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.
Why have Republican leaders abandoned their principles in support of an immoral and dangerous president?
On a cold March afternoon in 1949, Wolfgang Leonhard slipped out of the East German Communist Party Secretariat, hurried home, packed what few warm clothes he could fit into a small briefcase, and then walked to a telephone box to call his mother. “My article will be finished this evening,” he told her. That was the code they had agreed on in advance. It meant that he was escaping the country, at great risk to his life.
Though only 28 years old at the time, Leonhard stood at the pinnacle of the new East German elite. The son of German Communists, he had been educated in the Soviet Union, trained in special schools during the war, and brought back to Berlin from Moscow in May 1945, on the same airplane that carried Walter Ulbricht, the leader of what would soon become the East German Communist Party.
The best way to grasp the magnitude of what we’re seeing is to look for precedents abroad.
Over the course of his presidency, Donald Trump has indulged his authoritarian instincts—and now he’s meeting the common fate of autocrats whose people turn against them. What the United States is witnessing is less like the chaos of 1968, which further divided a nation, and more like the nonviolent movements that earned broad societal support in places such as Serbia, Ukraine, and Tunisia, and swept away the dictatorial likes of Milošević, Yanukovych, and Ben Ali.
The disease’s “long-haulers” have endured relentless waves of debilitating symptoms—and disbelief from doctors and friends.
For Vonny LeClerc, day one was March 16.
Hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson instated stringent social-distancing measures to halt the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, LeClerc, a Glasgow-based journalist, arrived home feeling shivery and flushed. Over the next few days, she developed a cough, chest pain, aching joints, and a prickling sensation on her skin. After a week of bed rest, she started improving. But on day 12, every old symptom returned, amplified and with reinforcements: She spiked an intermittent fever, lost her sense of taste and smell, and struggled to breathe.
When I spoke with LeClerc on day 66, she was still experiencing waves of symptoms. “Before this, I was a fit, healthy 32-year-old,” she said. “Now I’ve been reduced to not being able to stand up in the shower without feeling fatigued. I’ve tried going to the supermarket and I’m in bed for days afterwards. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.” Despite her best efforts, LeClerc has not been able to get a test, but “every doctor I’ve spoken to says there’s no shadow of a doubt that this has been COVID,” she said. Today is day 80.
In an extraordinary condemnation, the former defense secretary backs protesters and says the president is trying to turn Americans against one another.
James Mattis, the esteemed Marine general who resigned as secretary of defense in December 2018 to protest Donald Trump’s Syria policy, has, ever since, kept studiously silent about Trump’s performance as president. But he has now broken his silence, writing an extraordinary broadside in which he denounces the president for dividing the nation, and accuses him of ordering the U.S. military to violate the constitutional rights of American citizens.
“I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,” Mattis writes. “The words ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.” He goes on, “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
Clyde Ross was born in 1923, the seventh of 13 children, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the blues. Ross’s parents owned and farmed a 40-acre tract of land, flush with cows, hogs, and mules. Ross’s mother would drive to Clarksdale to do her shopping in a horse and buggy, in which she invested all the pride one might place in a Cadillac. The family owned another horse, with a red coat, which they gave to Clyde. The Ross family wanted for little, save that which all black families in the Deep South then desperately desired—the protection of the law.
In the 1920s, Jim Crow Mississippi was, in all facets of society, a kleptocracy. The majority of the people in the state were perpetually robbed of the vote—a hijacking engineered through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob. Between 1882 and 1968, more black people were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state.
In their earliest interactions, the Chinese were dominant.
As China comes into greater conflict with the West, and the United States in particular, now is a good time to consider the long arc of this relationship. In the West, Chinese history is commonly framed as having begun with the first Opium War, giving the impression that European powers always had the upper hand. But from the first direct contact between East and West—the arrival of the Portuguese in south China in the early 16th century—the Chinese were dominant.
In 1517, they appeared near the famed trading haven of Guangzhou, strange and unruly barbarians in wooden sailing ships. The language they spoke was an unintelligible mystery, their eight vessels puny by the standards of Zheng He’s treasure junks, and their ultimate origins a bit hazy. But like all other seaborne ruffians, they wanted to trade for the rich silks and the other wonders of China. The Chinese came to call them folangji, a generic term used at the time to refer to Europeans. More specifically, they were the Portuguese, and they were the first Europeans to sail all the way to China.
America needs to rethink its priorities for the whole criminal-justice system.
What are the police for? Why are we paying for this?
The death of George Floyd and the egregious, unprovoked acts of police violence at the peaceful protests following his death have raised these urgent questions. Police forces across America need root-to-stem changes—to their internal cultures, training and hiring practices, insurance, and governing regulations. Now a longtime demand from social-justice campaigners has become a rallying cry: Defund the police. This is in one sense a last-resort policy: If cops cannot stop killing people, and black people in particular, society needs fewer of them. But it is also and more urgently a statement of first principles: The country needs to shift financing away from surveillance and punishment, and toward fostering equitable, healthy, and safe communities.
Spending public money—he often speaks of it as his own—always lifts his spirits.
This week began with angry Trump, but, don’t worry, it ended with the president as a happy man.
There he was Monday evening, jaw set in the familiar simian rictus, marching from the White House across Lafayette Square, with a cloud of flunkies and Secret Service agents trailing him. His path had just been cleared of inconvenient citizens by phalanxes of cops using tear gas in hopes of making the president’s walk in the park as pleasant and uneventful as a walk in the park. Still he scowled. Having crossed the square, he drew to a stop in front of the boarded-up parish house of St. John’s Church. The parish house was boarded up because someone had set fire to its basement during protests the night before. Maybe that’s why Trump was scowling. You can never tell. In any case, a Bible appeared and the president turned toward the cameras, hoisting it upside down. He pointed at it with his free hand. “A Bible,” he explained. Then he went home.
Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.
It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president's visit outside St. John's Church. I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump's leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.
Whatever Trump's goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.
Demonstrators are hammering on a hollowed-out structure, and it very well may collapse.
The urban unrest of the mid-to-late 1960s was more intense than the days and nights of protest since George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis policeman. More people died then, more buildings were gutted, more businesses were ransacked. But those years had one advantage over the present. America was coming apart at the seams, but it still had seams. The streets were filled with demonstrators raging against the “system,” but there was still a system to tear down. Its institutions were basically intact. A few leaders, in and outside government, even exercised some moral authority.
In July 1967, immediately after the riots in Newark and Detroit, President Lyndon B. Johnson created a commission to study the causes and prevention of urban unrest. The Kerner Commission—named for its chairman, Governor Otto Kerner Jr. of Illinois—was an emblem of its moment. It didn’t look the way it would today. Just two of the 11 members were black (Roy Wilkins, the leader of the NAACP, and Edward Brooke, a Republican senator from Massachusetts); only one was a woman. The commission was also bipartisan, including a couple of liberal Republicans, a conservative congressman from Ohio with a strong commitment to civil rights, and representatives from business and labor. It reflected a society that was deeply unjust but still in possession of the tools of self-correction.