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 vice president needs to win over the voters who approve of Biden, but not of her performance.
“I think it’s okay if we shake hands,” Kamala Harris told me last week. The vice president came out from behind her West Wing desk to greet me, her eyes smiling above her face mask. The last time I was in this particular office, the occupant was Mike Pence. And had it not been for a few state election officials who withstood the pressure to ignore the results, Harris’s desk would still belong to him.
Donald Trump’s most extreme supporters hold out hope that the election results will somehow be overturned, and that Trump will resume office this month. Three days before Harris and I met, police officers testified before Congress about their hellish clash with Trump supporters who swarmed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the election on January 6. One Black officer, Harry Dunn, spoke about repeatedly being called the N-word by rioters. What will the White House do to stop the insurrectionists from trying again? I asked Harris.
A pandemic puppy can increase your well-being—if you choose one for the right reasons.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Despite early-pandemic predictions of a deep, prolonged recession, much of the American and world economies are on fire. Housing in particular is booming; house prices increased more than 19 percent from May 2020 to May 2021. Used cars have surged in price by more than 21 percent over the past year, and air travel has roared back so strongly that the nation is facing a shortage of pilots. But all of that pales in comparison with the puppy bubble.
According to PuppySpot (a web-based dog broker), the price of purebred puppies rose by 36 percent in 2020. About 12.6 million U.S. households got a new pet last year, after the pandemic was declared in March, according to the American Pet Products Association. In addition to purchases and adoptions, dognappings have increased by “epidemic” proportions, according to British police: In London, for example, they were up 250 percent in 2020.
The creative class was supposed to foster progressive values and economic growth. Instead we got resentment, alienation, and endless political dysfunction.
This article was published online on August 2, 2021.
The dispossessed set out early in the mornings. They were the outsiders, the scorned, the voiceless. But weekend after weekend—unbowed and undeterred—they rallied together. They didn’t have much going for them in their great battle against the privileged elite, but they did have one thing—their yachts.
During the summer and fall of 2020, a series of boat parades—Trumptillas—cruised American waters in support of Donald Trump. The participants gathered rowdily in great clusters. They festooned their boats with flags—American flags, but also message flags: Don’t Tread on Me, No More Bullshit, images of Trump as Rambo.
The women stood on the foredecks in their red, white, and blue bikinis, raising their Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys to salute the patriots in nearby boats. The men stood on the control decks projecting the sort of manly toughness you associate with steelworkers, even though these men were more likely to be real-estate agents. They represent a new social phenomenon: the populist regatta. They are doing pretty well but see themselves as the common people, the regular Joes, the overlooked. They didn’t go to fancy colleges, and they detest the mainstream media. “It’s so encouraging to see so many people just coming together in a spontaneous parade of patriotism,” Bobi Kreumberg, who attended a Trumptilla in Palm Beach, Florida, told a reporter from WPTV.
In the film, edgy shock value meets Hollywood sentimentality, resulting in a superhero movie unlike most others in the genre.
The Suicide Squad might seem like a typical superhero movie at first: Yet another group of powerful comic-book characters is thrown together to fight insurmountable odds on a mysterious, deadly mission. Audiences will recognize a few faces from the last (horrendous) Suicide Squad film, such as that of the chipper criminal Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie). But much of the fun comes from trying to puzzle out who the newcomers are, including a costumed hunk named T.D.K. (Nathan Fillion). When someone asks him what T.D.K. stands for, he replies, “It doesn’t stand for anything. It’s just my name. It stands for me.” “Your name is … letters?” “All names are letters,” another character shoots back.
Police unions aren’t usually bashful about defending officers, but they’ve been conspicuously subdued in discussing the January 6 attacks.
On Tuesday, the National Fraternal Order of Police decided to “clear up confusion” about its position on the January 6 assault on the Capitol by enraged Donald Trump supporters. “Those who participated in the assaults, looting, and trespassing must be arrested and held to account,” it said in a statement. “We continue to offer our support, gratitude, and love to our brothers and sisters in law enforcement who successfully fought off the rioters, and we will be with them as they grieve and recover, however long that may take.”
The FOP does not often have to clarify its position on matters of public concern; the organization is usually rather strident in expressing its views. For example, in 2016, the FOP demanded that Walmart cease selling Black Lives Matter T-shirts. It denounced Nike for its ad campaign involving Colin Kaepernick, who was purged from the NFL for protesting police misconduct. If you go to the FOP’s Twitter feed, you can find a steady stream of clips from conservative outlets such as Newsmax and Fox News showing FOP representatives attacking policies like bail reform, slamming Democratic elected officials, and blaming Black-rights activists for the recent rise in homicides. These posts are interspersed with tributes to homicide victims, attacking “rogue prosecutors,” “activist judges,” and “progressive policies” for their deaths.
Customers were this awful long before the pandemic.
