned a departure date just a few weeks away.
“I was so confused,” Catrin told me recently. During the years they had waited for their visas, Catrin and Evan had debated whether they actually wanted to leave Iraq. Both of them had grown up in Karamles, a small town in the historic heart of Iraqi Christianity, the Nineveh Plain. Evan owned a barbershop near a church. Catrin loved her kitchen, where she spent her days making pastries filled with nuts and dates. Their families lived there: her five siblings and aging parents, his two brothers.
In war, the temptation to take revenge is strong. Fighting that temptation is a commanding officer’s job.
“We fight with the values that we represent; we don’t adopt those of our enemy.” This is what I told the marines standing in a loose semicircle around me on our forward operating base outside Karmah, Iraq, one day in December 2008. “If we lose sight of that, we’ve got nothing left.” I meant every word. For many of us, making sense of the war in Iraq was becoming harder, but we needed to believe that we were fighting for something. Most could articulate a version of that argument themselves during squad-level discussions back in Hawaii, but now it was hard to tell what impact my words were having. I watched the familiar faces as I spoke. Some nodded, others looked at the ground, shifting their feet on the gravel or gazing back impassively, their expressions a reflection of the gray skies and drizzling rain.
Regulators should think carefully about the fallout from well-intentioned new rules and avoid the mistakes of the past.
“Our way of taking power and using it would have been inconceivable without the radio and the airplane,” Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels claimed in August 1933.
Such statements are often cited—the head of Disney, Bob Iger, recently said that Adolf Hitler would have loved social media—but frequently misinterpreted. Goebbels was not saying that the Nazis had used both new technologies, the airplane and the radio, to come to power. Rather, the airplane helped the Nazis take power. Radio helped them keep it.
The history of radio, and in particular how it was regulated in interwar Germany, is more relevant than ever: Five years ago, the question was whether we would regulate social media. Now the questions are how and when we will regulate them. As politicians and regulators in places as disparate as Berlin, Singapore, and Washington—even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—consider how best to do so, we should think carefully about the fallout from well-intentioned new rules and avoid the mistakes of the past.
Jes Kast, a minister in the United Church of Christ, believes the procedure should be fully legal and accessible. Her path to that position has been complicated.
In America, the debate about abortion is often reduced to binary categories. Religious versus secular. Misogynists versus murderers. Even “Christian theocracy” versus, presumably, everyone else.
With abortion once again in the headlines this month, after Alabama and several other states passed near-total bans on the procedure, Jes Kast, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, spoke up as someone who does not fit those categories. She supports abortion rights, and is representative of her denomination on this issue: According to the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of people in the UCC, a small, progressive denomination with a little less than 1 million members, think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Kast also serves on the clergy-advocacy board of Planned Parenthood, which works to “increase public awareness of the theological and moral basis for advocating reproductive health,” according to its website.
Hiding in a forest for 27 years, a man found what the rest of us can no longer comprehend: solitude in nature.
In the 27 years he lived in the Maine woods, Christopher Knight said a single word. Because he never spoke to himself and avoided humanity with the guile of a samurai, he went decades without using his voice. In his hidden forest encampment he laughed silently and he sneezed silently, so fearful was he of being discovered. The only time he spoke came at some point in the 1990s, when he was surprised by a hiker during a walk. “Hi,” Knight said. The hiker barely looked up, not realizing that he was face-to-face with the legendary hermit of North Pond.
Since his arrest in April 2013, Knight has agreed to be interviewed by a single journalist. Michael Finkel published an article about him in GQ in 2014 and has now written a book, The Stranger in the Woods, that combines an account of Knight’s story with an absorbing exploration of solitude and man’s eroding relationship with the natural world. Though the “stranger” in the title is Knight, one closes the book with the sense that Knight, like all seers, is the only sane person in a world gone insane—that modern civilization has made us strangers to ourselves.
Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities.
Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.
The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.