In May, I stood in the rear galley of an airplane and watched as a line formed to berate the flight attendant next to me. We were at a gate at LaGuardia, our flight half an hour delayed, and the air inside the cabin was acrid with the aromas of anxiety sweat and bags of fast food procured at the gate. Impatient passengers squeezed past others hoisting carry-ons into overhead bins to jockey for position in the complaining queue, lodging grievances largely about things over which a flight attendant would have obviously little control: the airline’s decision to sell middle seats, the disruptive wait, the insolent tone of a different flight attendant.
I was tucked inside one of the tiny spaces usually reserved for the flight crew, because I had arrived at my assigned seat to find a man who had no intention of getting up. He gave nothing in the way of an explanation; instead, he stared up at me blankly, as though he had never before encountered the concept of assigned seating. The flight attendant had noticed our stalemate and offered to roust the man from my seat, but the situation felt too combustible to me, and 25C like too stupid a hill on which to die. The attendant said he’d find me another if I’d just wait in the back.
Beyond limiting the coronavirus’s flow from hot spots to the rest of the country, allowing only vaccinated people on domestic flights will change minds, too.
When you go to the airport, you see two kinds of security rules. Some apply equally to everyone; no one can carry weapons through the TSA checkpoint. But other protocols divide passengers into categories according to how much of a threat the government thinks they pose. If you submit to heightened scrutiny in advance, TSA PreCheck lets you go through security without taking off your shoes; a no-fly list keeps certain people off the plane entirely. Not everyone poses an equal threat. Rifling through the bags of every business traveler and patting down every preschooler and octogenarian would waste the TSA’s time and needlessly burden many passengers.
The same principle applies to limiting the spread of the coronavirus. The number of COVID-19 cases keeps growing, even though remarkably safe, effective vaccines are widely available, at least to adults. Many public agencies are responding by reimposing masking rules on everyone. But at this stage of the pandemic, tougher universal restrictions are not the solution to continuing viral spread. While flying, vaccinated people should no longer carry the burden for unvaccinated people. The White House has rejected a nationwide vaccine mandate—a sweeping suggestion that the Biden administration could not easily enact if it wanted to—but a no-fly list for unvaccinated adults is an obvious step that the federal government should take. It will help limit the risk of transmission at destinations where unvaccinated people travel—and, by setting norms that restrict certain privileges to vaccinated people, will also help raise the stagnant vaccination rates that are keeping both the economy and society from fully recovering.
Persistent hype around mRNA vaccine technology is now distracting us from other ways to end the pandemic.
At the end of January, reports that yet another COVID-19 vaccine had succeeded in its clinical trials—this one offering about 70 percent protection—were front-page news in the United States, and occasioned push alerts on millions of phones. But when the Maryland-based biotech firm Novavax announced its latest stunning trial results last week, and an efficacy rate of more than 90 percent even against coronavirus variants, the response from the same media outlets was muted in comparison. The difference, of course, was the timing: With three vaccines already authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the nation is “awash in other shots” already, as the The New York Times put it.
Why targets of deliberate deception often hesitate to admit they’ve been deceived
Something very strange has been happening in Missouri: A hospital in the state, Ozarks Healthcare, had to create a “private setting” for patients afraid of being seen getting vaccinated against COVID-19. In a video produced by the hospital, the physician Priscilla Frase says, “Several people come in to get vaccinated who have tried to sort of disguise their appearance and even went so far as to say, ‘Please, please, please don’t let anybody know that I got this vaccine.’” Although they want to protect themselves from the coronavirus and its variants, these patients are desperate to ensure that their vaccine-skeptical friends and family never find out what they have done.
Missouri is suffering one of the worst COVID-19 surges in the country. Some hospitals are rapidly running out of ICU beds. To Americans who rushed to get vaccinated at the earliest opportunity, some Missourians’ desire for secrecy is difficult to understand. It’s also difficult to square with the common narrative that vaccine refusal, at least in conservative areas of the country, is driven by a lack of respect or empathy from liberals along the coasts. “Proponents of the vaccine are unwilling or unable to understand the thinking of vaccine skeptics—or even admit that skeptics may be thinking at all,” lamented a recent article in the conservative National Review. Writers across the political spectrum have urged deference and sympathy toward holdouts’ concerns about vaccine side effects and the botched CDC messaging about masking and airborne transmission early in the pandemic. But these takes can’t explain why holdouts who receive respect, empathy, and information directly from reliable sources remain unmoved—or why some people are afraid to tell their loved ones about being vaccinated.
In the final months of the administration, the doggedly loyal attorney general finally had enough.
Donald Trump is a man consumed with grievance against people he believes have betrayed him, but few betrayals have enraged him more than what his attorney general did to him. To Trump, the unkindest cut of all was when William Barr stepped forward and declared that there had been no widespread fraud in the 2020 election, just as the president was trying to overturn Joe Biden’s victory by claiming that the election had been stolen.
In a series of interviews with me this spring, Barr spoke, for the first time, about the events surrounding his break with Trump. I have also spoken with other senior officials in the Trump White House and Justice Department, who provided additional details about Barr’s actions and the former president’s explosive response. Barr and those close to him have a reason to tell his version of this story. He has been widely seen as a Trump lackey who politicized the Justice Department. But when the big moment came after the election, he defied the president who expected him to do his bidding.